Carving a Simple Flower

P. Michael Henderson
November 8, 2008

Some time ago, I did a tutorial on a woodworking forum on how to carve a simple flower.  In an attempt to make that tutorial a bit more widely available, I'm putting it here.

If you find this tutorial useful, I'd really appreciate if you would send me an e-mail with the subject line of "Flower carving" so I can get some indication of how many people are reading it.

Note that I use the Swiss system to describe carving tools in all of my carving tutorials.

Let me make a few preliminary comments before starting the tutorial. When you carve an object, you're not trying to make a photographic reproduction of it - you're trying to "represent" the object, which means that you need to decide what the important aspects of the object are and make sure those are included in the carving.

People see objects in clouds. The shape of clouds is just random, so why do people see objects in clouds? The human mind is a wonderful shape matching device - so if the clouds have a shape that is even close to some object that you've seen before, the mind matches to that object and you see the resemblance. 

When we carve, we take advantage of that aspect of the human mind - we don't try to carve every aspect of an object, but only the "important" aspects of that object. If we select well, other people will see the object in our carving. 

So with our flower. The "flower" we're going to carve probably doesn't exist in nature, but someone looking at it will say that it's a flower.

The other point I'd like to make is that your carving can vary quite a bit and it'll still look good. I'm going to give you some tools and dimensions but you should feel free to adapt my recommendations to your tools, needs, and taste.

Flower carving

Here's where we're going.  This is a carving I did on a wooden plane I made - the carving we'll do in this tutorial will be a bit bigger, and it'll be done in basswood (this is red birch) but otherwise it's the same.

Carved lid

You can use this flower in a lot of things.  Here's a lid I did that uses this simple flower in a repetitive pattern around the lid.  The ring is called a "guilloche" - a repetition of a pattern with interwoven lines. A very nice decorative touch around the top of a chest or on the apron of a table. But made up of this very simple flower.

CLAMP YOUR WORK!!! I don't show the clamp in these pictures but the work is always clamped, as yours should be. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, work on a loose piece of wood - you'll eventually wind up in the ER with a gouge through your hand.


I'm going to use a piece of basswood. I have a piece here that has some defects in it, so I'm going to use half of it for this project. The piece is 12" by 5 1/2" so I'm going to work with a 6" by 5 1/2" work area. 

Flower layout

What I did was draw two circles that I thought would look good for a flower. The outer circle has a radius of 1 7/8" and the inner has a radius of 3/8". I just drew these without measuring. Then I measured the radius and adjusted it to an even fraction - that's why you see two circles in the picture.
For your flower, you may want to go larger or smaller, especially to match the gouges you have. I'll talk more about that later.

Carving the center

I now need to find a gouge that matches the inner circle. With my tools, the best match was a #7/14 gouge. Note, however that this gouge is a Henry Taylor and not a Pfeil, and I've marked the Henry Taylor (which normally is a Sheffield system gouge) with the Swiss system equivalent. What you need to do is find a gouge that matches your inner circle. You can adjust the circle to fit your gouge.

Trim around the inner circle

Cut downward around the inner circle. Do not use a mallet at this time - just use hand pressure. Then use your #2/5 gouge to cut inward to your circular cut, as shown in the picture.

More cutting on the inner circle

You can use your #7/14 to make those inward cuts, but it's easier with the small gouge. But once you get the initial trim made, switch to the #7/14 and cut downward and inward until the center circle is sticking up about 1/4".

Doing the outside circle

Now we need to find a gouge that matches the curvature of the outside circle. With my tools, that was a #3/20. You can adjust the size of that circle to match your tools - just don't make it too large or too small. 

Carving the outer circle

Outline the outer circle with your #3/20. Here, you can use a mallet on the gouge - just don't go crazy with it. Once you've made the downward cut, use the #7/14 to cut inward. When you cut inward, make your cuts towards the center of the circles. You're going to leave those tool marks so you want them to look good. Also, space the cuts so they show up well.


Cut down about 1/4"

Keep cutting downward and inward until you've cut downward about 1/4". There's nothing magic about 1/4" and if you cut more or less you're going to be okay.

Go back and taper the space between the two circles

Now, use your #7/14 to cut between the two circles, tapering the cut between them. So on the outside circle, the height should be the original height. Next to the inner circle, the height should be down about 1/4".

Smooth out the taper

This step is optional, but if you want to, you can use the #3/20 to smooth out the marks from your previous cuts.

Our next step is to layout the flower petals. The first question is "How many petals should we put in?" For a small number of repeated elements, an odd number looks better than an even number. I'm going to use five because it's odd and it's not so many that the carving gets tedious. You can use seven if you want.

Lay out the petals

Next question: "How should the petals be laid out?" Since we're using an odd number, I use a full petal at the top. So I put a mark at the bottom of my flower, on the outer circle. Then I use a set of dividers to find five even divisions of the outer circle. When I find the divisions, I put a mark at each landing site of the dividers.

Mark the petals

Then draw a line from each of those marks towards the center. Don't take your line all the way to the center. Sometimes it's hard to get rid of the marks where they meet the inner circle so just don't mark that.

Use your V-tool to cut along the lines

Using your V-tool, cut along the lines. Don't dry to make the cut all in one pass. Make a light cut and come back to deepen the cut.

Round the ends of the petals

After that, we'll round the ends of the petals with the #7/14. Align the edges of the gouge with the side and ends of the petals and push downward hard. This will give you the cuts shown in the picture.

Clean up the cuts

Use your #2/5 to clean up the cuts.

Status check

Once you trim all the ends of the petals, your flower should look like this.


How to do the center

Now we want to dome over the center circle. It's important you make the cuts correctly or you'll split the wood. Since the grain runs horizontally, you need to make your cuts as shown by the arrows in the picture below. If you get confused and make a cut opposite the arrows, you'll know it.

The tutorial continues here.