Beginners Guide to Relief Carving: Ultimate Online Resource

Beginner carvers are welcome to this guide on how to go from being a novice in the world of relief carving to being a pro. 

Here, through our wealth of knowledge and tons of in-depth research and practice, we would be releasing all the essentials you need to start your relief carving journey. Also, while we understand that relief carving can be a bit more difficult than many other wood carving methods, we promise that you will see that you have all it takes to become the very best relief wood carver.

What is Relief Carving 

Relief carving refers to sculptural techniques adopted in the carving figures onto a flat wooden panel using gouges, chisels, and other relief wood carving tools. By doing this, the carver is able to create a 3D effect while keeping the wooden background flat. Once complete, the image gives the illusion of being raised from the wooden surface. The Wooden boards used to achieve this illusion are usually less than 3 inches thick.

Now that you know what relief carving is, let’s dive into some forms of relief carving

High Relief vs. Low Relief Carving

High and low relief are two forms/styles of relief carving. Although there are about four relief carving styles, these two are the most popular among woodcarvers. Now, let’s take a look at how these two relief carving styles differ from each other.

Low Relief Carving

Low relief carving, also popularly called bas-relief (basso-relievo) is a form of relief where the carved figures are only slightly projected from the wooden background or surface. This means that a low relief carving gives the impression of shallow depth even though the depth isn’t necessarily shallow.

To achieve this effect, wood carvers use tools like chisels to reduce the background, leaving only the design. The projection here is usually lower than 1/2″.

High Relief Carving

High relief carving gives the impression of an immense depth, usually much greater than low relief carvings.

The same techniques used in low relief carvings are applied here, but with the twist of applying undercuts to the carving to make it appear to project higher than a low relief carving would. Projection from the surface for high relief carving is usually between 1/2″ and 2″.

How to Start Carving in Relief

Here, we would be giving you a detailed explanation of the steps to follow to get the best results when carving in relief. By following these ten steps, your journey into the world of relief carving will be a breeze.

Step 1: Search and Prepare the Wood for Carving

The best wood for relief carving is Basswood or Jelutong, Butternut is another good option that we recommend for beginner relief woodcarvers. To get the very best wood ensure that the wood ticks all the boxes; this means it should be free from warping and should be planed.

Once you have the perfect wood, prepare the wood for carving by hooking it to your workbench to ensure that it does not move once you begin carving.

Step 2: Create and Transfer your Pattern onto the Wooden Panel

You can choose to either download a pattern from the internet or create a design from scratch. Once the design is completely drawn or printed, transfer it to a carbon paper or transfer paper using a stylus. This is only one of the many methods you can use to transfer a pattern onto wood, if you would like to check out the others read the related article 9 ways to transfer a pattern onto wood and choose the method that works best for you.

With this done, you can now attach the transferred pattern to the wooden panel and secure it with tape. After doing this, transfer the pattern to the wooden panel.

Step 3: Remove Excess Material

In this stage, your mallet and chisel come out to play. The goal here is to remove excess material from the edges of your pattern, doing this will make it easy to make key details at the edges stand out.

Step 4: Identify the Points where Depth will be added to the Wooden Panel

First, divide the different sections of the wooden panel according to the required depth. We have found that this is easier as you progress in the project. You can also choose to indicate these points on the paper pattern. This way, if you carve away the mark for any reason, you can redraw the mark onto the wood.

Step 5: Add Depth to the Outlines

Now, start carving out the different depths of the pattern. As you do this, ensure you use the right-sized V-tool to carve outside the lines. We advise you not to undercut; carve straight and down. 

Step 6: Redraw Key Details

You will notice that each figure needs to be carved to different depths. Once you attain the proper height and shape for each feature or object, redraw key details that you might have cut away. You can achieve the correct shape by rounding out the figure or blocking out the shape till you attain the shape you desire.

Step 7: Begin to Carve Details

Here you will begin to carve in the details into each of the features. To do this, get your gouges and V-tools out. You can also decide to use chip carving techniques to add these crucial details.

Step 8: Check for Irregularities

Take the carving to a light source once you are done carving in the details, then check for imperfections and areas that need to be perfected. Once you are satisfied with what you see, you can move on to the next step. If you are not happy with what you see, go back to steps 5,6,7 until you are satisfied with what you see in step 8.

Step 9: Smoothen the Project

By smoothening the project, we mean that you should clean up the back of the wooden panel and even it out. Also, smoothen the relief carving itself by sanding the outlines, the details, and the background. To smoothen the curves, use a sander.

Step 10: Apply Finishing

All that is left to do now is apply finishing to the carving. This will add beauty and also protect your hard work from the weather. Beeswax is by far the most common finish for most wood carvings, it is also the easiest to apply and serves as a very basic and reliable way to protect and enhance the look of your carving.

Of course, the choice of a finish is entirely up to you. As always keep in mind that some wood finishes change the color of the wood, therefore before applying any finish be aware of its pros and cons.

