Low-Relief Carving after Duncan Phyfe

In conjunction with the exhibition Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, craftsman Allan Breed demonstrates low-relief carving, taking us through the creation of a bow knot and thunderbolt crest motif after the renowned nineteenth-century furniture maker Duncan Phyfe. As he works, Breed describes the cuts, the tools, and the intricate and highly refined methods and behind each move, bringing the age-old art form to life.

Allan Breed, The Breed School of Fine Woodworking

Learn more about the exhibition Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York:

Learn more about Duncan Phyfe on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History:

Learn more about the newly reopened American Wing at the Met:

ALLAN BREED: This is a Duncan Phyfe bow knot and thunderbolt crest. So what I'm going to do is cut in around this bow knot right here, and separate that from the background. And so I'm chopping in. I'm going to use different size gouges for this. These gouges are just different sweeps, meaning the curve on them is different. And these gouge cuts will all meet seamlessly and create the illusion that this is a piece of ribbon. I'm actually using the tools to design as I go. They really create the forms, and so this is a sequence of cuts that's repeatable. If I do another one and I use the same combination of tools, my design will essentially be the same.

So once I cut in around the edge, I'm going to just make a little relief cut, here, to give me my depth. I'm taking a V tool—I'm just going to go around the edge here—give me a nice, clean line. And I'm pivoting around my fingers. This is low-relief carving; you don't need much carving to get a good shadow. It requires a great deal of skill. It's quite a bit easier to get that relief that you need when you have more depth. I've always got my hand resting on the work. This is the brake, and then pushing it is the gas, and I've always got the brake and the gas on at the same time so that I can stop this cut wherever I want to, but I've still got plenty of power. Mahogany's a hard wood.

Basically carving in its simplest form is taking a tool with a specific shape, pushing it through the wood, and getting that shape. So if I want a flat surface, I need to use a straight tool.

So the next thing I'm going to do is clean up these thunderbolts a little bit, just so I know where they're passing under, and then reappearing on the other side. And I will cut along the outside edge here, just to give me a little advantage when I go to take the background down. And then I'll go in with a relatively flat gouge, and back this background out. And if I go across the grain, it's a lot safer cause I don't have to worry about the grain ripping out on me. It's really important to have an assortment of tools, because on any one carving, there might be one particular part of the carving that can really only be accomplished efficiently with a particular tool.

Their carvers are probably going to do this element in a little over an hour, I'm guessing. And the advantage, of course, that they have over me is that they were doing this motif over and over again. For years at a time, they might be carving very shallow relief carving like this on furniture, and so you just get so good at it when you're doing the same motif over and over that it goes very, very fast. And the details are done just with such precision there's no—there aren't any wasted cuts, you can tell that every cut they did had a purpose, and they probably just made it once and it was done. With carvers, there's always going to be a carver that's just starting out, and then there are going to be carvers that have been doing it for years and so, you know, when you see variations coming out of the same shop, it's really just the different experience levels of the different carvers, and you would expect that.

I'm trying to model this knot. This dives down, this part of the knot under that, and then this one—this cut wants to be more like here, and this one dives down under that one.

The interesting part is that you're making something look like something it isn't. And it's artifice—it's art and artifice. You're making wood look like ribbon. Once it reaches a certain point, then you start to believe that it's not wood anymore.

So I'm starting to model this ribbon, and I'm going to give it a few cuts to make it ripple a little bit. So the ribbon is coming over and it's rolling like this. So on the outside, I'm going to round the outside over as if it's taking that little flip, like so. What Phyfe did on his was he took a little cut in here, and then he rolled the ribbon. He's got a high spot in here, a low spot here, a low spot there, so now I'll just do the same thing. I'm taking an almost flat gouge, and I'm just going to pretend I'm the ribbon and come up here and dip down, and roll around the back, and this will give it a little bit of life as it passes over the thunderbolts.

The carving right now is probably about a third done. After I take the whole carving down to this point, I would go back at the very end, and clean up everything with scrapers and carving tools to get rid of any little facets in the work—scrape it smooth to the point where it'd be a finished carving.

Produced and Directed by Christopher Noey

Director of Photography: Wayne de la Roche | Editor: Corinne Colgan | Gaffer: Dave Hallas | Sound Recording: Fred Burnham | Production Assistant: Seth Uhlin | Scholarly Consultant: Peter Kenny

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