Carving a Fan for Your Next Piece of Furniture
The Carved Fan in Furniture
Carvings found on 18th furniture are sometimes an ostentatious display of vines and leaves which cover nearly every exposed surface of the chair or chest to which they’re applied. I’ve always had a greater appreciation for minimal amounts of carving that accentuate a furniture piece rather than dominate it. In my mind, a carving should become part of the overall design. Carved feet, finials, table edges or drawer fronts all add a small degree of embellishment without overwhelming the rest of the piece.
One of my favorite carvings has always been the simple fan (Photo 1). New England craftsmen of the 18th century obviously liked it too. Judging by a study of the antiques of the period, the fan was perhaps the most commonly used carved element. There were a number of design variations; some were even a 360 degree pinwheel. And in fact, some Boston chests feature a carving of a virtual folding paper fan complete with the sticks and paper folds (Photo 2).
When compared to other furniture carvings of the period, the fan is one of the easiest, perhaps the easiest to carve. Adding a fan to your next project is a great way to become introduced to this aspect of the craft. And unlike many furniture carvings, layout is simple, and carving a fan only requires a few tools. In this article I’ll demonstrate the steps that I used to carve three matching fans for the gallery of a New Hampshire desk that I recently completed (Photo 3).
Carving Fan Layout
Before making the first cut, I create a full-scale drawing of the carving to ensure that I’m satisfied with the proportions and details. Then I’ll often take it a step further and carve a prototype. For example, before carving the fan into the three drawer fronts for the desk, I first took a few minutes to carve a basswood sample. I like being able to see the carving in three-dimensional form; this ensures that every detail is in proportion and works toward the success of the final design. Afterwards I used the sample as a guide when carving the drawer fronts.
Like many period fans, this fan is positioned toward the center of the drawer front instead of on the lower edge. The area directly below the fan is hollowed and this design element is carried through to the drawer divider and into the drawer below. The effect is called blocking, and it’s a great way to catch the light, and break up an otherwise flat, boring surface while adding a bit of detail.
The initial stage of carving the fan is to use a large gouge and scoop out a shallow bowl or recess in which the fan details will be carved. The area directly below the fan is scooped out just a bit deeper to create the blocked effect and make the fan stand proud.
The first step is to lay out the arc of the fan and the depth to which it is scooped out (Drawing One). I draw cross-hairs at the center point and use a compass to draw the arc (Photo 4). As you layout the arc, notice that there are actually two large arcs of different radii spaced 1/4″ apart. The space between the two is used to create an array of small arcs at the ends of the lobes. However, for now it is sufficient to draw the two large arcs; if you take the time to lay out the individual lobes you’ll lose the layout lines in the initial stage of carving.
Notice from the drawing that the arcs stop at the centerline and the layout line extends downward in a straight line to the lower edge of the drawer front.
Click link to view drawing of fan: Drawing One
Next, I use a marking gauge to create incised lines on the lower edge of the drawer front that indicate the depth of the carving (Photo 5). Unlike a pencil line, the incised lines create a distinct depth line to which to carve. There are two depth lines, the first is the fan and the second is the deeper blocked area below the fan. Now I’m ready for the initial stage of carving.
Carve a Shallow Bowl
With the initial layout complete, I begin carving by scooping out a shallow bowl. The key, as with any carving, is to keep an eye on grain direction. Carving with the grain is easiest but not always possible. However, if the carving gouges are sharp, a smooth finish can be created by carving across the grain. Carving against the grain typically causes the wood fibers to tear and splinter.
I use a #5, 30mm gouge to create the bowl (Photo 6). The curvature of the #5 is a perfect sweep for the edges of the fan. Starting at the lower edge of the drawer, I carve upwards and across the grain toward the apex of the arc. At the apex the grain changes direction and I repeat the process from the opposite side. As I carve, I’m careful to blend the two series of cuts at the center for a seamless transition. The first cuts are heavy and somewhat aggressive in order to remove a lot of wood.
As I approach the perimeter I take smaller cuts and gradually work up to the arc (Photo 7). The scribed layout line on the lower edge is my stopping point for the depth of the bowl.
