Canadian Woodworking

Decorative owl

Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: June July 2005

Because of its many round masses of feathers, an owl is an excellent subject to make using a wood with character.


By “character” I mean a pronounced grain. Butternut is such a wood. It is easy to carve; has excellent colour; and has lovely grain (Editor’s Note: for more information about the characteristics of Butternut see “Woods to Know” Issue #35). No matter how a pattern is applied, the results will be interesting and unique. Besides demonstrating the merits of “character”, this project demonstrates two major carving practices; the use of centerlines, and how to join two complex curved surfaces.

Start by drawing your owl’s front and side views on a block of butternut approximately 6″ high and 3 ½” square on the end. You can cut out your carving with a bandsaw. Nonetheless, since not every project you do will be this symmetrical, it is always good practice to use your gouges. By doing so, you discover how well your gouges are sharpened and you begin to learn the specific nature of the wood you are carving.

Owl pattern

Round back of head to side-to-side centerline

Establish shoulder top (#9 gouge)

Round side of head (#5 gouge, face-down)

A four-sided head is the result

Curve the back of the head between centerlines (#9 gouge)

Round each rear quadrant of head (#2 gouge, face-down)

Carve the face area to a symmetrical point (#9 gouge)

Outline both adjoining masses (parting tool)

Remove wood until the outlines meet perpendicular to each other

Carve between wing and leg in front

Leg feathers are wider than wings below horizontal line

Taper the wing feathers to form the tail

Orient piece to carve with the grain

Remove a diamond shape under wing behind leg (#2 gouge)

Clean up the diamond (knife)

‘Owl’ is a collection of square masses ready for rounding

Draw centerlines as a guide for rounding

Round away from centerline to junction (#2 gouge)

Observe the grain patterns that appear with rounding

Locate the positions for the eyes

Indent the facial disk around the eyes (#9 gouge)

Establish the eye shape (#9 or #8 gouge)

Outline facial disk (parting tool)

Round the eyes (gouge face-down)

Create eyelid and recarve eyeball (knife)

Shape beak whisker (#7 gouge)

Round top of whiskers (#2 gouge face-down)

Create head/brow border (#9 gouge)

Sand smooth and finish

Everything Flows From the Head

For most carving projects like this, it’s good to start at the head and work down. Because everything flows from the head, it’s important to get it positioned right. By carving each side as a flat surface, a four-sided head is created that can then be rounded.

Use Centrelines For Guidance

Whenever a rounded surface is being created, it is important to establish centerlines as a guide. The back of the head is carved into one quarter of a ball in two stages – the left rear quadrant, then its mirror image on the right rear. Similarly, the front has symmetrical left and right sides that come to a point – almost a 90º angle.

The Meeting of the Masses

Establishing the junction between adjoining round masses is an interesting carving challenge. The following process applies wherever you want two masses to meet. To begin, working from one view (front or side), use a parting tool to outline one mass. Then, outline the adjoining mass from the opposing view. Continue increasing the depth of each outline and remove wood until you achieve a flat surface for each outline. Stop when the two outlines come together. Use the same procedure to establish the junction between every pair of adjoining surfaces – in this owl, there are lots of them.

Complexity Adds Interest

This carving is more complex and interesting because the wing feathers are also tapered to form the tail. Notice that the horizontal centerline marks the point where the leg feathers become wider than the wings. Again, the two-step approach is followed but…a word of caution…be sure to orient your carving so you can carve with the grain. You might need to turn it upside-down. Ultimately, you will establish all major masses with mostly square edges.

Centerlines Are a Must

Before rounding any of the squared masses, it is important to mark the centerlines as a guide. To preserve the correct shape, carve each mass away from its centerline toward the junction. As soon as you begin rounding the masses, you will reveal grain patterns. Every step in the ‘rounding’ process produces more grain pattern and every piece of wood is unique. Be prepared for wonderful surprises and, please, dare to modify the shape to take advantage of the beauty that the wood is offering.

Begin and End With the Head

We started at the head and we will finish at the head. Most people make an owl’s face too flat. An owl’s face is angled back at approximately 45º from the center. Remember, carving is a subtractive process…you only remove wood. Consequently, every step in the process constitutes a refinement of the surface created in the preceding step.

Finishing Your Project

I’m not a big fan of sandpaper but this carving definitely benefits from a thorough sanding. When you’re happy with the surface smoothness, apply your finish. I like tung oil on butternut, but there are lots of finishes that are very effective; boiled linseed oil, lacquer, and paste wax are all good alternatives. Butternut is such a cooperative wood, just about anything you do to it will only improve its look. As you can see, the piece of butternut used for this article provided lots of grain patterns.

In the next issue, the complex subject of ‘relief ’ carving will be presented, in preparation for another practice project.

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