carving scales and the vexed problem of carving for practice or for a purpose

OK, let’s get started.

I have often wrestled with the issue of whether to carve pieces to practice a specific technique or to wait and practice technique on actual carving ‘jobs’, and to be perfectly frank I haven’t often have gone for the former, largely because I don’t want to fill valuable storage space with off-cuts and scraps with techniques carved onto their good side and I hate throwing things away.  There are times, however, when an experiment or a re-cap of rusty technique saves hours of messing about. This is one of those times. 

Carving scale-patterns is not too demanding, requiring only a few tools ( a deep gouge, a shallow gouge, and a pointy blade  for cleaning up). The process is simple too; mark out a base-line and a centre-line, press in the pattern with the deep gouge and then hollow the scales with the shallow gouge. 

In a ‘standard’ fish-scale, the hollowing (relieving) is done with a series of cuts, cutting diagonally across the scale and following a gentle ark in the final cut to get the curving hollow shape.


fish-scale pattern carved into a basically flat surface

But, when carving on a convex surface, I wondered, is this the only way or is there another?  There is another technique, which I call snake-scale carving, whereby the pattern is laid out the same way as above but the centre is hollowed out deeply with a pointed-blade (skew chisel or knife) and the edges of the scale are rolled over with the same tool.  So, the question I needed answering is, on a convex surface such as a rifle stock or tiller-handle, which type of scale looks nicest and which feels the nicest?

Only one thing for it, carve the two side by side and see.


snake-scale on the left and fish-scale on the right on rounded surface.

The scrap of timber is a piece of sapele (I think- it’s recycled, it is probably sapele but other than being an Afridcan ‘mahogany’ I can’t be certain). First lesson – for small, detailed carving, the carver needs to be very careful not to split an edge off – I got caught out several times where the grain changes direction.  I’ve shown the fish-scale pattern half-completed so you can see the centre-line and the impressed pattern ready for modelling. Any-how, those are the results of the experiment, draw your own conclusions, but the snake-scale fees sooo nice and the fish-scale not quite so much.

2 thoughts on “carving scales and the vexed problem of carving for practice or for a purpose

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