Making a bird, Part 1

Preparing the block

Several have asked for more information about how I make these birds. I’ve been meaning to post about that, and over the weekend I spent some time taking step-by-step pictures. I’ll do a series of posts that describe the steps and show pictures.

An online carving friend sent me some wood to include in the project. One piece is what he called Rainbow Red Cedar. This is Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) that has a particularly striking grain pattern. This is what the piece of wood looked like when I took it out of the box.

The piece of wood is nine inches long, and varies from a little less than two, to a little more than three inches thick. It’s something less than four inches wide. I cut the bird patterns from a block that is approximately 2″ x 2″ x 4.5″. So the first order of business is to get a block of the appropriate size.

During this stage of the process, I’m using my Craftsman 3/4 HP bandsaw with a 1/2 inch, 4 TPI (teeth per inch) resaw blade. For the Western Red Cedar, which is reasonably soft, I could use a 3/16″ or 1/4″ blade (3 or 4 TPI), but I’ve found it easier to cut a straight line with the 1/2″ blade, and the smaller blades tend to break more easily in harder woods or thicker pieces.

There are other ways to do what I’m doing here. A table saw is a good choice if you have a flat side to start with, and if the wood isn’t thicker than the blade. And a ripping fence for the bandsaw would be a definite plus for getting a straight line. I don’t have either, so I do what I can with what I have.

In order to cut the wood on my bandsaw, I need at least one reasonably flat side. Otherwise it’s likely that the wood will roll when I’m running it through the saw. I did that once when I first got the saw. It kinked the blade and gave me quite a fright. I’m lucky I didn’t lose a finger, or worse.

Don’t think that you’re strong enough to prevent the blade from grabbing a log were it to roll on you. Even a small saw with a 1/2 horsepower motor is a log stronger than you are. If the log rolls even a little bit, the blade will catch it and pull it out of your hands. The results are unpredictable, but nothing good can come of it. At best, you’ll ruin a $10 bandsaw blade. At worst, the blade will break and the free end will flap around cutting whatever is nearby.

So how do I make a flat side on a non-flat log? By attaching one.

Here, I’ve attached a piece of 2″ x 4″ lumber to the wood with three screws. I now have a flat surface formed by the two inches of lumber and a few contact points on the wood. That’s stable enough that I can run the block through the saw to create a reasonably flat side.

The same trick works with raw logs, too. Here’s a 4″ hackberry log attached to a 2×4.

With one flat side, I can remove the 2×4 and use the flat side as the basis for flattening the other three sides so I end up with a block. Here you can see where I marked the lines along which I want to cut in order to make two more flat sides.

Cutting the last side was just a little tricky. The wood wasn’t quite two inches thick at its narrowest point, and I needed at least two inches to fit the bird pattern. So I drew a line on the side, where the wood was a little more than two inches thick.

This resulted in a block that’s not completely flat along one edge, but that’s okay. I can just cut off that excess. I didn’t get a picture of the block after making that final cut, so you’ll just have to imagine the block.

You should note that my block’s edges aren’t perfectly flat, nor are the corners perfectly square. It’s nearly impossible to cut a a perfectly straight line on a bandsaw if you don’t have a fence. You can, however, cut a reasonably straight line and make a block that’s close enough to square so that you can do a simple pattern cutout.

Next time, I’ll show how to make the bird cutout from the squared-off block.

Part 2: The cutout