Letter Carving Close-Ups


When I was carving the lettering on a recent spoon, I paused to set up the camera behind my shoulder.  I used the timer to take a few photos as I worked a section, and they show some of my typical hand positioning.

When working a spoon handle, there’s not a lot of support on the piece itself for your hand, so the leg becomes an additional support.  The spoon needs to move as much as the knife, so the left hand participates in the dance as well.


Here’s another shot of the same grip seen in the first photo.  The knife is stable in the hand with three points of pressure and can be handled nimbly and with good visibility.  Feels a bit like carving with a fingernail.  Notice that in all of the photos, there is at least one finger in contact with the spoon and/or my leg.  That is critical for control.  These points of contact act as pivot points or fulcrums or a combination of the two.


Above, I’ve come to the upper end of the left side of the A and am carefully slicing to touch up the root of the v channel and the junction at the apex of the A.  It takes time and is good training in patience and focus.


Here’s a version of the grip I typically use for the first side of the v-groove.   It’s a more powerful grip.  Leverage and downward pressure into the wood are critical in order to have control.  That’s important for both executing the cut well, and also for safety.  The blade remains firmly engaged in the wood as it makes deliberate progress.  It wouldn’t hurt anything to have a thick piece of leather over my leg I guess, but control is even more important.

Whatever the letter, it’s these same sort of cuts.  And it’s about considering various sizes, situations, and materials.  In the little video below, I’m working at a bit of a larger scale (so that it’s easier for the viewer to see) and in basswood.  If I wanted to carve at that larger scale in the same maple as the spoon above, it would make more sense to remove some material from the central portion of the letters with a v-tool before using the knife.

Tom Hepworth shot this video during Spoonfest last August.  Hard to believe that eleven months ago we were all gathered in England.   I’ve referred to the video before, but in case you missed it:

Isn’t it refreshing to see that British-American cooperation 244 years after the breakup letter was signed?

This entry was posted in Lettering, Uncategorized, video and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Letter Carving Close-Ups

  1. Kineret Dekel says:

    Thank you for this post (As well as all the rest of your blog. Excellent!). I was wondering about your pen knife. What make and model is it?
    Saw you at Spoonfest 2019 (Wanted to sign up for one of your classes, but there was no space), Was hoping to get a chance this year at Spoonfest 2020, but we all sadly know what happened…
    Thank you so much for the inspiration, as well as your beautiful work & words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave Fisher says:

      That knife is made by Boker. I received it as a gift over twenty years ago. Of course, you’ll find it with different handle scale material, but the pattern or model is “whittler.” The blade material is carbon steel. It corrodes and discolors unlike some modern steels, but it is capable of a very fine edge and is relatively easy to sharpen. Boker still makes knives with carbon steel blades. I’ve also used Case brand knives, made here in Pennsylvania. Excellent as well. The pen blade can be a little stiffer, but that can vary. The model/pattern most similar to the Boler whittler is the Case medium stockman. The blades it comes with are optional to an extent, so you want to make sure one of them is a pen blade. In Case, they have the option of Chrome Vanadium (CV) blades, which is the steel used in Pfeil Swiss Made carving tools.

      Here are some links to some posts that have more information about pocket knives with some embedded links:

      Of course there are other ways to go about it too, and much depends on what you get used to. Here’s a link to a post that includes a blade I shaped to match the one on my pocket knife:

      Sorry that we missed out on working together at Spoonfest. I will look forward to the next chance.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kineret Dekel says:

        Thank you very much for the detailed and promp reply!

        Already visited and checked the links. I put a bid on a Boker Whittler on Ebay, keeping my fingers crossed. Took a look at the Hyde combination. Although the 3/8″ handle appeals more, I didn’t see a suitable 3/8″ blade. So it seems like the 3/4″ carbon blade (With some reshaping) + the 3/4″ handle, is the correct one. I also checked the Case knives, but I’ll first see what happens with my bid…

        Looking forward to the next Spoonfest (-:

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dave Fisher says:

        Any of the 3/8″ carbon blades will work since you are reshaping the tip anyway. You definitely want to go with the 3/8 blade for mimicking the pen blade. But, as you said, see what happens with the Ebay prospect. Also, if you search enough, you can usually find the new knives, from Boker or Case, on sale at different places. Sometimes the price is determined by what material was used for the handle scales, which has no impact on use, but drives collectors wild.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. John Reed says:

    And not a single knife mark in the fabric on your knee….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dan Chernoff says:

    Thank you for taking the trouble to get these excellent close up photos and explain what’s going on. For those of us who haven’t had the pleasure of taking a course with you, these are invaluable.
    The pen knife looks like a vintage Boker. I have one but the pen knife in it is a little longer and narrower. I’m wondering if I should reshape the tip to get better control.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave Fisher says:

      It is indeed a Boker. See my reply to Kineret above for more info. Absolutely, you can reshape the blades. The steel is relatively thin, so it’s a quick job. You can use a very light touch on a bench grinder to begin with, but if you’re concerned about overheating — and you must use care to avoid it — then just use a course stone to start. I reshaped the coping blade to make it more adept at chip carving. You can see that result in one of the links in my reply to Kineret.


