Carved or engraved signs are a form of Incised carving sometimes called chip carving, an art of woodworking found throughout Northern Europe for hundreds of years. Chip carving uses carving knives and mini-wood chisels more than common carving chisels. Once mastered, carving and engraving wood signs can be both lucrative and emotionally rewarding for the master woodcarver.
Basic Incised Carving Cuts
It is always best to cut away from the body to ensure against personal harm. Most woodcarvers cut the chip at a 65-degree angle; however, there are times when the chip is cut at a steeper angle to to cast a shadow that gives the impression of a deeper cut. Carving letters using the art of hand-carved, incised lettering takes time to learn and even longer to master, which explains why most sign makers use a wood router or electric rotary tool when making wood signs.
Laying Out Letters
Find the style of lettering that will work best for the sign. If the size to small for the project, enlarge the lettering on a copier or scanner. Print off the lettering onto tracing paper, and cut out the letters to form the words on the sign. Draw two parallel lines, and situate the letters between these lines. Adjust the letters until they are positioned correctly, mark the final position of each letter, then glue the top edge of each letter onto the sign. Slide a piece of carbon paper under each letter, and trace them onto the board.
The serifs are the decorative flourishes at the end of letters. Draw centerlines down the length of the letters and in the serifs. Cut out the serifs first, cutting away from the body of the wood carver. Make a stop cut into each of the centerlines. The depth of the cut will be determined based on the size of the letters.
Making Stop Cuts
Cutting perfectly straight lines is as tough as cutting curves. The wood carver's trick is to focus the eyes on the line just in front of the carving knife blade. It is good to practice on a scrap piece of wood a few times before starting the true stop cut. Cross-grain cuts are easier than cutting parallel to the grain, which tends to pull the knife blade off track. Start with the blade tip at the bottom of the serif, then pull it toward the other end at a consistent depth. Most wood carvers have learned to use their free hands to move the blade along the marked line. Remember to angle the blade so the tip will reach the bottom of the stop cut.
Making Special Angles Cuts
The letters "W" and "V" require a little special attention. The sign maker should try to remove the waste in one piece to get a clean cut. Make the stop cut as usual--the cuts should not overlap, but meet cleanly. Cut at an angle to meet the stop cuts and free the chip. Cut away the other half with a standard straight cut.
Cutting circles are a challenge for the most advanced wood carver. Make the usual stop cuts around the circle. Remove all the waste by slicing an angled cut along the curve. It is best to work with the grain when cutting circles, so the wood will be constantly changing directions based on the current cut.