Relief Carving Beginner Techniques

For those of you in the beginning phase of your relief carving journey, it is crucial that you master some basic techniques that are unique to relief carving. In this subheading, we will discuss the 3 best practices and techniques that every relief carver should follow

1. Drawing Before Carving

This is a pretty straightforward point that you most likely already know. Nevertheless, it is vital that you draw your design before you begin to carve. 

There are multiple ways to go about this. You can choose to draw your relief design with a pencil, or you can pick any of the 9 Ways To Transfer a Pattern Onto Wood if you have a ready design on hand. The method is not as important as making sure you decide to go through with this step. It will make the whole project significantly easier.

2. Creating a Background 

The most crucial technique in relief carving is having a clear distinction between the object of display and the background. In most of your relief carvings, this will be done with a stop cut around the perimeter of the previously drawn pattern.

If you don’t know what a stop cut is, essentially, it is the cutting straight into the wood with your chisel and stopping once you reach the desired depth. The stop cut is instrumental in relief carving as it makes all of the edges of your carving straight and smooth. 

After creating a straight stop cut around the whole perimeter of your pattern on the wood, you have separated the pattern from the unnecessary wood. Now, once you lower the level of the wood around your design, your carving will officially be in relief.

If your wood is dense and the pattern is not too delicate, you can use a mallet to make your stop cuts easier and faster.


Step two of creating a background for your carving is using a gouge to cut off sufficient wood to significantly lower the level of what in the future will be the background. At this stage, don’t worry too much about making the background smooth, but try to have the cuts on a somewhat similar level.

The stop cut you have previously created will help you prevent cutting a part of your pattern. You can make them larger if you would like to be safer about making sure you don’t go over the border and start all over again.

Be sure to take a look at this short timelapse of a carver removing the background of his relief carving with an extra-large gouge. For smaller projects, you will need something smaller. Please note that the carver does not have a sketched pattern on his wood, which we don’t recommend.

It is crucial that you don’t break off any of the wood while removing the background. It can be tempting to lift your gouge as a lever; however, this runs the risk of breaking off a deeper part of the wood and dragging it out, which of course, will lead to an uneven surface of your background.

Finally, you can choose to smooth your background or leave it with some unevenness. The best way to do this is by using a mallet and a straight chisel to horizontally chip off all unevenness from the wood. Afterward, it is also a good idea to sand your carving.

3. Never Cutting Unsupported Fibers

Another fundamental technique in relief carving is changing direction frequently and knowing which side to cut from; when the carving has multiple layers, working with it becomes trickier. The golden rule is to only cut in the direction when the wood is ascending. Doing otherwise runs the risk of breaking the wood and making tears that will be very difficult to fix.

Wood, as you know is made of fibers that make up the grain. This is why carving along the grain is significantly easier than carving against it. The way to identify if a fiber is supported or not is by seeing whether the adjacent wood is lower or higher/the same size as the wood you are cutting. Some unsupported fibers will break off if you cut from the taller to the shorter area of the wood; because of this, you should always carve from the deeper layer of the wood towards the higher layer of the wood.

If you want to know why exactly that is, take a look at the visual explanation in this video during the time frames of 1:20-2:45

Key Takeaways from 1:45-2:45

  • Unsupported fibers will bend and break off. This risks splitting off a portion of the wood.
  • Same height or taller fibers make your cut smoother and cleaner
  • Don’t be afraid to change the direction of your cut frequently when relief carving

Relief Carving With a Dremel

For those of you who love power carving, not to worry, relief carving can also be done with the Dremel, and we are going to show you how in the next few steps.

Materials Needed

  • Wood
  • Template
  • Carving bit and Engraving bit
  • Dremel tool

Step 1

Once you have the desired wood and your pattern, go ahead and transfer the pattern to the wood. Once this is done you can begin carving with your Dremel tool.

Step 2

Instead of carving the wood out, carve around the design; this way, the design will stand out. Ensure you hold the Dremel tightly and start first with a shallow groove, after which you can decide to go to the depth level you are aiming for.

Step 3

Using a medium-sized round carving bit, carve out areas that are a little delicate. Next, switch to a highly aggressive bit and remove a large amount of wood from the background. Continue doing this until you get to the depth you want; it gets the job very fast.

Step 4

Switch back to the medium-sized bit to remove excess wood from the edge of the wood.

Step 5

Switching to a tiny carving bit, clean up the small edges and apply details in areas where they are needed. These tiny bits are excellent for carving the edges and sidewalls of the carving. Next, switch to a rounding bit to round off the edges of the design instead of leaving them straight.

Step 6

To smooth out the negative space, use the smallest size chain sharpening saw; it will smooth out the surface of your relief carving. Continue to smooth out your design until you get the results you want.

Step 7

Ensure you check the edges and make sure they are smooth. After doing this, you can go ahead to stain or paint your carving.