  4. Em says:

    I’d like to add my thanks for this post as well, I’m just starting out on my journey into letter carving and currently working with chisels. So helpful to see you working with a knife as well. All of this is so new & exciting/anxiety inducing!
    Letter carving is just such a beauty art form with so many applications.
    Can anyone recommend books or videos to watch?


  5. Dave Fisher says:

    There are many ways to carve letters in wood. In fact, I vary my methods depending on size, material, and design. You can see some of that in these posts linked below, including some use of carving chisels.


    Chris Pye has a good book called Lettercarving in Wood. Also, even though the cutting technique is very different, stone lettering books are wonderful for considering design. Tom Perkins has a good one called The Art of Lettercarving in Stone.

    Enjoy your journey!


  6. Barry Gordon says:

    Once again, Dave has generously shared his mastery with us. I was struck by the realization that Dave, with his knife, uses a similar technique for detail carving to one I employ, using my powerful abrasive belt sander, for general shaping. Both of us follow David Pye’s Workmanship of Risk and, though what Dave does is at a finer scale than mine, the technique is conceptually the same.

    I’m referring to the way Dave uses the “connection” of his elbow and leg for stability. I was taught very much the same, resting my left arm on my knee for stability in holding the workpiece with my left hand while using my right hand for guidance. The the main difference is that Dave brings the tool (knife blade) to the wood whereas I bring the wood to the tool (abrasive belt surface running over a contact wheel). As much as mechanics was my favorite part of high school physics, I haven’t retained the vocabulary to technically describe the functions of my arms and hands beyond saying that multiple beams and fulcrums are present. It WAS sixty-one years ago!

    I have a collection of edge tools and am competent in sharpening and using them. I like to say that, in my early years of spoon making, “I spent many an hour behind a spokeshave”, creating utensils from blocks of dried hard maple. At some point I learned about shaping wood with abrasives and set up an inflatable drum sander, using coarse grit sleeves for shaping and a series of finer grits for refinement and most of the finishing.

    I had become friends with a talented bladesmith who suggested an abrasive belt machine primarily used for metals and favored by custom knifemakers. As a woodworker, I had never heard of this machine and might never have learned of its existence but, in 1985, at the knifemaker’s urging, I purchased one. I have since spent countless hours using it for shaping wood and have as much affection for this machine as for any of my treasured edge tools. The bladesmith’s suggestion is an example of the cross-fertilization among crafts that I’ve found so valuable.

    There is rarely a single “right way” to accomplish a task in craft work. I work with both high-moisture and dried wood, chunks right off the tree, as well as kiln-dried roughsawn boards. The bandsaw and that big sander are my primary shaping tools but I also use edge tools, alternating between the two approaches, taking care only to avoid using expensive, hard to re-sharpen hand tools on wood that has previously been touched by an abrasive.

    At some point during our nearly ten-year project of defining Emil Milan’s contribution to studio woodworking [https://emilmilan.org/] I realized that Emil, academically-trained in sculpture, did the same sort of mixing of methods with great success. It was heartening to realize that this highly accomplished wood sculptor found it acceptable to combine edge tools and powered abrasives.

    I believe that (with a few exceptions) the object itself does not dictate the methods used to make it and evaluating how suitably a woodworking tool or machine performs a task also involves “external” criteria. Examples would be the desire to limit the use of electricity, or reduced noise and dust creation, that would favor edge tools or, having limited hand strength and working with highly-figured wood, that might favor powered abrasives.

    I have great respect for longstanding traditions in craft work but also suggest that we should feel free to explore alternative methods without fear of being censored by other woodworkers who are more comfortable following traditional approaches. Just as creativity and innovation are central to WHAT we create they can be important in determining HOW we create.


    • Dave Fisher says:

      Barry, thanks for sharing such a thoughtful and insightful perspective. Not long ago, a man emailed me with photos with a spoon he had carved, of which he was justifiably proud. However, he mentioned that he had used a card scraper and also some sandpaper and wanted to know if he had “cheated.” I told him, of course, that he hadn’t. Each one of us makes our own rule book when it comes to making. We all have our own individual preferences, limitations, and goals. Creating should be encouraged and celebrated, however one chooses to do it. Folks should feel free to explore without pulling their blinds.

      I have no desire to do do chainsaw carving, for example, but I can certainly respect the skill and sensitivity that is required to do it well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s