Monday 9 July 2018
This mouse sprang to life some 12 years ago as a sketch by my partner, Sue, a compulsive doodler of critters, cute and otherwise! At the time I had just begun to carve, so a curly tail was added and he became my second try at in-the-round carving. The original mouse was carved ‘diagonally’ from a 50mm (2in) turner’s blank of walnut. I guess this was to make full use of the meagre dimensions, his nose and tail tucked into the corners. Whatever the reason, the old fellow is still distinctly diamond-shaped when viewed from above.
Setting aside the shortcomings of my first attempt, I still like the design. I reworked it, adding a suggestion of haunches and a larger, rounder belly. I also considered it prudent this time to find a blank that would accommodate the design properly.
I used walnut (Juglans regia) because its cold brown colour seemed somehow ‘mousy’ to me. Things turned out darker than I intended, and perhaps walnut sapwood – which is paler – was more what I had in mind. If you decide not to use walnut, I would suggest a reasonably fine-grained wood is needed if the tail and eye sockets are not to become tricky. Cherry would work well, but the colour may suggest a hamster more than a mouse. Lime would probably be easiest to carve, and any lack of grain pattern could be countered by staining the finished chap an attractively mousy colour.
I chose to stick a paper pattern to the block. This method is very precise as long as the block is true and paper is carefully aligned. Don’t use water-based glue though; it softens the paper, which can distort the design alarmingly. Use a setsquare to strike a baseline around all four faces of the block; the baseline of the paper patterns is aligned to this. Consider how the grain will fall before settling on which side of the block will be the nose.
To catch the pale streak on one face of the blank, I had to align the front of the mouse to that face, rather than setting the base at right angles to the sides of the blank, as I’ve just suggested.
In addition to the baseline, you will need to make sure the two side patterns are aligned; making the noses touch – or almost touch – the edge of the block is one way. The back and front profiles can be aligned by drawing a centre line on these faces of the block, and matching this with the centre guide I have provided on the pattern.
No bandsaw required
Projects often start with instructions to remove the majority of the waste with a bandsaw. In the case of a large carving, this is clearly an effective way to avoid hours of toil, gouging away mountains of waste wood.
Many beginners do not, however, have access to a bandsaw and some folks just don’t like power tools. In any case, with small blanks, the benefits of bandsawing diminish, and its risks and difficulties increase.
I don’t consider it worth bandsawing something the size of this mouse. Roughing out took me less than two hours, and that included taking photographs. You may want to bandsaw the first profile, then use my method on the second stage. If so, make sure your saw blade is exactly vertical, as there is very little room for error.
If you decide to go the whole hog, stick the waste back on with tape and bandsaw the second stage… well, good luck! You obviously have a close and trusting relationship with a better class of bandsaw than mine.
1 The finished mouse! Now, let’s see how to get there…2 The original drawing and photocopies. Views from front, back and each side have been cut out to stick to the block. Water-based glue softens the paper, which then distorts, so ‘stick to’ UHU or impact adhesive. I lined up the front of the mouse with the edge of the block – to utilise a pale stripe – but it makes better sense to align the mouse’s baseline to a line across the block drawn with a setsquare3 Saw a baseline around the block and reduce the base. This makes it easier to grip in a vice, carvers’ chops or clamp. It also provides a definite line at which the mouse will be sawn from the scrap when finished4 Using the guidelines on the plan, make two vertical saw cuts from each side to define the low points at the base of the ears and top of the thigh. Use a fine-toothed saw – mine is a Japanese Ikedame pull type. Keep it flat, looking at the front and back profiles frequently to see how deep you are going… and err on the side of caution5 Before you clamp up to carve, saw off the corner behind the mouse’s back – so much quicker than having to carve away so much scrap. The next step is to carve closely to the side profile, but leave the tail area at full height to allow yourself more flexibility later on6 Working from one side, then the other, carve roughly down to the line of the side profiles using a gouge of medium sweep and size e.g. No.7 10mm. Now use a V-tool on the deeper recesses and a flattish No.2 10mm upside down to smooth the softer outward curves. A steel rule laid across from face to face will tell you whether you’ve taken enough off at the centre. Get it as near flat as you can, but on no account risk lowering the centre below the paper profiles on the sides7 Time to cut the profile in the second plane. A cardboard template is useful. Make it by sticking a photocopy of the front/back of the mouse to thick card – I use mounting board – and cut the centre away with a knife. You will not be able to mark all of the profile at once, but start carving the body and the template will soon slip over so the ‘shoulders’ can be marked. Carve away just as you did in step 6, using the saw cuts as guides8 All roughed out except for the two little notches on top. Note the end of the tail has been left untouched. Mark a centre line down the middle of the back – and front while you’re at it – and draw the tail back in using the remaining paper and centre line as a guide. I find a black or red biro good for drawing on wood9 Draw a rectangle around the tail and lower to each side of it in line with the curve of the back. A No.2 10mm will do this nicely. Take care not to dig in too far when you define the edge of the tail block. Take it gently – using the gouge vertically, push in a fraction to define the tail block, then slice from the edge to meet the stop cut10 The nose is still the full width of the ears; the next job is to remove the waste to each side of the nose to leave the head more recognisably mouse-like. Draw a line (A) on the side elevation, continuing the front line of the ear down to the trench that marks the base of the ear. Mark a second line (B) on the top surface of the head, to outline the side of the snout. Repeat on the other side of the head. The sides of the snout should roughly continue the curve of the body behind the ears. Now carve away the waste – the area shown red above – to leave the