Monthly Archives: January 2015

Relief carving a hummingbird: Beginning the Modeling Process

After another couple of hours of refinement the tile has developed into a fairly clear and complete design.  There is still a great deal of work to accomplish, but the majority of the removal of the “waste” material is now done:  I can see my way through the entire sculpture to the full depth of the background and, for the most part, the elevations and the angles and perspectives have been defined.  This is where the real fun begins as I endeavor to impart the life of the hummingbird and the flowers to the carving.

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I hear over and over “I could never do that”.  “I don’t have the patience to do that”.  Most people, I think, don’t have the patience to be a carver… when they start.  For many, such negative self-talk prevents them from ever discovering the creative soul that hides within them longing to be released.   Carving makes you patient.  You just have to desire to want to accomplish the project, to have the courage to begin.

After all, here I am removing material from my design with a small hand-held tool one single chip at a time:  There is no reason, really, why I can’t accomplish this except that I don’t believe that I can do  it, or that I grow impatient and make mistakes with my tool that I can’t correct.  The worst-case scenario is that I throw the piece away and start over again.   I have found my art to be a process of learning both how to overcome impatience and how to gain self- control and self-confidence.

When the Lord Jesus made me a sculptor, I didn’t even know that I could carve, and I was probably one of the most impatient persons on the planet.  But I was forced to do the work because I could not find another job and I had kids to feed.  I had to learn to carve and to do it well enough to be able to sell my work, and over time I started to become patient and disciplined.  Today I don’t think that there is much I cannot do, within the boundaries of my art at least.  I have accomplished two pieces of work that took above a thousand hours each to carve…one chip at a time.

There is no quick way to create high quality art or sculpture:  Here I am working my way deeper into the tile using small gouges that fit the specific outlines of the design.  My goal is to release and to clarify all the major elements of the design until they look well from every point of view and every shadow line is clean and works to accent and define the hummingbird and the flower group as realistically as is possible.

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Among the most important carving tools is the pencil.  I have a printed copy of my pattern pinned next to my tile, and I refer to it constantly to redraw my lines on the tile as I carve them away during the modeling process.  Otherwise I would immediately become lost and the carving would suffer.  One of the things that happens with a carving of any sort is that the pattern, drawn on paper in 2D, immediately distorts as it stretches into the added depth dimension of the carving.  The design instantly begins to expand and morph with the addition of 3D, and I have to use my eye and the pencil to continually adjust the carving so that it works visually.  Very quickly the pattern becomes just a secondary reference source and the carving itself begins to “take over” until, at a certain point, it, and not I, is primarily in control.

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Here you can see my efforts to explain the Catchflies, which are very densely grouped and which have turned out to be much more complex than I expected.  This whole area of the carving is going to take a lot more work than I originally thought.

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This is one of the small spoon gouges I use to level the ground on these tiles.  It is an antique Addis tool probably two hundred years old.

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The hummingbird is almost fully modeled.  At this stage I will most likely begin to use my Mastercarver flexible shaft tool with its array of special cutters and burrs to fine detail the contours of the bird’s body, and then I will use my Detail Master burning system to create the fletching of the feathers.  The flower group will require a lot of time to detail so that each element has vitality and the group does not appear “muddy” to the eye.

Relief Carving a Hummingbird: Setting in the Main Elements of the Design

The mini-router on the flexible shaft did the bulk of the roughing out, quickly getting rid of most of the waste material that otherwise would have been a pain in the keester to remove with gouges.  But the carbide cutters I used were all tapered from wide at the base to narrow at the tip and therefore all of the vertical surfaces, even those where I managed to get very close to my pattern line, are wider at the bottom (the background) than at the top (the foreground) of the design.  This means that as I carve into the relief the elements of the carving are going to become larger the deeper I go, and the pattern would be distorted.

So, the next step in the process is to take a gouge and to carefully remove the extra material on all vertical surfaces until they are perfectly perpendicular with the ground of the carving.  At this point I will carve to my lines exactly so that my pattern is registered all the way from the foreground to the background.  I will use a number 2 ½ gouge (the Chris Pye series) from Ashley Ilse for most of this work.  This series of gouges is just slightly curved away from perfectly flat and straight.  A perfectly straight chisel does cut an absolutely straight line, but it has a tendency to snag the material with the “horns” of the cutting edge (the outer corners of the sharpened edge)  and dig into the work if it rocks ever so slightly.  The #2 ½ gouge leaves an almost flat surface, but its slight curvature lifts the corners of the tool just enough to prevent this tendency and the damage it causes.  I went for years before I discovered the # 2 ½ series tools, and I now find them to be among my most used gouges.  If you are going to take up carving seriously, then I do recommend investing in the Chris Pye series set from Ashley Ilse.  You can go to Chris Pye’s website at or you can find them at

