What Is Relief Carving – High Relief and Low Relief Explained

Relief carving is an age-old technique that is still very popular today. While this skill can take a lifetime to master, an individual can begin the journey towards professional craftsmanship by understanding the basic concepts and practicing them as a hobby.

Relief carving is an artistic method of wood carving wherein a craftsman uses various tools to etch images into a flat panel of wood. A complete piece has a 3D effect that causes the designs to appear to jump off the wooden canvas in a spectacular illusion. 

This article will explain all these concepts in greater detail, and will also provide a basic overview of intaglio, which is the opposite of relief carving. If you want to understand the basics of relief carving, including how to get started as a beginner, keep on reading.

Low Relief vs. High Relief Carving

There are two forms of relief carving: low relief and high relief. These refer to the degree that the images project off of the carved surface and the impression of visual depth achieved by each carving technique.

Low Relief Carving

The term “low relief” would seem to imply that a design is carved into the wood at a physically low depth. While this can certainly be the case, it mostly describes the shallow look that the finished carving has. That is, upon completion, the image appears to project only slightly from the wood surface. 

Along with more basic cutting techniques, the craftsman uses stop cuts to carve the design out in definable layers. The edge of one surface slopes down into another, which makes it easy to tell where the different areas of work intersect. 

As a result, there is almost no shadow effect, and a less dramatic 3D image is created. However, this in no way downplays the level of skill required for this. In fact, low reliefs often involve an impressive amount of intricate detailing.

High Relief Carving 

High relief techniques are typically used for dramatic carvings where the images are meant to leap noticeably off the wood surface. These designs are very popular nowadays because of a general attraction to ultra-realistic imagery. The eye-trickery is much more pronounced because the techniques employed create greater emphasis around the edges of the designs. 

High reliefs usually start out as low reliefs, using the same methods. However, in addition to these techniques, the craftsman also employs a special undercutting motion to skillfully hide the point at which the different areas of work overlap. Consequently, the raised surfaces cast a shadow upon the lower surfaces, creating a dramatic impression of depth. 

Basic Tools Needed for Relief Carving

Whether you are doing low or high relief carving, you need to gather the right tools. 

It is worth noting that, as with many skills, modern machinery has made wood carving much easier and more accessible. For example, computer numerical control (CNC) routers can execute relief much cheaper and faster than by handcrafting. However, the machine tool’s movements will not be as elegant as a craftsman’s, and this could severely impact the quality. 

Furthermore, these machines have their limits. For example, in many cases, they cannot perform the undercut motions needed for high-reliefs. As a result, handheld tools are much more effective for the job. 

There are many tools out there for wood carving, but some of the basic ones to include in your arsenal include the following:


This tool consists of a sharp cutting edge attached to a handle. It comes in many different shapes and sizes, so be sure to get a kit with a wide variety. 


Similar to a chisel; however, it has a curved cutting edge shaped like a scoop. It is used to create hollows or curves in the wood. Gouges also come in various shapes and sizes.

Carver’s Mallet

Used to lightly tap chisels, gouges, and other tools against the wood to create cuts and dents.

Tool Sharpeners

Used to revitalize your tools by refining the edges. There are several approaches to tool sharpening; you will need to determine which method is best for you.

General Steps Involved in Relief Carving

A complete wooden masterpiece is accomplished in several steps, which are listed in general below:

  1. Draw a pattern on carbon or transfer paper.
  2. Trace the pattern onto a flat panel of wood.
  3. Carve out the excess material from around the basic pattern.
  4. Model the objects that are the focus of the pattern (i.e., chisel and gouge them at the desired depth).
  5. Add the necessary details to the objects.
  6. Tidy up around the edges of the objects.
  7. Apply a suitable finish to the wood panel.

Obviously, the length of time it takes to move through all the above stages depends upon the size and complexity of the design you are going for.

Tips for Beginners 

There is no replacement for experience and you can spend a lifetime honing this type of skill. However, most people start out by learning it as a hobby. 

Here are some simple tips to follow as a beginner:

  • Choose simple designs that do not require too much artistic skill to accomplish.
  • Sketch designs onto paper first rather than directly onto the wood, which is for more advanced woodcarvers.
  • Choose tools with a comfortable grip to make sure that you can handle them for hours on end.
  • Stick with softwood that is easy to carve, such as basswood and butternut. Avoid hardwood such as oak and mahogany.
  • Always wear carving gloves to protect your flesh from the sharp tools.
  • Use short strokes rather than long strokes, as these are easier to control and mistakes are easier to correct.
  • Always keep your tools sharp, as dull tools will make your wood carving efforts significantly harder. 

What Is Intaglio?

If you have been researching various forms of decorative woodworking, you might have come across the term “intaglio.” We will not go into too much detail, but as a beginner, it is helpful to understand it, and how it differs from relief carving. 

Intaglio is also referred to as counter relief, and as this name suggests, it is the exact opposite of relief carving. The difference is easiest to understand by picturing the finished concept accomplished by each process. 

With intaglio, all the wood around the design is carved away, leaving the desired impression. In other words, this technique involves creating a negative image by carving everything below the surface of the wood. 

On the other hand, with relief carving, the craftsman carves the image directly into the wood surface. Once complete, the effect appears like a flat surface that has a 3D image protruding from it. 


This article has laid out the basic fundamentals of relief carving, one of the oldest art forms that are still highly appreciated today. Even though becoming a master craftsman takes time, the good news is that it does not take much to get started. When you first begin, remember to assemble the appropriate tools and incorporate safety measures. 

As you begin your journey, keep in mind that patience is the key to mastering this skill; no tutorial is an effective substitute for experience and practice. 

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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