Woodcarving and Pencils

Not everyone likes to use pencils on woodcarvings, but I think they just haven’t been using the best ones for the job. Not all pencils are created equal, and since I am a pencil fanatic from way back, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences about integrating pencils into my woodcarving work flow.

While learning to carve I encountered several suggested methods for transferring design patterns to wood, and in most cases these were developed specifically as an alternative to the use of pencils. The most commonly employed method involves attaching a photocopy of the design to the wooden surface using spray adhesive. I rejected this method for two reasons: to avoid exposure to the fumes from the spray adhesive, and because having the paper pattern adhered to the surface of the wood blocks any visual clues from the wood itself as you make the important first cuts of a carving. Even though the paper does eventually get carved away as you progress, I feel that drawing directly on the wood itself is a more intuitive method for transferring design to wood.

The main reason given for avoiding using pencils on wood is the tendency for them to smudge, and the possibility for the smudging to give your carving an overall grubby appearance as you move your hands over the wood. This is why the choice of pencils is important, because it is possible to have the direct connection of drawing on the wood without the mess, but only if you use the right pencils.

I use three basic types of pencils in my woodcarving process:

  •  Something in a 2B to 4B range for initial transferring of design to wood
  •  A 2H  pencil for drawing through the paper template
  • A high quality HB pencil for drawing reference lines directly on the carving as you work – erasability is key

For the first type of pencil I have found that nothing works better than an Ebony pencil. I use the Eberhard Faber Design Ebony 6325, which is a vintage version of the ones currently being made under the Prismacolor Ebony name. Vintage or new, the graphite core of these pencils are the perfect match for drawing on wood, leaving a dark clear line on all but the darkest of wood tones. Ebony pencils are wonderful for drawing around the outside of a template for a cut line, and I find these are a great all-around shop pencil as well. The graphite does have a tendency to smudge, so I only use it early on in the carving process on wood that I know will be eventually removed because these lines don’t erase easily from wood.


The Ebony is also very effective for transferring a design using a photocopy. To do this I color the back of the paper with the Ebony pencil, and then use the second type of pencil in my list, a 2H pencil to draw over the design to transfer it to the wood. The paper template becomes its own graphite paper, and the transfer leaves just enough of a line that I can draw over the design again directly on the wood using the Ebony pencil. The choice of 2H pencil is less important than the other two types covered here, since the pencil itself is being used more as a stylus and the graphite doesn’t come into contact with the wood. One caution is to avoid using too much pressure when using the 2H pencil since it can leave a dent in softer wood – test it out on a scrap to see how much pressure is enough to transfer the design without denting.



The third type of pencil is a HB grade – not as soft as the Ebony, but much softer than the 2H – to draw directly on the wood to make reference lines during the carving process. My favorite pencil for this job is the vintage Eagle Draughting 314. You can still find the Eagle brand on eBay from time-to-time, as well as the equally good Berol version of this pencil, but the current General brand of the Draughting 314 does not have the same quality as its predecessors. If you can’t track down any of these wonderful all-around drawing pencils, choose a good quality HB grade pencil like the Hi-Uni or Tombow Mono brands. Whatever pencil you end up using, the primary concern is how well it erases from wood. Draw on your carving with a light hand so as not to leave any indentations, and test your pencil out on a piece of scrap wood first. I use this pencil to make reference marks on the carving as I am working, to transfer designs for lettering or chip carving, so it isn’t always something that will be carved away. I also use this pencil in the transfer process described above when I am working on very light wood, like basswood or Alaskan yellow cedar, to avoid the chance of errant smudges on the high points. For all of these uses you will need a good eraser – but not any eraser will do.


After trying many brands and types of erasers on wood, the only one that I have found that works well is the Tombow Mono smart plastic eraser. Other erasers can leave a terrible smudge, or a residue, or work small bits of themselves permanently into the wood grain. The Mono erases cleanly and leaves no trace. The Mono eraser is the essential tool in this process, and is likely the missing piece that leads others to avoid pencils altogether when carving. You may find other pencils that work just as well for you from the ones I mention here, but that probably won’t be the case for the Tombow Mono smart plastic eraser.

Since you have followed along this far I will assume you have a fascination for the subtler aspects of pencils, and so I will provide you with the following additional information:

