How to Create Texture on a Sculpture: Six Examples for Chainsaw Carvers

People often ask why I don’t use any kind of colour or finish on my sculptures (I explain that a bit here). I’m also often asked how I create certain effects on my sculptures. If you’ve ever wondered about either (or both!) of these things, this is the blog for you! Keep reading for some hints and tips to create texture on a sculpture using power tools alone…

sculptor Simon O'Rourke in his workshop Adding texture to a duck using a Stihl chainsaw
Adding texture to a duck sculpture

Some General thoughts on Texture

When the ancient Greeks and Romans sculpted marble, they developed a number of techniques for creating different textures to make their sculptures look realistic. We’ve often associated those sculptures with clean, natural surfaces. However, in the last few decades we’ve discovered that they often painted the sculptures in garish colours! If it interests you, you can find out more about the original sculpture colours HERE or HERE. I’ve never been a fan of painted sculptures though – although some do it very well.

a photo showing side by side images of the sculpture Augustus of Prima Porta. one is the colourless sculpture we see today, the other is recreated with its original garish colours.
Comparison of Augustus of Prima Porta now and with original colours

In addition to my own aesthetic preferences, when it comes to my own sculptures, there are also very practical issues. Most of my sculptures are outdoor pieces, subjected to the elements. One of the issues with¬†using paint is that without regular maintenance and care, it will wear off. This leaves a messy-looking¬†sculpture. So, rather than use paint, I use a range of techniques to enhance the contrast between surfaces. This then creates shadow, leaving a sculpture that will still have all it’s texture and look great even when the wood is aged. The photo below from a Rembrandt project in Netherlands shows this perfectly. In fact, as the oak ages, some of the texture and shadow is even more pronounced!

an aged oak sculpture of one of the watchment by Rembrandt. it is an example of how to create texture on a sculpture that will retain its detail when exposed to the elements
An aged oak sculpture shows how it retains its detail over time

As well as the practicalities, my illustration background has been an influence on my sculpture, not only in composition, but also in textures created. When sculpture is viewed in harsh light, the different surfaces meld together and it can look very flat. To compensate for this I cut deeper where the different lines meet, and leave roughened surfaces to catch the light in different ways.

So now you know some of my philosophy on colour and texture, onto some practical examples of how to create textures on a sculpture without using colour…

Chainsaw artist simon o'rourke is using one of his favourite manpatools for creating texture on sculptures. The round cutter tool is being used to add texture to flames as a phoenix rises from them.
Adding texture with the Manpatools Round Cutter

How to Create Texture on a Sculpture: Vary the Depth of Cut

Essentially creating texture or ‘colour’ on a chainsaw carved sculpture is all about varying the depth of cut. Deeper cuts create shadow which in turn creates an illusion of depth or shade. If you look at the sculpture below, you’ll see how I outline the eyeball with greater depth. The deeper cuts create shadow and a darker outline as well as the reflection in the eyes.

photo of a sculpture of half a face depicted on a rectangular piece of wood around 6' tall.

The leopard sculpture below is another great example of simply using depth and shadow. In this case, I created deep holes in clusters in a formation similar to the leopard’s ‘rosette’ pattern. Painted spots would would fade or chip and leave him with no markings. Instead, these holes will endure and even gain greater clarity so this leopard won’t be changing his his spots!!!

photo of a leopard sculpture lying on a tree. it is plain wood and the spots are created through deep holes carved into the body. it is one example of how to create texture on a sculpture by simon o'rourke

The next example of creating texture simply by cutting deeper is my Highland Cow sculpture. I made this cow in January 2023 and it took the internet by storm! Lots of people asked if I’d used heat to burn the hair markings. That can be an effective way to colour an outdoor sculpture, but in this case, it’s all chainsaw! I just went deeper following the direction the hair would be lying in. I varied the lengths and width and made the waves irregular so it mimicked hair and not stripes!

How to Create Texture on a Sculpture: Combine Cuts and Surface Texture

Texture can also be added by essentially removing thin layers from the surface of the wood rather than cutting into it, whether that’s with a chainsaw, cutter or burr bit. This is the kind of texture you see on faces I create like the one below.

close up of an elm sculpture of a woman's face. the artist is using a large flame shaped burr bit to add create texture on the sculpture

Once you feel confident making different markings with your tools you can combine different depths, directions and patterns. If you look at the Kingfisher below you’ll notice the cuts on the breast and cheeks are more shallow and lie in a different direction compared to the wings. The cuts on the bottom of the wing are deeper and further apart than the other wing feathers, which gives the impression of the long primary feathers.

wood kingfisther sculpture highlighting how to create texture on a sculpture by varying depth of cuts and pattern

How to Create Texture on a Sculpture: Line Technique

My next tip for how to create texture on a sculpture is using the line technique I used on the Case logo on my ‘Abe the Eagle’ sculpture. With this technique the lines are thin and subtle – and added just enough texture to this part of the sculpture! To create the letters I simply went back over the same lines going a little deeper. That increased shadow means the letters stand out even though there is no change indirection, colour, or hollowing out block letters.

How to Create Texture on a Sculpture: Cross Hatching

My final tip (for today’s blog anyway!) on how to create texture on a sculpture is cross hatching. Cross hatching is essentially a bunch of lines that criss-cross. Perhaps you remember doing it in a distant art class? It’s exactly the same as you did with a pencil – but with a chainsaw! Again, it’s the depth of the cut into the wood that creates the shadow which gives the impression of colour or texture. So simply carve lines in one direction with your chainsaw, then add a bunch that are perpendicular and you have cross hatching! It was a really useful technique for my recent sculpture in Abersoch where I wanted to show the different painted sections of a lighthouse, but without paint or colour.

wood sculpture of a lighthouse. it uses cross hatching to depict the red painted sections, one of many techniques that can be used to create texture on a sculpture using chainsawa alone

Tools for Creating Texture

So, what tools will you need to add texture to your sculpture?

Small battery saws like the Stihl 220 or Stihl 300 are ideal for getting up close and creating texture like the cow hair. My basic kit includes some of the Manpatools cutters which I’ve written about in my blog “Favourite Manpatools for Creating Texture on Sculptures“. I also use Saburrtooth burrs for smaller areas or things such as eyes, liplines, or nostrils. You can find out my ‘essentials’ in my blog “Favourite Tools for Carving Faces“.

Paul adding texture to this sculpture with a Stihl 200c battery saw

Practise Makes Perfect

Of course, like all things, creating beautiful texture on your sculpture takes time and practise. If you can get hold of some timber that would otherwise be thrown out, you can use it like a sketch book for chainsaws! It’s well worth the time to explore what you can do just using the concept of deeper cuts and lines. In time you’ll find certain favourites and develop a signature style that will set you apart and make your work distinct.

Whether you’re a seasoned carver or a newcomer, I hope this blog has given you some food for thought when it comes to texture.

What other things would you like to see a blog on? Drop me a comment or contact me via www.treecarving.co.uk/contact.