Call of the Chickadee

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This article is from Issue 1 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Capture all the character of this tiny backyard friend while you learn the finer points of creating natural-looking and realistic wildlife carvings.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to see a black-capped chickadee in the wild, you might describe its personality as chipper, energetic or even friendly. The black-capped chickadee is a fairly tame animal, a common backyard bird in most of North America (except for the southernmost United States and the northernmost portions of the Canadian provinces). With a white face highlighted by a black cap and throat, the chickadee is highly visible as it darts about the branches. Measuring only about 5", the small bird graces our feeders here in Oklahoma so frequently that even our youngest son Robin can identify it on sight.

Getting started

It will be helpful to have as many reference photos as possible. I’ve collected them from sources such as magazines, books and calendars; your local public library is a good place to start. I recommend “Bird Studies” by David Mohrhardt, a noted bird painter with several books to his credit. 

In addition to the wood block you’ll be carving – tupelo or basswood will work nicely for this project – you’ll need a pair each of bird’s feet and eyes. Although not the kind of thing you generally come across in your average hobby or craft shop, they can usually be obtained through specialized carving supply companies, at carving shows or even from a local taxidermist.

Before you start your carving, use the drawings in Fig.1 as a guide for body shaping dimensions and to identify feather groupings. To begin, trace the drawings onto a piece of cardboard and cut them out, transferring the profile pattern on one side of your block of wood and the outline on the top. Cut out the basic outline of the bird on a bandsaw or scroll saw, using the traced pattern as a guide (Fig. 2).

Get carving

The easiest way to begin roughing out the shape is by rounding out the sides using a flex-shaft grinder and a large grinding bit or a carving knife (Fig. 3). As with most carving projects, either traditional knives or power carving equipment may be used.

On the bottom of the bird, you will want to shape the rump with a slight point, as all the feathers layer onto the tail feathers. The tail feathers are 1-5/8" long by 3/4" wide (Fig. 4).

Carve the eye channels with a micro grinder and a flame-shaped bit (Fig. 5). Using one of your photos for reference, shape the major feather patterns with a micro grinder and bit   (Fig. 6). Continue to shape and round the head and body using a micro grinder – or knife – and sandpaper. Notice that the face lines extend from the bottom of the bill, down past the eyes to the shoulders. You can angle the head slightly to the left or right if you like.


Measure 1/4" from the base of the bill on both sides of the head, and mark the eye holes. Look from side to side to make sure the eyes are symmetrical, both from the bill and from the top of the head, then drill each hole slightly larger (about 10 percent) than the eyes you’ve purchased (Fig. 7). 

Some eyes come with a small wire attached; be sure to snip these off before inserting them. Knead a pea-sized amount of wood putty and totally fill the hole, then push in the eye. Some of the putty will squeeze out around the edges, but keep pushing the eye into place until it is just slightly bulging from the eye channel. Getting the eyes even is the most difficult part and comes with experience, so if you don’t like the way it looks, simply dig it out and try again while the putty is still soft. 

Once the eyes are set, it’s time to make the eyelids that add such detail to the chickadee’s face. Knead a small amount of two-part epoxy putty and roll it into a thin line. Loop the epoxy around the eye hole, and use a dental tool or similar sharp-tipped implement to shape the lids around the eye; allow this to harden (Fig. 8).

You can shape the chickadee’s bill before or after the eye holes are drilled. Using a burning tool to shape the opening creates a more realistic look (Fig. 9). Smooth and sand using a very fine-grit sandpaper. 

Feather details 

Before using a burning tool to create the details on the feathers, the bird should be sanded to smooth the feather groups. Draw the feather patterns on the carving using a pencil (Fig. 10). To create depth, sand the underlying feather near the edge of the one on top, and then use the burning tool to create a sharp line. Do this to all the primary and secondary feather groups, as well as the tail (Fig. 11).

You can burn each and every feather on the entire bird if you like. I use the Detail Master by Leisure Time Products with a standard tip (Fig. 12). If this is your first try at carving, you can also use a stone to delineate the feathers on the body. Remember that each feather, no matter where it is located, has a central barb with the lesser barbs radiating out and horizontally. Refer to the drawing in Fig. 1 for details.

To complete the primary, secondary and tertiary feathers, use a burning tool to create some breaks or apparent tears in a few feathers. Bird feathers get battered and fall out, so your carving will appear more realistic if you include just a few of these features (Fig. 13).

A good footing

I like to create a mounting for the bird before painting; that way, the paint stays pristine. The mounting is really a reflection of the bird’s natural habitat and is largely an artistic endeavor, but there are a few factors to remember: The habitat should be true to the bird’s environment; it should enhance the carving, rather than overpower it; and in most cases it should be kept simple. 

In this project, I’m mounting the chickadee to a piece of driftwood, which I’ve attached to a turned walnut base. You can choose whatever you have at hand that looks both natural and attractive.

First, drill matching holes in the carving and the mounting branch and install a dowel to hold the bird in place, then rub a soft-lead pencil over the branch where the bird will perch and hold the bird in position. This should transfer carbon from the pencil marks to the underside of the bird where the bird needs to be shaped to fit the branch tightly. Keep shaping away the areas where the pencil marks transfer to the bottom of the bird until it fits in such a way as to appear to be sitting right on the branch (Figs. 14 & 15).

The feet should be placed beneath the chickadee, using the carving as reference to determine the distance apart. Drill tiny holes to secure the feet to the branch. Once the feet are in place and attached with a drop of glue, you can create any other habitat elements or begin painting (Fig. 16). 


Since I generally use oil-based paints, I don’t seal birds before painting; this allows the paint to soak into the wood’s surface a bit, reducing the shine of the feathers to a more natural look. Pencil in the black areas as a guideline, but begin painting with the light colors. None of the colors is pure in nature, so put a very small amount of raw umber in the white to reduce the sharpness. Use this on the rump, working forward to the breast and cheeks. Go back and use a tiny bit of yellow ochre to give the side pockets a yellowish tint, pulling that color ever so slightly into the rump and breast so it appears to naturally fade from one color to the other (Fig. 17).

Next, mix a drop of Payne’s gray and a pinpoint of raw umber with enough white to lighten it, and apply this to the area from the neck to the wings. Meanwhile, the head, throat and beak are done with a half-and-half mixture of black and raw umber.

For the wings and both sides of the tail, add just enough black with the gray mix to darken it. Reference photos are invaluable here, as each bird tends to be slightly different with regard to the colored areas, the condition of the bird and how dirty it is. You want to be careful to keep the bird from looking too clean, as it simply won’t look realistic. 

Each individual wing feather has a white tip. Using a flat brush, apply some of the white/raw umber mixture along the ends of each primary and secondary feather, as well as the top of each tail feather (Fig. 18). Go back with a different flat brush and pull a slight amount of the gray to smudge the line of white for a natural look. If you need to, this is a good time to touch up any areas that aren’t dark enough.

Bob Goad

Bob and Jacquie Goad live with their two young sons, the last of eight, in Oklahoma. Bob has been carving for more than 30 years, and has won several World Awards and the Nationals in Detroit three years ago. 


Tupelo or basswood block
4mm brown eyes (pair)
Pewter feet (pair)
Material for mounting habitat
Epoxy putty


4mm brown eyes (pair), #485026, $2.10
Pewter feet (pair), #481000, $4.50

Wood Carvers Supply Inc.
(800) 284-6229 

Epoxy putty, 1 oz. natural, #145843, $4.99
Epoxy putty, 1 oz. dark, #145845, $4.99

Woodcraft Supply Corp.
(800) 225-1153


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