Out To Win Pt 2

Monday 9 July 2018

In part one, I listed the choices that you will have to make before carving for any competition held by the British Decoy Wildfowl Carving Association (BDWCA).

If new to this competition, your normal entry will be at Novice level where your carvings will be judged against the standard of achievement considered necessary to warrant a Bronze, Silver or Gold Rosette. As you are awarded rosettes, you will move up to Intermediate. More rosettes at that level and you will be elevated to the ranks of the Open Class. The title of British Champion beckons.

Maybe you don't want to wait three years but intend to enter at Open level straight away, and, of course, win. If so, after reading part one, you recognise that only a fully textured bird is likely to achieve the top prize. You see this as a major but not insuperable challenge, but where do you start?

Making your pattern

This is not engineering, there are no straight lines for a start, but you will need a pattern from which to carve. It should consist of side, front, and overhead plan views (see photo 1). At Novice and Intermediate level, you can buy a pattern of the more common species but, just because it is printed, don't take it as being accurate. Compare on a light box, two different patterns for the same bird, and you'll probably see significant differences, but which is right?

Another downside of the commercial pattern is that the stance of the bird will probably be very simple. If you want to make the stance more complex, you will have to modify the pattern but, if your knowledge of bird anatomy is confined to carving the Christmas turkey, there may be a problem.

At Open level, your pattern must be original. However, your own version of the simplest of shapes 'duck-sitting-on-the-water-doing-nothing-in-particular' may not be considered by the judges to meet the originality criterion. If in doubt, one of the much used variations is to stick a wing out stretching (see photo 2).

Full size is mandatory – except for miniatures – but work to the top end of the range. A large, plump, healthy bird looks inherently more attractive.

I happen to be carving a bird that I can go out and photograph as and when I need more information. This is exceptional and, more often, a pattern is compiled from a collection of other people's photographs of different birds taken at different angles. If one isn't careful, you can end up designing an excited young head on a relaxed old body.

Picking your wood

As your bird is to be painted, there's no point in making the job harder than it already is so pick a wood that will be as easy to carve as possible, commensurate with adequate strength. At Novice and Intermediate level, the choice is usually jelutong, a Malaysian rubber tree wood, which has traditionally been used for foundry pattern-making. Whilst relatively soft and easily carved, it isn't strong and won't hold a fine edge. Thin projections, such as primary feathers, really need to be made in a stronger wood as inserts. Diluted superglue can be used to strengthen thin sections but it can also leave you very attached to your carving.

Lime is the wood of choice for much Open Class carving as it carves well and is strong enough to take fine detail, although its high density can be a disadvantage. A swallow suspended from a wing tip could require a seriously thick blade of grass as a support.

Tupelo, much used in America by the top carvers, is light and strong in thin sections but does not cut cleanly, except with an exceptionally sharp blade. Try grinding instead unless you're seriously into knife sharpening as a hobby. Significantly more costly over here, visitors to the World Championships have been known to take an empty suitcase to bring back supplies.

Your type of wood may be chosen, but is it available in the thickness you need? With four inches often the maximum to be found, that and economy dictate that most ducks have the head made separately and then attached. The resulting glue line is a real problem to hide. Laminating wood for larger birds is often necessary but beware how even well seasoned wood can twist itself into cracks, always after the carving is well advanced, and the splits are difficult to conceal.

Start carving

Transfer the pattern to the block of wood, establishing a clear centre line which must be retained through the entire carving process, or you could be in real trouble!

You're ready to start carving, but which bits? The jocular instruction to 'carve away the bits that aren't bird shaped' hardly helps. The preferred method is to band-saw out the basic shape to remove excess wood from your block. Also preferred is to bribe/charm/pay someone else to undertake this very dangerous activity on your behalf.

Now that your wood looks the right sort of shape, taking a knife to approach the pattern dimensions is slow and steady but safe. Alternatively grind, but it needs a confident and knowledgeable hand to use a carbide cutter in a power tool to hack off the excess and recognise when to stop. Go too far and it can always become a miniature. However, it's all too easy at the Novice stage, to be nervous about taking enough wood off (see photo 3) leading to the dreaded 'slab-sided bird'.

Why no mention of chisels? It tends to be only the long experienced wood worker who uses chisels to any extent. I think the rest of us are just terribly bad at re-sharpening them.

Making it soft

You have the basic body shape and you've drawn in the feathers, avoiding the mistake of making them overlap like fish scales. You know the various sets of feathers have the right outlines because you've studied books, looked at a preserved skin, borrowed a stuffed bird from a museum or grabbed one in the pond when nobody was looking. You also have the right number of each feather type, particularly tail and primary. Be sure, because this is where accuracy starts to be lost, and the judges will be counting.

When you look at the feathers on the live bird, they seem to lie flat and smooth. Render that in your carving, and it will continue to look like a lump of wood (see photo 4). This is where you must exaggerate what occurs in real life to make your carving look soft. Round the feathers to give a slightly domed effect (see photo 5). The central shaft of the feather then needs to be carved or burnt to raise it. In life, the ends of some feathers become 'frayed', and grinding in or carving with a v-chisel helps the appearance of softness (see photo 6).

