Deke’s Techniques 160: Hand-Carving Letters into Wood in Photoshop

160 Hand-carving letters into wood

This week, I have two very special treats for you. The first is a video in which I show you how to employ Photoshop’s Dissolve blend mode to create the effect of letters hand-carved into wood. The second is a blow-by-blow text description of the technique, complete with graphics, as written by the Content Curator for, Colleen Wheeler.

It’s an experiment, so we’re eager to hear your thoughts. But I’m guessing you’re gonna like it. Take it away, Colleen:

In this week’s free Deke’s Techniques, Deke uses Photoshop to create the effect of hand-carved letters in a wooden sign. I don’t mean embossing typed-out text into a wood background, but rather making hand-drawn letters look like they were manually carved many years ago into an old wooden sign and weathered over time. To create this effect, Deke uses a blend mode that’s fairly uncommon: Dissolve. Because it results in old-style dithered edges, Dissolve is seldom used. But for this particular effect, it provides the gritty, worn edges that we’re looking for.

I titled this week’s post “Explained” because I thought I’d show you the steps to this technique right here in the blog post. Here’s how it’s done:Starting with an old wooden sign masked against an appropriately desolate background, Deke launches his technique by hand-drawing some white letters onto their own layer using a Wacom tablet, (below).


The next step is to make the letters soft and more-or-less invisible. Deke starts by setting the Fill Opacity to 0% in the Layers panel so that the writing disappears. Next, he brings back the edges of the now invisible letters by applying a white drop shadow. To do this, click the fx icon at the bottom of the Layers panel, set the color of your drop shadow to white, then set the Opacity value to 100% and apply the Normal blend mode. In order to ensure the original characters don’t cut holes in the shadow (which will become the basis for the letters from this point on), Deke turns off the Layer Knocks out Drop Shadow check bo. Now you can see the shadow all by itself, minus the actual letters than informed it (below).


To get the dithered edge effect that will simulate the carved-then-weathered wood, Deke applies the seldom-used (and, in truth, seldom-useful) Dissolve blend mode to the drop shadow. Although Dissolve is generally dreadful looking, for this technique it’ll work great. Setting a Distance value of 0 and a Size value of 10 yields these noisy, ratty edges. Aren’t they pretty?


The next step is to turn the letters into a layer mask, so that you can ultimately make a selection that includes both the shape of the letters and the effects you’ve applied. Deke starts by creating a dynamic fill layer beneath the Go Away layer that’s filled with black. To do this, click the Sign layer to make it active (new layers appear above the one you had selected before), and then click the Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. Choose Solid Color from the pop-up menu and set the color to black. After switching to the Channels panel, it’s easy to then grab the white letters off the black background by Ctrl-clicking (Mac: Command-clicking) the RGB Channel to load the channel as a selection (again, see below).


Once Deke has the selection he wants with all its great dithery edges, he turns off the original Go Away and Black layers and duplicates the Sign layer to serve as a base for his letters. Since, in its original incarnation, this layer served to mask the sign against the background, it has a layer mask that isn’t needed (or wanted) anymore. (If this part sounds a bit dense, watch the video!) Right-clicking on the layer mask and choosing Delete Layer Mask from the contextual menu means Deke is now free to add a new Go Away-shaped layer mask to the new sign layer. Clicking the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel creates that mask based on the currently loaded selection.


Because the letters are filled with the sign and they are set against the very same sign, they’re nothing more than invisible ghostly placeholders until Deke applies some layer effects. First, the carving gets burned into the sign by applying an Inner Shadow effect. After clicking the fx icon at the bottom of the Layers panel and choosing Inner Shadow, he sets the color to a dark brown (Hue: 30, Saturation: 100, Brightness: 25), and sets the blend mode to Linear Burn, the Opacity to 50%, the Distance to 15 pixels, and the Size to 25 pixels. (The result appears below!)


To add some differentiation around the outline of the letters, Deke next adds an Outer Glow layer effect. Since the Layer Style dialog box is already open, he can just click Outer Glow from the left-hand list. After setting the color to the same dark brown used for the inner shadow (H: 30, S: 100, B: 25), he changes the blend mode to Linear Burn again, sets the Opacity at 55%, and the sets the Size to 2 pixels. Just look at this this taking shape:


Finally, Deke also applies color to the inside of the carving by clicking Color Overlay from the left-hand list of the still-open Layer Style dialog box. Using a color of H: 30, S: 75, B: 35, a blend mode of Hard Light, and an Opacity of 40%, he fills the letter area with a rich dark brown. Clicking OK at this point applies all three layer effects.