  • I’ve suggested all the best pencils for working on wood, without mentioning the BEST pencil ever – the Blackwing 602 made by Eberhard Faber and Faber Castell. If you are wondering if the Blackwing 602 works well on wood, the answer is a definite yes, but I save them for drawing, since I have so few, and they are so precious to me. The original Blackwing 602, which ceased being made in the late 1990s, is the best drawing pencil I have ever found, and I have spent quite a bit of time over the decades since they stopped producing them looking to find something that compares. Please do not let yourself be confused by the relatively new Palomino brand version of this pencil, as the only thing they share in common is the name. For a brief time I thought the Palomino brand HB and 2B drawing pencils offered a good alternative to the Blackwing 602, but I have since found a number of pencils that I consider to be far superior to the Palomino brand. Which leads me to the next point . . .
  • If you are curious to know some the worst pencils for drawing on wood,  they are the Palomino Blackwing line, as they are near impossible to erase. They don’t erase well on paper either, but that is another story for another day.
  • If you would like to use some drawing and writing pencils of upstanding quality that are currently being produced, give yourself a treat and get a set of mixed grade Mitsu-Bishi Hi-Uni drawing pencils. These are top quality pencils, and a pleasure to use. Equally lovely are the Tombow Mono Professionals, get the ones made in Japan if you can find them.
  • I have not received any compensation for recommending these items, these are products that I use myself with every carving I make. You can see these and other wood carving resources I have recommended HERE.

Elemental Celtic Cross

Earlier this year I completed a carving in mahogany wood of an equal-armed Celtic cross – photos of the carving process are shown in the gallery below. This project brought me back to my roots in traditional Celtic design when my creative work was exclusively painting on paper – you can see a gallery of my earlier work HERE. The inspiration for my paintings originated with the manuscript artwork of early medieval Ireland, in the richly illuminated manuscripts of the Book of Kells, Book of Durrow, and the Lindisfarne Gospels. These ancient manuscripts were themselves inspired by metalwork techniques from designs rendered in relief, so the process of translating my designs from paper to wood carving has been a very natural progression, bringing me back to the original process of the source.

When I began this design I wanted to create something that was both traditional in its form – the ringed Celtic cross shape – but also contemporary in its content. I decided to represent the four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – along with the fifth element, the quintessence, using traditional themes rendered into new designs. The resulting design uses (clockwise from the top arm): spirals to represent water; tree-of-life trefoils to represent earth; spiraling flames to represent fire; and swirling trumpets to represent air. All four elements are joined in the center into a quadruple spiral to represent the fifth element, the quintessence. The spiral braid in the ring represents the bounds of our world, consisting of all these natural elements joined together.

I selected a fine grained piece of mahogany wood for this carving, one that would hold the details of this design, and provide a radiant warm color to the finished piece. I was pleased and amazed when I oiled this carving to find hidden within the grain a dramatic dark wave of color that runs through the fire element, making it look as if the fire itself has scorched the wood.

This carving is available for purchase through the Ninth Wave Designs Etsy shop. I am also very excited to have begun the process of translating this original design into a sterling silver pendant, that will also be available in the upcoming weeks. I will post an update when they becomes available.

Update: The Elemental Celtic Cross wood carving has found its home. The sterling silver pendants based on this design has been completed and is available on the Ninth Wave Designs Etsy shop HERE.

Shop Update: Irish Hare Pendants


Irish Hare pendants are back in stock in the Ninth Wave Designs Etsy store, with a limited number available for holiday delivery.

See the pendants here Irish Hare Sterling Silver Pendant

See the original wood carving they are based on here: Irish Hare Hand Carved Butternut Wall Hanging

I wrote about the process of creating the Irish Hare wood carving in 2016 – read about it and view the gallery here: Irish Hare Wood Carving

Abegglen Detail Knife: Carving Demonstration Videos

Bellow are two short videos demonstrating the use of the medium sized Abegglen Detail Knife while carving in butternut wood. I used this versatile carving tool when roughing out the carving shown in the earlier post, Pearl of Great Price. This carving knife makes quick work of the butternut wood, and creates a lovely sounds as well – be sure to turn up the volume!

The double-sided Abegglen knife takes a little careful practice to get used to using it, especially if you are in the habit of pushing on the backside of the blade when using a regular carving knife. The stout handle is designed to be held like a palm handled carving tools, and almost all of the control of the blade comes from the hand holding the handle. I use only a little pressure to guide the blade with my free hand, and am always careful to keep well up the shaft of the tool. This knife needs to be razor sharp on both sides to ease through the wood in this way, and to prevent having to use too much pressure guiding the blade, which could otherwise easily lead to accidents. Each time I begin using this tool I always spend a few minute on a scrap of wood familiarizing myself with how it works, that way I can do some practice cuts without focusing on what I am carving, and can instead get the feel of the position of my hands.



This third video shows the completed carving, to give a sense of how the rough cuts laid out in the earlier videos were resolved, using a combination of the Abegglen knife, sloyd knife, and other carving gouges. Although I found this knife a little intimidating when I first tried it out, it has quickly become a favorite for working the initial shape of my carvings.

There is an additional video of the Abegglen detail knife in action on an earlier blog post HERE.
(I do not receive any compensation for making these recommendations.)

Pearl of Great Price

Carved from butternut wood, the design for this piece is from a small drawing I did a number of years ago of my dog, named Pearl.  The title of this blog post, which is also the title of the carving, comes from a familiar parable about a merchant seeking to buy pearls: “Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matthew 13:46).

