Making a Traditional Icon Panel

Icon panel with dovetail batten.

Working with wood to make a panel remains something I love about making traditional orthodox icons. Maybe it’s the smell of the cut wood, which always takes me back to my Grandfather’s woodshop where we built things together when I was a child. Or, maybe it’s the fact that there’s always something more to learn about wood and I love the challenges it presents. Or, maybe it’s uncovering the beauty of the grain in the stock lumber I begin with. Regardless, I love it when my work calls me into the woodshop.

This week I needed to begin making panels for four new icons. Climbing up into the area above my studio where I keep the wood also meant reliving the trip to harvest last winter. It began when my son and I visited my Mennonite friend, Walter. He had known that I needed to cut down a linden tree because my stock was getting low. He called and invited me to meet him at a small stand of such trees on a corner of his farm. These trees were the children of some very old, large lindens which he remembers from his childhood.

We worked for an afternoon and after the tree was slabbed and dried the lumber came back to my studio to await its use. Climbing up there last week I sorted through the pile and found the lengths of clear, straight lumber I’d need to make my panels.

Working in the woodshop for a few days lead to all kinds of chances for thinking and praying. More and more I’ve been creating a similar size of board, and with those dimensional decisions decided I’ve found that the work allows for a much deeper focus. Instead of recalculating proportions each time, I’m able to enjoy each length of wood as I plane, join and shape it.

Of course, there’s also a joy in seeing the work take its final form and these boards took a beautiful shape. Over the years I’ve experimented with a lot of different ways of making a panel. From working only with hand tools to renting time in a friend’s woodshop to use his modern machines. I’ve come to a place where I think the best of both worlds are working in concert for me. But, it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve felt like my tools are become an extension of my hands. I no longer push the panel through my table saw, I cut the panel. This means that I listen a lot more to the wood as I work and am able to see how it lives a lot more clearly. In the end, that awareness helps create a good panel.

Now in the next few months with God’s help, and the support of angelic whispers and the faithful’s prayers, I’ll paint images of St. Abba Kyrillos VI, Saint Isidore the Farmer, Saint Vincent de Paul, and Saint Malo for those waiting for the icons I promised them. In doing such work, I’ve always believed in the importance of a good foundation in any work. These will have that support for centuries to come.

1 thought on “Making a Traditional Icon Panel”

  1. Wow, I’m impressed! How beautiful. I am taking your workshop on writing icons next year, and know that I will have lots to learn from you. I don’t think I’ll ever be making my own panels though!


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