Polar Bear archive

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Peter Benson invites you to practice your techniques by carving this delightful polar bear


One of the problems that we carvers have is that our projects tend to take rather a long time and, therefore, anything we undertake needs to be carefully planned. Where, then, do we fit in the practice side of our work? The answer to this is that generally we don't. Most hobby carvers spend what little time they have available concentrating on producing the pieces that they really want to carve. Many are reluctant to take time off even to sharpen their tools. Even instructional sessions tend to be spent working on a long-term project and why not? If we are carving for pleasure why shouldn't we spend our time doing what we want - the only problem is that we are not likely to make any real progress in the short-term.

In the US carving tuition is generally geared around short-term projects, lasting between two and three days, and there is some merit in that as long as you choose courses where there is some sort of progression, not simply repeating the process time after time.

With this in mind why not fit in some short projects around your long-term ones? There are many suitable subjects that can be finished in a weekend. They don't have to be very detailed to be of value. Something that only takes up two days of your time can be a relaxing exercise that is no great loss if things go radically wrong.

This polar bear is just such a project. You still need to study the basic anatomy and the spirit of the animal, but you don't have to take it to the same level as with a larger piece.


My carving has been done from a piece of lime (Tilia spp) 125mm (5in) long (in the direction of the grain), 100mm (4in) wide and 75mm (3in) thick. This means that the grain is running from top to bottom of the bear. You can obviously make your bear any size you wish and out of any timber but if you are to complete it in time, don't go too much bigger and stick to either lime or jelutong (Dyer costulata) to make the carving process as easy as you can. Your choice of timber will be governed to some extent by what tools you intend to use. Almost everything can be done with a good knife if you wish but most of the work shown will be done with a small selection of gouges or palm gouges.


You have now roughed out your figure and can start to put in what detail you require. I tend to draw all over my carvings at this stage - I find that this enables me to keep a constant reminder of where the various limbs are situated and gives me something to measure to check the symmetry.

It would be a good idea now to cut the bear off the base as much of the finishing can be done in the hand. If you prefer to continue with the wood held in a clamp then do so, and cut the bear off at a later date.

For the detail work, it would be useful to have some pictures of polar bears to hand for reference but don't get carried away with too much definition. The polar bear has very thick fur and any muscle definition is very subtle. Keep the shape rounded and vague to imply a softness over the whole body. In order to get the head shape right, you really do need a decent picture of a polar bear head - these are readily available from the Internet or wildlife books. Don't even think about trying to carve realistic eyes on something of this size. Polar bears have very small eyes anyway so concentrate on getting the general shape right, particularly around the eye area.

Once the base is removed you can trim around the bottom of the bear with a knife, shaping the front feet as you do so (see photo 23).


When you are happy with the general shape you can start the finishing process. You may like to texture the fur or leave it smooth - it is up to you. I have chosen, in this case, to sand the finished carving and bleach it. For the sanding I recommend Abranet by Mirka. It is easy to use and the results are excellent, leaving a minimum of scratches even with the coarsest grit. It also doesn't clog if you use it after oiling. Remember, though, that if you choose to sand your carving you must go through the grits to one fine enough to remove any scratch marks. I usually finish at around 1000grit or finer. To get a really fine finish can take a considerable amount of time, so be patient.

The bear has been bleached using a two-part wood bleach from Rustins (see photo 30). The process is very straightforward as long as you follow the instructions carefully. One application will normally be enough but you can repeat the process as many times as you wish until you get the result you require. Once the carving is completely dry, go over it lightly with a very fine abrasive or a fine Scotchbrite pad to get a clean, smooth finish.


All that is now left to do is mark in the eyes, mouth and nose, if you wish. You can inlay with something like buffalo horn or simply paint with black paint.

Now, give it a spray with clear acrylic lacquer to seal the finish, give it another light rubbing with Scotchbrite before waxing with a white paste wax polish. If I intended to leave it unbleached I would finish it with Danish Oil - this is a very durable finish that can be washed if it gets dirty but does tend to yellow the finish if bleach has been used. You could, of course, apply wax directly without a sealer, if you wish.

It is on a quick carving of this sort that you should experiment with techniques and finishes so that you can get the best results from your long-term projects.

David Preece

Tagged In:

mammals , Peter Benson , Polar Bear

"You still need to study the basic anatomy and the spirit of the animal"

Top Tips

- Don't be tempted to add too much extra to the carving - I know how easy it is to get carried away - keep it simple and try to finish it in the two days if possible. You will be amazed how much you can actually achieve when you set yourself a deadline
- Most animals that walk on four legs don't have collarbones like us. Their shoulder blades, therefore, are almost vertical up the sides of their bodies with the shoulder at the bottom. Check this before locating the shoulder
- To make things easier I advise that you set the angles of the head first, for two reasons. First of all, if you start with the head - generally the most difficult part - and you mess it up, you can always start again without having wasted too much time. Secondly, getting the head right sets the character of the subject from the start and the rest will follow much more easily as a result
- My advice is to try not to use a bandsaw except where time is an issue. It can be very difficult to get your mind around where you need to go to achieve the necessary angles when everything is cut at 90 degrees to the surface. Also, once you have cut out your pattern you are really stuck with it unless you allow large areas "just in case" - in which case why bandsaw it? If you can manage it, I suggest that you start with a square block whenever possible - obviously remove any large areas of waste with a saw - and set out any angles and twists as early as you can. This will give you the opportunity to modify your carving in the event of accidents or unforeseen faults in the wood - what I call escape routes