Canadian Woodworking


Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: April May 2006

Most wood carvers are familiar with the concept of relief carving from the very beginning of their carving experience (probably even earlier).

In contrast, I would hazard to guess that few of the same carvers are familiar with the opposite of relief, known as intaglio. Nevertheless, many carvers wittingly or unwittingly have incorporated ‘intaglio’ techniques in their work. As you might guess, ‘chip carving’ is a very specific form of intaglio.

The New World Dictionary defines intaglio as: “1. a design or figure carved, incised, or engraved into a hard material so that it is below the surface; 2. something, as a gem or stone, ornamented with such a design or figure: opposed to cameo; 3. The art or process of making such designs or figures”. In other words, intaglio is the process of making a negative image.

Oddly enough, few people are aware of the origin of the term intaglio. Most people are familiar with the name Michelangelo, but have never heard of his contemporary who indeed was an individual named Intaglio. Apparently, Intaglio was a worker in a quarry where Michelangelo got his marble. On one occasion, after extracting a huge piece of marble for Michelangelo’s use, Intaglio experienced his own epiphany when he noted the exceptional beauty of the freshly cut rock face. This creative revelation inspired him to develop his own art form – the process we know today as intaglio.

For a wood carver, the technique of intaglio can be used very effectively either alone or in combination with relief. No special carving tools are required; instead, the emphasis must be placed on careful planning and even more careful execution. For practicing intaglio in wood, it is also essential that your tools are up to the task by being exceptionally sharp.

Let’s follow the painters’ example and make a study board. The following seven exercises introduce the fundamentals of intaglio. The first six exercises are performed using a #7/14 gouge; however, a #5, 8, or 9 would serve the purpose equally well. The seventh exercise is done with a #12/8 parting tool (V-gouge). The exercises are done across the grain of the wood.

Study board

Lines narrower than gouge

Cut edge on both lines

Carve two parallel troughs

Create precise ridge between troughs

Begin ellipse with precise cut

Finish cut with care

Carve to a precise straight line

Terminate cut with knife

Start large ellipse with centre trough

Join cuts as smoothly as possible

Gouge will inscribe a perfect circle

Scoop toward centre of circle

Shadow demonstrates roundness

Keep cutting edge vertical on each side

Flat side of V-gouge adjoining wood

Single Pass Trough

Draw two parallel lines narrower than the width of your practice gouge. In a single pass, carve a trough the length of the lines keeping the cutting edge of your gouge on both lines at all times.

Double-Pass Center Ridge

Draw three parallel lines with the distance between each pair less than the width of your gouge. Carve two troughs side by side. Aim to preserve a straight consistent ridge where the two troughs touch. (For this example, I used a #9/12 gouge.)

Single-Pass Ellipse

Draw a long elliptical shape with the width narrower than your gouge. Enter the wood with precision at one end of the ellipse and carve the length of the ellipse in one pass. Aim to keep the cutting edge of the gouge exiting the wood on the line on both sides of the ellipse. To obtain a precise shape and to finish the cut carefully, you might need to break off the wood chip in order to see the lines.


Draw half of an ellipse with a flat top. Using the same technique as for a single pass ellipse, carve the shape of the ellipse until the cutting edge of your gouge reaches the straight line. Use your knife to cut straight across the top of the ellipse and remove the wood.

Multiple-Pass Ellipse

Draw an elliptical shape with the width wider than your gouge. Make your first pass down the centre of the ellipse entering and exiting the wood smoothly. Follow with another pass on each side.

The objective is to have each pass of the gouge join the curve at the bottom smoothly. As with the other exercises, keep the cutting edge of the gouge on the outline of the ellipse.

Circular Globe

A well-made gouge will inscribe a perfect circle when rotated on its cutting edge.

Try it! Then, using the same gouge, make a series of passes from the outline of the circle toward its centre. A few passes of equal depth and arc will excavate a globe of wood. You can tell how round the hole is by observing the shadow cast into it.

Square-Sided Trough

Draw two parallel lines slightly further apart than the size of your parting tool. (In this example, my parting tool was a 12/8, i.e. 8 mm size; so, my lines were 1 cm apart.) Using care to keep the depth of cut equal, carve a vertical edge on each side of the trough. You will need to hold your Vgouge on a slight angle to keep the cutting surface running straight down your line.

Then, using one side of the parting tool, carve away the wood in the centre of the trough thus joining the two vertical side cuts and forming a square-sided trough.

An endless number of exercises could be designed to practice carving in the negative form known as intaglio. The question remains: Is it better to be known, like Michelangelo, for a body of exceptionally masterful work or to be unknown, like Intaglio, for developing a process with which countless others may create their own body of masterful work? You decide.

In my next article, I will present a project that uses the techniques you have just practiced to make your own study board.

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