Scrollsaw Carving
by David Faulkner

Hi woodworkers! I enjoyed the discussions when I posted the pictures of my son's Pinewood Derby Cars a few months ago, so I thought I'd post these carvings I did for Christmas presents for some friends. I guess they're sort of like Guitar or Lute rosettes only much larger. I have done several of these and they are well received. They aren't difficult; just time consuming and tedious. They do LOOK difficult, though, and are therefore impressive to most non-woodworkers, but the big effort is time. I've done some big ones that took 80 hours to complete, and these little ones, about 11" x 7", take me about 25 to 30 hours (but then, I'm maybe a little slow). I'll apologize in advance for the lengthy post, but I assume the following techniques, while normal activity for some, may be new to others. Also, by outlining each step, you might point out better ways to do this sort of project. Enjoy. (This post may look best viewed at 800 X 600 or higher resolution)

Drilling, Scrollwork, and Design

Mahogany seems to work well and looks good, so that is what I use most of the time for this sort of work. I first resaw the mahogany and finish plane and sand to about 1/4". The pattern is drawn in CorelDraw and I typically use the Lincoln font. (It should be noted that this is a design I just came up with one day and I don't have a clue whether the leaves and grapes look like anything real.) My goal is to make the design light and airy with as few points as possible connecting the letters. This tends to make the piece fragile and delicate, but that is the look for which I strive. That is probably why I take so long to make one of these. For me, it gets very tedious and I can't usually work more than a few hours at a time without getting sloppy. I usually leave some room around the pattern, so my work piece ends up being at least an inch larger all the way around than the finished piece. I print the pattern on 24 pound paper and glue it to the mahogany with yellow glue drastically weakened with water. Setting the piece aside for at least a week to let it stabilize is one of the hardest steps - I usually want to start right away. It will definitely curl toward the paper. I've thought about gluing paper to both sides but find that it stabilizes regardless.

Shipp carving completed; King scrollwork in progress

King scrollwork in progress Next, I drill as many holes as necessary to get the scrollsaw blade through the design. After doing a few, you begin to learn the best places to drill and don't waste so much time with extra holes. You still end up with many holes! I cut the thinnest and most delicate areas around the letters first. That way, if I mess up, I can start over early in the project.

If I mess up on the leaves or grapes it doesn't really matter. However, people take exception when you misspell their name by accidentally turning a "T" into an "I" ;-)

By the way, unless your finished project looks exactly like the pattern, don't give a copy of the pattern with the gift! At least if you do, go back and modify the pattern to match the finished piece.

The finished scrollwork looks something like this:

King scrollwork completed


I use both a Dremel and very sharp (sometimes Scary Sharp) carving tools to shape the leaves, grapes, and vines or branches. I use the Dremel with a router base and drop the branches at least 1/8" below the surface of the letters. I drop the leaves at least 1/16" where they meet the letters, but I usually do this with carving tools. The rest of the carving is up to individual interpretation of the ultimate design. Sometimes the leaves and grapes are well contoured; other times I just lightly relieve the edges and sand to suit.


The border is simply mahogany cut to fit and mitered at the corners. I've always just glued the border on with yellow glue and that seems to do just fine. I miter the corners on my disc sander. Masking tape is a suitable clamp until the glue sets up. Before gluing the border, I remove the remaining paper with a little water dripped on and rubbed off with my fingers. Seems to work just fine.


After the wood is fully dry from removing the paper, I sand lightly to prepare for the finish. I wouldn't begin to stain something like this because I'd be afraid of breaking some of the more delicate portions in wiping the stain. I've thought of using analine dye and compressed air to blow off the excess. However, I think the best approach is to use toning lacquers to achieve the color, then topcoat with a few coats of Nitrocellulose lacquer. This way I don't have to handle or rub the carving.

Completed Shipp carving

Additional Comments

Please understand, this is no Grinling Gibbons carving! Not even close! Just a design I came up with one day and enjoy the end result. I could probably make some changes to the design, and may one day, but this works and it's fun. Give it a try, I think you'll enjoy the results.

Thanks for reading, David Faulkner