November 3, 2021

Carving Ripples in Wood

While many people like the idea of carving ripples in wood, the process of doing so is generally not something that comes naturally to them. This woodworking project is both enjoyable and rewarding, but you’ll want to learn the right techniques, tools, and methodologies that will allow you to carve ripples in wood with ease.

Designing the ripple

Ripples evolve around surfacing fluid dynamics. The inspiration came from a heavy summer southern rain on calm water. Taking a look at the ripples from every angle gives a poetic motion to your item. 

Using a natural finish on ripples makes your item suit contemporary spaces or a more traditional environment. Ripples made of high-quality birch required light sanding and sealing up to three times after milling. Wavy styles are popular in both furniture and ceramics.


  1. Draw a pair of wavy lines at the bottom to suggest a stream. The horizontal lines should be on a flat surface area as they start at one ripple line and continue around the item. Do not match the lines and do not space them evenly. 
  2. The space between wavy lines has to curve gently, representing a flowing stream. 
  3. Cut the lines you have drawn using a rotary tool and wheel-shaped bur. Use a wheel with a narrow diameter.
  4. Cut a groove along each of the lines you have drawn.
  5. Reduce one side of each ripple.
  6. Using an inverted cone bur, place the edge of the bur into the groove. 
  7. Reduce the shell and let the ripple swell.
  8. Cut each ripple the same way.
  9. Do not worry yourself over bumpy areas since it is easy to smoothen. Use a hand file to flatten the edges and the bumps or a drum sander.
  10. Get rid of the tool marks using a hand sander. 
  11. Use finer sandpaper to smoothen the surface and blend the surrounding areas of the ripple. 
  12. Cut an offset at the top of each ripple.
  13. Cut a short line down the side of each ripple.
  14. Cut downward diagonally across each ripple to the adjacent ripple.
  15. Sand and smoothen the cut edges.
  16. Spray with paint to finish.

Carving the ripple

Take a look at water and photos of water with various sorts of ripples as you prepare yourself. Draw the linear elements on one side of a piece of tracing paper, and do the shading on the other side. The shading guides you to the depth of the relief carving and helps you sort out the positive and negative parts of the carvings. 

You have a visual of what you want, and you can still make adjustments. I have carved very little water as a theme on wood. A subtle stain is ideal for the carving when completed and ready for the finish. Test on scrap material of the same material and decide from which angle and perspective the ripple will be portrayed.

As you plan to design your ripple, collect as many photos of water ripples as you can. Draw the ripple up and down with light and dark areas guiding you. Decide what kind of ripples you want. 

Choose from concentric rings from a pebble or fish jump breaking smooth water, or slight breeze to breeze ripples, or river movement ripples, or river and breeze ripples, or ripples that go around grasses or river plants. Figure out how to carve the ripples by identifying the up and down, the angle of view and perspective, or straight overhead. 

Sanding the ripple

Mark out all the spots to be sanded with a pencil. Once the pencil disappears, you have sanded far enough, and you can move on to the next step. When done with your chosen grit, put down more pencil marks, and move on to the next grit.

 The sequence is as follows: 60-80-120-240-320 grit. Using a sander that attaches to the grinder yields better results. Choose one with a flexible sanding pad so you do not lose all your details. As compared to the mini-turbo sanding pad, it is not that good for final shaping.

Arbortechs tools have a long shaft that tends to have a bit more vibration transfer through the handle. That is why you may have to look into getting a specific type of glove or wrap for those tasks. For sanding, use a random orbit or hand sand. 

Apply a wash of white paint and wipe to highlight the grain. Apply spackle to the top as a filler and add a highlight to the grain. Hand scrap with the grain as you apply six coats of finish. The ratio is 1/3 each turpentine, spar varnish, and tung oil.  The finish gives a beautiful appearance when the light shines at a certain angle. You start seeing ripples in the finish, and the whole item becomes smooth.

Applying a clear coat over the ripple

The wood is filled with a paste wood grain filler before finishing. Just in case you forget, you can still take multiple coats and wet sand between coats with 220 grit paper. That allows the finish to fill the grain. You have to get enough in the grain to fix the problem. 

700 grit gives you better results before your final coat. However, it is not aggressive enough to get rid of the unevenness of the finish. Get a sprayer to apply the finish for better results. Less effort is required, and as you are sanding between finishes, you are also removing the marks made by the brush.

The panels receive the  OSMOs Wood Wax in black very well.  However, rubbing it on using white Scotch-Brite pads does not leave enough product behind for the desired result. You might end up using a 4mm nap microfibre roller to get the coverage you want. Using the 700 grit paper allows you to get the ripple effect from your clear coat. 

Make sure you work it out, although you end up with many coats added to the project for a final smooth finish. It gives you a glass, smooth finish. Use your way to finish out your clear coat using polyurethane. 

Sometimes they slowly come out with light sanding in between the thin coats. Use fine paper and a buffing wheel to get the glass effect U, and uses a soft, fine brush for better results. There are variations in the finish as it fills in the grain depths. 

Make use of mineral spirits to thin the media and use a smooth cloth folded in a pad and wipe on thin applications. Wait for each part to cure and sand with 320grit.  Start wet sanding to higher grits with wet-or-dry silicon carbide paper and water. When you sand out to about 1500x, you can rub with a rubbing compound, and then polishing compound if you want that high gloss piano type finish.

David D. Hughes
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