Little owls

The little owl is one of the most widely distributed species of owl, native to warmer parts of Europe, North Africa, and Asia east to Korea. It was introduced to Great Britain in the 19th century, and to southern New Zealand in the early 20th century. As the name would suggest, it’s not the largest bird, measuring from 230-275mm in length. It is recognisable by its white speckled brown plumage, large head, long legs, yellow eyes and its distinctive white eyebrows’ which give it a somewhat stern expression. The little owl is partly diurnal, so you don’t have to go out under cover of darkness to find one, often in mixed farmland and parkland.

Things you will need…

• Wood

• Dimensions:

For owl No.1: 250 x 110 x 110mm For owl No.2: 140 x 140 x 260mm

• Rotary motor unit with flexible shaft

• Drum shaped burr/sander

• Coarse & medium grit taper burrs

• 6mm medium grit straight burr

• Fine grade Ruby flame burr with a diamond point

• Two ball-nosed stones (14 & 12mm)

• facemask, dust mask and extraction

• Abrasives, including drum sanders with grit grades down to 240 grit

• Acrylic paints

• Airbrush

• A suitable piece of timber for the plinth

1. Here you can see the prepared sections for the bird with the outspread wing. I used jelutong, but you can use lime or basswood. These timbers are easy to work and hold detail well, but jelutong seems to work best for me when I make birds.

2. The birds use a similar production method and I use power tools where ever I can for the shaping and detail. Of course, not everyone likes using power tools as there is a lot more dust produced which means you have to have extraction and wear face protection/dust masks to minimise exposure to dust. However, it is a very effective way of working. As with this wing, the initial shaping is completed using a coarse or medium-toothed cutter — in this case a cone-shaped one is used here — and once shaped it is sanded smooth down to 240 grit.

3. Now take a pencil and draw in all the feathers on the top and underside ready for carving

4. Use a square-end cylinder burr/drum shaped burr to block in the feather shapes and then finish off with a fine-grit Ruby carver. Now sand everything smooth.

5. If everything has gone well you will end up with a wing that looks like this.

6. Use the cone-shaped burr seen earlier to shape the main body blank and then use a medium grit straight burr to cut the recess for the wing.

7. You need to check the wing for fit regularly and adjust as necessary. Once you have a nice tight fit, refine the body shape a little further. If you choose not to colour this bird, then you need to have the wing fit absolutely perfect to minimise the risk of the join being seen. Whilst the wing will not be glued in place until later, a tip is to sand the join whilst the glue is slightly wet; this will allow the dust to mix with the glue and form a natural ‘filler’ which is hard to see once the bird is finished.

8. Now draw all the feathers on the body ready for carving. You must study the bird you choose to carve closely to get the correct shapes of the feathers. Experts will spot if something is not right and that is not good if you intend to sell or display your work.

9. Once the body detail is complete you can block in the shapes of the feathers on the folded wing and then use a small taper burr to refine the feathers further. When this is done you can sand them smooth.

10. Now carve all the feathers on the breast. After the shapes are carved in you need to use a sanding drum to sand all the breast smooth. Next, use a bull-nosed stone to carve in the feather flow. The breast feathers are fluffy and pillowy looking and not as severely delineated as the wing feathers.

11. Use a medium burr to block in the shape of the face and bill, then use a small round burr to carve in the eye sockets.

12. Using the same cutter, cut in some grooves on the top of the head where the feather detail needs to be.

13. Soften the grooves and use a taper burr to carve in more refined feather detail, then use a bull-nosed stone to smooth the head of the bird. Use a Ruby taper to start carving in the bill area and around the eyes.

14. Use a diamond taper to refine the bill area and round the eyes. Now test the eye piece to make sure it fits, then remove it — it will be fixed in place later on

15. Next, draw the feathers, back and cape, and carve them in using a small tapered diamond or Ruby burr.

16. Using the same tool, carve in the tail feathers from the top of the bird to the bottom used to go over the rump and upper tail coverts and tail to create texture. This texture is not so deep as to become hard edges, but is defined enough to show through the Gesso and help with the feather detail later.

17. Use a small bull-nosed stone to go over the rump and upper tail coverts and tail to create texture. This texture is not so deep that it creates hard edges, but is defined enough to show through the Gesso and help with the feather detail later.

18. Now it is time to fix the eye in place; plastic wood is ideal for this. Put a small amount in the socket and then push the eye in place. You have time to align the position of the eye — not only how it sits, but also where the eye is looking. Make sure both point and sit correctly in relation to each other. Now leave them to set. Again, using plastic filler, create the eye rings and then blend out the filler to create the required detail. At this stage, stop and continue with the second owl.

