Painting Woodcarvings
With Oil Paints
Painting a woodcarving, if you choose to paint it at all, is often a "make or break" final step. A bad paint job can ruin an otherwise great woodcarving, just as a great paint job can enhance an otherwise mediocre woodcarving. Below I let you in on my techniques for painting a woodcarving using oil based paints.
A. Preparing the carving
Before I apply stain or paint to a carving I always look it over and clean up any loose chips or "fuzzies". I think that a clean looking carving is one of the most important things a woodcarver can strive for. After cleaning up the carving I then lightly go over the whole thing with a very fine, almost worn out, piece of sandpaper. I'm not trying to remove the carving marks as much as I'm trying to "polish" the woodcarving, so that it will accept the stain more evenly.

B. Applying the stain
Unlike a lot of carvers, I apply the stain to the bare wood, without pre-staining or sealing it with sanding sealer. I think that the light sanding beforehand, along with the type of stain I use, allows me to do this without having the stain appear "blotchy" or uneven. I use Minwax Wood Finish, which is a stain and sealer combined. The color I use the most on my woodcarvings is golden oak. I have always had good luck with this brand of stain and sealer, and I see no reason not to keep using it.
C. Preparing to Paint
Before we begin the painting process I thought I might tell you my goals for a successfully painted woodcarving. I want to add color, without hiding the grain of the wood. I want everyone who looks at the finished carving to know that it was done in wood. This is why I like to spray the woodcarving with Deft clear gloss Wood Finish after staining. This sort of double seals the wood prior to painting, keeping the paint from soaking into the wood too fast, yet still allowing it to adhere to the carving. After the Deft has dried I lightly go over the carving with #0000 steel wool to smooth it up and remove the high gloss.

D. Painting
I use oil paints exclusively on my woodcarvings. I apply the oil paints with a dry brush lightly dabbed with paint. Because of the processes before painting, the oil paint will spread over a large area very evenly if applied with a light touch. I like to paint from the top down, one area at a time. The reason I start from the top is that this allows me to rest my hand on the carving without smudging the paint or getting me real messy. The reason I do only one area at a time is because I immediately wipe off each area after applying the paint to remove any excess paint and to smooth out the painted area. If, after wiping the paint off, it is not as bright as I want, I simply apply another light coat of paint, repeating the process until I get the desired look. Notice the coat on the Indian at the upper right, this is how it appeared before wiping the paint off. Now look at the picture of the Indian's coat on the left. Notice there is still the basic color, yet the grain of the wood is still visible, and the darker color has stayed in the folds and creases of the carving.

E. Shading
Once the whole carving is painted I add a little extra shading to the areas which have sharp contrasts and need a little separation, such as between each feather, along the arms, the folds in the clothing, and under the fringe and coat. I use burnt umber oil paint, again with a dry brush lightly dabbed with paint, to do the shading. This also leaves the carving with a slight antiqued look. I will even do a little shading between the fingers. I think that the shading really helps the various features of the woodcarving to stand out.

F. A Little Extra Something
I always like for my carvings to kind of "stand out from the crowd" so to speak. One of the ways I have done this is to, from time to time, add a little war paint. This is of course up to the artist, and it should be carefully done so as not to overpower the rest of the carving.

G. The Final Touch
After the painting and shading is done I want to make my finished woodcarving durable and protected as much as possible for a lifetime of enjoyment for whoever ends up with it. To do this I apply two more coats of Deft Clear Gloss Wood Finish, either by spraying or painting it on with a fine brush. I like the gloss because it seems like a little harder finish to me. If you don't like the glossy look you can either lightly go over the dried final coat of Deft with #0000 steel wool or instead use semi-gloss Deft for the final two coats. I always feel the carving after the final coat of Deft to see if it feels smooth to the touch. If I need to, I lightly go over it with the fine steel wool and spray it again, repeating this as much as it takes to produce a smooth yet durable finish.

Well, that's how I do it. I'm not saying my way is the best or only way. I'm just saying that after 10 years of producing woodcarvings for a living, this is what works for me.