In order give the carved area an appropriate sense of depth, Deke scoots the wood grain inside the letters down by unlinking the image from its mask (that is, clicking on the chain link icon between the image and mask thumbnails) and nudges the sign image down five pixels. You can do this by clicking on the thumbnail with the sign image, holding down the Ctrl (Mac: Command) key and pressing the Down Arrow button five times in a row.


Finally, to magically turn the stray pixels around the outlines of the letters (caused by the dithering from the Dissolve blend mode) into little bits of Photoshop-simulated wood grain, Deke applies a bit of motion blur. He clicks the layer mask thumbnail to ensure that he’s only applying the blur to the mask, chooses Filter > Blur > Motion Blur, sets the angle to -3 degrees (to match the direction of the woodgrain), and a sets a Distance of 5 pixels.


To compensate for the softness created by the blur, Deke lastly applies a bit of sharpening. He chooses Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen, and then sets the Amount 100, the Radius to 1 pixel, and Remove to Lens Blur:


And here is the final effect. It’s been a long time in the making, but the result is outstanding.


To see this entire technique, in detailed action with Deke’s on-the-fly tips and insights, watch the video. Please let me know in the comments if you like this expanded combination of both text with video to explain how to pull off complex techniques.

And, of course, we don’t really want you to “go away.” Deke will be back with another technique next week.

Watch the movie and then read Colleen’s description. And then tell me that this isn’t the best damn tutorial you’ve ever seen—since you most recently woke up and ate breakfast, anyway.

Next entry:Deke’s Techniques 161: Creating a Spirograph-Like Pattern in Illustrator

Previous entry:Deke’s Techniques 158: Cloning Yourself in Photoshop


  • Can`t watch your video

    Can`t watch your video, because it says “this video is private”. I`m in Germany, if that matters.

  • Can’t watch the movie

    Can’t watch the movie, ‘cause it says “Private”, both here and on YouTube. Now what’s so private about a public sign? wink

  • Can’t watch!

    Your videotutuorial is set as private. I really want to watch it though smile

  • Should be fixed now

    Minor YouTube glitch this morning. Thanks for your patience. And do let me know if you like this “explained” version of Deke’s Techniques.

  • I Like It!

    I really like the explanation and images that go along with the video.

    Since I never can remember all the steps after watching the video, the explanation makes it easier to find the next step without all the ‘Why’ details from the video.  But I would not suggest you drop the video, having both is great.

    Keep up the great work.

  • That’s great to hear, Don!

    So glad you like the extra info. Frankly, that’s what I’d personally prefer but I never know if I’m just projecting my desires on to other people or not. Thanks for the encouragement.


  • I like having both…

    I like having both the video and the text (w/ pictures). I tend to watch videos with closed captioning. I don’t know if learn better that way, or I just like doubling up.

    I think for this video, it’s effective to have text since a lot of it is setting values.  For other types of videos, like how to draw something precisely, it wouldn’t be as effective.

  • Totally agree, kutusita!

    No way am I going to document every last step of some drawing I can’t get right in the first place!

    (Really good points.)


  • Another vote for descriptions!

    I love having the info written out.  It’s much easier to refer back to if there’s one thing I can’t remember precisely, and it lets me learn at times that I can’t watch videos (even if I do have to suffer without the improvisational insights that way).  I’d personally love it if you guys did this for everything, but even if it’s only the more complex techniques I’ll take that too.

  • So glad you like the extra

    So glad you like the extra info. Frankly, that’s what I’d personally prefer but I never know if I’m just projecting my desires on to other people or not. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Thanks for the encouragement, iconoplast

    I actually really like crafting the text and pictures, so I’m psychologically (if not temporally) on board for doing this as often as possible!


  • Written tutorial

    I want to thank you so very much for including a written tutorial. I love the videos as I am a visual person, but having the written instructions makes it perfect for me.

    Thanks again smile

  • vid? text? both!!!! peanut butter AND chocolate!!!

    Hi Deke etal, I love to watch you explain things and the moving around in the PS environment is always so clarifying for me. But this with the text and graphics, complete with nice yellow arrows is a great way to be able to refer back to the vids’ content. I have often stopped playback and taken screen shots to refer back to later with little notes of my own so this is awesome addition!!! I don’t think they replay the vids though!!! You are a PS rockstar and I would miss your inspirational effervescence!!! The other thing about vids is that you present all kinds of other little tangential ditties along the way to learning the task in question and create an air of familiarity with tPS environment that graphic tuts don’t engender. I will be attending your new one on one starting next week.

    Your fan, Uhane

  • Video and written tutorial

    I love this!  I always write down as much of the instruction, as well as screen shots, from the video as I can to refer to so this was great.