How to Carve Birds for Competitions

Monday 9 July 2018

For those of us with a competitive streak, the aesthetic and creative satisfaction of carving is eventually overtaken by the nagging doubt, “Are my carvings better than other people's” I accept that those who aren't competitive tend to think that the question is either irrelevant or even obscene when applied to arts and crafts but, if you are driven to compete, that is no help.

As a member of the British Decoy Wildfowl Carvers Association (BDWCA), the opportunity exists to answer the question of how good one's carvings are by entering their annual British Championships.

Although there are categories for Fish and Carved Sticks, the event is really about carved birds. So, if you are already into that, why not have a go? If your decision is yes, you are going to want to know what to carve and, if you're really serious, you'll want to know how to win. In either case, you'll have to make some choices.

For illustration, I have used the work of members of Severn Wildlife Carvers, affiliated to the BDWCA.

What style of bird?

Your current approach to bird carving may be to select a suitable species: find a piece of wood of the right size with a rich colour and grain and render it in a simplified form with limited detail before applying a high polish. The result can look terrific and, within our competition, there is the Interpretive Category for such carvings (see photo 1).

The piece will be judged on artistry, craftsmanship and the effective portrayal of the chosen bird. If that's your forte, go with it; the possibility of ending up an Open Class winner beckons. However, that may be as far as you'll get, as I'm not aware of an Interpretive carving ever winning the ultimate accolade of British Champion. To win that prize, you have to look further.

To move deeper into the world of competitive bird carving involves using paints and covering up all the attractive wood grain. For some, I know that represents a form of sacrilege but, in our defence, I would point out that much of the wood that we do paint would not be very striking if it were polished.

The reason why we do paint is simple: in all the remaining categories, we are trying to produce something that looks real.

For the Decoy Categories, the target is to make your carving look sufficiently like a real bird to fool another bird at a distance, so how hard can that be? Although shapes are relatively simple, a major part of creating a keeled decoy (see photo 2)

is making it float correctly: the painting, however minimalist it may appear, is the other big test (see photo 3). Even if successful, the title of British Champion is unlikely to come your way. For that, one needs to carve a fully textured bird.

The criterion for judging a fully textured bird is simple. It is the live bird and the best carvers get very close to that (see photo 4). The work content is around 10 times that to produce an Interpretive and can involve a much wider range of skills.

It is largely for these reasons that the British Champion is usually drawn from these ranks.

Which textured category?

Brimming with confidence you may be,but you need to appreciate where the main competition will be found before choosing your category.

Waterfowl are always strongly represented but you must remember that the live bird can be big. One does see life-size swans but the carvers tend to become suicidal towards the end of such a project. As a result, waterfowl in this context usually means ducks.

Songbirds are the biggest category partly because it is the catch-all and includes, for example, Kingfishers whose song doesn't immediately come to mind. These birds are often small but that doesn't mean they are easy to carve.

There's something macho about birds of prey and game which are always very strongly contested (see photo 5). Sea and shorebirds do attract fewer entries but those long legs introduce other problems (see photo 6).

For possibly the least crowded category, why not try a miniature, which is defined as half-size or less, with a maximum length? However, small doesn't really reduce the work content and it can be one of the hardest to do.

Which bird?

There's no evidence that any particular species wins more than another, however, your choice is important.

One must always remember that one of the essential criteria that the judges measure against is accuracy. If you wish to carve a rare Mongolian frog eater, do you really know what it looks like from every angle? Be sure that if you only guessed, one of the judges will have just returned from an ornithological study in that country. I recently spent time chasing after displaying peacocks to find out what happened at the back, as nobody seemed to have ever taken such a photo. The result was not what I would have guessed (see photo 7).

On the other hand, pick a mallard and everyone will know what it should look like and whether you've got it wrong.

How to impress?

There's not a lot you can do to impress in my experience, although that may be unfair. Obviously the spectacular bird is going to have an impact but only one of my macaws (see photo 8) survived the scrutiny of the judges. However, it is probably a safer bet in competition than the ordinary bird in a complex setting (see photo 9). The entire carving is judged, and adding complexity involves more risk of inaccuracy. While you may receive a high mark for Artistry & Originality, it does not seem to outweigh an obvious error. Show your owl catching a mouse, and it's very irritating if you miss out because the mouse has the wrong number of whiskers.

Should one therefore go for the most simple of shapes? It is tempting as there is the minimum number of things to go wrong. Rendered well, it is hard to beat if only on the basis that a low score for Artistry and Originality can be easily outweighed by high marks for Accuracy, Craftsmanship and Essence of Species.

And don't think you can emulate the creative writer and read those books penned by the judge before writing your short story in the same style. Novice, Intermediate and Open each have three judges who must come to a consensus on their decisions, and then all nine decide the British Champion. There's no way to anticipate what will appeal to them who have all have won at Open level.

However, all is not lost for those who believe that the visual impact of their carving is more important than whether it has the correct number of tail feathers thanks to the Artistic Interpretation category.

What else should you add?

Birds that do not require a base have the further advantage and can easily meet the rule on use of materials. This states that, at Open Level, to which you aspire, the only ready-made items that can be bought, and used as such, are glass eyes. For everything else, it has to be made by you.

One of the worst to make is legs. Novice and Intermediate can fit pre-cast metal legs (see photo 10) but, at Open, these must be made by the carver. The long legs of the shorebird are not too much of a problem but to make those of a songbird is an exercise in precision metalwork. Thin legs can cause structural problems with time or over a long car journey, resulting in your carving apparently bowing to the judges (see photo 11).

Sit your bird on an old fence post and, for competition, your block of wood must be carved and painted to look like an old fence post. Stand it on a rock, and the rock, too, must be carved and painted (see photo 12). As a check on authenticity, I once made a number of wooden pebbles, mixed them with the originals and asked my wife if she could pick which was which (see photo 13). Foliage presents a particular problem because it must be made to look realistically thin (see photo 14), but not be so fragile that it never reaches the judging table. Even the polished base must be made. That duck sat directly onto the table seems easier and easier. But, having said that, one of the most memorable carvings for me was a blue tit standing on a carved and painted apple. That apple was the most luscious and perfect one could imagine.

Is making your bird fly a winner?

A major aim in carving fully textured birds is to make a lump of wood look as soft as feathers. Indeed, members of the public at exhibitions often ask if we achieve our effect by sticking real feathers onto a wooden base. However, there is something the public like even more so. At some point, every carver tries to make a bird that appears to be flying. It is, in many ways, the ultimate challenge. The illusion can be achieved in two ways. The flying bird touching a wingtip against a slim reed or other object (see photo 15) presents a structural challenge but is the most popular as it appears to defy gravity. The other is the bird rising from the water where it is apparently suspended just above the surface, raising problems with materials and concealing the contact point. Is it worth the trouble? It isn't a sure winner but it is fun to do and so amusing to see people wondering how you achieved the effect.

So you have made your choices?

If you've not been put off along the way, you'll have made your choice of what to carve, in what style and in what stance. If you start as a carver only of Interpretive birds, I hope you will now have appreciated the attraction of the much more complex alternatives. Do you now understand better why we paint wood, and are you even prepared to have a try? If so, you'll want to know more about how. I hope that even the 'non-believers' will be tempted to visit our annual exhibition of bird carving at Bakewell to look at what has been achieved, and to do so with a greater understanding of the choices that have faced the carver.