Must-Have Relief Carving Tools

The tools you use and the quality of tools used for relief carving is vital to the success of the project. These carving tool needs to feel good and comfortable when you use them. Here are the most important tools every relief carver needs on his/her workbench.

1. Mallet: Usually combined and used with chisels and gouges to produce deep cuts, especially when working on the hardwood.

2. Straight and skew chisels: used for removing wood during carving. Depending on their size, they can also be used for detailing. Skew chisels are usually angled at 60 degrees.

3. Gouges: There are several types of gouges depending on the shape of the blade. Some special gouges used in relief carving include U and V-shaped gouges, sharp bent gouges, long bent gouges, back bent gouges, and the fishtail gouge.

The Best Relief Carving Tools

Here, we have taken it upon ourselves to bring you the best relief carving tools for beginners, hobbyists, and professionals.

Schaaf Relief Carving Tool

The Schaaff relief carving toolset is the best relief carving tool around today. This set comes sharpened and ground by the manufacturers and will only need to be sharpened once the blades become dull with use. 

This toolset comprises a straight chisel, a skew chisel, gouges with different profiles, a veiner, and a parting tool, all made from high-quality chromium-vanadium steel that has been hardened to a Rockwell hardness of C60. You also will not need to bother about sharpening your toolset before and after every use. 

In addition to this, the Schaaf relief carving tool set features handles made from hardwood ash. These handles are comfortable and convenient to hold for a long time while carving; they also spot the European octagonal style that prevents them from rolling off.

Krescent Relief carving tool

The Crescent relief carving tool is a budget-friendly option for relief woodcarvers. This toolset is perfect for relief carving enthusiasts.

Here, you get 12 different hand tools for relief carving; 3 single bevel skew chisels, two single bevel chisels, three gouges, one single bevel dogleg chisel, one V-parting tool, one spear scraper, and one round nose scraper. All of these tools are made from high-grade SK5 carbon steel. They also feature a plastic cap that prevents the blades from dulling.

What Kind Of Wood Is Best For Relief Carving?

Since our principal aim in this article is to help beginner relief carvers make the best choice, it is only imperative that we help these beginner carvers with selecting the best wood for relief carving.


The overall best wood to work with when carving in relief is Basswood. It comes in a beautiful light cream color that is easy to carve with and which holds details well. In addition to this, finishing also appear pretty good on it. With Basswood, your tool itinerary is vast; you can use carving knives, gouges, chisels, and hammers when relief carving with Basswood.


Butternut is a good wood for beginner’s when it comes to relief carving; it gives beautiful results while holding details very well.

Sugar Maple

First, you need to know that sugar maple is not recommended for beginner relief carvers. With that being said, this wood holds details very well and people who have successfully carved with it have been able to obtain astonishing results.


Whittling with cherry is very difficult because it is dense wood. However, because of the beauty of this wood, many people still love it as it produces excellent results when worked on correctly.

White pine

White pine is perfect for beginners. To carve with this wood, we recommend you use chip on it with a hammer. It has a medium grain texture and also spots a beautiful creamy appearance.

White oak

White oak is a popular hardwood that produces superb results when used for relief carving. It has medium coarse grains and spots a light-yellow color. Chipping with white oak should be pretty straightforward; however, whittling will be a tedious task. 

Honduran Mahogany

The Honduran Mahogany is rare, but when found and used for relief carving, the results are unbelievable. It is not recommended to be used by beginner carvers as it is hard.

Frequently Asked Beginner Questions on Relief Carving

What is the opposite of Relief Carving?

The exact opposite of relief carving is known as Intaglio, here the carver aims to carve a figure onto wood, stone or any other hard surface, but instead of the figure giving the impression of being raised from the surface, the figure appears to be depressed from the flat background. This type of carving is also referred to as Incised Carving.

What are the Types of Relief Carving?

There are four types of relief carving

  1. Low relief carving
  2. High relief carving
  3. Deep Relief carving
  4. Pierced Relief carving

In this article, we have discussed the first two types of relief carving, which is the low relief carving and high relief carving. Now, let’s take a look at the other two.

Deep Relief Carving

Deep relief carving are carvings with depths of more than 2”. These types of carving give a deeper depth impression when compared to high relief carvings. When performing deep relief carvings, the wooden panel needs to be 4” or more so as to avoid natural warping of the wood and that leads to failure of the wood which can start from the weak spots in the design.

Pierced Relief Carving

This type of carving involves the complete removal of the background or wooden surface. While doing pierced relief carving you need to take great care and avoid making mistakes.

As we conclude this piece, we advise that if you are a newbie to wood carving and you want to give relief carving a try, ensure you choose wood that is soft enough for you to work with. As you progress, you will get the hang of carving harder woods. Also, don’t be in a hurry and carve too deep when carving in relief, start shallow before going deeper.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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