by: Fred Key

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I have been asked many times for the painting secrets that I use on my many characters and caricatures. The techniques that I have developed over the years are really quite simple. If you will follow these simple directions you will produce superior carvings every time.

Cleaning the Carving

If the carving is dirty, it can be cleaned as follows:

  1. Draw some warm water in a sink and add 2-3 drops of liquid dishwashing detergent.
  2. Do not submerge the carving! Instead dip an old toothbrush in the soapy water and scrub the carving.
  3. When done, turn on the spigot and rinse the carving to remove all soapy residue.
  4. Immediately towel off all water and blot the carving. Let dry overnight.

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Sealing the Carving

Not all carvings will be sealed, but porous wood types (pine, fir, and even basswood) will accept paint more evenly if sealed. This is important if you are striving for a soft even look. If the piece is small and you want it to be fully colored (i.e., Christmas ornaments) then this step may not be necessary.

  1. Use a spray with very low percentage of shellac. Zinsser Bulls-Eye Shellac Sealer & Finish works very well. Shellac content is only 12%. I have been able to obtain a supply at Ace Hardware stores and some True Value stores.
  2. Find a calm area outside of the house. Hold spray can approximately 12" from the carving and apply one coat to all surfaces. Use a sweeping motion and do not allow the spray to pool in any one area.
  4. Allow to dry at least 2 hours (overnight if possible).

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Eliminating Raised Grain

Washing and spraying may raise the grain slightly. Use a steel wool pad to eliminate glossy areas and areas with raised grain (fuzzies). The carving is now ready to paint.

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Painting with Acrylics

Acrylics are water based paints and are sold in either liquid form or in a tube. A wide variety of colors are available including fleshtones and Christmas colors. This is helpful and reduces the amount of mixing to obtain the desired tone. Acrylics are rarely applied directly and should be thinned with water (even liquid forms). The exact ratio is not important, but a mixture of three parts water to one part paint is about right. The goal is to create a translucent water based stain that will enhance your carving, not hide it.

A pre-sealed basswood carving will take approximately two coats. Additional coats may be added depending on the desired effect.


Occasionally you will want to highlight features (rosy nose, sunburned cheeks, etc.). This is accomplished through blending, usually during the final coat.

  1. First, apply a normal wet coat of paint to the area (cheek or nose).
  2. Switching to a dry brush (any soft bristle brush), lightly dip the end bristles into the color to be blended. Immediately dab the brush into a paper towel to eliminate excess paint which may have been picked up.
  3. While the surface is still wet, use the blending brush to apply highlight. The result is a soft blending of one color into another (e.g., cadmium red can be used on noses).

Dry Brushing

Dry brushing is a technique that is used to highlight areas that were previously painted and have not dried. You might use this technique to add gray streaks to the hair or to paint a stubble beard. On an old hobo with a graying beard, I would paint the entire face, including the beard, with fleshtone. Later, I would dry brush white across the stubble area. A black stubble beard could also be done the same way. When dry brushing, use a stiff, short bristle brush. Load your brush (dab off any excess on a paper towel) and apply the paint across the raised stubble or hair).

Cleaning Brushes

Cleaning brushes immediately after use will allow the same brush to be used in other areas and for other colors. It also eliminates mistakes. Rinse the brush thoroughly and shake the water from the tip. This also forces the bristles to realign themselves in a pointed position. Place the clean brush on a paper towel or in a brush holder.

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When the carving is completed it is also sealed. Applying an oil based antiquing will not spoil your work. Instead, it will enhance it by softening the bright colors and providing definition. The dark antiquing will flow into the bright recesses (e.g., eye lids, edges of the mouth, buttons, belt buckles, etc.). Most of the antiquing will be removed by brushing or wiping. However, the antiquing in deep areas will stay and provide much needed contrast. This allows important detail features to be easily seen.

With a dry brush, or a brush dipped in paint thinner, it is possible to remove nearly all the antiquing that was applied. Since the carving was already sealed, it will not absorb most of the antiquing. You are in control and can decide how much to leave. A thin coat rubbed into the carving will have a softening effect. This is important if you are trying to show aging or wear. If you want the colors to remain bright, but need the contrast it certain areas, use the finish selectively.

Antiquing (brown or black) can be obtained from most hardware stores. A quart will last a very long time. Place a small amount of the thick antique mix in a small cup and thin with boiled linseed oil, available at craft and hardware stores. The mixture is simply brushed over top the painted surface (requires total coverage). Larger, stiffer bristle brushes work best to apply the mixture. Keep a second brush on hand to remove most of the mixture. Use a brush dipped in a paint thinner to brush out unwanted mix that exists in hard to reach areas.

The oil based mix will give your carving additional protection and a soft glow. Periodically, you can freshen it up by brushing a light coat of linseed oil on the entire surface and rubbing it with a soft cloth.

Antiquing is an option that you may not want to use. If you like bright colors, you may not want to soften them by antiquing. On the other hand, it may be just what you need to finish carving that Old World Santa.

Good Luck!

If I can be of any help I can be reached at (770) 993-3290.

Fred Key
Roswell, Georgia

-- Printed in The Southeastern Carver, December 1996

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N o t e s


1. You can paint oil based mediums over acrylics, or water based mediums.
2. DO NOT paint acrylic mediums over oil based mediums. The oil based mediums bleed through the water based mediums.
In Fred Key's article in the last issue he referred to an antiquing stain that could be purchased in local hardware stores. Unfortunately this material is no longer available. An experienced (senior citizen type) paint salesman at a local outlet provided me with the following recipe for making your own:
1. Mix equal portions of Japan Dryer and linseed oil with about 4 oz. of turpentine and color with oil based artist color.
2. Proceed as per Fred's instructions.

If wish to purchase ready made, Ivan Whillock's Catalog still offers an antiquing glaze.

-- Printed in The Southeastern Carver, March 1997.

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Updated: 2001-01-12


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