Carving smooth curves (letters and numbers) into basswood.

Scott Cardais

New User
I'm having problems getting smooth curves on letters and numbers into basswood.

Is there anyone on this forum with letter-carving experience in the Hendersonville, NC area willing to meet with me to see why I'm having this problem?

I've been woodworking for several years but I'm new to relief and letter carving. I know how to sharpen chisels but have less experience sharpening gouges. That said, my gouges sure seem sharp but how does one know if they couldn't be sharper? ? !

I've attached a few photos to show the problems. These images are inserted rather than added to the Gallery because I was unable to add photos to the Gallery this morning. I hope these images are clear enough to show the problems.

The outer edges of these curves were carved with several gouges with different sweeps (3, 5, 7). All were about 6mm wide. After several experiments, the inner edges were mostly carved with the corner of a straight double beveled chisel. Generally, these turned out better than those curved with the gouges.

Any help would be appreciated.

Scott C.
Saluda, NC




Scott Cardais

New User
No, Roy.

I've done some relief carving in harder woods including walnut but limited my letter carving to basswood so far.

Now that you mention it, I will try walnut.

Thanks for the suggestion.

Scott C

Roy G

Senior User
Scott, I looked up letter carving in the book by Chris Pye. He suggests using denser woods for letter carving. He likes oak and lime (I think this is sycamore), with denser wood like boxwood for finer details. As an aside, I bought his book years ago and found i would have to buy a jillion carving tools to follow his instructions. It seems to be a well thought out book, but i didn't want to make the investment.

Roy G


New User
Letter carving is difficult even for the seasoned carver. I have always used a v-tool to do my lettering and mostly in basswood. Lime wood is a English species of basswood although it is tighter grained and a little denser.

To clean up the center of the curves you can work to the center by carving from each side. Try making the thinnest and lightest cuts possible by using the edge of the gouge or a v-tool using just one wing of the tool. It does require a delicate touch and some patience. It also requires a good deal of hand strength and hand control which just comes from a lot of practice.
From looking at the pictures it looks as if there is a dull spot on one of your tools. Shows up in pic 2 especially on the straight cuts (the vertical lines evenly spaced on the side of the cut). The sharper the tool the easier it is to do the lettering.

Hope this helps and good luck. Hope to see pictures of the finished work.
Last edited:

Scott Cardais

New User
Thanks very much for the feedback, Stave.

I just posed a question asking where to buy Limewood. Coincidence because I hadn't seen your post yet.

Since my original post, I've spent a little time cleaning up the basswood carving shown in the pictures and, per suggestion from Roy, I did another carving in walnut. As Roy suggested, the walnut seemed to cut a little smoother but I also think my technique has improved a bit.

I appreciate the observation about the sharpness of my gouges. I'm going to spend some time this morning working on them.

At this point, I'm doing a lot of experimentation with different woods and different techniques to carve inside and outside curves focusing on creating smooth walls with a consistent 60 degree slope ending in a perfectly centered trench.

The process reminds me of golf because there are a lot of things to remember that must be done exactly right every time!

I may post pictures later when I have more time and patience.

Thanks again...


Corporate Member
Looking at your carving edges I can see you don't have a "secondary bevel" on tip of the tool. Without that feature, its tough to get that rolling moment.

Mary May has some instruction on the sharpening for the tool edge. This might help you.


Staff member
Corporate Member
Chris Pye has a video on letter carving - also some stuff on his woodcarvingTV website - the website costs money to join, but is worth it if you'll be doing much carving.

Mary May's site is also a useful resource.

As to patterns use an app like MS Write to find a font you like and blow it up to around 30-60 points high - print it on a laser or inkjet printer and you'll have a template to glue on the wood you're about to carve.


Senior User
+1 on Chris Pye. Excellent source for sharpening, too.

Other than that, its practice, practice.

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