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.)

Pattern1

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.

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