Hand Carved and Painted Realistic Wooden Bird Sculpture
"What kind of wood is that?" This is the most frequently asked question that I hear when I am at a show displaying my work. The wood is Tillia Americana - American linden or basswood as it is more commonly known. This tree grows in the northeast quadrant of the U.S. and up into Canada.
It is a fast growing tree and there are records showing that it has grown as high as one hundred forty feet with a diameter of four feet. It is considered a hardwood but falls on the softer side of the scale. the wood is a bit harder than pine but has even texture and density all the way through. It is soft enough to carve fairly easily but just hard enough to hold fine detail without chipping away. Basswood is not a wood that you can go to Home Depot or Lowe's and purchase any time that you want to start a carving project, although you might find it at a lumder yard that does millwork. I am very particular about the wood that I use for my carvings. Second growth trees (trees grown in a wooded setting) grow straight and true in order to reach the sun through the forest canopy. On these trees there aren't very many lateral branches, so you don't have many knots to contend with.
Once the trees are found, a sawmill is contacted to cut and haul them to be sawed. Then for me, the work begins. I usually work with the sawyer so that the boards are sawed to my exact specifications. One of the most important rules is to stay at least one inch away from the heart or core of the tree. This area is unstable and will cause unwanted checking and splitting as the wood dries.
All pieces are cut four and a quarter inches thick and at least six inches wide. Here is what I mean when I say this is where the work begins. Since green basswood weighs forty two pounds per
cubic foot, a board four inches thick, twelve inches wide and eight feet long weighs one hundred twenty pounds. After sawing, the boards are loaded into the truck and brought home to be stacked for drying. Three quarter inch slats are used between each layer so the air can circulate throughout the pile. The ends are coated with an end sealer so that they
don't dry too fast and split. In about a year, the moisture content drops down to about fifteen percent. It is then taken indoors and stacked in an unheated room, where the moisture level drops another five percent within about a month or so. It is now ready to use.
Just about all of the tools that I use for carving are hand tools except for a six inch sanding disc on a slow speed motor that is used for smoothing the rough carving marks. When I started carving over forty years ago, no motorized tools were being used for carving. I've tried them, but could never get used to them.
No matter, one of the things that I enjoy the most is taking a big chunk of basswood and attacking it with a nice sharp gouge - this is real carving. There is nothing else like running a razor sharp tool through a piece of air dried basswood. Nearly all of the tools that I use have come from Woodcraft supply. They are on the net at www.woodcraft.com. Even though the above tool cabinet shows hundreds of tools, the favorites that I use most are shown in the closeup above.
Some tools come sharp from the factory. If not, they are sharpened initially on a slow speed grinder with a one hundred twenty grit stone wheel very carefully so as to not overheat the tip of the tool and ruin the temper of the steel. The edge of the tool
is then run over a hard felt buffing wheel (also on a slow speed grinder) with a stainless steel polishing compound on it. This wheel is pictured above. It is basically a motorized hone and brings up a razor sharp edge with ease. Now that the wood is dry and the tools are sharp, you might think that it is time to start carving. Well, not quite yet. First of all, a pattern needs to be drawn. To do this you need enough reference material to give you all of the detail that you will need for the carving. Photographs from bird books and magazines are helpful but professional photographers don't publish photos of the backs or undersides of birds and these two are very important so that you can determine individual feather patterns.
I enjoy photography so any time that there is a chance to take pictures of an unusual bird I will jump on it . By taking photos yourself, you can get a full three hundred sixty degree view of your subject. This way, you are sure to have all of the
reference material that you need. After the reference material is assembled and the drawing is completed, a pattern is made from the drawing. It is then traced onto a basswood plank, cut out on a band saw, then roughed with the above mentioned hand tools. This is usually when I head for my collection of weathered wood that I have stashed in the woodshed. After I find a nice piece to stand the bird on, I'll turn to my collection of turned bases and choose one that is appropriate. Bases are turned on the lathe ahead of time. In the past few years I have been using rustic and highly figured woods, sometimes matching the base color to the color of the bird. By raiding friends and neighbors firewood piles, I have cone up with some really attractive woods. The pictures below show how a log can be cut to get the most figure out of it.
This red oak crotch (where two branches grow out from the log) is sawed down through the middle and separated. Then a two inch slab is cut from each side. On larger logs, the figure is deeper, so another two inch slab can be cut and still have figure.
The slabs are trimmed to a manageable size on the band saw and then the whole piece is coated with a sealer and stacked with stickers in between to allow air to dry the pieces evenly. This sealer is an emulsified solution of wax and water that allows the wood to dry slowly so that it doesn't check or split.
After air drying, the wood is put into a wood drying kiln that I made from plywood and insulated with plastic insulation. It is heated by four heat lamps.
It generally takes about two days for the inside temperature to reach one hundred twenty degrees. A small hole in the upper part of the side slowly allows the warm moisture laden air to escape, thus slowly drying the wood. After these pieces reach an eight percent moisture content, they are ready to turn on the lathe.
After a base is chosen, the detail is carved into the bird. Individual feathers are carved when they can be seen and defined. In most cases the breast feathers just look like fuzz so the breast is carved with a gouge so that after it is sanded, it looks fluffy. After the carving is finished, the bird is burnt with a wood burning tool. The face and breast are burnt with fine straight lines. The individual feathers on the back and tail have all the quills and barbs burnt in them so that after they are painted, they look more lifelike.
This texturing provides an excellent surface to accept the paint. There are many brands of acrylic paints so you can choose the kind that suits you best. Some have more pigment than others and some are more matte than glossy. Gesso, tinted with raw umber is used for an undercoat and then the color is built up in thin coats until the desired hue is achieved. The last step is to use a fine brush to add more detail so that the bird looks more realistic. The photo below shows the completed Red-bellied woodpecker.