Weekend Projects – Bird box in relief

Monday 9 July 2018

When I first had the idea of carving a bird box with a hole in the side to show the chicks, I originally thought of a full life-size bird box. I then decided I would try and tackle the perspective of a relief carving. To deal with the problem of a background interfering with the perspective of the bird box, I designed it as a pierced relief, as you can see here. I chose to do a robin as they use an open fronted bird box, which allows for more room to add and carve the chicks. You could carve a different species of bird if you wish, but you may need to change the style of bird box that each species uses – check out the RSPB for more information on bird species. Once you've decided on the bird species, find as many photos of birds and chicks as you can to help assist in your carving.

Tools used:


Bandsaw/coping saw


Carving vice/bench hook

Hooked skew

No.11, 3mm

2mm 'V'-tool

10mm 'V'-tool

No.1, 16mm

No.2, 20mm

No.3, 14mm

No.6, 14mm

No.7, 6mm

No.9, 14mm

No.3, 6mm fishtail gouge

No.1, 6mm spoon chisel


Basswood (Tilia americana)

25 x 150 x 300mm


Print out the design at the required size, then transfer the design onto your wood. Cut away the waste around the edge of the carving using a bandsaw or jigsaw


Using the glue and paper method, glue a waste block of wood to the back of the carving. Once dry, attach your carving vice to the waste block. On the side, make four marks 5mm apart. These will be a guide for how deep each part is to be carved. The robin will be about 5mm above the front of the bird box and the back will be 5mm thick


Use a large deep gouge to start taking down the ivy and background area to about 10mm thickness, then use a medium gouge to keep the background area reasonably flat and level. This will help when sloping the top and side of the bird box, and also help when redrawing the ivy, etc. later


Next, use a shallow gouge to start to slope the roof back, so the roof slopes from the front edge to the background, keeping the roof as smooth and flat as possible. Then, draw the edge of the roof back in place; this will help to keep a crisp edge of the roof when carving the side. Then, slope the side from the front to the background


Use a 'V'-tool to carve under the lip of the roof and around the robin. Using a shallow gouge, take down the front of the box around the robin by about 4mm and take the opening down by about 7mm from the original surface


Using some dividing callipers on the areas cut out with the bandsaw earlier, redraw the detail. Use a straightedge from the back corner of the roof to mark out the inside corner of the box


Using a veiner, No.11 gouge, carve around the ivy, etc. keeping an eye on which parts overlap others. Then, with shallow gouges and a hooked skew, take down the background around the ivy to about 5mm thick. Carve the ivy so it slopes in different directions


Use a drill to hollow out the gaps in between the ivy where it overhangs the edge of the background. Before drilling, double check the area is to be hollowed out and there's not a leaf underneath


Next, use the design as a guide and draw the chicks in place, then, using a veiner, No.11 gouge, mark around them. Now start to lower the background in the opening of the bird box to the same depth as the rest of the background. When carving inside the opening, beware that the right side of the box will slope inwards at the back corner


With the inside areas carved to the required depth, shape the chicks. Use various deep gouges to carve around the side of the beak and round over the eyeball. Using reference photos, hollow out the inside of the mouths, keeping an eye on the depth


While carving the chick in the front opening, start carving the robin to be able to gain access. Start by rounding over the robin's back, then carve the head and shape the wings, etc. Keep the beak and worm area as a lump until the bulk of the robin and chick are carved


With the chicks and robin bolstered in, draw around the inside edge of the opening and side of the box. This needs to be the thickness that the box's timber would be and then with the best fitting gouge/chisel, undercut to add shadow


Now draw the detail onto the robin, the placement of the feathers, eye, beak and worm. Once you're happy with the placements, start to carve in the detail. Remember the worm goes through the beak and hangs out from the underside


Use a shallow No.3 gouge to cut in and create a stop cut for the chick's closed eye. Using a knife or skew, cut in the corners of the eyes


Now, draw in the ivy leaf veins and a wood grain pattern on the box's surface. Then, using a 2mm 'V'-tool, carve in the detail, keeping an even and shallow depth to the wood grain pattern


Now start to back cut the carving. Draw where the ivy and the back of the box overlap each other. Constantly check with the front of the carving to make sure each part under and overlaps in the correct place


Then, carve the back of the ivy and bird box, keeping the ivy an even thickness. The side of the box that has no ivy needs to be cut back at an angle; this will create shadow from behind the carving


You now have the choice of whether or not to sand the piece. I left mine with a tooled finish, but if you decide to sand, go through each grit size and with the grain direction, giving the carving a brush down before moving onto the next. Or, you could sand some parts and leave other parts tooled – i.e. the ivy. Next, use a filler knife or spatula and gently prise the carving away from the fixing block and clean up any paper and glue that remains. Finally, give the carving a coat of sanding sealer, cut back, apply your chosen finish and you're done