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

1.8.15HumTile#1 001

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.

1.8.15HumTile#1 003


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.

1.8.15HumTile#1 014

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.

1.8.15HumTile#1 020

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.

1.8.15HumTile#1 022

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.

1.8.15HumTile#1 011

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.

1.8.15HumTile#1 029

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.

1.8.15HumTile#1 035

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

1.8.15HumTile#1 036

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.

Leave a Reply