Carve a Flock of Mallards in Relief

Monday 9 July 2018

I have spent my entire life residing on the east coast of Norfolk, a place of solitude and peace. Despite its proximity to a bustling town, it really is a million miles away from the noise, traffic and general chaos associated with modern civilisation. For here is a tidal estuary of mud flats and surrounding marshes, a flat landscape that stretches out to the horizon.

For many years I have been a very keen wildfowler, walking the marshes or rowing a gun punt on the estuary. I have watched and listened intensively to the sights and sounds of wildfowl echoing across the miles of marshes and mudflats. Although I no longer shoot, I still spend much time on these marshes observing and sketching wildfowl, primarily as a reference for paintings and woodcarvings.

Almost all of the ducks and geese on the estuary are winter visitors, and amongst the many thousands of different species, the easiest to identify is the mallard, the UK's most common duck. So when my wife asked me to carve a duck to decorate one of our walls, a mallard was the natural choice.

Setting out

Photos 1 and 2 show the two pieces with the finished design. Only a bare outline is required at this stage although care must be taken regarding the size of the ducks and where they are placed to create an illusion of depth. The lower and larger ducks will appear closer while the higher ones will be progressively smaller to give the carvings their proper perspective. They will be hung facing inwards. The ducks are depicted taking off and landing, with overlapping body and wings, thus a sense of action is implied which brings interest and unification to the pair of carvings.

Bulk removal

An electric chainsaw is an ideal tool for removing wood at a very fast rate. It was used here to cut away the waste wood outside the design. It will only cut a straight line, so when the chain bites, take great care not to cut the line of the design. You need special training to operate a chainsaw so please do seek advice before using this method, otherwise power carvers, an adze, hand saw or large gouges are the way forward for removing waste.

The 100mm- (4in) thick timber had the grain running along its length but it was also coarse and wild. Gouges will now be used to do most of the carving. Despite having about 20 I find that the majority of my work can be done using just two or three.

Once the outline has been achieved, the mallards can be separated or rather differentiated. The top wings on all the ducks will be the highest points. Use straight gouges to cut away wood to the back wings, which is the carving's lowest point. This will start to produce a feeling of depth. The carving is kept at the same stage on all birds, a felt-tip pen is used to continuously re-mark the wood as it is cut away.

Once you have reached the stage shown in photo 5, the bodies of the ducks will need to be rounded, the backs of all the wings undercut to make the edges thin and the feet of the bottom bird shaped.

Head and bills

The heads and bills can now be shaped and sanded smooth. Holes are drilled for the eyes and small branches are tapered, pushed in the hole and then sanded back. The carving is now completely shaped so all tool marks will have to be sanded out.


As you can see in photo 7, the wings are brought to a fine edge, but with such a distinctive grain pattern showing, only a very slight indication of feather markings is required.


With the carvings now completely free of all tool marks and scratches, use a fine abrasive paper to obtain as smooth a surface as possible. Apply a generous amount of medium-brown wax polish, wiping away any surplus before it dries. Some black shoe polish may be needed to make a few of the recesses darker. This will give the carving greater depth but care must be taken to blend the polish and not to leave harsh light and dark cut-off lines in the wood. A soft cloth is now used to bring up a shine and give the carving a very fine finish.

A true pleasure

This pair of woodcarvings took me 140 hours to make and I can't think of any other hobby that brings together most of my interests, from watching wildfowl in its true settings on a windswept marsh to transforming a log of wood into shapes that I hope will delight the eye and excite the mind!