Carve a Christmas Elf with Justin Gordon – Part I

This three-part How-To carving series, just in time for the holidays, will guide you through the steps to Carve a Christmas Elf with accomplished multimedia carver and sculptor Justin Gordon of Groveland, Mass.

Part I will focus on blocking out the carving on the wood, Part II will detail instructions for the carving process, and Part III will show the process for painting and finishing your elf.

PART 1:  BLOCKING – 5 Steps to Prepare for Carving Your Elf

“When I find a nice picture and say ‘that would make a great carving,’ I save the picture,” Justin said. Someday is now, and the first step in this carving series is making the picture into a usable pattern.

Justin’s reference picture is shown here – a cute Santa’s helper with a long striped cap, festive tunic with jingle bells, pointy elf boots and gnome-ish features.

STEP 1 – Drawing Your Elf

Step 1 involves getting the inspiration piece onto paper to create your pattern and guide for carving. First, trace or draw the elf onto paper. Then to make a pattern from that sketch, you must make sure there’s a flat bottom to the drawing, since you will need to mount or stand it on a flat surface when it’s complete.

“This means you have to redraw the picture with a flat bottom,” Justin said. His two sketches are shown here, with the first drawing on the left and the second, “flat bottom” drawing on the right.

In the case of the elf, the feet in the reference picture are angled. The feet have to have the same plane in order to have a flat bottom for the carved piece. The rest of the picture can almost remain the same, but some minor changes can be made to accommodate your carving as you wish. “Ultimately, you just want a good front view,” Gordon said.

STEP 2 – Grain Direction

Most of Justin’s carvings have vertical grain. “The only reason I would use a horizontal grain direction is for a relief carving or if I needed structural strength in the carving that required a horizontal grain,” Justin shared.

In addition to the vertical grain, Justin always puts the grain curve convex to the face side, as seen in the photo at right, with the “flat bottom sketch” attached to a 4x6x12 piece of basswood.

“This allows me to have nice grain lines going through the face of a figure. Uniform grain lines help outline features on the face like the nose, cheeks or forehead. Concentric grain circles on those parts look great when it works out that way.”

STEP 3 – Cutting the Blank

Position the pattern appropriately on the basswood block, using either double-sided tape or a glue stick to secure it to the wood. Next, cut around the outside edges with a bandsaw, following the line of your drawing. Justin also cuts into the negative space between the elf’s tights and boots.

STEP 4 – Start Blocking

Once the raw edges of the basswood are removed, Justin says he then blocks out the major details where a lot of the wood will come off. His carving mantra is “front view, side view, round it off” – in other words, he prefers to cut the front view, then the side view, then round off the corners.

To do this, Justin takes the pattern attached to the front as his “front view” and then draws on lines that define the side view details. “I carve straight in on the detail from the front, then straight in from the side and block out the detail,” he said. This applies to every detail on the carving.

Justin notes it’s also important to NOT undercut or cut behind any detail at this stage.  The rounding off part comes later – this step is to just locate the details, not finish them. “If you finish them with an undercut or back-cut too soon, then you could lose materials behind the detail that you may wish you had kept when everything comes together where it’s supposed to be. For instance, you might realize that the arm or hand should be back a little more but because you back-cut it, you can’t move it in a little closer.”

STEP 5 – Blocking the Sides

In the photo at right, Justin illustrates how the elf’s left puffy shoulder ring, arm, hat brim and ear have been cut straight in from the side and straight in from the front, back or top to block out each detail. “This whole process is like having a rough-cut machine but a bit slower,” Justin said.

The second photo also shows how the elf’s right arm, hand, puffy shoulder, ear, nose, hat brim and pointed hem of his tunic have been cut in from the side to block out each feature.

Justin offers this reminder: “Only go as deep as the lines dictate, because in each corner of the blocking you are reaching the depths where the actual detail’s surfaces will be. You don’t want any tools marks where your finished surfaces will be.”

It’s important to understand the placement and location of your details in carving or sculpting. By following Justin’s guidelines, you can avoid having features displaced or the wrong size when you get to the final location, size and details of a feature.

This final image below shows the carving all blocked out. Justin said he rounded out the beard and face a little to show what the rounding does after all the blocking is done. We will get into more detail about that in Part II of this How-To carving series.

Tools Used: Justin primarily used these pfeil Swiss made carving tools for the blocking process:  #5 x 5mm (05D03)#5  x 10mm (05E35)#9 x 7mm (05G06), and #9 x 5mm (05G05).

“The curves are not that great when blocking so these few tools do quite well,” Justin stated.

Follow Part II of this series to see our elf come to life when Justin adds more details in the carving, and then Part III for the painting session!

To see Justin's larger-than-life sand sculptures, check out this Woodworking Adventures blog - Fun in the Sun with Ultimate Sand Sculptures.

About Justin Gordon

Justin Gordon carves and sculpts in eight mediums – wood, sand, wax, snow, ice, stone, clay and foam. He concentrates on commissioned fine woodcarved figures, architectural carvingrestorations, and custom clock casesHe teaches carving classes in Groveland and Randolph, Mass. See more of Justin’s work on his web site: and in our recent blog on his sand sculptures.

Stop in your local Woodcraft store, and let them help you with the tools, supplies and knowledge you need to start your next carving project.

We hope you’ll be inspired!

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