Carve a Flock of Mallards in Relief archive

Thursday 17 December 2009

Colin May makes a relief-carving of a mallard


I have spent my entire life residing on the east coast of Norfolk, a place of solitude and peace. Despite its proximity to a bustling town, it really is a million miles away from the noise, traffic and general chaos associated with modern civilisation. For here is a tidal estuary of mud flats and surrounding marshes, a flat landscape that stretches out to the horizon.

For many years I have been a very keen wildfowler, walking the marshes or rowing a gun punt on the estuary. I have watched and listened intensively to the sights and sounds of wildfowl echoing across the miles of marshes and mudflats. Although I no longer shoot, I still spend much time on these marshes observing and sketching wildfowl, primarily as a reference for paintings and woodcarvings.

Almost all of the ducks and geese on the estuary are winter visitors, and amongst the many thousands of different species, the easiest to identify is the mallard, the UK's most common duck. So when my wife asked me to carve a duck to decorate one of our walls, a mallard was the natural choice.

Setting out

Photos 1 and 2 show the two pieces with the finished design. Only a bare outline is required at this stage although care must be taken regarding the size of the ducks and where they are placed to create an illusion of depth. The lower and larger ducks will appear closer while the higher ones will be progressively smaller to give the carvings their proper perspective. They will be hung facing inwards. The ducks are depicted taking off and landing, with overlapping body and wings, thus a sense of action is implied which brings interest and unification to the pair of carvings.

Bulk removal

An electric chainsaw is an ideal tool for removing wood at a very fast rate. It was used here to cut away the waste wood outside the design. It will only cut a straight line, so when the chain bites, take great care not to cut the line of the design. You need special training to operate a chainsaw so please do seek advice before using this method, otherwise power carvers, an adze, hand saw or large gouges are the way forward for removing waste.

The 100mm- (4in) thick timber had the grain running along its length but it was also coarse and wild. Gouges will now be used to do most of the carving. Despite having about 20 I find that the majority of my work can be done using just two or three.

Once the outline has been achieved, the mallards can be separated or rather differentiated. The top wings on all the ducks will be the highest points. Use straight gouges to cut away wood to the back wings, which is the carving's lowest point. This will start to produce a feeling of depth. The carving is kept at the same stage on all birds, a felt-tip pen is used to continuously re-mark the wood as it is cut away.

Once you have reached the stage shown in photo 5, the bodies of the ducks will need to be rounded, the backs of all the wings undercut to make the edges thin and the feet of the bottom bird shaped.

Head and bills

The heads and bills can now be shaped and sanded smooth. Holes are drilled for the eyes and small branches are tapered, pushed in the hole and then sanded back. The carving is now completely shaped so all tool marks will have to be sanded out.


As you can see in photo 7, the wings are brought to a fine edge, but with such a distinctive grain pattern showing, only a very slight indication of feather markings is required.


With the carvings now completely free of all tool marks and scratches, use a fine abrasive paper to obtain as smooth a surface as possible. Apply a generous amount of medium-brown wax polish, wiping away any surplus before it dries. Some black shoe polish may be needed to make a few of the recesses darker. This will give the carving greater depth but care must be taken to blend the polish and not to leave harsh light and dark cut-off lines in the wood. A soft cloth is now used to bring up a shine and give the carving a very fine finish.

A true pleasure

This pair of woodcarvings took me 140 hours to make and I can't think of any other hobby that brings together most of my interests, from watching wildfowl in its true settings on a windswept marsh to transforming a log of wood into shapes that I hope will delight the eye and excite the mind!

Woodworkers Institute

Tagged In:

relief carving , Birds , Colin May , mallards

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Design And Dimensions

There were several factors I had to consider when selecting the timber for this relief wall carving: size, appearance, grain and colour. Having looked at various pieces of lime (Tilia spp), oak (Quercus spp), elm (Ulmus sp.) and sycamore (Acer spp), I finally decided on English elm (Ulmus procera). I've used it before and its varied colour and coarse grain would help make this carving a very decorative piece.
I calculated that the carving would be 1100mm (44in) long, 700mm (28in) at its widest point and 200mm (8in) thick. The elm had been in my woodpile for about five years and both ends were sealed with paint to retain the moisture. There was no sign of cracking. As it was too thick and heavy for a single wall carving, I used a 12in electric chainsaw to cut down its length, turning the thick piece into a pair, that were to be hung side by side.
As the two carvings were to be hung side by side, the design is very important, both to hold the viewer's interest and to take the eye from one carving to the other. I decided that five ducks on each would completely fill the wood without creating confusing patterns or making the carving look too busy. The two carvings must balance visually and not be divided by one main focal point on one carving or the other. The ducks must be an arrangement or visually stimulating shapes and should work well with or without surface detail.


Photo 8 shows the back of the carvings with the hanging fixings. To find the centre of such an odd shape, place the carving horizontally with its back down. Place a thin piece of wood under the length of the carving and adjust until it is balanced. The hanging fixings can be put anywhere towards the top of this balance line.
Gouge a 25mm (1in) deep 75 x 75mm (3 x 3in) hole from the back of the carving. Cut grooves in a piece of aluminium that go across and cover half of the hole. This piece is inlaid and fixed in the wood so it is flush with the back of the carving. A single screw or a nail fixed in a wall will now hold the carving secure. The centre groove in the metal is on the balance line and the carving will hang down vertically. A groove each side of the centre will allow it to tilt at a variety of angles to suit the viewer or the room where it will hang.