Limewood foliage carving is most closely associated with the stunning swags and garlands of the great 17th-century master Grinling Gibbons and in modern times with the equally stunning floral bouquets of David Esterly.
If you are not quite ready to aim that high, this project provides a single flower to help you practise creating delicate petals and leaves with ultra-thin edges before you tackle more complex compositions.
The flower is an arum lily originating from Africa, but grown as a garden flower in Britain since the 17th century and a favourite of florists. Its charm lies in its beautiful bell-shaped wrap-around petal — technically a spathe — and its long protruding spadix like a stamen, but technically a spike of minute flowers.
The plant is carved from a single block of lime measuring 300x80x60mm, which should cost so little you can afford to have more than one go at it. The spadix is carved separately and inserted into the flower, so don’t panic at how delicate it is.
The essence of good flower and foliage carving is the amount of space you create within the carving and the thinness of the elements, so most of the wood ends up as shavings.
The attributes you as a carver must call upon are patience and delicacy. This is not a job for the heavy-handed. If you break bits, glue them back together and keep carving until you master the technique.
Design and composition
To make a limewood foliage design look as natural as possible, you cannot simply copy a natural specimen exactly. You have to consider the composition of the carving and arrange the elements in a way that will give it balance, movement and, most of all, structural integrity.
To carve the stems, leaves and flowers as thinly as possible, give a thin element support at two or more points by touching it against another element. This gives the carving structural strength while maintaining an impression of fragility.
Work out the three-dimensional arrangement of the elements and build in as much natural depth as possible. You may need to carve some elements separately and attach them, as with the thin spadix in this lily.
The secret of limewood foliage carving is to keep your tools ultra-sharp and that means not just sharpening them on a stone but also honing them on a strop. Honing turns a sharp edge into a razor-sharp edge and reduces the pressure on the wood as you carve. You can buy honing/stropping systems from carving suppliers, or you can use traditional leather strops, or even pieces of MDF, coated with an abrasive paste.
1. Begin this project by sourcing a block of lime (7/7/a vulgaris) measuring 300 x 80 x 60mm and make a full-size copy of the drawing. Next, trace the pattern onto the block using carbon paper and mark the cutting lines in red.
2. Cut out the internal void -between the leaves — with a jigsaw. A band-saw is best for the outer edges if you have one. Now cut out the thin strip — bottom left — that you will use for the spadix later.
3. Work holding can be difficult when you are working with thin foliage carvings. A method to make this easier is to coat some card both sides with diluted PVA glue and place it between the carving and a backing board that you can clamp to the bench. You now need to let the glue set overnight before moving on.
4. ‘Roughing out’ removes the bulk of surplus wood and helps us position the main elements of the carved lily. Start by reducing the levels of the leaves and stem.
5. Roughly shape the flower and slope the top from its front edge back to its tip
Forming the shape.
6. Refine the shape of the leaves and stem. Refer to the pictures of the finished carving — in step 20 — to see how the leaves curl and dip. The largest leaf curves in a smooth spiral under the flower and up into the top right corner. The right leaf undulates behind the stem. Don’t undercut anything at this stage.
7. Hollow out the flower — open the hole carefully to depth first with an 8mm drill — and carve distinct undulations around the top edges to create a natural curl.
8. Carve away the surplus material behind the flower edges and under the bell shape where it touches the leaf. Carefully remove the material under the stem in the gap between the two leaves.
Carving the detail
9. A hooked skew chisel is a good tool for paring off the edges of the petals to create a sharp edge. It is also the best tool for creating sharp overlaps like the one at the front of the flower.
10. Carve away the material underneath the edges to make them appear as thin as possible. An 8mm curved gouge, sharpened to a razor edge, will enable you to pare away thin shavings without putting too much pressure on the thin edges. Leave a little more thickness under the thin cross grain sections where it is hidden from view.
11. Refine the basic curl of the large leaf by adding crinkly undulations and faint veins. The angle of the grain changes in the bottom of the curve so you often need to carve across the grain to get a smooth finish
12. The right leaf of the carved lily touches the stem near the top and bottom, but otherwise is detached from it. Undercut the stem and shape it to a natural flowing stalk about 6-8mm in diameter. Merge the leaf stalks into the stem and, at the very bottom, scoop out the traditional sloping ‘pruned’ end.
13. Undercutting is a major job in a limewood foliage carving. Undercut the parts you can get at easily while the carving is still attached to the board.
14. When the carving starts to detach from the card, remove it from the board by sliding a knife under it gently.
15. Place the carving face down on a soft surface on a board with raised corners you can push towards. Carve away all surplus material from the back. An 8mm curved gouge is best for scooping out small shavings with the minimum of pressure. Don’t press too hard or you may snap the thin sections of the lily.
«Undercut the stem and shape it to a natural flowing stalk about 6-8mm in diameter»
16 Shave away material with a very sharp chisel to create wafer-thin edges. You can increase the thickness to about 3-4mm as you move away from the edge, but try to focus the viewer’s attention on the sharp edges and keep the thicker bits hidden.
17. One of the secrets of good foliage carving is to open out gaps throughout the carving to enhance the impression of lightness and airiness. Where the leaves join the stem, open out gaps at the back so the stems merge together with a natural thinness.
18. Limewood usually benefits from being smoothed with 120 and 180 grit abrasives to remove its stringy bits and create a silky finish to petals and stems. The leaves and any other textured surfaces need a lighter touch so don’t remove all the detail, such as the leaf veins.
19. Using the thin strip you cut out at the beginning for the spadix, trim off a piece about 60mm long by 3mm square with a slight curve at the end. Round off the edges and create the spadix’s natural texture by carving spirals down it in one direction, then back again at right angles to the first. Make a small hole in the bottom of the flower to receive the spadix and glue it in place
«Round off the edges and create the spadix’s natural texture by carving spirals down it in one direction, then back again at right angles to the first».
20. The carving is now finished. Photos illustrate the finished piece from the front and side. Use them for reference when carving.