Barbs are burnt in with a heated blade (see photo 7). These must be S-shaped not straight, or you end up with a christmas tree effect. The reference books state how many 'barbs to the inch' various species have. Golfers brag about their handicaps and carvers about how many barbs to the inch they can burn. It is important as too coarse, for example, and your delicate robin will appear to have the feathers of a crow.

Don't fall into the trap, particularly with a large bird, of burning all of one side and then, possibly days or weeks later, burning the other. One's technique changes slightly over time, and the difference will scream out at you when complete.

And, by the way, burning super-glued wood can give off cyanide fumes. Or should I have told you that earlier? Whoops!

Making it real

Your feathers are starting to look soft but they have an unnatural uniformity and perfection. Again, the effect you want is achieved by exaggeration. With use, the barbs on a feather can pull apart leaving a split which the live bird is continually preening to remove. Including some splits in your feathers will give a 'natural' appearance (see photo 8), however, they must be random or they will form a discernable pattern, and remember that some feathers are more susceptible to splits than others. Put in too many splits, and the bird will look scruffy and unable to fly. All very complicated and there are no clear rules to help, but get it wrong, and it's very obvious.

Symmetry about the centre line of the carving is essential if it is not to look deformed, or should one say 'osteologically challenged'? Looking at your carving in a mirror is a way of 'seeing' any problems. However, in life, there are deviations from this symmetry, particularly feather patterns, which will give a realistic look. Overdo it though and the judge will wonder if your lack of symmetry is merely bad carving.


Drilling the eye holes is easy to get wrong with one further forward or higher than the other. 'Measure twice and drill once' is an adaptation of an old adage.

Stockists have a range of sizes and qualities in the appropriate colour. Buy cheap quality though and it can show in a lack of 'life'. Eyes too small and the bird has a mean look, too big and it seems terrified.

Putting in the eyes brings a carving to life but it is one of the hardest things to get right. Most experienced carvers set the eyes in a slow curing compound, so there is plenty of time to adjust and then adjust some more. Then grind them out and start again.

You need to remember that the bird uses its eyes particularly when feeding and, if it can't see the tip of its bill, it will go hungry.


If you've only thought about the legs when the body is carved, you have a problem. The live bird adjusts its stance dramatically to achieve balance (see photo 9). Get that wrong and the bird looks as if it is about to fall off its perch.

Because it's wood, the centre of balance of the carving is usually not the same as on the live bird. The legs will therefore be stressed which, with thin legs, can result in movement or breakage. Vibration in the back of your car on the way to the competition should be just about enough.

For some of the larger birds, it is possible to carve the feet in lime or tupelo, although it may need the toes and leg to be separate to get the strength of the grain in the correct direction. An alternative is brass/copper rod bent, soldered and then coated with epoxy putty, as it can be carved once the putty is set (see photo 10). For most songbirds, you need to be a very dab hand with precision metal working – to put it in context, one of the most adept leg makers in this country has a background as a dental technician. It is not coincidence that many entries will have no legs showing.


Your bird is glued together, textured, sealed and finished. It is at this point that one's spouse says 'Leave it just like that?'. Indeed, birds in this state can be very appealing (see photo 11). Unfortunately, you want to win and the only category in which you could enter such a bird would be Interpretive.

Now is the worst moment of all. You mix a dilute solution of white, or coloured, gesso and paint over the entire bird, legs, eyes and all. Apply enough coats to get a reasonably uniform colour without filling in all those feather barbs. When it's completely dry, you'll be able to see all the carving mistakes. No problem, just gulp, and take out your knife again. If you don't correct it now, it will haunt you forever after.

Painting is usually in acrylics which are water based. Blend thin washes to build up colour to the desired level (see photo 12). Say it quickly and it sounds easy but painting is a skill in its own right, and certainly as difficult as carving. Artists who take up carving are, in my opinion, at a massive advantage over carvers taking up painting.

The first problem is the colours. What are they in life? Your photographs will have been taken under all sorts of lighting conditions. Look at a book of kingfisher photographs to see the range from blue to green. You have to choose and hope you're right, or commit to a long spell sitting by a stream.

Mixing colours is a subject about which entire books are written, and the colours of birds never come straight from the tube. A blackbird ought to be easy, but each feather needs to have some colour differentiation or the whole appears to be simply a black lump. Here again, some exaggeration will be necessary to produce a 'real' effect.

A common saying is: “A good paint job won't recover a bad carving but a bad one will ruin a good carving”. Many Novice carvers hover with part-finished carvings, unwilling to take that risk.

The home straight

You've created a beautiful bird. You will already have prepared your plants made from copper strip (see photo 13), your reeds of brass tube, and boulders from plaster. For that water effect (see photo 14), you've delved into the chemistry set and survived all the associated hazards. Now stick them all together whilst avoiding dropping the bird and breaking off a vulnerable bill or tail feather in the process. It happens surprisingly often which is why the competition organisers always have superglue on hand.

The ultimate test is to set your bird against the real thing and see if anyone can see the difference. Making quacking noises may help your case, but only if it's a duck.

If it all sounds too much and you haven't got months to give over to this project, you could still enter the Carved Bird Head Category (see photo 15) and cut your work load. Either way, send your entry form in to the competition and clear a shelf at home for all those trophies.

I hope I'll have motivated you to try some bird carving, helped you to win or, at the least, that you'll have learnt how to recognise the qualities of the one that beat you.

Click here for: Part 1