When I had Pearl in my life, I would think of her as my “pearl of great price,” and like the parable, I would tell her that I would sell all that I had to buy her. She was a mutt, a mixture of Terrier and Italian Greyhound and possibly a few other things thrown in – she was small and sleek and sweet, and I loved her like a child. When she was five years old I left an unhealthy relationship, and Pearl became an unfortunate focal point of the power dynamic of that ending. The result was that I left and I never saw Pearl again. It broke my heart, more than I could have imagined. Through processing that loss, Pearl became a symbol of sacrifice – I paid a great price for freedom, and I essentially sold all the emotional capital I had to gain it. So the title of this carving is really about the inverse of the original meaning of the parable, where instead, the Pearl is what is given up to gain the spiritual prize – in my case, my personal freedom and emotional well-being.

When I decided to create this carving a few months ago – which was over ten years after I last saw Pearl – I thought I had recovered from the emotional price of that loss. One thing about carving is that it gives you lots of time to think while your hands are busy, and I was surprised to find that the act of shaping her form out of wood exercised the remaining sorrow tucked away in the recesses of my memory. It was a good process, a healthy one, and in the end was very therapeutic. It also resulted in me having this carving of Pearl hanging in my home, my happy and healthy home, in a place where she can greet me as I come in the door – much as she did when she knew me and loved me as only a dog can.

Leaping Fox Carving Study: Demonstration Videos

I created three videos to demonstrate the carving and painting process involved in the making of the Leaping Fox carving study. These brief videos show the tools and process I used to created this small carving. This is a follow-up to my earlier post – you can see more photos and information about this project HERE.

The first video shows the use of the Abegglen detail knife in action. This freshly sharpened blade makes very responsive cuts as I refine the form of the body of the fox.


In this second video I apply the black oil paint finish to the front feet of the fox. I have left the natural color of the mahogany wood for most of the coloring, and applied the black paint with small strokes and dry brushing technique to blend with the reddish-brown of the wood.


This final video shows the application of the white paint to the carving. Once the black paint is dry I use a similar technique to apply the white brush strokes and dry brushing to the fox, working over the black paint in a few areas.


Creating a smaller scale test project like this is a helpful way to test out new techniques. It is also a great way to begin conceptualizing the form and movement for a larger scale project. I am pleased with how this scale model turned out, and it is a nice carving on its own, but its scale also represents less of a risk when trying out a new process or trying new materials. This little carving will also be a valuable point of reference when I begin working on the larger project, and the time invested in it will translate into time saved down the road.

Leaping Fox Carving Study

Earlier this summer I completed a small carving as a study for a larger project I hope to work on sometime over the winter – a red fox captured mid-leap, about to pounce on its prey.  I created this smaller version as a way to test the idea I had for the painted finish – one that would utilize the natural beauty and color of the mahogany wood combined with only a minimal amount of black and white oil paint. I documented the process on the @ninthwavedesigns Instagram feed, and have gathered the images together in the slideshow below.

One element of this project that I especially enjoyed was discovering the versatility that the Pfeil Abeggelen detail knives offer.  I was originally intimidated by the super sharp double edges on this tool, but after just a few minutes of practice I felt comfortable using the knife for both pushing and pulling cuts. After completing this project using the medium size knife I added both the smaller and larger versions of these to my carving tool collection. I am certain I will be putting these to use on a regular basis going forward.

I have included descriptions of the stages of the project with each image below:

Update: See more information about this project in the Leaping Fox Carving Study Demonstration Videos blog post.

Living With Craft 2017

I have some of my woodcarving work on display again this year at the Annual Craftmen’s Fair at the Mount Sunapee Resort, sponsored by of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. The Fair opens on Saturday, August 5th and runs through Sunday, August 13th. As part of the Fair, a special exhibit is being held in the lodge called Living With Craft – a showcase for some of the best work recently created by League members. The exhibit is set up in a series of room-like settings to inspire fine craft decorating ideas for your own home. I have three pieces at the exhibit:


One piece will be on display, the others available on request, and all will be available for purchase.

There is such a wide range of creative work on display at the Fair that is makes for a wonderful summer outing. I hope you will visit, and take time to explore the Living With Craft exhibit while you are there.



Form Plaque Project Update






















For the last six years I have been working on a series of wood carvings commissions. Each class year has panels that list all of the students graduating that year, and above the name panels hangs a carved plaque depicting significant events from the senior year of that class, or Form, as it is called at SPS. This year I completed Form plaques for the forms of 2002, 2007, 2009, and 2016 and they are shown above. The plaques illustrate a wide range of themes, from environmental stewardship to the visit of the Stanley Cup. I keep a separate blog to document the progress of these carvings, The Form Plaque Project Blog, and you can read more information about each of these carvings there. I have completed 21 form plaque carvings to date, and already have designs in place to start working on new ones for next year.