Fan Carved Dove

Monday 9 July 2018

This bird is made from one piece of wood. Yes, that's right… one piece! The technique is called fan-carving. It is the process of riving (splitting) long-fibred wood into individual blades and then turning and interlocking those blades to create a three-dimensional design.

History and symbolism

The fan bird represents the Holy Spirit, the dove-of-peace. In early times, it was customary for people to surround themselves with items that had meaningful symbolism. The fan bird is one of these (see picture 1).

In the homes, the bird was hung by a string so that it moved freely with the air currents. It appeared to come alive and symbolised the Holy Spirit, protection, health and happiness for the family.

By the 1900s, the fan bird seemed to be everywhere throughout Scandinavia and Europe. In fact, two distinguished ethnographers proclaimed it a “cultural phenomenon”. However, as time passed, fewer local artisans made fan birds. In time, the 'pulpit bird' was even replaced by a solid wooden dove. Sadly, few fan-birds are made today – in some countries they are only found in museums. Fan-carving is almost a lost folk art.

Regardless of style, all fan-carved items must have three basic cuts: the interlock, the hinge and rived wood.

Blank removal

Score the width of the blank with a large knife/hatchet and mallet 25mm (1in) down. Place the hatchet blade parallel to the bark 19mm (3/4in) in from the outer edge of the round (thickness of blank + bark) and give it a solid whack with a mallet. The force will cause the blank to 'pop out' as the fibres split along the score lines. Use the hatchet to remove the bark, thus shaping the blank. Repeat the process for more blanks.

Moisture content

For adequate moisture content, place the blanks in water and simmer over heat for 90 minutes. When cool, they are ready to carve. Store in plastic bags and refrigerate if used within two weeks. For longer periods, place blanks in the freezer but thaw before carving.


1 The finished dove

2 The fan-carved dove, shown on the postage stamp of Sweden, was found in most churches in the 17th century. It hung in the pulpit directly over the minister's head, hence the name pulpit bird

3 It is interesting to note that some European styles of the fan bird are made from two or more pieces of wood. If we look at the example above, you will notice the two-piece construction of this bird: one piece is for the wings whilst the other piece is for the body and tail

4 Once your blanks have been adequately prepared for moisture content, you are ready to begin carving your own fan-tail dove. Start the process by shaping one end of your blank so that it is rounded – this will become the tip of the feathers

5 Measure 25mm (1in) from the rounded end. Draw a line across the 50mm (2in) dimension on both sides of the blank, where the feathers interlock. Use a pelican knife or a No.9 12mm gouge to carve the C-shaped interlock on each side of the blank. Leave 1/3 for the centre

6 Draw two lines on both sides of the blank. The first: a straight line 3mm (1/8in) below the interlock cuts. The second: a diagonal line 63mm (2 1/2in) from the rounded top on one edge and 55mm (2 1/4in) on the other

7 Use a knife or a No.1 25mm chisel to make a V-cut along the bottom line on both sides of the blank. It is a long taper as well as a diagonal. Note – do not cut above the first line drawn – just below the interlock

8 Using your knife or chisel, the next step in the process is to carve equal portions from each side so that you leave a base of 3mm (1/8in). The hinge is where the feathers turn

9 To rive the feathers, secure the blank in a vice with the longer tapered side (63mm) away from you. Begin riving on that side and work toward yourself. The 3in drawknife is ideal. Hold it with the flat-back side facing you. To determine the thickness of the feather, tilt the drawknife so you can see the cutting edge

10 Stand the knife straight up and just push down. Keep the flat back of the drawknife 'snug' to the solid piece being rived. To insure you achieve a uniform feather, do not allow a gap to come between the knife and the wood. The hinge will serve as a stop cut

11 Always strive for thin feathers, even if some fall off. They will hardly be noticed after the feathers are interlocked, so try not to worry. The first few rived feathers are sacrificial. They are at the back of the bird's head and will be cut off later in the process

12 After the feathers are rived, use a knife or No.11 6mm gouge to trim the interlock and the hinge so they are narrower. They were left wider during the riving process so the wood would not wobble. The interlock centre should now be about 3mm (1/8in), the hinge about 1.5mm (1/16in).

13 Next, trim the lower part of the short taper. This area needs to be airspace so the feathers can freely turn and interlock. Make a nice flat plane.

14 Next, draw the dove onto the blank

15 Carve the bird's body. As you shape the bird's head, the sacrificial feathers are cut off

16 Flex the feathers to loosen the fibres at the hinge so they will easily turn when interlocked

17 With the bird's beak facing you, take the first feather and turn it to the left side of the head

18 Next, turn the second feather to the right side of the head before moving on to the third feather

19 Turn the third feather to the left and interlock it with the first feather. Continue alternating and interlocking the feathers to build the two wings. Save an uneven number of feathers for the tail

20 To form the tail, the very last feather will serve as the centre/anchor feather

21 Take the second feather to the right of the anchor feather and interlock it

22 Take the next (third) feather to the left and interlock it to that side of the anchor feather. Continue alternating and interlocking the feathers until the tail is complete. To achieve the desired appearance, you can take some feathers from the wings and place them into the tail, or vice versa

23 To hang up your bird, make an eyelet from 20-gauge wire with needle-nose pliers. Thread it with a string and then just push the eyelet among the wing feathers just behind the head

24 To give your dove character and personality, shape the wings by pulling them up alongside the head. The wings can be adjusted upward or more flat at the hinge point to gain the style you like

25 Heartwood side of bird. After the bird has dried for a few days, spray it with a preservative such as Bulls Eye shellac