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Using a small #2 ½ gouge I am defining the tailfeathers of the hummingbird by carving to the pattern lines of the perimeter outline of the design all the way down to the ground level, about ¾” deep.  This will allow me to model the bird without losing its form too radically.  As I move from two dimensions into three there will be distortion which I will correct by eye until the sculpture “looks right” to the eye, which is the ultimate judge of its design.  Because the elements of the carving are so small, with the hummingbird and the flowers being sculpted “life sized”, the depth of the carving will permit me to create what amounts to “high relief” rather than “bas” or “low” relief.  The elements will be sculpted almost “in the round”.  However they will not quite be fully accurately rendered as if they were free standing sculpture, so I will be endeavoring to create illusions of depth and perspective even as I move around the deep curves of the design.

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I am using a carver’s straight fishtail chisel here to set in the frame of the tile.  In this situation only I do use a perfectly straight edge because the line I am cutting to is straight.  I am using a carver’s chisel, which differs from a carpenter’s chisel.  A woodworking chisel is only beveled on one side and is milled flat on the other.  This is ideal for planing surfaces and for squaring mortises and such.  It is not useful for carving as it often causes the chisel to dig into the work.  A carver’s chisel is beveled on both sides with the cutting edge of the blade centered where the bevels meet.  This allows the chisel to be “rocked” and maneuvered subtly as it glides across the surface of a carving so that it can account for variations in the contours of the surface without snagging on them.  The fishtail design of the gouge that is in the photo further allows the chisel to access tight corners and other difficult to reach areas that a heavier straight shank could not reach.

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This picture shows the very slight curve in the #2 ½ Chris Pye series gouges.  It is quite amazing that such a small variation from perfectly straight can mean so much when doing delicate detail work.  The other subtlety with these gouges is that the edge is double beveled.  The inside of the cutting edge is slightly beveled so that the center of the knife is midway in the steel.  This lets the tool be used when inverted as well as in a normal way giving it greater versatility, especially on outside curves.

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This tile has many levels of relief involved and they flow one into another very organically.  On the hummingbird I decided to visually aid myself by numbering the major planes to give myself some idea of where and where not to remove material.  I did this on a spare copy of the pattern.

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After cleaning up the perimeter outline of the design so that I have a fairly permanent idea of where things are all the way to the deepest levels of the ground, I then carefully lowered the frame portion of the tile about ¼ inch to permit element of the sculpture to “escape” from the tile.  I find that this makes for a more interesting piece of artwork.  I could capture the whole picture within the frame, but having a wing or part of a flower or another detail stand proud or a bit outside of the limitations of the boundaries that the frame imposes seems to add life.

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When carving in the HDU, and also in wood, any time I have to deal with a small element like this corner or one of the points of a flower or like the point of the bill of the hummingbird, I carve from the tip of  the point in toward the heavier body of the material.  The pressure of the blade of the tool against the stock, be it foam or wood, on such a small area often is sufficient to cause the stock to break before the blade cuts through and that detail will be ruined.  By carving into the heavier backing the pressure is absorbed and the edge of the tool can do its work with much less risk.  Also, when carving such small elements, the rule is to take very tiny cuts.  It is always easier to remove wood than it is to replace it.

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With the frame lowered to the level of the four ¾” thick pieces of HDU that I am using as clamping blocks on the carving easels, and which happen also to give me a precise depth register for the ¼” backset I want for my perimeter framing, I now have begun to model the hummingbird.  The tip of the right wing is the foremost point on the entire carving, and everything else registers from that point.  My challenge is to create the illusion that the hummingbird is suspended in the air in front of a group of RoundLeaf Catchflies that are waving in the wind.

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Here I have begun to find where the flowers fit into the design

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I hope I have not bitten off more than I can chew.  Roundleaf Catchfly flowers are very complex and quite small.  Trying to render them accurately is proving to be a real challenge.  I have developed the one in the lower right quite a bit and have worked some more on defining the planes and angles of the group in relation to the hummingbird.  I have also spent a bit more time shaping and positioning the hummingbird.

A Small Table-Top Carving Easel

Before I could continue with this small tile, I realized I needed a more efficient carving easel.  I like to carve much of the time at home rather than in my rather small workshop which is presently at a distance from where we are living and is cold during the winter months and has to be heated by a space heater that only partially takes the chill off.  As much as I can I prefer  to hang out where I can talk with my wife and take breaks on the computer or by reading a book.

Anyhow, since these bas-relief tiles are all going to be in the 12”x 12” or small range, I came up with this simple fold up easel made from ¾” plywood that will clamp to my table.  It cost maybe $15 for the materials and a couple of hours of time to build.

