Arts & Mysteries: Low-relief Carving


Tips and tricks from a master.
By Adam Cherubini
Pages: 22-25

From the June 2009 issue #176
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I’m building a Philadelphia Chippendale chair and I’ve gotten to the stage where I must start carving. I’ve been hesitating because I’m not a confident carver. So I’ve been practicing and learning all I can from Philadelphia Museum of Art conservator Christopher Storb. Storb, who carved a Philadelphia-style ball-and-claw foot for the February 2009 issue (#174) is a true master carver.

As I see it, there are two distinct types of carving used on 18th-century furniture. The basic three-dimensional sculpture is one sort of carving. In my last article, I sawed out the back splat and shaped the back legs of the Chippendale chair I’m making. I carved areas too tight for my saw and used my gouges to round over the back of the crest rail. This sort of work, like shaping a cabriole leg, is sculptural work.

The other type of carving is called “low-relief” carving. This is shallow carving, often not deeper than 1/8″. It is used to decorate surfaces. Chairmakers in the 18th century decorated flat and curved surfaces with shells, leaves, scrolls and other design elements. Specific elements used, and their locations, varied throughout the period.

Though I may not be good at it, I’m comfortable with basic sculptural carving. I find the ball-and-claw and basic cabriole leg carving formulaic. There are basic steps to follow, specific layout lines and specific tools to use. I asked Storb for some advice about how to approach the low-relief carving for my chair.

The answer I got didn’t inspire me with confidence – I wasn’t hearing the step-by-step instructions I had hoped for. My guess is that low-relief carving is also formulaic in nature. But I don’t know those formulas. All woodworking is really just employing a set of techniques to solve a given problem.


From the June 2009 issue #176
Buy this issue now