Carve a Cane That's in the Spirit

Follow our instructions for this fun walking cane, and you'll create a happy, helpful wood spirit to guide your path on those long walks in the woods. 

Legends have it that within every tree there lives a wood spirit, guarding the tree and the forest. The elusive creatures are said to bring good luck to anyone who finds them. I recently tried my hand at coaxing a couple of these bearded beings from within some gnarled tree limbs. This particular type of carving doesn’t require more tools than just a knife, but since I have a simple set of chisels I’ll demonstrate their use as well. 

Finding adequate sticks for carving is a fairly easy task. If you live near a wooded area or have walking trails near your home, an afternoon’s hike should turn up more good candidates than you can, well, shake a stick at. Dogwood, sassafras and cottonwood all make good canes, but just about any hardwood will do. Sticks with knobs or knees (Fig. 1) are very easy to find. You may even be surprised that wonderfully twisted sticks like the one in Fig. 2 – ones that have had vines wrapped tightly around them for a few years – are far more common than you thought.

If you have no luck finding a twisted stick, they can be ordered through Smoky Mountain Wood Carvers Supply of Townsend, Tenn. They also turn up from time to time on eBay.

Choose a stick that is slightly longer than you want for a cane. That way, if you aren’t happy with your results, you can cut that part off and begin again. If you get your carving right the first time, simply cut your cane to the desired length from the bottom.

Take a Hike . . . 

Since a twisted stick was the single material required to make one of Bob Goad’s wood spirit walking canes, I thought it’d be a good idea to see just how hard it was to find one. We don’t have a lot of formal hiking trails where I live, but we do have a nice wildlife reserve with trails just a few miles from our house. I thought this would be the perfect spot for my research.

Right after pulling onto the main road near my neighborhood I couldn’t help notice the growth along the side of the road. Right at the edge of the growth, clear as day, was a spindly sapling about 5' tall, twisted nicely. I stopped the car to examine it, and found it perfect for cane-making. Looking around the growth, I saw about half a dozen others within just a few yards – most were too small, and one was far too large, but it was clear that twisted sticks were anything but uncommon.

Since the day was nice and my wife had been counting on a hike, we went ahead to our planned trail. We parked in the lot at the trailhead, and standing right there – all of 12' from my front bumper – was another excellent, vine-wrapped twisted sapling.

For the rest of our hike, I didn’t even bother counting how many we saw.

                                    – A.J. Hamler

Getting started

Before carving begins, you’ll need to decide where to place the face on the stick. Generally, I like to have the carving just above where you’d rest your hand; you can incorporate it as part of the handpiece itself, or take advantage of any knots, knobs or burls and begin the carving there. If this is your first experience with faces you may want to do some sketches to get a feel for the proportions. I’ll sometimes use some scrap pieces of wood to practice a few faces before beginning on the stick itself. It’s also possible to attach these smaller carved pieces to the tops of separate walking sticks, but we won’t cover that here. Our four-year-old carries one of these practice carvings around now, insisting it “looks like God.”

The question of how much to remove and what to leave is a process which evolves by refining, using small movements and making small changes as you carve. Each spirit I’ve carved has looked different and appears to have its own personality. Unlike bird carving where each robin has basically the same shape and body feathers each time (and the same size, if you make life-sized carvings), these spirits have different eye socket, nose and chin shapes – and sizes – just as humans do.

Once you’ve chosen the location for the face, decide whether to completely peel back or strip the bark from the area. This isn’t always necessary if the bark is as thin as it is on the stick I’m using here, but may be desired if the bark is thicker and difficult to cut. 

Most spirits are carved with elongated faces to take advantage of the shape of the stick, but they should still be in proportion to look natural. Once you’ve chosen the site and cleaned it, draw guidelines – one across the forehead, one across the eyebrows, one across the base of the nose and a center line from brow to chin.

Carving steps

Carve a groove across the forehead, at the hairline, using a 3/8" V-tool, approximately ¼" deep, followed by a second groove just below where the eyes will be (Fig. 3). 

Next, using a flat chisel, pound a stop cut – a cut with the chisel held at 90 degrees to the stick – below the bottom of the nose location (Fig. 4).

Place the same chisel with the tip where the chin will be; then, holding it at 30 degrees, taper it toward the stop cut at the bottom of the nose. Since this is where your wood spirit’s face will go, the amount of material you remove here is totally up to you (Figs. 5 & 6). 

Remove material in several smaller cuts until you achieve the look you’re going for. If you want your spirit to have more moustache over the top lip this cut will not be as deep. A good rule of thumb is that less is better – you can always remove more wood later to achieve the desired effect. 

The bridge of the nose is created in the same manner as the mouth, using the stop cut and taper as in Fig. 7, while the forehead is cleaned up a bit in the same manner (Fig. 8). 

With your round gouge, define the nose by cutting the cheeks down as in Fig. 9. Note that I’ve redrawn the lines for the nose itself. Refine the sides of the nose by alternating between a V-tool and a flat chisel (Figs. 10 & 11).

Place a smaller gouge at 90 degrees to the stick to create the eye sockets. Then, angle the chisel and keep it moving to round out the socket (Fig. 12). Once you have the eye sockets roughed out you can give more definition to the nose by using the round gouge to remove wood from each side (Fig. 13).

At this point I like to skip around and work on different aspects of a carving, giving the face a general appearance before moving on to the final cuts which finish each area. This is also a good time to draw the lines for the moustache before concentrating on the beard and hair (Figs. 14 & 15). If you’re working with a twisted branch, make your cuts so they flow naturally away from the face and follow the twist in the stick. Hair above the face can also be made to follow the stick’s contours.

Raising cane

At this point, your cane is basically done, as most carvings of this type are typically left a bit rough. However, don’t skimp on finishing details as shown in Figs. 16 & 17, where I’ve made the beard flow with the natural contours of the stick. 

Details can include definition of the eyeballs, which can be carved in or not, and wrinkles on the forehead or under the eyes. Further smoothing of the nose and cheeks may be completed as desired. You can leave the stick natural or apply stain or other coloration to suit your tastes. However, a properly dried stick won’t need to be sealed, as the oils on your hand will give the stick a nice patina over time. 

Heavier details, especially in the hair and beard, wear far longer than the fine details you’d use when carving, say, the delicate feathers of a bird. Remember that cane carving is a rustic hobby, and the face you carve should reflect that.

“Is there a woodcarver in the house?”

A tool the beginning wood spirit carver may find helpful is a story stick. While it resembles a small totem pole, it is actually a durable replica of a series of carvings showing the steps needed to successfully complete your project. You can compare your progress to that of the professional who carved the original.


Carving stick of any type hardwood
Twisted sticks are available for $8-$16 from: Smoky Mountain Woodcarvers Supply
P.O. Box 82 7321 Highway 321
Townsend, TN 37882

Large face study stick, #144593, $19.99

Small facial feature study cast, #128806, $20.99

Woodcraft Supply Corp.
(800) 225-1153

A SAMPLING OF SPIRITS conjured up locally to keep company with some of the author’s work. 

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. 

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