I recently completed this commission for the congregation of a California church. They wished to honor their minister’s ten years of leadership with a bowl featuring their church motto, Micah 6:8. It is a beautiful verse. I was happy to play a small role in their celebration, and I was fortunate enough to have a suitable log on hand.
I decided on a design I hadn’t carved before, a large (20″ long and 14″ wide) oval bowl in black walnut with a rim that flares out all around. This provided room for the lettering, but made for some challenging hewing and carving on the exterior. Below is a slideshow of some more photos of the bowl.
It is a relief when the last painstaking cut is made on the lettering, and all is spelled correctly and so on. There’s not much room for error, so the process begins long before the cutting.
It starts with some brainstorming mentally and on paper. Then I do a small-scale very simple sketch in a straight line, just to determine general halfway and quarter points to help achieve the right spacing. In this case, I then made a full-scale sketch on paper, after laying out a full size oval matching the bowl.
I sketch lightly in pencil, darkening the lines as the ideas become more firmly established and the spacing shapes up. As I sketch, I keep in mind the common characteristics of the letter form, but I am still free to adjust individual letters with the goal of achieving a more pleasing whole. Since the bowl rim is not planar (it is angled downward away from the hollow all around), the flat paper can’t be used to transfer the lettering onto the wood without puckering and distortion. I just mark a few reference points onto the wood, and then draw the inscription with a soft pencil onto the wood. These pencil lines are the general guidelines for the cutting, but it is the cutting itself that matters.
This is v-incised lettering, the sidewalls of the letters form a v profile, creating a nice contrast of light and shadow. For relatively small letters like this, I rely almost exclusively on my pen knife blade, as I’ve discussed before on the blog. I sometimes use a very narrow knife point for tight areas.
I find it best to do this with the bowl free to be manipulated with my left hand, legs, etc. to position it in different ways while making various cuts. I also like a strong directional light. The window is good during the day, and a clamp light works well at night.
Lettering doesn’t have to be so painstaking, depending on the piece. More spontaneous lettering with the knife, even with no sketching at all can be a lot of fun and achieve very cool results, especially for smaller pieces like shrink boxes, spoon handles, etc. For practice, I would encourage the use of a softer wood. It makes a big difference.