Enliven your Polar Bear Carving

Monday 9 July 2018

It is very easy when planning a carving to fall into the trap of searching for a suitable photograph in a magazine and trying to copy what you see. Many carvers are so set on getting all the anatomy somewhere near correct that they lose the essence of the subject.

This need not be the case. Simply study your subject and have confidence that you can carve it to your own design.

Then it is matter of making sure you are clear in your own mind exactly what it is that you hope to produce. In this case it was the playful side of a young polar bear.

After looking at a large number of pictures it was decided to depict the animal on its back to be a little different and to reinforce the playful aspect. It also introduced some quite interesting technical problems to explore: getting the twist of the body, the asymmetry of the leg positions and the location of the various body parts.

Many carvers come unstuck with an animal carving as soon as the body or neck start to be anywhere other than in a straight line. This need not be a problem as long as some simple strategies are employed during the planning and carving process.

So, once we have decided on our pose, I would always advise making a plasticine or clay maquette to make sure I am clear where all the relevant parts are located and that I have a definite picture of the whole animal in my head before I start.

From this maquette I produce any patterns that will help with the cutting out. While cutting these out with a bandsaw may reduce the amount of waste and get you to the detail part of the carving a lot quicker, some carvers find it very difficult to 'see' the subject in a bandsawn block when there are twists and turns in the pose. The choice is yours.

Locating relevant detail

First sort out exactly where the centre line of the back (the spine) is situated and draw this line on your block. Keeping this firmly in mind you need to shape the back of the animal. The spine is the only clear reference point of an animal and, if you get this right you will be well on your way to getting the whole pose right. Include any obvious curves or twists but don't carve any body detail yet.

By now drawing in lines at right angles to this spine approximately 1/4in apart we can locate all the parts of the body each side of the spine: the shoulders, pelvis, ears, eyes and so on as these parts move very little away from their distance from the spine. For example, each ear will be at opposite ends of the same line, the same distance from the spine, as will each eye or hip joint or shoulder joint or other reference points. Keeping this in mind will take all the stress out of producing twists and turns into your subject (or nearly all). As the carving develops these lines may well change with the gradual definition of the animal's form but by being prepared to reassess this form as you go along you will end up with a much more vibrant shape.

Creating realistic fur detail and bleaching are mentioned in the highlight boxes and then it is a case of additonal fine detail such as the colour of the eyes, nose and foot pads. On other animals you may need even less detail than this. If you are carving fairly small I would question the wisdom of trying to carve too much detail in the eyes and nose. Too often, trying to be too fussy with this results in the whole carving being spoilt.


While you can get away with carving a polar bear and leaving it in a natural wood finish, most people prefer to see it in a more natural white colour. This can be achieved by using a two-part wood bleach available from most specialist suppliers.

You need to apply the part A solution and leave it for around 10 minutes followed by the part B bleach which is left for around two hours. This is then washed off and, preferably, neutralised with a weak vinegar solution. You may find that you will need to repeat the process if the result is not white enough. Be warned, though, because the more times you bleach it the less you will see of the grain of the wood and there is a likelihood of the whole thing looking like plastic.

Once this is thoroughly dry you will need to apply some kind of protective finish. Unfortunately most available finishes tend to yellow the finished colour but I have found that spraying with a clear acrylic lacquer (available from a good car accessory shop) will keep the white finish and give a good protective coat.

Making fur

A polar bear has very dense fur with the overall effect of a marshmallow or cotton wool ball. The texturing, therefore, needs to be subtle and soft rather than strong and positive. It will be very different, for example from that of a grizzly bear.

This softness can be obtained by using a fine veiner to get the overall effect and then going over it with a very small V-tool, sometimes two or three times to break down the texture so that a finer and finer result can be achieved. To use a V-tool too early will give a much coarser result.

Make sure you always work in the direction of the hair tracts – you can alter this direction by 180 degrees if the grain proves difficult.