Carving Practical techniques Restoration

David Esterly, wood carver

I’m currently reading ‘The Lost Carving‘ by celebrated wood carver David Esterly. Whilst I have to admit to speed-reading large chunks of it, (I just want to read about the technique and tools), it’s a nice insight into a wood-carver’s life.

When fire destroyed a good chunk of Hampton Court Palace in March 1986, the damage also reached a number of celebrated carvings by Grinling Gibbons.
Having turned away from academia, Esterly had already dedicated his life largely to carving, and the opportunity to help in the Hampton Court restoration was too good an opportunity to miss. So starts quite an interesting read (if a little over-romanticised for me personally), where David struggles with technique, the balance of recreating parts of the carvings, and the internal politics that surrounds the various societies responsible for organising the restoration.

I’d recommend the book, to a certain extent, if only to learn more about the techniques that this sort of deep ornamental sculpture demands.

The incredible deep-foliage relief and 'under-cutting' achieved by David is very clear in this piece. David generally uses limewood for his carving, for reasons explained in the book. Image copyright of David Esterly.
The incredible deep-foliage relief and ‘under-cutting’ achieved by David is very clear in this piece. David generally uses limewood for his carving, for reasons explained in the book. Image copyright of David Esterly.

David has very helpfully compiled a list of supplemental images, which illustrate the book very well, and I personally found them very interesting.

College Practical techniques

College course: Day 9

Day 9! Sort of unbelievable how quickly the time goes, I’m about two-thirds through my course. I’m really enjoying learning about casework and the myriad of details that have to be considered. Anyway, here’s the progress on my little cabinet, for those who are interested. Click the pic for the jump.

Cutting dovetails in the rails that connect the two side panels I’ve already made.

The dovetails would be a bit deep at the full depth of the stock, so I’m taking off around half the depth here.

The rail dovetail will ft into the top of the side panel as shown. This rail is the rear one, so it needs to be placed so that it doesn’t impede the groove for the back panel, as shown.

Having drawn around the dovetail, the outside edges are marked. The dovetail length is taken from the dovetail with a marking gauge and transferred to the stock. The same is then done for the depth of the dovetail, which again is marked on the inner panel. The whole waste area is then shaded, so I don’t make mistakes and cut on the wrong side of the line.

After a couple of stiff drinks, the two cuts aren’t bad, and they’re just inside the lines, which is good.

To remove the waste, the panel is clamped down, and little by little, you chop back into the joint with chisel vertical, and remove small amounts by paring into the joint horizontally. Eventually, you have something that looks like this.

Looking back at the image, this is very stupid. If the panels had fallen to the side, it would have cracked my joints. In the semi-hysterical excitement of finally bringing my side panels together, I forgot to notice that. Anyway, the first rail is at least a good tight fit on both ends.

I took a break from the rails, and used the Metabo sander to sand down what will be the top and the shelf for the cabinet. They glued up surprisingly well, and after two passes through the planer, both were pretty good. The top can be trimmed to size once I have the cabinet glued up. The shelf will be worked on next week.

This is the carcass standing upright. Obviously still a little delicate, with no bracing at the bottom yet, but you can see the dimensions. One of my rail joints is sloppy, but hopefully will be ok with generous amounts of glue. It’s all a learning curve!

I popped the top on, just to see how the thickness relates to the proportions of the cabinet. I’m really pleased with this, having drawn up the cabinet myself. I figured finishing the panels with oil might have saved me valuable time, but in reality, it’s a pain in the ass. You’re constantly aware of scratching them. I won’t be doing that again.

College Practical techniques

College course: Day 7

Great day at college today. Very productive and a good laugh to boot. As we have a break next week, the focus was on getting elements glued up and ready for when we come back in two weeks time.

One of the oiled panels I finished last week. Here it’s dropped into it’s holding frame and it’s ready for glue-up. Sash cramps keep things square whilst being glued, hopefully.
Both side panels of the cabinet, now made up and left to dry. See you again in two weeks.
The cabinet incorporates a shelf, two thirds of the way down. I dimensioned the wood for this (walnut again) and jointed it, so that when glued it makes up a solid panel, with grain matching nicely. The grain ‘crowning’ is upmost on the middle panel, but at the bottom on the outside two. This means as the panel dries over time and shrinks, the whole panel shouldn’t dish.
Same deal here for the top of the cabinet. Another triple-joined panel left to dry, and I’ll bring both panels back down to a flat surface when I return, so not much need to worry about glue overspill etc.

College Practical techniques

College course: Day 6

I’m almost embarrassed to add this latest post and call it an update. A very slow day at college on Friday, not helped by random ‘non-day course’ people taking up space in the woodwork shop and taking up the tutors time.

Well, the side panels were test-fitted together anyway, and I finally cut the veneered walnut board to drop into the frames. (Apologies for the terrible picture quality, I literally have the cheapest phone in the world).

[notice]This week’s update is sponsored by the ‘Carry On’ series of movies. If you don’t appreciate unjustified innuendo and double entendres, you should stop reading now.[/notice]

All good with the fit. The project was then pretty much abandoned, as I had a go with another couple of machines (spindle moulder and bandsaw) and did a quick build for something we needed in the house. Despite all that, I decided it wouldn’t be long before I’m gluing up these side panels, so I need to give thought to giving them, a GOOD RUBBING DOWN, and then OILING THEM UP. The tutor figured it made sense to get the boards finished, drop them in, then oil the frames.

The above shot is the panels having already been RUBBED DOWN with various grades of glasspaper. The tutor recommended ‘Osmo oil’, but having seen the prices, and talked to my friend Robert Vialle, I just went with what I had in the cupboard, a decent Danish Oil. Robert recommended at least five coats, so best get on with it.

Wow, this wood is going to look beautiful, even the woman in the mag looks impressed. Right, well the pictures aren’t going to change much from here on, so I’ll post some new stuff next week, once the boards are in. I’ll also have a bit more energy, hopefully, and will start dimensioning timber to create the cross rails to join the two side panels together. See if you can keep your excitement in check until then!

College Practical techniques

College course: Day 5

Good progress today on this little cabinet. The side panels are pretty much together, just awaiting the boards that will be cut to size and enclosed by the framing. Next time I’ll be cutting the board stock and will start thinking about making rails that connect the cabinet together, one side to the other, and getting this thing standing on it’s own feet.
I started out with setting up a router, to cut the rebates for the boards in the legs and also the cross rails. If you have ever read the blog before, you’ll know I try to do everything with hand tools. But, as in previous days, I need to take the opportunity to learn the set-up on these machines, as I’ll no doubt need to use them again at some point.

‘Oh infernal machine, your dust and noise displeases me greatly…’

I set up a fence for the legs to run through, but the magnetic clamps didn’t hold quite solid to the base plate. I added ‘G-clamps’ on the ends of the fence also. And a final check that the cutter was aligned with the mortices.

All legs and rails were run through with the final ‘face’ sides in the same orientation. This way I know my rebates are all the same distance from the edge. Here I’m checking the final board will fit into the panel frame, by slotting in a piece of scrap from the same board.

Once the rails are in the mortices, the panel will fit into the verticals and horizontals. Lovely!

Here’s a final panel, there’s no board cut to go into it yet, but I have chiselled out the final part of the mortices to house the haunches. All the joints close up nicely. There’s some minimal twisting on the tenons, but hey, I pretty much did this all by hand!

Second panel fitted together. While the legs were on the router with the correct-sized cutter in, I took the opportunity to cut the rebates for the back panel, which will be made from the same stock as the boards on the side panels.