Doing | Plate Carving with Cat Moore

Ukibori-zaiku (浮き彫り細工) meaning relief carving

Image of Doing | Plate Carving with Cat Moore
Wednesday, December 02 2020

Drawing her inspiration from scenic places- her beloved Northumberland, Cumbria and the islands of Scotland- the printmaker and artist Cat Moore captures the rugged, the mystical, the wonderful and wild. A storyteller at heart, she knows how to bring a picture to life through mark making.

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Cat’s normal print technique is through carving linocut but sometimes she likes to dabble in woodcut, which made her a natural choice to try out our Japanese plate carving kit. You may have heard of ukiyo-e, printing from carved blocks of wood. But flip and reverse it and you have ukibori-zaiku (浮き彫り細工): carving into wood to create decorative pieces in their own right.

There’s a real beauty to tactile, hand-chiselled wood: each knife impression showing the mark of the maker’s hand. In this, the first of our guest maker series, Cat shares her tips and shows what is possible with just the tools in our carving kit, plus a pencil, paper and some imagination…

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Unboxing

A real treat. Everything I needed was inside this neat little letterbox-sized package. Instructions, a razor sharp woodcutting tool, sandpaper, cloths and wax, and the all important block of katsura wood. All I needed was to have a think about my design, and scribble some ideas down on paper.

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Inspiration

To pay tribute to the woodcut masters, I decided to look at the works of the great Katsushika Hokusai as a jumping off point for my plate. I love the way he so effortlessly conveys light and life in his prints. In the end I drew inspiration from two prints: The South Wind Dispels the Clouds and Shower at the Foot of the Mountain, both from his 36 Views of Mount Fuji series of woodcuts. I decided not to try to overfill my design with fine detail – the Japanese carving tool is pretty broad. I thought a shallow bowl shape in the centre of my block would be spot on for holding those tiny delicious Japanese party snacks (you know the ones I mean? Wasabi peanuts and tiny rice crackers), and I’d edge it with a border, drawing on Hokusai’s awesome cloud motifs.

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Next, design.

I drew round my block on a piece of paper so I could get my design just so. You don’t have to do this. Draw straight onto the block if you like. Keep your pencil marks fine and you can rub them out, but press too hard and they’ll leave a mark which you will need to sand out later on. One way to make things easier is to trace your design in pencil directly on to the block.

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Preparation

I drew the outline of where my ‘bowl’ would sit and used washi tape to give a depth guide on the cutting tool, so I didn’t end up cutting through the bottom of the block. To do this, stand your tool sharp end down on a flat surface next to your wood block and wrap the washi tape around the blade slightly below the top level of the block. As you carve away, standing the tool blade end down inside the depression you cut in the plate will then tell you whether you’re close to the bottom of the block or not.

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Practice

I will admit here that I am a bit of a creative hoarder, so I had a spare block of regular birch ply hanging around which I used to practice carving and gouging on, but by all means practice directly on the plate. I used the central area of my block to finesse using my tool, as I knew that whole bit would end up being removed anyway.

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The instructions advise you to hold the carving tool a bit like a pen, but I prefer holding it a bit like a fork in the palm of my hand: it gives you much better control. I use mushroom-handled tools in my normal work, so this is second nature to me, but I appreciate it feels a bit odd the first time you try it. I used the tool both ways for comparison, and honestly, holding it under the palm wins hands down for control of marks and movement.

And always always point the sharp end of the tool away from yourself and your other hand. If you need to change position, turn the block NOT yourself. Getting a cut from a carving tool is no fun.

Then you’re ready to get going. Katsura wood is a dream to carve: it cuts like butter with the tool which comes with the kit. The wood is so lovely that you’ll be flying in no time at all and I’ve learned a few new tricks which I will take back into my printmaking practice.

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We interrupt this tutorial for a brief interlude with my studio assistant Meg the Cat.

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Carving

Keep going slowly and carefully, with small, shallow gouges. Carving the wood changes depending on the direction of the grain, so be aware of that as you work. You’ll find it cuts more smoothly when you go with the grain as opposed to when you’re cutting across it, and the wood shaves differently for you. This sounds like nonsense, but once you get going you’ll see what I mean.

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Another handy tip I found is to carve the depression from the outside edges working towards the centre, as it allows for a crisper and more controlled rim. You also don’t have to get everything perfect on your first go, and any slips or mistakes can be sanded out of the wood once the bulk of the carving has been done. Rough it out first, and have another pass over to get things just right.

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I also ran a graphite stick lightly over the carving surface of my block. It provided a little bit of contrast so I could easily see what I was doing as I carved, and I erased it at the end.

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If you don’t have any graphite, another tip is to take a rubbing using thin paper and a pencil, to see how your design is developing.

Finishing

Once I was happy with my carve, I used an eraser to get rid of any graphite marks on the surface and started sanding the small details, until the piece was clean.

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Then I used one of the two cloths provided in the kit and wiped the whole bowl down with warm water to remove any sawdust and fingerprints. I left the block to dry before using the second cloth to rub in the beeswax polish. Once the wax had sunk in for a few minutes, I used the other end of the cloth to buff it up and remove any excess wax.

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Eh voilà, the finished piece! Fill it with snacks (it’s all totally food safe) and go see what’s happening on Netflix.

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The cat has her eye on it…seems to love the wax…

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