Carving a Swan, part 1


Carving a Swan, part 1:
Andrew Thomas carves a royal bird, the swan

Andrew Thomas carves a royal bird, the swan

The form of the swan lends itself beautifully to the art of abstraction with the delicate flowing lines of its body and majestic neck and head. The possibilities of how to position and represent these details in any medium are really quite innumerable, but of course the most important component is to capture the essence of this graceful creature.
Abstracting any natural form requires consideration, contemplation and visualisation to attain effective, structured design ideas of how the intended form relates to the real life form. These designs should initially be made on paper to ensure good balance, scale and proportions in relation to the real-life form. Asymmetry is also a vital principle of design, which naturally adds life to a composition and should be carefully considered and explored to create interest around the complete three dimensional surfaces of the sculpture.
This design offers many options for it to be adapted to the reader’s ideas, which is highly recommended and encouraged. Before you start work on the project, please read through the complete step guide, study the stages and finished images to see how the sculpture develops. 

Things you will need
Suggested tools    swiss gouges:
• No.2, 20mm
• No.8, 14mm
• No.9, 10mm
• No.12, 6mm V-tool
• Knife
• Abrasive
• Swan    english lime (Tilia vulgaris) 240 x  180 x  100mm
• Base    america black walnut (Juglans nigra) 250 x 110 x 20mm

1. Scan or photocopy the scale drawings provided. Enlarge them to the correct size for your wood and print them out onto a piece of card to use as templates and references. Transfer one of the side view profiles onto your wood, ensuring the grain direction is running horizontally through the block. Cut this shape out and secure it safely onto your vice. Measure and draw a centre line all of the way around the upper and lower edges

2. Draw the lines of the neck and head onto your wood at the angle that you would like it to naturally flow, from the body and up to the tip of the bill. Make sure the dimensions between the lines of your neck and head correspond exactly with those on the sides so that it is square going right up through

3. Use a saw to make a horizontal cut across from the outer edge of your wood within 5mm of the base of the neck line

4. Now use the saw to make a vertical cut down through the wood until you meet the horizontal cut, removing as much of the waste as possible

5. Using a No.2, 20mm carefully pare the wood squarely back to the design line

6. Repeat steps 3–5 on the opposite side of the neck and head. The front sides of the body can now be merged evenly and naturally into the neck line where the horizontal saw cut was made in step 3

7. Measure and mark onto your wood the centre line of each of the four sides of the neck and head

8. To create the natural curve along the complete length of the head and neck, one needs to very carefully pare the wood away between the lines on the sides to the lines on the front and back, in four separate quarters. If the actual lines themselves are carved over, this essentially means that the design line will be distorted. It is therefore important to carve between these lines and not over them. Do this along the complete section with the No.2, 20mm swiss gouge

Top tip:
When carving an area of detail such as the swan’s neck, where the objective is to produce an even contour around the complete surface. It is far more effective to hold the gouge the opposite way around, in the upside down position, so that the sweep of the tool is creating a convex cut along the edge, lending itself efficiently to the form of the design, rather than cutting the normal concave channel.

9. The position where the tighter curve of the neck meets the head is far more complex to tackle. This can be accomplished effectively by using either a razor sharp knife or rotary burrs to work with the awkward grain direction. 80 or 100 grit abrasive is another effective option to consider, which can be simply used by hand to shape and form the curved edges

10. Great care should be taken when working down the head towards the tip of the bill because this area of wood grain is not strong and therefore more prone to snapping. The tip should be carefully braced with great attention to the safety of your fingers and hands. Ensure that your gouge is razor sharp and use a very shallow slicing motion of cut to curve the four edges to the centre lines

11. When you are sure that all four edges along this section are neatly carved with an even contour around all sides, sand over the complete surface with grit 100 evenly blending and smoothing the four sides naturally together

Top tip:
When sanding over any vulnerable areas of a carving, it is good practice to actually hold the delicate part in your fingertips to prevent the abrasive snagging on it, potentially snapping it off. The same technique should also be used when polishing with a soft cloth, which is even more prone
to snagging on sharp areas of detail.

