What is Incised Carving?

While you may not have heard of this carving style before, incised carving is a great option for people who enjoy relief carving. For these carvers, finding a new carving style to work with can be challenging. Relief carving is one of the most complex styles of carving out there, so what next step can these woodcarvers take?

Incised carving is also known as incised intaglio, hollow relief, or sunken relief. In traditional relief carving, you carve the images and designs such that they seem to rise from the wood, protruding out similar to 3D shapes. Incised carving is essentially the opposite. Instead of rising out of the background, figures are sunken into the surface of the wood background. Thus, it is known as hollow relief.

If you’ve always been interested in this carving style and are wondering how to start with an incised intaglio project, read on for more information.

Understanding Incised Carving

Incised carving was first popularised by the ancient Egyptians, where it was used in everything from walls to hieroglyphs and cartouches. Over time, this carving style moved from being the domain of Egyptian artists to being of interest to people and artisans around the world, including woodcarvers.

With incised carving, the background of the design remains at the original level of the wood, and the figures are carved to create a hollow, sunken effect. This creates a 2D effect – the first of the dimensions is the background layer, while the second is the hollowed-out design.

An essential part of creating intricate incised carvings is being able to maintain a consistent depth. This is the part that makes it challenging for woodcarvers, as it is very easy to carve at unequal depths, and trying to fix errors can result in them worsening, particularly if your design uses delicate lines.

Incised Carving v/s Relief Carving

As mentioned above, incised carving is essentially the polar opposite of relief carving. In fact, the two carving styles are so closely linked that incised carving is sometimes called hollow or sunken relief carving.

However, there are some other differences as well. These include:

  • Relief carving creates 3D images, while incised carving creates 2D images.
  • In relief carving, the negative area serves as the background and is the material left over after the image has been created. In incised carving, the negative space serves as the main design.
  • Incised carving involves carving below the surface of the wood, while relief carving involves raising figures above the wood’s surface.

However, despite their differences, they are both carving methods that boast centuries of history. As mentioned, incised carving was first popularised by the ancient Egyptians, while relief carvings have been found that date back to both ancient Egypt and ancient Assyria. 

Both forms of carving are complex propositions that are perfect for carvers looking for a challenge. While each style involves different tools and techniques, they are identical in the fact that they result in stunning, eye-catching carvings.

Creating Your Own Incised Carving

If you’ve never created an incised carving before, the first project you work on may seem intimidating. However, once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll soon realize that the techniques of this form of carving are relatively simple. The challenge comes with the size of the designs and lines you’ll be working with, not the actual process.

Before you start carving, make sure you have all the relevant tools close by. Some essential tools that are a must when it comes to incised carvings include:

  • A depth gauge. The most effective incised carvings are done such that all the lines are of the same depth unless the design specifically calls for a variation in depths. A depth gauge will ensure your carving depth stays uniform and is especially important if you are a newcomer at incised carving.
  • A V-gouge. While there are many ways to remove material from wood, a V-gauge offers unparalleled control, which is essential if you are trying to make the delicate cuts that are such a necessary part of an effective incised carving.
  • A mallet. While the mallet does not directly affect the way someone carves, it does provide additional leverage, stability, and control when using a V-gouge. This can come in handy when you are working on smaller and harder to carve areas of your design.

In order to create an incised carving, you will have to:

  • First, transfer the design to your wood blank using carbon paper, or draw the design directly on the blank.
  • Once your design is ready, and your workplace is secure, you can start carving. 
  • If the lines of your design are narrower than the width of your gouge, cut the edge of both lines
  • When carving two parallel lines, ensure there is a clear, distinctive ridge between the lines. 
  • When carving an ellipse, start with a precise cut, and carve carefully to ensure the lines are neat and clean. You will need to carve the length of the shape in one path to ensure the best results.
  • If the ellipse shape is wider than your gouge, you will require multiple passes to carve completely. Start carving at the center, and join the cuts as smoothly as possible so that the carving looks seamless.
  • Some shapes may require you to use a knife to help with the carving, especially ones that combine two types of lines, like a cup (which incorporates a curved ellipse with a straight edge at the top).
  • Circles and globes require a different carving technique. First, carve the outline of the circle. Then, make a series of passes from the edge of the outline to the center. After a few passes, you should be able to essentially “dig out” the circle of wood.
  • If necessary, go back over your grooves and make them deeper until you are satisfied with the depth. Use the depth gouge to ensure your carving is uniformly deep.
  • Use a mallet if necessary. A mallet can give you more control when carving on hardwood blanks, as well as when you carve more complex sections of the design. This includes ones with numerous corners and small lines. If you’ve never attempted incised carving before, a mallet can make the process much easier.
  • Complete with paint or a finish if necessary.

You can also refer to this video on YouTube when working on your incised carving:

It provides a step-by-step guide to basic incised carving, and the help of a visual reference can make the carving process easier for you.

Incised Carving FAQs

Can an incised carving have different line sizes?

Yes, an incised carving can have different lines sizes and depths. However, it’s always essential to be cognizant of how the combination of widths of depths will affect the look of your final carving. If you’ve never done incised carving before, it’s best to keep your carvings as uniform as possible. More experienced carvers can move on to combinations. 

This image of an incised carving project will give you an idea of how a carving with different line sizes and depths can look:

Is chip carving different from incised carving?

Chip carving refers to the method of removing wood when creating a carving. In chip carving, wood is carved in small chips – hence, the name.

Incised carving, on the other hand, refers to the look of the project. As mentioned, incised carving is essentially a carving where the design is sunken into the wood’s surface.

Most incised carving projects use the relief carving method, which is a more delicate option. However, it is definitely possible to create an incised carving using the chip carving method.

Thus, while not all incised carvings are chip carvings, there may be some that are.

Is incised carving limited to woodcarving?

No. Incised carving is any caring in which the design is sunken into the background material, and said background material does not necessarily have to be wood

You can create incised carvings in stone, metal, marble, and other hard materials. Additionally, incised carvings have also historically been used when working on clay and wax seals, as well as in plastic and precious stones.


Incised carving is an interesting carving method that can challenge woodcarvers looking for more complex projects. This type of carving is essentially the opposite of relief carving and involves designs that are sunken into the wood background rather than rising from the wood as with relief.

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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