The spacers are made from scrap Corafoam and hold the tile in the center of the easel at a convenient working height.  The easel is hinged at the bottom so that I can set it at several different angles as I might need them.

I can see a number of ways to “improve” the design and make it a bit more convenient.  And I’m sure I’ll discover some tweaks that it will need as I stumble across problems that I haven’t anticipated.  But for now I think that it will work just fine as I set about this enterprise of creating these master carvings for the resin castings.

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Carving a Hummingbird in Bas Relief

I am beginning the first tile in the hummingbird series carved in the 28lb Corafoam.  Just handling the material I have already noticed how much more dense and less coarse in structure it is than the 20lb HDU that I used for my first set of tiles.  Even the 20lb Corafoam was wonderful to work with, so the 28lb is certain to be even better and the 31lb will be amazing.  God knows what the 43lb must be like.

Here is the pattern as I have drawn it for this particular tile.  The male Ruby Throat hummingbird is life-sized and is feeding on a group of Round leaf Catch-fly.  (You would wish that whoever named such a beautiful wildflower might have thought more imaginatively about the name…oh well.)


Using carbon paper I have now transferred the pattern to the dimensioned tile of HDU.  I then darkened the outline of the pattern with a fine Sharpie so that as I remove background material with my flexible shaft tool I am better able to see what I am doing.  These hummingbird tiles are quite small because of the diminutive size of the subject matter, and even the small size of the tools that I use to do the carving work and the relatively large size of my hands gets in the way and often blocks my view of the pattern lines I am trying to carve to.  With carvings this small and refined there is almost no room for mistakes because the smallest deviation in a line or a shadow seriously affects the way the eye sees the realism of, in this case, the bird or the flower.

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With larger carvings I will use a plunge router to set in the background and remove waste material.  (I have both a Makita and a Porter Cable.)  In other eras this was done by mallet and gouge or by use of a hand router of some sort, but in our more sophisticated times we have many tools that make the “grunt work” easier and faster.  I am absolutely convinced that if Grinling Gibbons or Adam Kraft had access to the advanced power tools we have now, they would have filled their shops with them in a heartbeat because they were professional carvers and businessmen and they needed to make a living just as we do.  They would have used any tool to get the job done, provided that tool did not compromise the quality of their work or diminish the value of the finished project.  When I use a router to get rid of excess wood it allows me to more quickly arrive at the place where I can put my best creative efforts into making the carving beautiful.

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For this small piece I am not using a full sized router.  I have two flexible shaft machines, a Foredom and a Mastercarver.  The Mastercarver handpiece has a useful attachment that turns it into a mini-router, and the HDU foam material is ideally suited to being shaped by the various carbide and diamond cutters that I use in my power carving.  For removing the excess background I am using a fairly coarse tapered carbide cutter and then increasingly narrow tapered diamond cutters and am relieving the ground to  about 5/8”.  I am carefully trimming as close to my lines as I can without touching them, and the tapered points will leave the base of the patterned areas wider than the pattern itself so I will not risk cutting into my design.  I will eventually use gouges and careful power carving to exactly shape the details of each element of the sculpture, but that will come at a later stage.

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This shows the tile after routing with the coarse carbide cutter and a medium diamond point

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The narrow diamond cutters systematically allow me to work into smaller, narrower areas

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The roughing out is now complete.  I will use my gouges to render every vertical surface perfectly perpendicular.  Because these tiles are going to be used to create molds and then castings, I am going to avoid any undercuts.  Undercut areas can cause problems when the time comes to remove a casting from a mold because they become “hangups”.  With small carvings like these, and with minimal undercuts, this probably would not be much of a problem, especially since the silicone rubber mold materials are quite flexible, but I am purposefully avoiding any issues.  In the future I do intend to create more complex sculptures that will involve undercuts, but the mold-making and casting processes involved with these projects will be different.


This particular post is about chainsaw sculpture.  I say “sculpture” because I am not a “chainsaw carver” per se.   Thirty years of classical carving and other highly detailed woodworking has made it almost impossible for me to leave a log in a less than “refined” state.   I start out with a chainsaw, but usually end up with my mallet and gouges in hand before I decide a sculpture is finished.

Of course, pragmatically speaking, if I am trying to carve to the market, I will deliberately stop myself at times before I have invested all the time that might be spent on a piece simply because there is a point of diminishing return.  I have discovered that a lot of folks seem to think that American artist/craftsmen should be working at Chinese or Asian prices.  (Something is wrong with this picture.)  There are a lot of very skilled chainsaw artists out there who ought to be recognized for their talent and their work and very well compensated, but who are forced to be hacking out cheap junk bears and other garbage carvings because the majority of people don’t appreciate any longer the value of true creativity or the price an artist pays to become the master of his craft.

