Pintail Drake

Monday 9 July 2018

For this carving I used a bargain piece of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) from my local garden centre and although it wasn't quarter-sawn – which would have been ideal – it was at least cut away from the tree's heart.

There are not many options with this type of wood; you can't do anything small or detailed so you have to play to its features. The grain is wide so to keep the scale right, you need to carve a big duck or goose, plus the grain will show through a painted finish so don't try to hide it – bring it to the fore!

Getting started

In this instance the design is made to fit the wood and is 240mm (9 1/2in) at its highest body point (without the tail) and 170mm (6 3/4in) at its widest. Having drawn up the idea in a sketch, I transferred the idea to a maquette (see photo 2).

When designing your own carvings, a maquette is a great aid in helping solve any problems before you commit to the wood – I was able to figure out the top profile as two separate sections.

Whilst on the subject of joining the wood, you must take account of possible shrinkage. This is a reaction to humidity and in wood that is not quarter-sawn, the wood furthest from the heart shrinks at a greater rate than that nearest the heart – this is called cupping. When laminating to form a carving block, you must counter the cupping effect by either facing the heart wood together or, as here, outside to outside (see photo 3).

With the preparatory work complete, you can transfer the pattern to the wood (see photo 4) and cut out the side and top profiles on a bandsaw (see photo 5). The head and neck are cut at the same time and are made up from two sections of a 75mm (3in) square fence post. These can be glued up ready to carve, as can the two sections of the body.

Tilting the bandsaw table will allow you to remove a lot of the bulk waste, saving you a lot of carving time and allowing you the first glimpse of the final shape (see photo 6).

The head

Starting with the head, establish the basic shape of the bill – in this instance with a tungsten carbide cutter in a flexi drive machine – and continue by rounding up the head and neck (see photo 7). Don't worry too much about the neck to body joint at this stage, but maintain the centreline at all times. Much of the strength in this design comes from the symmetry of the top profile.

Mark in the eye groove and, using the same cutter, carve it in whilst at the same time reducing the width of the crown and blending the cut into the cheek, checking all the time that the groove is at the same height on each side.

With a standard utility knife and sandpaper you can clean up the bill and carve the 'V' notch (see photo 8). Until recently I never carved this detail on my ducks, however, I have found that not only does it add interest to the face but that the line of the forehead and eye groove are better placed because of it.

To help with the inside curve of the neck, I find the tungsten carbide cutter a useful tool (see photo 9) – it consists of a tungsten grit plate attached to a large section of round dowel and comes from a range of tools by Perma-Grit (www.permagrit.com). A less permanent version can be made with coarse sandpaper, dowel and a couple of strong elastic bands.

The eyes have it

Eye placement is critical as people unconsciously make eye contact with animal and bird carvings, just as they do with people, to establish a relationship and no matter how well carved the rest of the piece is, bad eye position will let the viewer down. So mark very carefully the eye position with a compass from the centre front of the bill (see photo 10), checking from all angles for symmetry, and carve in using a flame cutter or drill bit (see photo 11). Here we are using 9mm (11/32in) dark brown decoy eyes so make the hole about 10mm (3/8in) across to allow for excess wood filler to squeeze out during fitting.

With the eye fitted, use a knife to carve a pleasing eye shape and rather than risk scratching the eye with coarse sandpaper, use a small fine riffler to clean up the area before a final sanding with a finer grade of paper (see photo 12).

Carving the body

Carving the body couldn't be easier. Using the tungsten carbide cutter, work the whole body into the round (see photo 13), again keeping your centreline in place all the time and checking for symmetry as you go. Your first sanding can be with an orbital sander – just keep it moving to avoid flat spots, and follow on by hand through the sanding grades to a smooth finish.

The two components of the tail (see photo 14) must, in side profile, continue the line of the body and once carved to shape, can be fitted into prepared slots in the rump (see photo 15). Glued in and tidied up with plastic wood, they should sit with the white tail feathers under the elongated black pin feathers (see photos 16-17).

The head and neck cannot be attached to the body yet, as you need to paint the back and under the bill before final gluing, however, in order to move to the next stage, the neck to body joint needs to be carved. The easiest thing to do is dowel join and use a low tack craft glue (of the stick type) and temporarily attach the two for shaping and finishing (see photo 18). The carving stage is now complete (see photo 19).


As this design would never have made a working decoy, we shall try to imitate a mantle carving, made to enjoy as an ornament, displayed over the fireplace of an old hunting lodge, picked up, handled and admired many times by many hands. And so having spent your time on the careful carving and construction of the bird, it is now time to get destructive, and there is no easy way to tell you this, but you're going to burn it!

Before we begin burning the pintail drake, however, I feel I should issue a word of warning. I know of two professional carvers who have had serious fires attempting this process in their workshops, so first of all get outside and away from your house.

Using a butane/propane blow torch, highlight areas of interest in the wood (see photo 20), maybe a knot or a swirl in the grain. However, don't burn the entire bird – you are trying to imitate how changes in temperature and humidity have swollen the wood and this would not happen uniformly over the whole carving.

Removing the burnt wood with a wire brush will show how the softer growth rings have burnt away leaving the harder rest rings raised above them, however, you don't want all those scratches from the wire brush giving away the rough treatment you have given the bird – this process is supposed to have taken years not minutes, so take some time to sand them out to a smooth finish.


I would normally advise the use of oil paints for a mellowed traditional look, however, most bird carvers these days use acrylics for speed of working and availability, so I have chosen to show the finish that can be achieved with these paints. At this stage the carving is still in two pieces, so detach the head and neck again, and paint under the bill with black paint. Having checked out a number of reference works, the painting schedule for the most part will be block painted in an antique style. To achieve this, the back is painted a dark grey, stippled or blended into the black of the rump and pintail. A hairdryer helps with drying times and you will soon be ready to glue together the neck and body joint, clean up excess glue and re-sand.

Draw onto the carving the areas for block painting such as the side pockets, rump, chest and the delicate white line marking that runs from the head and down the neck. Each of these can be painted their appropriate colour and butted up to the next block (see photos 21-22).

The final stage

With the painting carefully completed, it's time to rub it off again, or at least the parts you have chosen to highlight. Think about how the carving may have been held and handled and start rubbing. You can use a variety of things for this from wire wool to abrasive pan scrubbers (see photo 23) – in fact anything that will rub the paint away without leaving scratches. Don't forget, as I said before, you are trying to show that this has happened over years, not minutes.

This process will expose the wood beneath leaving paint in the troughs and darkened grain as highlights, and it is on this background that you will apply dark stains and darkened wax polishes in numerous layers, rubbing back and buffing as you go to build the appearance of a patina nurtured over the years and that, hopefully, will continue to develop over many more years to come.