Carve a Folk Art Passenger Pigeon

Monday 9 July 2018

The passenger pigeon was so numerous that there was little need to use decoys to hunt them, so this project is to carve a folk art style representation of the bird.

Not unlike a decoy, it would have been made from available materials and when finished, may even have been displayed outdoors in a covered veranda.

This said, the object of the project is to examine the simple line and form that a folk artist would instinctively employ and at the same time, create a finish that reflects the time at which it may have been made, as a folk art original.

Taking shape

Step 1

Transfer the pattern onto the wood and cut out the bird in side profile. Save one of the offcuts to give support for cutting out the top profile. Tilt the bandsaw table to 45° and cut off the corners – if you don't overdo it, you should be ready to start carving the body shape

Step 2

I use a flexi drive and toothed cutters, however rasps, a spoke shave or knife will do just as well to work the body into the round. At this early stage, leave the rump end of the bird a bit thicker so it is a bit easier to cut a slot for the tail insert

Step 3

Cut out the tail with the grain running from top to bottom through the length

Step 4

The final shape of the tail should appear as an inverted 'U' and the inside curve is best carved with a ball nose or round cutter

Step 5

Cut a slot into the side profile of the rump, 80mm long and 10mm wide (3 1/8 x 3/8in) to receive the tail and once a snug fit is achieved, glue in place with two-part epoxy adhesive

Step 6

The long central tail feathers are unusual in that they are made from the tine of an old, rusty garden fork, in this case, a ladies' fork. This follows in the folk art tradition of using fork tines for curlew bills and the long tail feathers of the pintail drake. The best source for old forks is an early start at car boot sales! Please take extra care when handling rusty tools!

Step 7

To receive the tine, cut a groove along the top of the tail to half the depth of the tine and up to the rump

Step 8

Again, glue in place with adhesive and tidy up the area with plastic wood if necessary


Steps 9-10

There are two wings to carve and both are made from 30mm (1 1/8in) thick pine, the length of the wing running with the grain. The curve of the wing should take up the full width of the wood, with the curve steeper and thicker at the base than the tip

Step 11

Care must be taken not to make the wing too thin, especially at the tip. As with the tail, the inside curve of the wing is best carved with a ball nose or round cutter

Step 12

Introduce the wings to the body and mark their position carefully in relation to each other – the longest wing will be at the far side of the bird and the shorter wing, being preened, to the front. Once you are happy with the position, cut a recess for each wing to be set flush into the body

Step 13

Glue the wings in place. If you want a little more security in this area, then you can always pin the wings with a couple of dowels

Head & neck

Step 14

The head and neck section are carved from the same stock as the tail and wing – once cut out, it is a simple job to round everything up with a small cutter

Step 15

Draw up the position of the 7mm eyes and the beak, checking for symmetry as you go, and cut or drill the holes to accept them. If, as here, you are using a flame cutter, be careful not to overload the flexi drive as you may break the inner shaft

Step 16

I always keep a stock of old nails outside in all weathers to go rusty, and the end of one of these is ideal to make the beak. Keep the rest of the nail to make the leg on which the pigeon will stand. If you don't have an old nail then 6mm dowel will do the job instead

Step 17

Finally, mount the head and neck onto the body with a glued dowel joint, and carve the breast into the neck all round to make a smooth and flowing transition through the head, neck, and breast into the body


Step 18

Now it's time to prepare the wood for painting and to create the illusion of old wood underneath the painted surface. Take a blowtorch and select some areas to highlight, such as knots and sections of interesting grain, but do not overdo it or burn too deep

Step 19

Cleaning up with a wire brush will leave the harder grain raised above the softer grain, as if it has been swollen and shrunk by many years of changing weather. Before painting, it is useful to draw, as a guide, where the different colours will be applied, and a little tip is to use a white watercolour pencil to show up clearly on any bird you age with burning

Step 20

Much of the bird is typical of many pigeons in being mid-grey in colour from its head and down its back, up to the elongated tail feathers, which, like the beak, should remain unpainted. A mix of white and a little black will easily produce this and while you have this mix made up, add a bit more white and paint under the wings

Steps 21-22

The rump and the rest of the tail is nothing more complicated than titanium white, whilst the red of the breast, throat and chin takes a little more of an eye for colour. This is a mix of cadmium red and cadmium orange mixed to the colour of tomato soup, with a little burnt umber added to knock back the brightness. Using the tip of a mid-sized brush, stipple paint the transition of the red into the white of the rump


Step 23

Starting with 120 grit abrasive, rub through the paint to reveal the dark wood grain beneath what was highlighted with the blowtorch. Drop through the grades of abrasive until you have a smooth, aged appearance, although, as with the burning, don't overdo it

Step 24

An antiquing wax, such as antique pine, will complete the illusion of age and recreate a patina built up over many years. Use a brush to get into all hard-to-reach places, and remember that dirt and grime will have built up here over the years, so don't try too hard to polish it all out again. Wipe off the excess wax and leave to set before buffing with a lint-free cloth. If you have overdone the wax and the bird looks too dark, cut the finish back again with clear wax. To complete the folk art feel, mount the bird on its nail leg onto a pine post finial. I used a 100mm (4in) post from a DIY store which I burnt, painted white, and waxed