Making a bird, Part 3: Carving

This is the third in a short series about going from raw wood to finished bird figure. You might want to read the first two parts, Preparing the Block and The Cutout.

When it comes time to carve, I have two choices: a knife, or the Foredom power carver. When I started the project, I thought I’d carve all of the birds with the Foredom, but it’s rather inconvenient to lug that thing around. I can stuff a bird cutout and a knife in my pocket and have something to whittle on at odd moments.

The Western Red Cedar is certainly soft enough to work with a knife, but I chose to use the power carver for this exercise. For these softer woods, I start with a sanding drum with an 80 grit sleeve.

If I’m working with a harder wood, I’ll start with an aggressive carbide bit. The one I use (the only one I have, currently) is this Typhoon.

That Typhoon cutter really is amazing. One can remove a lot of wood very quickly with that thing. It doesn’t take long to ruin a cutout, especially one of soft wood. There are less aggressive carbide burrs, and I’ll eventually get some. But for now I reserve that thing for harder woods or when I need to remove a lot of material. The 80 grit sander is a little slower, but I’m less likely to destroy something with it. When I’m working with a harder wood, I’ll use the Typhoon for rough shaping, then go to the 80 grit sander for more shaping, and smoothing the deep scratches made by the Typhoon.

Remember I said that lugging the Foredom around is inconvenient? More inconvenient is lugging around all the safety equipment and the dust collector. Here I am getting ready to carve. I’m wearing a dust filter, safety goggles, and ear protection. The power carver plus vacuum (for dust collection) make quite a racket, and I’ve found that I can concentrate better if I can attenuate that noise. If I’m going to be working for an extended period, I’ll use ear plugs rather than the plastic ear muffs. They block more noise and are less cumbersome.

If you look back up at the first picture, showing the bird cutout and the Foredom, you’ll notice that I’ve drawn lines from chin to back to outline the head, and a center line down the middle of the figure’s back. There’s also a center line on the bottom of the bird. The center line helps me maintain symmetry. I struggle with symmetry, and I’d be completely lost without the center line.

The first thing I do is rough shape the figure’s head and beak.

The point here is to form the basic head shape, which I use to guide myself in carving the rest of the figure. This also frees the shoulders so that I can shape them in the next step.

I’m not concerned at this point with getting things exact, and I don’t worry much about smoothing. That will come later.

The next step is to shape the body. I work my way around the body, taking a little from the left top, then right top, right bottom, left bottom, trying to keep it symmetrical as I go along. I’ve found that to be easier than shaping one side completely and then trying to make the other side match.

(click for larger view)

One of the disadvantages of the sanding drum and of the flat-head Typhoon is that the ends tend to form hard lines in the wood when I’m outlining the head. Once I have the head and body shaped about the way I want them, I turn the tool sideways to smooth the separation between head and body.

 (click for larger view)

Making that separation forces me to re-shape the head a bit, which is the primary reason I start by making the head larger than it needs to be.

After I’ve rough shaped the head and body, I shape the tail. That’s the easiest part of the whole process. I then switch to a 120 grit sanding drum for more detailed shaping, and to remove the deep scratches left by the 60 grit sander. Here’s the result, after finishing with the 120 grit sander.

 (Click for larger view)

I tried something new this time. In the past, I’ve gone from 120 grit sander to hand sanding. But I often have trouble with scratches around the beak and in the chest area where the wood is hardest. (It’s harder there because I’m working on the end grain.) This time, I thought I’d try out the 220 grit diamond burrs to see if I could smooth things a bit more before hand sanding.

The picture looks a little odd because you’re looking at the bird through my magnifier. That lighted magnifying glass is a very good thing to have. With it, I could see all of the little scratches in the hard-to-reach places, and the diamond burr made quick work of them. I also used the diamond burr to smooth the rest of the figure as much as possible. It’s too small to do a great job on larger surfaces, but it removes most of the high spots and deeper scratches.

The figure is now ready for sanding.

Part 4: Sanding and finishing

2 thoughts on “Making a bird, Part 3: Carving

  1. A friend gave my Mother a comfort bird when she was recovering from surgery. It meant so much to her I thought about making one for a blind friend at my church. I believe the simple lines will allow her to “see” the bird as she holds it. I’m new to carving so your tutorial is just what I was looking for. I’ll start this bird first thing tomorrow. Thank you so much…Mary

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