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This article is from Issue 96 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Set the stage to show off your carving
I’ve been making mirrors with attached shelves for years. Recently, I started adding small objects to those shelves, including stone cairns, turned vases, and carved birds such as the one you see here. Adding these little “extras” has made the mirrors sell better, and they’re more fun to build.
The frame and shelf are quite simple to construct. A couple of dado cuts, a few dowels, and some screws hold things in place. The real effort comes in carving/whittling the bird. The bird isn’t meant to be a specific species, but more of an archetype. I drew my inspiration from the work of Emil Milan, whose stylized bird carvings I greatly admire. If you haven’t tried carving before, this project is a great way to get started. It doesn’t require many tools—a knife or two and a couple of chisels—and the overall design is fairly simple and forgiving. If you’re a more experienced carver, you might want to modify the basic design to suit your own aesthetic.
Order of Work
- Make the shelf and upright
- Rough-cut the bird
- Carve the tail
- Carve the head
- Carve the body
This mirror consists of a few simple pieces. The backing is a 1/2" Baltic birch plywood panel with its edges sanded. The upright is made from sycamore, and the shelf is cut from white oak. Both of these pieces are notched to help hold the mirror, along with the aid of three small dowels. Get the mirror first so you can cut the pieces to match the glass. When you purchase the 1/8"-thick mirror, have the edges polished, as they will be exposed. The bird itself is carved from a scrap of black walnut.
Refer to the drawing on the facing page as you mill the stock for the vertical and the shelf. Also cut the plywood backer to size. Glue spacers to the ends of the vertical. Then use a dado blade as shown to notch the shelf to straddle the mirror. Also cut the notch in the shelf for the vertical. Attach the vertical and the shelf to the backer with screws and add the locator dowels. Disassemble the pieces for finishing. Dye or stain the plywood if desired. I used a red alcohol-based dye followed by several coats of a wiping varnish. Reassemble and add D-ring hangers and picture frame wire to the back about 4" down from the top.
Design inspiration. Visit our website for a gallery of similar mirrors with different color combinations and added elements.
Is the bird carved or whittled? Traditionally, “carving” is primarily done with chisels and gouges, whereas “whittling” is accomplished mainly with a knife. So this little bird is a bit of a hybrid, as it was made with an array of all three tool types. The biggest factor in either carving or whittling is to make sure your tools are very sharp, and to keep them that way. As for the specific tools you’ll need, you’ll want at least one carving knife, one gouge, and one straight carving chisel.
Knives out. These three are my go-to knives for most situations. I made the wide, straight blade on the knife at the bottom from a file. It works well for convex curves. The upswept blade in the middle is good for gentle inside curves, while the thin detail blade at the top is nice for tight spots.
Gouges by the numbers. Gouges are designated by two numbers: sweep (amount of curvature) and width. The higher the sweep number, the tighter the curve. I used the bottom-most gouge (#9/13) for the inside of the bird’s tail.
Chiseled good looks. As I carve, I often switch between knives and straight chisels to keep my hands from getting tired. Both straight (top) and skew (middle) chisels will work nearly interchangeably with the knives for the bird. In a pinch, you can even use a regular bench chisel (bottom).
Look sharp. Touch up the edges of your carving chisels frequently. I keep mine sharp with a tool called a power strop. It is a disk of hard leather that I charge with a touch of polishing compound. I use the rounded one for the insides of gouges.
Transfer the bird profile on page 48 to your carving blank and rough-cut it on the band saw. Start your carving with the tail. Think of the tail’s shape as sort of a gently bent gouge. Draw some guide lines, then cut the taper and round the forward corners as shown. Pay close attention to the grain direction as you cut away the excess material. Carving will quickly teach you when you’re trying to cut against the grain. The wood will tear instead of cutting cleanly and your tools will tend to dig in. Once you have the shape roughed out, hollow the back side.
What wood to carve?
Although you can carve any wood, some species are much friendlier to shape. Basswood is the traditional choice for much carving, as it is soft enough to cut easily, but tight-grained enough to hold detail well. However, basswood is a pale tan. For my birds, I prefer more colorful woods such as walnut and cherry, even though they are harder and somewhat more difficult to cut. Coarser-grained species such as oak and ash can be more challenging to carve, as can be denser species such as maple. But if you pay close attention to the grain direction and keep your tools sharp, even these can yield excellent results. Regardless of the type of wood, use straight-grained pieces, as knots and swirly grain can cause trouble even in the softest of woods.
With the tail roughed out, turn your attention to the head. This is where you can impart some personality to your work. By having the head slightly twisted to the side, it will appear as if the bird has just turned to look at something. Lay out the shape on the blank as shown. Then remove the excess from around the outline, tapering the neck towards the body. As the head takes form, carve back the sides of the face to create a straight line running from crest to beak.
A little off the neck. Round off the back of the head and neck by cutting upward from the body toward the crest. Here, I found it easier to clamp the bird down as I made these cuts with a straight chisel.
Face the facts. The bird’s face is formed by two gently curved surfaces that intersect to form a line down the center. Carve these surfaces by cutting from beak to crest with a straight chisel.
The bird’s body is a rounded, semi-spherical shape that serves to connect the tail, head, and feet. Having carved the tail and the head, you’re likely to have already carved most of the bird’s back. Finish rounding that, then taper the lower section downward toward the feet.
Back up. As you finish rounding the bird’s back, cut towards the head as shown, then turn around and cut from the middle of the back towards the tail. You’ll also find it works better to cut from the sides in towards the center.
Touch your toes. Taper and round the bird’s belly and rump with cuts toward the feet.
As you make these cuts, you can start trimming the feet to their final size and shape.
Rather than getting bogged down in the details of what real bird feet look like, or adding metal replicas like some carvers do, I prefer a stylized foot/base for my avian creations. The front is a rounded trapezoid shape, while the rear flows into the curve of the tail. Once you have the feet carved, go over the whole bird with a freshly-sharpened blade to blend the facets before sanding. Finally, mount the bird to the shelf with a screw driven up through the feet (ouch!).
Contour de elegance. While some carvers leave tools facets on their work, I prefer to sand. Contour sanding pads help with the final shaping. Try to finish all the carving first, as abrasive grit embedded in the wood will dull your tools.
Stay in line. Use a flat sanding block on the two surfaces of the face. Keep an eye on the ridge. You want it to be a nice, straight line that runs right from the tip of the beak to the tip of the crest.
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