Most people do not realize, or care to know, that the stuff that comes from Asia is made by nearly enslaved labor in sweat-shop factories that turn artists into human machines who are working under such conditions because they cannot escape them and they have to survive or die.  We, in America, simply cannot compete on this ground.



Back to the point of this part of the blog:  Chainsaw art is a sub-set of woodcarving that has been growing in popularity for a number of years now.  It is more visceral than other carving:   There is something very satisfying about creatively destroying trees with the most dangerous hand-held power tool on the planet.  It used to be that chainsaw carving was dominated by big hulking men, but today some of the most talented artists are petite women who bring to the academy a creative vision that includes much more than bears and eagles.   The art form is now circling the globe, and a Google search will discover that artists from other countries certainly think much differently than do American chainsaw sculptors.

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Cherie Currie – The Chainsaw Chick    and Deborah Lloyd of New Zealand

I hope that this blog will become for some an exploration of the art.  I will share what I am doing and learning.  I would like others to do the same.  I will offer what advice I might have, and answer any questions or try to point you to someone who can.   I will share photos of great carvings as I discover them, and links to other sites.  I am in process of reinventing our life after having it trashed by Hurricane Sandy:  Marilyn and I are rebuilding from the ground up in a completely new part of the country and I think that chainsaw art may become part of the product inventory that I offer as I reestablish Sonrise Woodcarving Studio.   We live near to the Appalachian and Great Smoky mountains, and these areas are big tourist draws with many venues that support chainsaw art.  I am sure that this part of our adventure will make for some interesting blogging.   I desire very much that this blog become a lively conversation with many participants, and only ask that the topics remain relevant and the general atmosphere civil.

All chainsaw artists need to be able to carve bears.  This is a photo of  my first real effort to accomplish something more than a “typical” chainsaw bear.  I spent about 80 hours releasing this lifesize black bear from a 9′ by 46″ red oak log.  I did most of the heavy work with my Stihl MS200T chainsaw with a 12″ dime-tip carving bar and a quarter-pitch chain and then did the detailing with my Arbortech carvers and my Automach.  The bird on the bear’s head is a sarcastic raven, which, unfortunately, did not photograph all that well.  Other details in the carving included two rattlesnakes and a raccoon hiding in the pile of rocks.   The sculpture is in the Delaware WaterGap/Montague, NJ area, near High Point State Park, which has one of the highest counts of black bears in the country and also is timber rattlesnake habitat.


This Great Blue Heron was carved from a piece of white pine.  There is a lily pad with a flower and a frog between the bird’s feet.  The dragonfly is an ad-on of birch and mahogany.   Eastern white Pine is a more durable and weather resistant pine, favored by chainsaw artists.  It is a softwood and carves quickly.  All pines tend to “check” because of their high moisture content.  Chainsaw sculpture is done in “green” wood.  It is almost impossible to dry a log.. to remove its cellular moisture the wood before carving it.  It takes about a year per inch of thickness to air-dry a board to 15% moisture, which is considered “stable”, and a log is generally too thick to set aside for the necessary time.   Because of this all chainsaw type carvings, if they are done in “wild wood”, will check or split as they slowly dry out.  This is because as the water that is in the cells (wood is about 85% water when it is alive) slowly evaporates, and the then hollow cells begin to shrink.  This cellular shrinkage creates tensions that must be released as the dimension of the wood grows smaller  (a log is a closed circle), so in softwoods this usually means there will be one or two large splits, and in most hardwoods there will be a number of smaller checks and cracks throughout the whole carving.  In most cases this checking does not overly affect the appearance of a sculpture and it usually adds “character” to the piece.  In some situations a severe crack needs to have a piece of wood inserted and then recarved as a repair.   There are steps that we can take which can sometimes help to minimize these natural processes.  Any carver with integrity guarantees his work for life and will always work with a client to deal with such issues.


This barn owl is also carved from a white pine limb.  I had a lot of chunks of pine because the highway department was clearing the power lines along the highway near where we were living and they were leaving the wood where it fell.  I got a great deal of exercise that Spring and Summer collecting carving stock.  Most chainsaw sculptors are very environmentally sensitive.  There is rarely a need to cut down a tree simply to do a carving, though in specific cases a particular tree might be the only one suitable for a special sculpture.  Trees are being felled all of the time, either by arborists or by nature, and there is always a supply of wood suitable for sculpture without cutting standing timber.   There are also standing dead trees that can be sculpted “on the stump”.   Even a living tree can be carved, as long as care is taken and the artist understands something about trees and horticulture.