I’ve toyed with the wood carving process off and on since I was a kid growing up in Arkansas. But until October I never stuck with it for more than a day or two and never troubled myself to learn anything about how it’s actually accomplished. Now, three months and four birds later, it’s safe to say I am on my way to being able to put up a pretty fair bird. Oh, I’m not talking about being able to achieve the same kind of amazing results you see all over the internet; that’s going to take a few years and lots and lots of attempts. Meanwhile I’m enjoying the learning process immensely and am inclined right now to stick with it.
Part of the learning focuses on tools and materials. As learning goes, that’s a robust curriculum all by itself. If I weren’t so crazy about the actual birds, I could settle for simply learning how to use my growing collection of carving-specific tools more effectively. The inventory currently includes a half-dozen roughing and detail knives; the sharpening materials and strop used to keep those knives razor sharp; a modified plein air portable easel in which I store all that gear; and a handy, dandy, 9” Craftsman bench mounted band saw.
Right now I am focused on developing as many of the basic skills need to reach what I would call an "apprentice level" capacity. Accordingly, with each bird I’ve undertaken, I’ve kept my goals simple and few:
Bushtit – Here the goals were to (1) get a feeling for the carving knives and the basswood stock; (2) capture one of the bird’s characteristic gestures; and (3) try out water based inks and shellacs for the finish. I kept my detailing to a minimum and focused more on indications than any attempt at “realism.”
Bewick’s wren – I began this bird with basically the same goals as the first, except that I tried to increase the level and accuracy of the detailing, particularly in the tail feathers. I learned a great deal about dealing with wood grain issues with this bird.
Mountain bluebird – Again, I started with the idea of capturing the form and texture of the bird, but at the same time increased my emphasis on detailing the primaries. This bird is about 1/3 actual size, which made the feather work especially challenging. I also lacked the tools needed to do the back of the wings (being raised as they are left no room for a standard detailing knife). I also continued to work towards a semblance of “realism” by using color dyes during the finishing stage.
Chestnut backed chickadee – This is my most ambitious effort to date as it involved even more detailing and finishing work than any of the previous birds. In addition to using artist's inks, I also used some opaque acrylics in a few areas. I used a matt finish overall. (This little guy has already flown the nest and now resides in the home of Jane Mahoney, my youngest granddaughter).
So far I’ve carved only birds I am very familiar with. I’ve augmented my personal experience with each species by studying the vast resources available on the web. Along the way I’ve developed an even deeper appreciation of the state of the art where bird (and all wild animal) photography is concerned.
Next up is the little brown creeper shown in block form toward the front of this post. This will be my first attempt at using butternut as the wood stock. It’s a little harder and grainier than the basswood I’ve used on all the others. I may also try my hand at a little pyrography during the detail work, although it is still too early to say for sure. Perhaps the biggest challenge this time round will be managing the turned head. So far my birds have been rendered in profile, the easiest posture to emulate in wood, but the creeper will be looking hard to his left. Should be fun.
I am getting a great deal of pleasure from the research and the tool work. But the real payoff comes from releasing the bird’s form from the raw wood block. Even after just a few efforts I’m beginning to actually see the bird emerging from the raw block. It’s one of the weirdest and most wonderful feelings I’ve ever experienced. Think I’m hooked for sure.
PS – Several folks have asked me if I am interested in selling these birds, or maybe taking on a commission for a new one. So far as existing birds are concerned, the answer is “yes,” although the inventory right now is pretty small. I’d feel comfortable with taking on a commission, bird species and other material aspects of the deal dependent. If you are interested in more on this subject, please feel free to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.