I’ve written a lot of posts that at least touch on lettering over the years, 53 according to the category menu on the right side of my blog page. Here’s the list. Of course, I’ve continued to learn with each project and situation, and I’ve discussed several different methods I’ve used. One way or another, this incised lettering comes down to simply cutting a v-section into the wood. I want to share a few more thoughts and re-emphasize some old ones, using a few recent projects to fuel my comments.
For small scale lettering on spoons, my pen knife blade does the trick. Although, even at that scale, if the wood is hard enough, like with the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in the photo above, I’ll need to make a couple passes. I’m already doing that second pass on the central portion there, and the “2021” is waiting for expansion. Having a couple small gouges handy can help on the tighter curves.
In this butternut, which is much softer than maple, I was able to use the knife to cut the letters that are around 1 1/2 or 2 inches high.
Strop up before tackling the end grain.
I like to use the pen blade of my pocket knife. I know very little of metallurgy, but my experience tells me that the high carbon steel blade takes a fine edge that isn’t brittle. It sharpens easily, and I make the angle of the edge much more acute than the factory grind. The forward portion has an edge angle of maybe 12, no more than 15, degrees. It’s hard to measure and I just go by feel on a very fine sharpening stone, barely raising the back side of the blade off the stone. I make fast little circles while manipulating the blade to catch the whole edge. I finish by stropping, and then strop again from time to time to maintain the edge.
Also on the sharpening stone, I round the back corners of the blade, especially toward the front. This makes it easy on my finger and allows the blade to glide around curves more easily. I also ease the transition from the bevel to the side of the blade.
Here’s one final angle showing the opposite side of the blade. I sharpen it, symmetrically — or that’s the intent anyway.
I started using this blade because I was already carrying it in my pocket; it was handy. Now it is what I’ve gotten used to, so it works for me. Other knives with various blade styles may work just as well for other folks. It certainly doesn’t have to be a pocket knife. You can easily reshape a small blade on an existing fixed-blade carving knife. It’s only the front 1/2″ or so that’s vital. This post shows some photos of a blade I reshaped. It’s important to have a tool that will do the job well, but it is far more important to spend the time working with it to develop skill and a relationship with the tool. And you can cut letters with things other than knives.
For example, I was asked by a friend to carve the Chinese character “pu” often translated as “uncarved block” or “unworked wood,” a concept central to Daoist philosophy. I’m certainly not one to explain it, but if you’re interested, Alan Watts discusses it here.
When it came to carving the character I quickly got out a couple carving chisels. I didn’t take photos, but with a straight chisel I cut down from opposite sides to form the valley. This is at the core of the method Chris Pye explains in his excellent book Lettercarving in Wood: A Practical Course. In recent years, it had only been available used, but as you’ll see at the link, it is now back in print. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The chisels were suitable to carve into the dry hard cherry wood, and I still used the knife to clean up junctions and other areas, in combination with a skew chisel.
Still, a knife may have the advantage in many situations. Chisels should be held with two hands, leaving none to hold curvy sculptural pieces like spoons. And the hand with the knife and the hand with the spoon ideally act in concert with one another, moving simultaneously.
Lettering offers endless creative possibilities, and the message can be anything from a sublime line of classic poetry to a simple word or phrase. Whatever the case, it can mean something to someone. Above is a photo of the spoon I was working on in the first photo of the post.
The exact phrase was a specific request. Emily Dickinson it is not, but a friend’s direct and playful reflection, and fun for me.
If you want to carve letters, the important thing is to begin and keep going. You will learn subtle things with every project and your cuts will improve. Meanwhile, the early projects are no less meaningful. I know people get intimidated by the design of letters as well, and I hope to share some more thoughts on that subject too, but just try to have some fun with it. We’ve been making letters since we were little kids.
Today, I took the above photo of the handle of a cooking spoon we’ve been using in our kitchen daily since I carved it a dozen years ago. Kristin loves it.
PS: If you want a deeper dive, I’d also recommend the book Lettercarving in Stone by Tom Perkins, even if you don’t want to carve in stone. And, if you can resist being overwhelmed, two websites that have abundant lettering resources and inspiration are those of The Lettering Arts Trust and John Neal Books.