12. Moving onto the right hand side of the body now. Use the template provided to help you transfer the lines of the wings accurately into their correct positions on your wood. The first job is to create the natural curve of the front end of the body from the lower edge on the side, up onto the top of the body, and from the forward most position of the wing down towards the neck. This area will be further developed in step 21,  when the top of the wing is fully formed

13. The lines of the wing can now be separated from each other. Use a V-tool to cut carefully along the lower edge of the design line

14. Then use the No.2, 20mm to pare the wood adjacent to the V-tool cut, into the V-tool cut

15. The lowest area here is the swan’s body and tail feathers. This emerges smoothly from underneath the upper wing feathers, which needs to be produced using a No.9, 10mm gouge or similar to reflect a less parted appearance

16. The smallest line of the wing above the tail can now be separated using the V-tool and No.2 gouge

17. Now, you can work on the upper most part of the body and wing. Using a large No.2 gouge, pare over the square edges of the mass to produce a curved contour along the upper area of the wing, and then down the body to the area that was carved in step 12

18. Now work in the opposite direction along the upper wing towards the rear tip. As the wing tip becomes further developed in the subsequent steps, the upper area can be revisited to curve it over towards the centreline along the body

19. From this position onwards, you need to curve the rear areas of the wings and tail naturally around the back edge of the swan. This is achieved by repeatedly cutting the feather lines with the V-tool, and then curving these sections around the rear of the body with the No.2 gouge. The V-tool cuts should delicately emerge from the front of the wings, and then become deeper as the design line flows back and around the rear of the body

Top tip:
When using the V-tool on details such as the lines of the feathering along the wing.  You will find that your carved line will gradually creep away from the original design line. To maintain the original level of the line, place your template in its correct position after every two or three  cuts and redraw it in the correct position. 

20. Each line of feathers should also have a natural curve, vertically from the V-tool cut at the top, down to its lowest edge. Also note that the middle line of feathers projects furthest out from the body

21. The tight curve at the base of the neck will now need to be formed and merged into the depths of the surrounding areas. Use a No.8, 14mm gouge to curve the wood from the side of the swan up to the centreline of the body. The No.2, 20mm can then be used to bring all of the depths evenly together down along the back and side of the wing

22. This side of the swan’s body should now look something like this, which is all that can be accomplished here for now and allows us to turn our attention to the opposite side of the swan. The first job to do is to transfer the details of the design onto your wood. Use the template provided to help you do this

23. Note: this side of the swan is completely different to the opposite side and features an undercut across the complete body. The undercut tapers off from the top of the design line in the middle of the body on this side, down to the lowest position of the wing in the middle of the body on the opposite side. Use the V-tool, to cut accurately along the very top edge of the line, separating the two main parts of the body

24. Use a large No.2 gouge to create the curve on the front end of the body, from the V-tool cut on the side up to the centre line on the top

25. The No.8, 14mm can then be used again to shape the area at the position of the tight curve of the neck, using the same techniques as outlined in step 21

26. Moving to the rear end of the body now. The three layers of the wing feathers are separated using basically the same techniques as the opposite side of the body. The V-tool is used first to cut precisely along the outside of their design line. The No.2, 20mm is then used to pare the wood back to the depth of the V-tool cut

27. The individual layers of the wing feathers must be gradually tapered around in a curve from the side of the body to the rear tips. When enough depth has been achieved with the two lower sections, the largest top section of the wing can then be curved from the side edge, up over the body and around the rear end

28. Study this image to see how each layer of the wings is not only formed differently to the one above or below it, but also on each side. There is still a lot of work to do here yet, but the important detail to note is that each layer should be balanced in relation to its position, easy on the eye, and completely asymmetrical. The uppermost position of the large sections on both sides of the body should now be almost flowing into one another, without any flat areas along the centreline whatsoever. Check that all of these details are correct and make any necessary adjustments

In part 2, I shall be completing the wings, undercut, finish and mounting.


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