Techniques for Carving Birds of Wood

Written by phil whitmer
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Techniques for Carving Birds of Wood
Birds make interesting subjects for wood carvings. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Birds have always interested wood carvers as subjects. The aerodynamic forms and sometimes delicate features of birds are often represented in wood carvings. Birds have been traditionally carved in America for use as hunting decoys to attract other birds. Modern wood decoys are too elaborately carved and expensive for actual use; instead, they're made for the collector market. Birds, especially eagles, owls and ravens, were often incorporated into totem poles by Northwest Coast Native American woodcarvers. Birdwatchers love to make and collect detailed carvings of their favourite birds.

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Approaches to Carving

Carving birds out of wood can be approached from several different angles. The birds can be carved "in the round" as three-dimensional sculptures. They can also be carved two-dimensionally on flat wooden panels. Birds carved and painted in realistic colours are used as decoys or as objects de arte. Naturalistically carved birds make interesting decorative display items for birdwatchers and bird buffs. Carving birds abstractly interprets their forms and expresses them as stylised patterns or shapes.

Roughing Out

Three-dimensional birds are usually carved out of single blocks of soft wood, such as pine or basswood. Another method is to carve the bird in separate head, body and tail sections. The roughed-out shapes, or blanks, of the birds are often cut with a coping saw or band saw. The bird's basic form is then defined with a set of very sharp traditional wood carving hand tools. The overall structure of the bird must be established before the details are carved.

Structure and Texture

Finished carvings of birds are completed using standard wood carving techniques. Excess wood is removed using larger-sized U-gouges and chisels. Once the major planes are established and the overall form is carved, details are added with smaller V-gouges, U-gouges and carving knives. Gouge marks can be left in the wood for artistic affect when making semiabstract or stylised birds. Carved areas of the bird can be smoothed with sandpaper before detailing for a realistic affect.

Relief Carving

Birds are carved in relief on flat wooden panels to make plaques or decorative wall hangings. Excessive background wood is removed using large gouges or a chisel struck with a wooden or rubber mallet. Original designs and compositions of birds can be drawn onto the panel or stencils and patterns can be employed. Relief carving techniques, combined with scroll saw work, create multilayered images of birds. The pieces are stacked and glued together before being finely detailed and painted.

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