Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Sheetrock Carving Workshop

 A week before Thanksgiving, at my annual state conference, I taught Sheetrock Carving in a 'Friday After Dark' workshop.  These are extended, hands-on after-dinner workshops, from 8:30pm-11:00pm, though my participants didn't actually leave until almost 11:30! When I recently mentioned this workshop in the Facebook Art Teachers group, I received a lot of questions, so I thought I'd give a quickie rundown here of the process.

The two masks at the top of the post, and the landscape and cartouche below are my personal examples, made for lessons done with my 6th grade students in past years.  The two masks above were painted very differently from each other; the one on the left was done with acrylics and is covered with a coating of an acrylic gloss (it might be ModPodge; I'm not sure).  The one on the right was painted with watercolors.  It gives a very interesting and subtle effect, I think.
The landscapes were an assignment covering multiple topics: students learned about relief carving, they used perspective to create depth, and they explored working with limited color choice.  The main painting was monochromatic, using values of one color of their choice.  They were allowed to add a pop of the complementary color (in various values) in one or two places in their landscape. The piece shown above was painted with acrylics.  It is a relief carving (as are all these pieces), though unfortunately it is hard to see the relief in the photo. The kids' work on this landscape project was lovely, their color choices were unique, and unfortunately I don't seem to have a single photo of the work.  Nor do I have photos of the students' carved masks. 
 I do, however, have many photos of student cartouche carvings.  You can see them in other posts on this blog, as I've actually posted about Sheetrock carving on this blog several times before.  You can find all the other posts (including one written after a workshop a year ago, and ones with student work from prior years) by following this link.  Meanwhile, here is a sample of student cartouche carvings.
In the workshop, we began by removing the paper surface from the Sheetrock, leaving on the cardboard backing.  To remove the paper, wet the surface with a sponge, let it soak in for a minute, and begin peeling.  Repeat.  You can use your thumbs, or you can use an artgum eraser to help remove the paper.
 Once the surface paper is removed, you are ready to carve.  Students can draw their plans and trace them onto the Sheetrock (once it is dry) with carbon paper, or draw directly with pencil.  Since we did all our work in one evening, participants drew quickly with pencils or proceeded with no pre-drawing at all.
 The workshop participants had some pretty creative ideas!  There was the hammerhead dog (above) and also a mermaid bunny, which you will see pictured later in the post.  What do we use for carving tools?  Preferred tools include a variety of sizes of U and V gouges (we've used both woodcarving tools and old linoleum cutters), sharp liner tools or some other pointy tool, and also heavy duty loop tools.  Because you work with the surface moistened, the tools don't slip as easily as on linoleum, meaning it really is rare that someone gets hurt with a cutting tool.  
On Facebook, people expressed concern about dust.  This is NOT an issue.  We keep the surface of the Sheetrock moist when carving, so no dust is produced.  Yes, it is messy; NO, it is not dusty!! 
Sometimes, the material may crack or break in unintended places.  You can either attempt a repair (mix up a small batch of plaster to patch), or glue any cracks when done.  My students liked the glued cracks, because it helped make their pieces look ancient.  Sometimes, though, an unintended break may necessitate a design adjustment, as in the mouth (above and below).  The artist was quite happy with her solution! Me too; I like the open mouth much better.
When carving was done, workshop participants had a variety of paints to experiment with.  The tree below was painted with acrylic.
 While this flower was painted with watercolor.   I think both pieces are lovely!
 Yes, it's the mermaid bunny! (below, painted with watercolor)
Other techniques we experimented with included painting the peeled surface with a coating of India ink prior to carving, and then carving into it, exposing the white gypsum.  I don't have a photo of the finished piece, but once the carving is done, the exposed white gypsum can then be painted with watercolor, and the whole thing can be sealed with an acrylic gloss if desired. 
  One last thing - if you do embark on carving Sheetrock, make sure it does NOT have fiberglass or some such filament in it, or it will feel like little needles poking into your hands.  All you have to do is hold up the Sheetrock and look at the edges.  You will see tiny clear/white hairlike pieces sticking out from the edge. Look carefully; they are small and almost colorless, but nasty!!  I purchased my Sheetrock at Lowe's in smaller more manageable sheets than the wall-size (maybe 36" square?), and while it was a little more costly to buy that way, it still is a very inexpensive item. 


  1. AWESOME!! THANK YOU, Phyl! I'm so inspired, I loved that Tiki, I wanna make my own :)

    1. You could do that! Easily! But your students are too young for the sharp tools.

  2. Can I ask what sheetrock is? Im in the UK - what sort of material is it?! DO they work it with lino cutting tools - I can't see hammers and chisels anywhere!!!
    Inspiring post Phyl thanks!

    1. Jacqueline, Sheetrock is a commonly used name for drywall, or gypsum board, used for putting up interior walls in houses.

      I did mention the tools in this post, but I'll say it again - we used primarily V and U gouges, which were wood carving tools and old Lino cutting tools, plus pointed tools such as skewers, sharp liner blade tools, and even some heavy duty ceramic loop tools. Definitely NOT hammers and chisels! The gypsum board is only 1/2" to maybe 3/4" thick, so a hammer and chisel would destroy it!

  3. What size pieces did you give your 6th graders? How do you display them and keep corners intact? I love your fearless adventure into home improvement materials! I still remember seeing your awesome pop art shoes from NAEA. You are amazing.

    1. The Sheetrock is so easy to cut - just score it with a blade and it will snap with a tap. So I cut it into a variety of random sizes for my sixth graders andlet them select what they preferred. Usually when I did this project with my students, I just put out an all-staff email asking for leftover Sheetrock from home improvement projects, and I'd get a ton of scraps! Then I'd sort through it all, discarding any with fiberglass fibers, and work with the shapes and sizes that I received for free!

      As far as the corners and display, for a couple of years, I had some old Masonite shelving that had been cut wrong for my the cabinetry. I saved some to use as drawing boards, and had the rest cut to match the sizes of the Sheetrock. We glued them on which gave them a very firm surface. I think you could even do the same thing with mat board or wood scraps. Mostly they would be displayed leaning on a shelf or cabinet, though I'm sure there are creative ways to figure out how to display - maybe after gluing on a permanent surface, attaching some sort of hanger to the back? Or framing in a shadowbox?

    2. Glad you like my shoes! They are from C&C Sweden, and their shoes are made for nurses and others who spend their days on their feet, so they are supportive and comfy. I actually bought them in a uniform store! They unfortunately no longer make my comic book pattern, but they have other nice designs to choose from. And they sell orthopedic socks too ;)

  4. Sooo digging these! I love the process~

  5. I've even had young students 'carve' these with old ballpoint pens or Popsicle sticks as tools. BE SURE you don't have fiberglass embedded sheetrock. I see that Phyl has mentioned it above, but it is nasty!!! Kids can get splinters scratching their hands as they try to remove the paper coating. (experience! ugh.) Luckily, it is easy to avoid as long as you know to look out for it.