To finish this first stage of the fan I remove small shavings all across the carving (photo 8).
This minimizes the depth of the facets and smoothes the surface for the next step (Photo 9). You may be tempted to sand this surface but I encourage you to avoid sandpaper; the small particles of grit left behind will dull your tools when you continue the carving process.
Carve the Blocked Area
The next step is to carve the blocked area directly below the bowl. First I mark the line at the base of the fan with a marking gauge (Photo 10). This provides me with a clear stopping point as I carve the recess.
Because most of this surface is flat, I use a #2, 12mm to remove much of the material (Photo 11).
The #2 has a very slight curvature which prevents the corners of the chisel from gouging. I switch to a #7, 14mm gouge to carve the curves at each end. A 1” wide, flat bench chisel can be used to create the vertical wall at the base of the fan (Photo 12). Now the carving is ready for the next step of lay out.
Lay Out the Lobes
With the bowl and blocked area complete the next stage of the carving is to layout each of the individual lobes. To find the location of each lobe, I use small dividers and step off the arc into ten equal divisions (Photo 13).
Keep in mind that a larger fan will require more divisions. I settle on the exact number of lobes during the design phase. Too many lobes appear crowded and each lobe lacks sufficient taper for an attractive appearance. Too few lobes creates a provincial appearance.
Next, I use a straightedge and a sharp pencil to mark each line. Once I’ve checked the layout for accuracy I mark each line with a knife (Photo 14). Unlike a pencil line, the incision made by the knife guides the gouge in the next step.
Carve the Vees
The next step is to separate the lobes with vee cuts (Photo 15). Afterwards, the lobes are created by rounding over the surface into the vee cuts. Keep in mind that as the lobes converge at the center of the fan each vee cut is very shallow. Also, the vee cuts don’t actually intersect. Instead, once the carving is complete a small brass pull is fastened to the drawer front at the center of the fan.
Using a #12, 6mm vee gouge I start by carving down each incision toward the center point. Rather than cut one vee in its entirety I first make a shallow vee at each incision. As I deepen each vee I check for spacing and make corrections as necessary. When this stage of the carving is complete the vees will each be tapered in width and depth as they converge toward the center of the fan (Photo 16). In the next stage I’ll often find it necessary to deepen the vees but that’s preferable to carving too deep initially.
Round the Lobes
I find that rounding the lobes is the most enjoyable part of the carving. It’s at this step that the fan takes its form and all your effort pays off (Photo 17).
Because you’ll be carving details inside of a shallow bowl the best gouge is a #25 backbent. As the name implies, this unusual gouge is forged in a backwards shape. I used three sizes: a 6, 8 and 10mm. As the lobe converges you’ll need to switch to a narrower gouge.
You’ll likely find that it’s easiest to round the horizontal lobes at the base of the fan and the vertical lobes at the center. The grain is easiest to read and cuts cleanest in these two areas. The challenge is the lobes in between. The grain in these lobes usually runs in the opposite direction on each edge of each individual lobe. The key is to keep the gouge very sharp, take light cuts, and watch the changes in the grain. Although much of the carving begins at the perimeter and works downward toward the center point of the fan, when the grain direction changes it’s easier to carve upward toward the perimeter (Photo 18). Once again, the key is light cuts with a sharp tool.
With care, sharp tools, and a bit of practice you’ll be able to create smooth rounded surfaces with only a few tiny facets.
Carve the Terminus
The final step of carving the fan is to create the double arch detail at the end of each lobe. This small detail adds a lot of interest to the fan and catches light to create an attractive series of undulating shadow lines.
Using a #7, 14mm gouge I make the first cut while holding the chisel at about a forty-five degree angle (Photo 19).
To make the second cut which completes the detail, the chisel is held vertically (Photo 20). The two cuts meet and a small chip pops out to create a crisp arcing recess. It’s that easy. However, you may want to practice a few times on some scrap wood to get a feel for the cuts.
The fan is now ready for very light sanding and a finish (Photo 21).