Texture, finish and color wood sculpture

The finish should be a natural outcome of your efforts to complete the form of the carving as well as you can. When you are satis­fied with the look and shape of your work it is time to stop. If you favor a tool-cut texture, do not finish by imposing a uniform tooled texture all over the surface. This can be very monotonous and mechanical in appearance. Rather let the surface treatment come about by the process of carving the shapes. Surface glitter, whether it be varnish or superficial texture, will add nothing to the real value of your work. It is a mistake to be over-anxious to arrive at the finished product. When you start carving you are to some extent groping your way along the road to some achievement. In almost every case this does not come easily. As you carve you will discover the texture, color, and grain of the wood you are carving. If the grain is strong, a smooth finish will give you the maximum grain figure. This can be an inspiration in itself. On the other hand, it may act as camouflage and obscure some form you wish to make clear. Then, perhaps, a tool-cut surface is more appropriate.

The natural color is an important feature of wood and should be considered before you start the carving. The color of a block of wood, especially if air seasoned, can be deceptive from the outside. For instance, sycamore can look a silver grey on the surface but is pure white when cut. Teak can also look a dirty grey before cutting and its true rich brown becomes apparent only when you start to carve. A very dark wood, such as ebony, can give pleasure when highly polished, but on the other hand, form tends to get ‘lost’ in the very blackness of the wood. Steam affects the color of some woods. It is used by timber merchants to spread the color more evenly, as in the case of walnut, and to turn beech pink. Many woods tend to change color and are darkened by the passage of time. Lime will turn from near white to warm pink in a matter of a few weeks so that a part of your carving worked at an earlier date may show a definite color change. However, it will all settle down to the same color after the carving is completed.

You may wish to paint or gild parts of a carving. Gesso has been used as a ground for painting on wood for literally thous­ands of years, the best known early examples being the Egyptian wooden statues. Gesso is also an excellent ground for gilding. It will, of course, cover grain but also all flaws and joints. It is used to achieve a silky smooth finish. In the nineteenth-century English Noah’s Ark animals were gessoed and painted. Examples of these toys can be seen among the toy collections of various museums and galleries.


This can be made with plaster of Paris or whiting and size. Size can be made from gelatine. The plaster of Paris should be of fine quality and slaked by keeping it covered with water for at least four weeks, renewing the water each day. Whiting can be bought ready for use but the plaster of Paris gesso is considered to be the best. For gelatine size 1 oz. of commercial or edible gelatine should be added to 16 oz. of water. Melt the gelatine in the water by means of a double saucepan, but do not allow it to boil. Now let the size cool for testing: firm to the touch, the size is of the right consistency. Heat up the size again until melted. If you have used the 16 oz. quantity of water, stir in 24 oz. of whiting or plaster of Paris. If the latter is of very fine quality, you may need a little less than 24 oz. When made, the gesso should be of a thin creamy texture, flowing easily from the brush.

Applying gesso to wood. The wood should be clean and free from polish of any kind. First apply a coat of size and allow to dry for at least twenty-four hours. If the wood is very porous, a second coat can be applied. Rub down lightly with sandpaper when perfectly dry. Brush on the first coat of gesso. You can rub this in with the fingers to make sure of a good grip. When the coat dulls, that would be in approximately fifteen minutes, apply another coat. Never let the gesso dry between each applica­tion. Three coats should be sufficient. Rub down again with fine sandpaper when it is perfectly dry. A final coat of thin size will finish the job and the work is now ready for painting or gilding.

Painting on gesso. Tempera painting on gesso has a fine brilliance. Good quality powder color is mixed with yolk of egg. A little water can be added. If this method is used on toys, the painting should be sealed by a coat of spirit varnish. Oil paint can be used on gesso; it is advisable, however, to apply a thin undercoat of flat oil paint before the finishing coat.

