Stylised owl

This simple little project of a stylised owl is a gentle introduction to the art of woodcarving aimed at the beginner, with minimum outlay on tools as it only requires the use of two gouges. It is also a very good initial exercise in gaining practical experience of how to approach the different grain directions — as marked with the red arrows.

The scale designs supplied can easily be altered or adapted to incorporate your own ideas if you wish to, which is very much encouraged.

The wood used in the example is a piece of American black walnut which is a pleasure to carve but quite hard in density and much less forgiving when carved close to the grain direction. If you would prefer a softer and easier species to work with then lime is a good choice as it is quite soft and very forgiving when carved close to the grain. Walnut is, however, far more aesthetically pleasing when finished compared to the rather bland colour and figuring of the lime and is also better suited for this subject.

Before you start working on the owl read through the complete step guide and study the stages and finished images to see how the form develops. This will help you to familiarise yourself with the finished form that you will be trying to produce. It is very important to ensure that the grain of your block is running vertically through the design.

1. Scan or photocopy the scale drawings provided, enlarging them to the correct size for your wood. Print them out onto card and use them as templates to transfer the designs onto the front and side of your perfectly square, prepared block, ensuring that they are in precise alignment with each other and that there is enough spare wood at the base to attach to your faceplate, 30-40mm.

2. Cut the front view profile out first, then re-form the square block using masking tape and continue to cut the side view profile. To help simplify the shaping around the lower edges of the owl, cut along the horizontal lines at the very bottom edge on both faces, as if you were going to cut it off the base, but stopping at 20mm before the centre of the owl on all sides, leaving the form attached to the base by a 40mm square section underneath it.

3. Mount your form securely onto your vice and then measure and mark centre lines on all four sides of the form using a flexible rule to assist you.

4. The next step is to cut out the upper part of the head and beak from your template and use it as a guide to transfer these details accurately directly onto your wood. Be careful not to bend the template or you will end up distorting the design.

5. Use the No.9/10 to carve a groove directly along the outside of the lines on both sides of the head, from the tip of the beak up to the position of the ears.

6. Use the No.2/20 to pare the wood back to the depth of the No.9 cuts. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you create a tapered depth from approximately 3mm underneath the beak, 8mm along the side of it and up to 15mm underneath the ears.

«Use the No. 2/20 to pare the wood back to the depth of the No.9 cuts».

7. The area where the eyes will be positioned can now be evenly curved; from the line of the head that you have just produced, around to the centre line on the side view, and down to the half way position where the grain changes direction.

8. This upper part of the head can now be evenly curved and naturally shaped all over; from the tip of the beak up to the horizontal centre line between the ears.

9. Next move to the lower section of the owl; working from just below the middle line on the square edge down to the feet, and repeating the process of creating an even contour across the body, but from the centre line below the beak on the front face to the centre line on the side. If you attempt to carve in a downward direction from the very middle position, you may find that the wood will lift and split here due to the grain changing directions.

10. The middle position can now be evenly blended into the areas above and below it but this time carving ‘across’ the grain.

11. At this point we just want to create the general shaping of the feet and surrounding areas, we shall return to finish them later, in step 26. Use the No.9/10 gouge to create an even curve from the centre line on the side to the centre line on the front. Blend it evenly into the area above with the No.2/20.

12. You can now curve the lower edge from centre to centre.

13. Your carving should now look something like this. Ensure to study the form from all angles to ensure that it is symmetrical on both sides. A good visual position to do this is from above looking down over the body to the feet; square your eyes on the flat edge of the base and use your peripheral vision to check that the depths are even up through the form. Make any adjustments if necessary to produce a clean even surface.

14. Use the same methods as outlined above to produce a beautiful even contour from the centreline on the top of the head down through the body to the base of the feet.

Top tips

In the early stages of learning woodcarving, one of the most common miscalculations is to be overcautious when establishing the main form of the subject, thus creating a form that is too square in appearance. Always be aware of th/s fact and be confident to continue curving the edges until you create natural contours around the form.

15. Your carving should now look like this.

16. The next step, using your template as a guide, is to measure out from the centreline and mark onto your wood the precise position of the eyes of the owl. Use a drawing compass to draw the eye circles and then the No,9/10 gouge to carefully carve a groove directly around the outside of these lines.

17. Use the No.2/20 to pare the wood evenly into the surrounding areas. Repeat steps 16 and 17 until you reach a depth of approximately 4-5mm at the outer edge.

18. Now use the No.9/10 gouge again to carve a groove directly around the outside of the inner eye circles.

19. Carefully blend this evenly into the surrounding areas of the larger circle, and then finally pare over the outer square edge to produce a gentle connection between the eyes and the body.

Top tips

If you would prefer a sharper detailed finish on the eyes and beak you could use a No.12/8mm — V-Tool — to ‘sketch’ around their outline. This will naturally delineate their shape and add more shadow to these areas.

20. At this stage before you carve the wings of the owl, it is good practice to sand over the entire surface and details, which will bring them to life and allow you to visually check that the contours are all evenly curved around the complete owl. Use a piece of 100 grit aluminium oxide sandpaper, preferably Abranet, carefully following the line of the grain where possible, and work across the entire surface of the owl, completely removing all tool marks and smoothing the details naturally together.

21. Using the templates provided as a guide to help you, draw the lower line of the wings onto the sides and back of your owl. Check them from all angles for symmetry. When you are happy all is correct and in proportion, carve a groove directly along the outside of their line.

22. Blend the depth of the groove evenly into the surrounding areas. Repeat steps 21 and 22 until you reach a depth of approximately 6-7mm.

23. The area below the back of the wings and just above the feet will lastly need to be evenly blended together.

24. Using the templates again to assist you, draw the upper line of the wings onto your wood and cut a groove directly along the outside of them.

25. Blend the grooves evenly into the surrounding areas. Repeat steps 24 and 25 until you reach a depth of approximately 6-7mm.

26. Finally, we return to the separation of the front feet. Using the front view template as a reference to help you, measure and mark onto your wood the area in between the feet that is to be removed — approximately a third of the width of this lower edge. Use the No.9/10 to carve the groove in this centre position, down to a depth of approximately 6mm. Use the No.2/20 to curve the connecting areas evenly into the center groove, and then to create a natural contour over the square front edge.


27. Start with 100 grit again and work over the areas that you have just carved, naturally blending them into their surrounding areas. Dust off the surface thoroughly and then brush or pour hot water over the complete owl and leave it to dry, thus raising the grain and allowing the following grit to be worked more easily and effectively. Next, work through grits 150, 240 and 400 over the complete owl and repeat the hot water process in between each grit. A hair dryer can be employed to dramatically accelerate the drying process if you wish. The carving can now be cut off the faceplate base and sanded along the bottom edge!


28. Dark species of wood such as the one used in this example -American black walnut — look extremely beautiful when finished with a combination of boiled linseed oil with a wax polish on top. The boiled linseed oil darkens and enriches the colour and figuring of the grain and the wax adds protection from UV, engraining dust and ultimately produces a lovely professional finish. If you wish to use this combination of finish, don’t strive to realty soak the wood with the oil, it literally just needs enough to penetrate the grain and pores of the wood. If you soak it with oil, it takes a very long time to dry properly enough for the wax to give a good finish and it can also clog and go rubbery in corners, requiring it to be scratched out. Another important fact to be aware of when using oil finishes, is that the cloths used for applying the oil are extremely vulnerable to spontaneous combustion and must be disposed of carefully and safely — ensure that you always read the safety instructions on the label about this!

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