Monday 9 July 2018
It's funny how one thing leads to another. When I embarked upon the carving of a polar bear, for the memorial to the 49th Infantry division (known as the Polar Bears) to go into the National Memorial Arboretum, I was convinced that it was a one-off. In fact I quite hoped that it was as I had no idea how on earth I was going to carve a full-sized polar bear on my own.
“Why do I open my big mouth and let myself in for these things?” I asked myself but, then, I suppose faith and optimism go a long way and I really needn't have worried. Before the first bit of wood was cut up I had the start of a team and within a very short time a realistic working group had got together and the project was under way.
From the moment the bear started to take shape I had no doubt that it would succeed and I had a sneaking feeling that this was, in fact only the start of our involvement with the Arboretum. What I certainly didn't realise was that the bear and all that it involved would dramatically change not only my life but also that of all the other members of the team.
We had met every Wednesday for a year with a slightly varying workforce but, by the time we had finished, the present six members had experienced some sort of magic from the whole venture and there was no way that the team was ready or willing to stop.
At the unveiling of the monument we met many visitors from the Netherlands, who had come over to pay their respects to the Polar Bears and decided that we would like to present the people of Arnhem with a small replica of our bear.
This we did and I had the pleasure of taking this to the museum in Arnhem last year, where it was accepted with great ceremony. It was a very touching and tearful occasion and I learned a great deal about how much of a debt the Dutch feel they owe to the Allied forces who liberated their country.
Before the oil was dry on this mini bear we received a request from the Arboretum to consider the carving of an eagle for the British Berlin Airlift Association and a meeting was arranged at my workshop with representatives of the association.
What we didn't expect was the high-powered nature of the group – Air Marshall Sir John Curtiss, Air Vice Marshall 'Larry' Lamb and others. To us these were names we had previously only read about and here they were discussing the intricacies of the RAF insignia and the arguments about whether it was an eagle or albatross.
By the time they left we were committed to carving a full-sized golden eagle in iroko, to be mounted atop a ten-foot high wall. Due to the amount of expenses incurred by the team in producing the bear , mainly travel, I was a little worried about this aspect of the arrangement. So we agreed to produce the eagle on an expenses basis in order to cover travel (one of our team travels over 90 miles every carving day) and the purchase of the timber and any tooling that might be required for the project. As we had planed nearly 100 cubic feet of timber for the bear by hand, top of our list of expenses was an overhand planer. This has proved to be the most worthwhile addition and useful piece of kit for all our projects.
The arrangement was readily accepted by the powers that be and we were on our way.
We decided to use essentially the same method of construction as for the bear – a series of sections cut out on the bandsaw and then glued together before any carving took place. This prevented the enormous amount of waste that would occur if we attempted to carve it out of one large block or trunk and, in our opinion, would result in a more stable structure.
I was talked out of using Iroko with the bear and am still regretting it, but was certainly not going to be talked out of using this wood on the eagle.
There was a whole new set of problems to solve before we started because the bird had to be depicted in flight, so making it very difficult to hold or support during the construction process. The wings needed to be fully outstretched, the head turned and, it was decided, the feet stretched forwards as if the bird was coming in to land. This would mean that there were lots of bits sticking out at different angles – a carver's nightmare!
After making an MDF model of the bird, we set forth with great confidence, planing and cutting out the pieces for each section, which were then glued together with Balcotan – a one-part polyurethane glue cured by the moisture content of the wood and completely waterproof once set. One of the advantages of this glue is that it can be cleaned up or sanded with power tools if required, without clogging the sanding surface. It foams as it cures and the surplus can be cleaned easily without marking the wood or damaging the tools.
Don't breathe iroko
I must mention that we made full use of respirators as the dust from any sort of preparation work on iroko can be extremely toxic and unpleasant. Not only can it cause breathing problems but it can also do nasty things to your eyes – so be warned!
Once each section was assembled we fixed the pieces for the wings together and rough carved them before adding the body sections. It was only by working in this way that we were able to support the wood to carve it. At least, with the wings formed we could suspend the whole thing on a couple of Workmates, either right way up or upside down.
We fairly quickly managed to get the whole thing pretty bird-like but soon began to realise that it didn't really look all that much like a golden eagle – or any sort of eagle come to that. In fact it looked more like a rather oversized kestrel. We were happy that it was lifelike but couldn't determine what it was that we needed to do to make it more eagle-like. I have found this with other carvings – once they become recognisable in some way they are acceptable even though they are not what is really wanted. The carver becomes reluctant to make any further changes in case he loses what he has already got. I think this is probably one reason we get so many flat faces on carvings – no one wants to carve too deeply in case of making a mistake.
Books aren't enough
In spite of poring through endless books on eagles, birds generally, wildlife, bird carving and so on, we slowly carved ourselves to a halt. Unfortunately this happens all too often with carvings – no matter how skilled the carver may be at the technical side, he, or she, will invariably come unstuck because of lack of knowledge about the subject.
The information we carry around with us is sufficient to recognise and differentiate one subject from another but is insufficient for a detailed description or representation. If you don't believe me try describing, in detail, your husband, wife or child when they are not present. Try modelling one of their faces in Plasticine. Even if you do this with them present, it is not an easy task and that is not due to lack of modelling ability but lack of the necessary perception skills. Collecting the required information takes determination and practice. Betty Edwards has written a very good book called Drawing on the right side of the brain on this very subject. If you get a chance to read it, you will never look at anything the same way again.
Anyway, to get back to the subject, it became very clear that we knew next to nothing about golden eagles and would need to get some pretty detailed information as soon as possible.
Fortunately, not too far away from where I live is the Bird of Prey Centre at Stonham Barns in Suffolk. After a preliminary phone call to the centre I arranged with Maureen Hockley, the photographer of our group, to join me on a visit to photograph their eagle.
We were introduced to Mia – not a golden eagle but a rather splendid Steppes eagle that would do very well for our needs – and were promised that she would be flown for us so that we could take pictures. She was also due to take part in the public display that day, but was taken out so that she could fly for us – quite a privilege, we thought.
She flew for us
She was really put through her paces for about an hour with us photographing her from whatever angle we thought appropriate. In fact she seemed to be having such a good time that she included stunts that she had never done before and her handler was so pleased that he was determined to include some of them in future displays.
We left after an amazing day with a bag full of films to develop and a promise that we could return if they were not exactly what we wanted.
In fact we did need to go back again and this time we took a video camera as well because we found that many of the shots were just too late or too early and we ended up with lots of pictures of her tail or wingtip (and occasionally a large expanse of blue sky).
It made us realise just how good those wildlife photographers are – how on earth do they do it?
Anyway, in the end we got all the picture reference that we needed and we could therefore get on with the carving process. Fortunately, other than having to add wood onto either side of the tail to make it wider and more eagle-like we had plenty of material with which to complete the detailing.
Our rest period was over and it was back to business as usual.