Carving Miniature Figureheads

Monday 9 July 2018

I have been creating ship models and carving in miniature as a full-time profession for over 45 years. This career is a natural outgrowth of my interests. I have always been interested in ships, working with wood, miniature objects, fine tools, and creating things with my hands.

These traits and interests inexorably led to my development as an artist. Originally, my interest in carving was just part of the process needed to create a ship model. Gradually, I became drawn to the marine sculptures used as figureheads and embellishments on ships, and wanted to create large-scale replicas of them; by this I mean larger than 6mm high figures!

To this end, I created two state barges at 1:24 scale: the Barge of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the Barge of Napoleon I, both around 815mm (32in) long. This larger-scale gave me scope for intricate details, though I have carved figureheads as small as 64ft to 1in, which would result in a figure just over 6mm high.

Now I am creating a collection of miniature ship figureheads, no more than 125mm high, and which will incorporate all the most excellent prototypes, around 100 in all.


Research is, ultimately, simply learning about a specific subject in depth. I have spent decades studying ship construction in order to create accurate replicas. Likewise, when I wanted to carve a miniature replica of a human skeleton, I plunged into a deep study of human anatomy. The result must not only have the basic structure correct (bones) but must articulate properly.

Tools and materials

I use both power and hand tools, but even tools powered by an electric motor are controlled by the hand, mind and spirit of the artist, and thus the result is 'hand carving'. True 'power carving' would have all aspects controlled by machine. CNC milling is an example. I make many of my own hand tools from broken 2.4mm shank tools. They are ground down to shape and then lapped on 2000grit silicon carbide paper; they do not need to be tempered as they are tool steel.

Most of my miniature ship models are created from apple (Malus sylvestris), pear (Pyrus communis), holly (Ilex spp), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and boxwood (Buxus sempervirens).

For miniature carving, I use boxwood exclusively. I prefer to cut my own, as the commercial wood does not have the fine, dense structure I require.


When carving, I no longer draw on the block of wood. I have a very definite idea of exactly what I want and how to achieve it. I work all aspects of a carving at once, gradually working the wood down to what I want to see emerge.


I do not believe that results of this sort can be achieved by approaching the matter as a hobby. It requires the basic principle: diligent application on a regular basis over a long span of time results in mastery.

This mastery refers to an almost mystical ability to achieve not just technical wizardry, but the appropriate feel for each specific object being created. This is not easy. I subscribe to the dictum of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”