Gibbons was an extremely talented wood carver; indeed, some have said he was the finest of all time. The diarist John Evelyn first discovered Gibbons' talent by chance in 1671. Evelyn, from whom Gibbons rented a cottage near Evelyn's home in Sayes Court, Deptford (today part of south-east London), wrote the following:
Later that same evening, Evelyn described what he had seen to Sir Christopher Wren. Wren and Evelyn then introduced him to King Charles II who gave him his first commission - still resting in the dining room of Windsor Castle.
Of Gibbons Horace Walpole later wrote:
He was employed by Wren to work on St Paul's Cathedral and later was appointed as master carver to George I. Many fine examples of his work can still be seen in the churches around London - particularly the choir stalls and organ case of St Paul's Cathedral. Some of the finest examples of Gibbons work accessible to the general public are those on display at the National Trust's Petworth House in West Sussex, UK. At Petworth House the Carved Room is host to a fine and extensive display of intricate wooden carvings by Gibbons.
His association with Deptford is commemorated locally: Grinling Gibbons Primary School is in Clyde Street, near the site of Sayes Court, and St. Nicholas' Church has The Valley of the Dry Bones, one of Gibbons' works, permanently on display.
Very little is known about the first twenty years of Grinling Gibbons' life: He was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and it is thought that his father may have been the Englishman Samuel Gibbons, who worked under Inigo Jones, but even two of his closest acquaintances, the portrait painter Thomas Murray and the diarist John Evelyn, cannot agree on how he came to be introduced to Charles II. Nevertheless, by 1680 he was known as the "King's Carver", and carried out exquisite work for St Paul's Cathedral, the Palace of Windsor, and the Earl of Essex's house at Cassiobury. His carving was so fine that it was said a pot of carved flowers above his house in London would tremble from the motion of passing coaches. He was a Quaker.
There are still direct descendants of Gibbons in the UK today who have followed the family tradition of wood carving down through 13 generations. One male produces fine English rocking horses and works to commissioned carvings and restorations. His carvings can be viewed in Ironbridge, Shropshire, UK.
Gibbons' work very often includes carvings of peapods. A myth states that he would include a closed pod in his work, only carving it open once he had been paid. If the pea pod was left shut it supposedly showed that he had not been paid for the work. This is implausible because he would not have left his carvings (that would have taken months to complete) in situ had he not been paid.
His work (with the exception of religious carvings) also often includes a 5 petal flower like a Periwinkle or a Tudor rose. It is the crest still used by his modern descendant today.
The name Grinling is formed from sections of two family names.