Owl No.2

19. Here is the roughed out blank. The shaping method is effectively the same as for the other bird, but you do not have a separate wing to fix in place, so this one is a little easier to make.

«Use the Ruby taper to shape the bill and eye area».

20. Using the ball or coned-shaped cutter, put some grooves in to show the flow of the feathers and add some grooves to the head.

21. The next phase of shaping is carried with the the cone-shaped toothed cutter.

22. It may sound tedious but the drawing in of the face needs to be done and also done well. The proportions have to be correct. Once drawn, rough shape the facial features and then…

23. … you are ready to cut in the holes for the eyes.

24. Use the Ruby taper to shape the bill and eye area. Next, using a sanding bobbin, smooth out the grooves of the head. Take a high-speed grinder and a small diamond point and put in detail around the eyes. These radial grooves are important so note the position and the angle. How many you add will have an impact. Do a bit of studying to ensure you get this right.

25. After sanding out the grooves on the body, draw in the feather flow. Using a bull-nosed stone, start from the outside of the feather, carve inwards to make soft feather edges.

26. Draw in the wing feathers ready to carve, then use the Ruby taper to carve in the wing feathers.

27. Use a small Ruby taper to carve in the tail feathers. Again, use the same tool to carve in primaries. Once complete, make sure the bird is smooth and then you will need to use a pyrography unit to burn in the detail.

Pyrographing detail

28. Irrespective of which bird you are working on, the typical stages are as follows: Burn in the head and face feathers. A chisel-edge or scalpel-edged pyrography blade is ideal for creating the incised fine detail. The narrow edge on the tip is great for creating shallow or deep detail and this type of tip can also be used on its side so you can shade using the wider flat face. You can also burn in the detail further down the back of the bird, too.

29. Draw in breast feathers down the under-tail coverts…

30. Аnd then burn in all drawn in feathers. Note how the incisions are further apart than those on the head.

31. Now burn in all feather shafts and then carry on burning the back feathers. These are important as all the incised lines radiate from these.

32. You can then move on to burning the feathers on the wing using the pyrography pen.

33. This photo shows the wing burnt on the top and bottom.

34. Next, outline and then burn the tail feathers…

35. … then do the same to the under-tail feathers. Once the whole bird is completed, it is now time to turn your attention to the owl’s feet.

Making the feet

36. The feet are cast using pewter and the legs are made from thin copper tubing and copper-coated steel rods. I make my own so I can control the shape, size and ultimately the look of them to suit each bird I work on. You can buy cast and sculpted feet ready made, so check the catalogues and the Internet if you do not wish to make your own.

37. I normally coat feet with epoxy sculp, which you can texture before it dries. You can also use a burr on this area when dry to refine the detail and also apply colour later on to finish it off. Next, the body of the bird can be drilled and the legs then glued in place.

The base

The gnarly section of wood is a piece of bog oak which was dry. The base can be shaped further or altered from its original state by using a selection of burrs. If you wish you can then sand blast or wire brush the base to accentuate the ruggedness of it. Once you are happy with how the birds fit on the base, you can then paint them with acrylics. The highlights shown in the main photo are created using a dry-brush method which involves brushing over the high spots with very little paint applied to the brush. I eventually placed the piece of bog oak on a block of walnut.

Gesso and painting

38. Undercoat the face and all under parts with white gesso. Using an airbrush and dark brown mix, which is burnt umber, put in dark markings following the feather flow.

39. Using the same dark brown, paint the back and top of the head.

40. Using a rigger paintbrush and white gesso, starting from the outer edge of the feathers, and paint the edge of the feathers.

41. Be sure to go over this area several times using dark and light until you achieve the effect you’re looking for.

42. Using a small rigger and white gesso, put in all the small markings over the head.

43. This photo shows you the effect I am trying to achieve.

44. Use an airbrush and white paint to put in the light markings on the back wings and the tail. Then, adjust this further with a brush as required.

45. Using a rigger and white paint, highlight some of the white markings. With a fine-liner and a dark mix, put in some splits.

You can see the underside of the loose wing clearly showing the necessary detail…

46. … and here you can see the top face of the wing painted and ready to be inserted


The top bird needs to have its wing attached and glued in place. Once the glue is dry, a small amount of paintwork is required to disguise the join. The base also needs to have the dry brushwork added. Be sure to allow plenty of time between drying time and fitting the birds and base together. Once everything is dry, the lower bird can be fitted in place and then the open-winged bird can be fitted on the top section of wood above the lower bird, shielding it with its wing.

Of course its position is vital to make this carving work — it is the difference between creating a feeling of protectiveness or just showing the owl having a good old stretch! Anyway, think about the placement carefully.

47. Here is the finished carving showing both owls.

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