Dove for Peace archive

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Russell Parry shows how to carve a simple, stylised dove

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When you have a good idea for a carving it should never go to waste. This dove started life as a little sketch made when my partner, Sue, and I were brainstorming to find a design suitable for a Christmas tree decoration. This one involved too much detail for 'serial production', but I liked the idea. Having languished in a sketchbook for a decade it re-emerged when I needed a simple beginners' project that could be made starting from an easily-available blank.

Many beginners find the initial, bulk removal of wood to be hard, unrewarding work, particularly if there aren't any power tools available to lighten the load. I tried to bear this in mind when designing the dove.

Before you start

Look at my finished carving carefully - it is just my interpretation. If there are bits of it that don't work for you, decide now and modify the design. Draw it out again and change it if necessary until you are happy with the result. Until recently this is mostly how art has developed; it is still a valid process and one that I believe will keep your carving fresh and keep art moving on.

Transferring the design

Having chosen a suitable blank and scaled the design up or down, guidelines can be transferred to the wood in various ways. In this case I used carbon paper, then strengthened the lines with ballpoint pen. I often re-size designs on the computer and then simply stick a printout to the wood with contact adhesive or PVA glue.

Before carving can commence you need to remove the two piercings and cut the outline to shape. I used an electric scrollsaw, but it can be perfectly well tackled by hand with a coping saw or hand fretsaw. I always shade the parts to be removed; it is all too easy to follow the wrong line when concentrating on cutting! For similar reasons I often mark in felt pen the side of the lines to be lowered when setting in. If you spend five minutes marking at this stage, it can save a lot of heartache later.

Securing the piece for carving should present few problems. I clamped it in the dogs of a Workmate, but you will probably prefer something higher, and wedges would be as good as dogs. Alternatively you could grip it with a G-clamp or holdfast, moving it around as you work on different areas. Another solution is to screw or glue a stout block to the back and clamp this somehow at a convenient height.

This offers security and easy access to the whole of the front, however you will have poor access to the back of the carving and will have to remove the fixing later.

Equipment and personal preference will influence your decision. I have come to realise that my initial efforts at carving were hampered by 'workpiece mobility' and have noticed that many beginners suffer a similar complaint.


Once the whole piece was cleaned up with gouge and knife I sanded the chest, neck, head with 180grit until even, then down the grades to worn 300grit. The feathers and leaves, which were pretty smooth anyway, were left with their faint tool facets, receiving, along with the leaves, just a once over with the worn 300grit. Although I took care not to round the arises off I still needed to 'refresh' some edges with my knife.

To tint or not to tint?

This is a matter of personal preference. If you decide to tint the olive twig you can use wood stain, artists oil paint or permanent ink as I did. I find it best to sanding seal first, then rub down lightly, before applying the colour. This seems to give a more even colour and prevent colour bleeding along the grain. I then apply a thinned coat of sanding sealer before rubbing down again very lightly and waxing with the rest of the carving. Whatever method you use, above all else, try it out on a scrap of the same wood to make sure you are going to get the effect and colour you want.


Apart from the redesign of the head there are several ways in which I would approach a repeat of this design in a different way.

Having not modelled the design in 3D beforehand I was necessarily feeling my way as to how the feathers should be stacked, removing a little depth at a time to see what would look right. Having found what I consider to be a satisfactory solution I would, if I were to repeat the exercise, very likely remove a good deal of depth over the whole wing area, then redraw the design on the lowered 'plateau'. If you feel confident you may want to take this approach. 'Feeling your way' can, however, have its own benefits, and it will commit you less to my solution.

Woodworkers Institute

Tagged In:

russell parry , Birds , Dove for Peace

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"When you have a good idea for a carving it should never go to waste"


Which Tools To Choose?

This design can be carved with a very small selection of tools. Nearly all the setting in and shaping can be done with a flat, a No.2 and a No.3 about 10mm wide. Where the curves are a bit tighter, a narrower No.3 or No.4 allows the bulges and indents to be followed.
I used an 8mm, almost flat, backbent gouge to round over the leaves and head, but whilst I find this very handy, it is certainly not necessary here, and using the 'straights' upside down may even suit you better.
The eye will need a very small, half-round gouge to form the pupil, and the corners around the olive leaves can be formed and cleared out with the small No.4 and a small, almost flat gouge. I find a 2mm mushroom-handled palm gouge ideal.
Finally there is my short, straight-bladed knife. Mine is a Pfeil No.10 chip knife, but Kirschen and Flexcut offer very similar blade shapes. It is in constant use, deepening cuts, refining shapes, clearing out corners and undercuts, and generally severing bits that prove awkward with a gouge. If you don't already have one, splash out less than half the price of a gouge and see how it grabs you

Technical Breakdown

A turner's plate blank. Mine was of sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), 260mm (10 3/16in) in diameter and 32mm- (1 1/4in) thick. At this diameter anything between 25 and 38mm would work without modification. For other diameters, scale the thickness accordingly. Sycamore is a good choice as it is pale and good blanks are available quite cheaply. It is perhaps on the hard side, the more so other maples (Acer spp.) and if this is a problem you could choose a pale lime or bass (Tilia spp.), but the finished dove may be more yellow.
A hand drill and 5mm bit A coping saw A small Japanese pull-saw, or keyhole saw Gouges: 10mm flat; 10mm No.2; 10mm No.3; 8mm No.5; 5mm No.3; 10mm No.2 backbent; 2mm No.9; 8mm V tool. Also, a 2mm No.2 palm gouge for clearing out corners and a short bladed knife for general trimming and cleaning up.
Sanding sealer - I use shellac and talc in alcohol Clear paste wax - a beeswax/carnauba mix Green permanent ink, oil colour or woodstain.

Reference Point

As I was about to start on the head I decided to take a careful look at a real dove - or pigeon - in various reference books. I soon concluded that whilst the original was a passable head, the eye was too high and it looked more like a blackbird's head, with a hint of chough around the beak!
I redrew the eye, added the valley lines, and kept the best photo in front of me while carving the head and beak. The one problem I was barely able to overcome was that because the original beak was too long, in its correct position it barely grasps the twig. This shows the advantage of not narrowing your options too early with respect to detail - or rather my failure to bear this principle in mind!
When drawing your design and transferring it to the block I suggest that for the head you follow my finished carving rather than my outline drawing