Gilding on raw wood

Fine gilding and burnishing is a trade in itself and does not come within the scope of this book. The carver may occasionally wish to use a little gold and the transfer gold is not too difficult for the amateur to manage. If you are gilding raw wood, first seal it with a number of applications of white of egg and water. This mixture is known as ‘Glair’. I use three whites to one pint of water. On mahogany I found that four coats were necessary.

Each coat must be allowed to dry before the next is applied. There will be a slight sheen on the wood when it is ready for gilding. The French slow gold size is advisable for most work. This size is applied and left for fifteen hours. If the weather is cold and damp, you may have to wait longer before gilding. If the size shows wet on the transfer paper, more time must be given. You will be able to continue gilding up to twenty-four hours and in damp weather conditions this time can often be extended.

Wax polishing

There are many ways of finishing the surface of wood, but for wood carvings wax polishing is the best. It has little effect on the color of the wood apart from making it slightly richer in tone. It produces a soft shine, pleasant to the eye and touch. Beeswax is the best basis for hand-applied polish. Other waxes can be added to it but this will be discussed later. Varnish and cellulose lacquers give a much higher gloss but this will not improve your carving, it will only cheapen its appearance. There are, however, a few disadvantages associated with wax polishing. These can be overcome if a little care is taken. I will deal with these difficulties first.

Wax by itself does not seal the grain of wood as effectively as shellac, varnish or lacquer. Dirt can therefore penetrate more easily. Wax tends to ‘sink’ into the softer parts of the wood, or into end grain. This ‘sinking’ makes the polish uneven and dull in places. This applies chiefly to the softer woods and with these, therefore, it is advisable to use a sealer before wax polishing. White french polish is a very effective sealer and is easy to use. If you buy this polish ready made up, buy also the solvent which is methylated spirit, for thinning down. Two thin coats of sealer should be sufficient. Apply the polish quickly with an inch paint brush, rubbing well in. Do not get the brush too full of polish and avoid runs. Allow the first coat to dry thoroughly. On soft wood you will find that this first coat raises the grain slightly. Rub the carving over very lightly with 0 grade sandpaper. Now apply the second coat and allow it to dry.

The carving is now ready for wax polishing. The hard, heavy woods can be finished with wax polish alone but a sealer can be used in places such as end grain if the wax tends to sink.

Making a beeswax polish. 

Although furniture polish can be used on your carving, it is a very simple matter to make a high quality one yourself. Beeswax can be obtained in a bleached form. This is light yellow in color and is best for such woods as pine, sycamore and lime. Raw beeswax is brown and can be used on darker woods. To make a small quantity of polish shred 3 oz. of beeswax—a coarse cheese grater can be used for this purpose. Place the beeswax in a small saucepan and just cover with turpen­tine or turps substitute. Now half fill a larger saucepan with water and heat on a low flame. Place the smaller saucepan containing the beeswax and turpentine in the saucepan of hot water. The water jacket is essential as the polish ingredients are very inflammable. Stir gently until the wax is dissolved, then allow it to cool. It will set in a paste-like form easy to use. If the polish is too liquid, add more wax and heat up again; if it is too stiff add more turpentine. You now have an excellent polish but variations can be made by adding other waxes. Carnauba wax can be added to beeswax, but only up to fifty per cent of the beeswax quantity. Carnauba is a very hard wax which is difficult to apply unless used with softer types. Candelilla wax is similar and rather less expensive. Paraffin wax is cheap and soft but this should be used in only small proportions, never more than one-third to two-thirds of harder wax. A soft wax marks easily and picks up dirt. Rosin may also be used to give a harder finish in a dark polish. It is as well to melt this first and then to add it gradu­ally to the mixture. A clothes brush, shoe brush or rag can be used to apply the polish. A hog-hair paint brush is useful to get the wax into awkward corners. Rub the wax well in, then leave it alone for a day because the turpentine must have time to evapor­ate before your true wax surface is achieved. Then polish it with a clean rag. Linen rags are excellent for this purpose but, in any case, avoid a material that is soft or fluffy.

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