nose looking as in photos 10 and 11. With care, the No.2 10mm should manage this task11 Separate the ears. Working from the back because of the grain, cut a channel between the ears along the centre line with a small, deep gouge (No.9 4mm). Take the channel down to form a smooth curve between the nose and the back. Working from the back using a flattish gouge upside down, make the channel round into the top profile of the ears12 Angle the front faces of the ears slightly away from each other, so the ears no longer point directly forwards. Also cut back the bottom corners of the ears at A so that the base of the front of each ear is further back than the point where the top of the ear meets the head (B)13 Round the underside of the nose with a flattish gouge used upside down. Take care the direction you cut when smoothing this cone. Underneath you will need to work from the tip of the nose; on top, the grain demands the opposite direction. Mind the sides! Cut down along the guideline using a No.3 6mm to define the haunches, then round over the belly working from the high spot at the centre, outwards, with a flattish gouge used upside down14 More rounding over – the bottom and back next. You need to narrow the shoulders to give a shape that tapers towards the ‘neck’. Leave the rump nice and plump though. Stop and look carefully at the bits you have rounded over. Are there still flattish patches where the sides of the block were? Timidity in rounding over is the norm for beginners. Sometimes you can feel the flats and remains of corners better than you can see them, so try running your fingers over the mouse. Time to do a little more rounding perhaps15 Outline the tail next. Use a small, deep gouge – the No.9 4mm should do it – to make the central ‘hole’. Don’t try to go too deep at once – go down a millimetre all around, then clean up the edge and repeat until you are deep enough. You will have to select from what gouges you have to match the curves. A No.3 6mm should do it in short sections if you have few suitable sweeps. Remember the back beneath the tail is domed, so carve more deeply at the edges than the centre16 Lower the surface of the tail where it wraps around and beneath the body, leaving the centre part, particularly the point, standing proud. With a small flattish gouge or a short knife, round over the tail. Work with the grain direction as you go round the spiral. Try to keep the width a fairly consistent taper from base to tip. Undercut the tail slightly. A No.3 6mm should suit the inside with something a little flatter for the outside. Undercutting emphasises the separation between tail and body17 Round the backs of the ears to a pleasing – and matching – shape. It’s awkward but you will have to work upwards, or across and upwards, because of the grain. Your small-bladed knife may help here18 Scoop out the front of the ears. The grain makes this even trickier than the backs of the ears if the result is not to be very ‘choppy’ indeed. Try using a small, flat gouge or knife to extend the top of the head back into the base of the ear, then with a small deep gouge, scoop out to meet this stop cut. However you if do this, the result is likely to need some careful sanding with the end of a roll of abrasive. Round off the front edge of the haunches and generally round them over19 Sand all over with medium abrasive, about 180grit. I like the flexible sheets of Abranet for jobs like this – they hug the contours as you sand, and can be folded over and pushed into cracks and undercuts. To get at the ears and inside the tail, you can make a roll and sand with the end, or cut a piece and stick it to the rounded end of a dowel rod. Follow up with 240grit. You could go right ahead and finish with 400grit and wax. Assuming you’re not aiming at one of the three blind mice, go to step 2020 Mark the position of the eyes with a biro dot. Now look from all angles – are the eyes evenly spaced each side of the nose and level with each other? Are they similar with respect to the ears? Adjust and repeat until it looks right – it took me three attempts! Only when you are absolutely satisfied, mark the position with a bradawl. Drill an initial pilot hole about 3mm (1/8in) deep with a 1mm bit in a pin vice or small drill. Enlarge this to 2mm and finally 2.5mm. Gently ease with a countersink in your fingers. Lastly, extend the socket more forwards than back with angled knife cuts as shown above21 Soften the edges of the eye socket with fine abrasive. Whittle a 3mm (1/8in) dowel from ebony and taper one end to fit the hole. Insert and mark the length. Remove and cut the eye, then round over the cut end. Finally, insert with a drop of adhesive – I use gel ‘superglue’. A little more polishing with 400grit is usually in order when the glue is set22 It’s time to remove the stub now. Clamp it and saw gently from each side in turn, following the base guidelines. For the last few millimeters, hold on to the mouse – it would be tragic to drop it at this stage! You will need to flatten the bottom on a sander or rub it on a piece of sandpaper taped flat. There will also be a bit of ‘making good’ to the bottom edges that were inaccessible when the stub was attached. This can be done hand-held, with a small knife and abrasive
Give the piece a final sanding with 400grit abrasive, paying particular attention to the nooks and crannies. You can texture the inside of the ears with dots using a blunt nail. I felt this made the best of a smooth but uneven surface there.
I brushed on thinned shellac sealer, giving it a few hours to dry before rubbing down again with worn 400grit abrasive. Take care to remove any visible ‘nibs’ – places where the sealer is thicker – as these will be very obvious after polishing on a dark surface, picked up and viewed from close, as your mouse is bound to be. Finally brush on medium oak paste wax and buff it off.
Of course you may prefer an oiled finish, which would give the mouse an attractive dull sheen.
Past & present
There are things I like about both the original mouse and the latest version (both shown below left). I prefer the general shape of the new mouse, particularly the ears and fuller belly. With more material to work from, the tail is more prominent too, which I think is important to this piece. The smaller, deeper set eyes definitely give a more realistic expression, but the old mouse looks cuter with big eyes. For me, the best feature of the old mouse is the wood itself. If I repeat this design, I will follow the re-worked design, but I will be looking hard for a piece of pale, well-figured walnut, perhaps one that includes the boundary between sapwood and heartwood so that only the back and tail are dark. And I might just make the eyes a little larger.