Industry Tips

Are you stamping too deep? 

By Jeremiah Watt 

For many the thought would be, “Too deep, how can that be? I thought we judged good carving by how deeply it is executed?” 

While quite a bit of the above statement is true, it is not all true. Certainly we can cut too deep with our swivel knife in a vain attempt to achieve real deep carving, poor cutting in combination with striking the tools too hard or poor tool maneuvering. The presence of some, or all, of these attributes leads to a loss of depth and character in our carved designs. Let me see if I can explain. 

The bulk of the illusion of depth seen within a well-carved design is obtained thru good shading practice. Time spent learning to execute our shading work more proficiently, renders a carved product with a striking contrast between foreground and background, with leaves and flowers seeming to jump off the leather’s surface. With regard to the tool strike, some feel that they have to hit each impression with full force, thus rendering depth.  I am one of those people who feel “over-carved” comes down to two symptoms: hitting too hard and using too many tools within a design. The deeper we swivel cut, the more chance we have of creating a slight undercut while using the swivel knife and then we have a very fragile edge that collapses over time. Better we plan on cutting through 1/3 the thickness than try for 1/2 and end up with product that is deep, but lacking the character and detail of good carving. The quality of tapering within our swivel cuts is far more important than the depth of the cuts we make. 

One of the other little carving issues we see is that of stamping deeper than we cut; in other words, we stamped the tool down deeper than the depth of the cut we made. This shows up in places within the carve pattern as a white line at the base of the swivel cut. For the most part, this is an indicator of a carver pushing the tool deeper than he originally cut the pattern with his swivel knife. Once again, this is often done to attain a false sense of depth with the final carved piece, but the whole project then takes on a less professional look due to the “ghost type” white line framing much of the carved areas. 

The best and cleanest carving has the stamping matching the depth of the original swivel knife cut-in work. The tool impression depth and gradation of color rendered by the tool matches the tapering cut made by the master carver; it’s that simple. That is to say, that the carver sees ahead and plans so the cuts in those areas requiring the greatest depth and hardest tool hits will have the deepest swivel cut. All swivel cuts should taper in both width and depth over their entire length, this allows for the most graceful line formation and the most even color of stamped lines within the pattern. 

Consistent practice with the swivel knife is the first step we take towards beautiful carving. Add to that the correct size maul and stamp tools, and use those to carve to the depth established while cutting the pattern. These are the daily steps taken by those who choose to pursue leather carving as a profession and whose work is lauded as being of the finest caliber.