Sea Captain

Monday 9 July 2018

Peter Berry hits the waves with this fun sea captain character

Certain walks of life seem to produce more than their fair share of characters and hence are a rich seam for character carvings. One such example is the seafaring world in all its facets. Going back in time always seems to add a richness and variety to the pool of inspiration so I have chosen an old time sea captain for this project.

My mind is juggling around with images of Captain Cook, Captain Bligh – the Charles Laughton version – even perhaps Blackbeard the pirate, as the old seafarers seemed to operate at one or other side of the law. So somewhere in between these three should produce the right results.


Lightweight woods, light in colour and without distinct grain, work best for this type of carving. Such woods include lime, basswood, jelutong, Quebec yellow pine and stone pine.

It is a good idea to add about 40mm (11/2in) at the base to assist with holding the piece in a clamp or vice. These dimensions allow you to carve with both chisels and knives as the piece can be comfortably held in the hand, as well as in a vice.

A note on power

I use Flexcut chisels so I can swap handles to make the blades palm or standard tools. In addition, it is possible to fit the blades into most makes of reciprocating power carvers such as Proxxon or Foredom, with or without adapter, depending which range of tools are being used.

I have used a Proxxon reciprocator in this project for the roughing out and a lot of the shaping to give an idea of what they can do. It would be possible to complete the whole carving with such a tool. I also used a Proxxon rotary tool to shape the inside of the hands to take the spyglass and the cutlass

Getting started

Step 1

Place the template for the front view on the block of wood and draw the outline of the shape, removing the excess timber with a bandsaw. This process can be completed with a coping saw or by simply using the wide shallow gouge by hand or power assisted. I also cut the shape out between the legs

Steps 2-3

Mark in the features on the left and right sides to assist with the shaping

Shaping the block

Steps 4-5

Use a small pull saw to cut above the feet and use the reciprocating carver with a broad shallow blade to remove the timber

Step 6

Keeping an eye on my guidelines, I continue with the broad blade over the whole of the figure. The Proxxon can be used with the motor switched off in the same way as a conventional gouge

Steps 7-13

Mark the broad features in more accurately and use the V-tool to cut around them. At this stage it is important to move the carving of the broad detail along at the same rate. I find that it is a good idea to stand back regularly and view the piece from all available angles. This process helps me ensure that the figure is balanced i.e. all features such as arms, legs etc are the same proportion. However, very often, the more you look at the work, the more your eye can become accustomed to imbalances and your mind becomes confused. A good tip used by many artists is to view your work in the reflection of a mirror and it can be quite surprising to see how your eye has deceived you! Once I am happy with the carving, I complete the general shaping, but continue to use the mirror technique, which can prove particularly helpful when tackling the face

Carving the smaller blocks

Step 14

The next stage is to mark in the cuffs, coat, hands and feet, and bring them nearer to the final shape

Step 15

It is now time to bring the sea captain to life! Mark in all the features including the face


Here again, it is important to keep comparing the size of the features with each other. I reduce each feature e.g. hand, foot etc. to a block from which the detail can be carved. Both the feet and hands point forward, so it is not necessary to carve the blocks to any particular angle. Once I am very close to the guidelines,

I consider the detail.

Clothing & hands

I cut out all the features of the clothing with a small V-tool and remove the timber around with a small shallow gouge

Step 16

The right hand is drilled through the middle to take the spyglass and carved as a loose fist

Step 17

The left hand is bent upwards at the wrist and slightly cupped to rest on the top of the cutlass

Head & face

Steps 18-20

Our sea captain is not a gallant hero, rather a cynical ruthless character not to be crossed, and his features should reflect this. Diverting the eyes to the side adds to the menace of the man who is keeping his eye on his motley crew

Step 21

Note how the hat is carved from the top. Here the power carver will cut comfortably against the grain


Buckled shoes are a main feature of the sea captain, and for a bit more realism, try turning up the toes.

Finish off by carving a base with a little step on it, and glue the figure to it. Once done, glue the accessories in place.

Finally, use pale spirit polish to seal and lightly stain the piece, and use a darker version on the lower part of the base. A coat of wax polish completes the job.