Victorian Dragon Panel


Victorian Dragon Panel:
Steve Bisco carves a Victorian dragon panel in oak.

Steve Bisco carves a Victorian dragon panel in oak

The dragon in this project is of Welsh provenance, inspired by a pair of dragons in a Victorian terracotta panel in the Cardiff Pierhead Building – part of the National Assembly for Wales (see Cardiff Pierhead building photo).
The design of the dragon follows the Gothic and Renaissance style of the building, so it has many Renaissance features we don’t usually see in a dragon. The scales flow over the body in a manner more like classical acanthus leaves than the usual ‘dinosaur’ plates, and the traditional curled tail separates into swirls of classical volutes. Volutes also appear in the top two corners. A notable feature is the way the dragon’s foreleg overlaps the edge of the ‘picture frame’, giving the impression of a living creature barely contained by the frame.
In the language of heraldry, this project depicts a ‘dragon statant regardant’ (see page 15) – that is, a dragon standing and looking back over its shoulder. In the original Cardiff terracotta panel the two dragons are also ‘addorsed’ – that is, standing back to back. I’ve adapted the Cardiff dragons to suit an oak panel featuring just one dragon, and I’ve kept to the Renaissance/Gothic mix, but with a bit more Gothic in the wings to make them a little more bat-like. The extra light and shadow produced by the sharper angles of traditional spiky wings suits a woodcarving better. I’ve also made the dragon’s rear leg larger to balance up the single dragon. In the pair of dragons on the terracotta original the rear legs were barely noticeable and could easily be confused with the two-legged wyvern. I have also opened out the background area a little to make ‘grounding out’ a bit easier.
I have set the dragon in an integral ‘picture frame’ with its forefoot overlapping the frame in the bottom right corner and the volute on the wing doing the same in the top left, as in the original. The frame can be carved by the careful use of chisels, gouges and planes, including moulding planes if you have them, but if you don’t want to carve the frame you can just have a flat outer edge level with the background.

Things you will need
 No.3, 20mm fishtail gouge
 No.3, 10mm fishtail gouge
 No.3, 10mm
 No.8, 8mm
 No.5, 7mm
 No.5, 5mm
 No.5, 3mm
 No.9, 3mm
 No.9, 16mm curved gouge
 No.8, 8mm curved gouge
 10mm skewed spoon gouges L&R
 12mm back-bent gouge
 5mm bent chisel
 Straight V-tool
 No.1, 20mm flat chisel
 No.1,10mm skew chisel,
 No.1, 6.5mm flat chisel
 No.1, 3mm chisel
 No.1, 2mm chisel
 Cabinet scrapers
 Oak (Quercus robur) 280 x 250 x 35mm
 Wax polish (Antiquax natural)

Drawings and how to resize them
To enlarge or reduce the size of drawings right click on the image to download it and then go HERE to watch a video on how to use paper with a grid to do exactly that.

Cardiff Pierhead Building
The Cardiff Pierhead Building, built in 1897, is a beautiful red building finished in glazed terracotta blocks in a French Gothic/Renaissance style with many terracotta decorations, including friezes, gargoyles, and a highly ornamental and distinctive clock tower. Terracotta – literally ‘baked earth’ – is a ceramic material of baked clay, similar to bricks and pottery, that can be reproduced in moulds. 

The dragons in this terracotta panel on the Cardiff Pierhead Building inspired this project

Cardiff’s late-Victorian Pierhead Building was built in 1897 in a French Gothic/Renaissance style


1. Get a piece of oak 280 x 250 x 35mm. Make a full-sized copy of the drawing and trace the pattern on to the wood using carbon paper. Tape the drawing securely in place, and check you haven’t missed any lines before releasing all the tape

Carving the ‘picture frame’

2. Attach strips of wood to the bench or a backing board to secure the panel. Cut a deep V around the inner edge of the frame where it meets the ‘picture’, getting gradually deeper and wider until the vertical edge reaches a depth of about 16mm. Cut around the parts of the carving which extend into the frame

3. Use a moulding plane if you have one, or a flat plane or a gouge, to round over the outer edge of the frame as shown on the drawing

4. Now form a convex and concave ogee curve on the inside of the frame, using mainly a no.3 gouge on the long grain sides and a straight chisel cutting downwards on the end grain. To create a moulding with a smooth finish, dead-straight lines and a uniform curve along its length, use curved cabinet scrapers by pulling them towards you along the moulding

Blocking-out the dragon

5. Colour in the background areas of the dragon so you can see what’s what. Cut away the surplus wood outside the pattern by working back from the edges with a no.8 gouge, pushing and twisting it down vertically, a slice at a time. Next use gouges of the right size and profile to refine the edges

6. Re-cut the inner edge of the frame with a broad, flat chisel to create a neat straight line, then work the background areas between the pattern and the frame down to a depth of 22mm from the top surface. Use a narrow bent chisel to cut a smooth and level surface to the background, and check the depth with a simple depth gauge of a screw through a flat piece of wood

7. Repeat the process on the inner voids. You can use a hand drill to open up some of the gaps if you take great care not to damage the background or pattern. A more controllable way is to ‘drill’ in with a no.8 gouge, twisting it round as you cut down. Mark the depth on the gouge or drill to avoid going too far

Carving the detail

8. Start the detail carving with the upper part of the dragon’s wing and reduce the level of the tongue. An 8mm no.8 curved gouge is best for carving the curved flutes and sharp ridges on the wing. Prick in the outlines of the main features as you carve down to preserve the pattern

9. Carve the lower left part of the main wing with its sharp ridges and hollows. Most of the ridges run across the grain, so they will need finishing with a skew chisel or skew gouge running along each side of the ridge

10. Now move on to the large ‘feather’ scales at the shoulder. Remove some wood under the dragon’s throat and around the edges of the scales so you can shape the shoulder

11. Scoop out the lower part of the  shoulder scale and round over its top edge to give it a three-dimensional form. Shape the lower scales into it

12. Return to the head and carve the detail of the mouth, tongue and eyes. Complete the head ‘acanthus scales’ and volute in the top right. The dragon’s eye must be looking towards the top left corner of the picture. Refine the shape of the throat and add two gill-like slashes on the cheeks

13. Shape the upper part of the body from the neck to the belly. Carve the acanthus scales that flow down the neck with a twist and flick in the grooves to give it some life. Try to get a good three-dimensional form and add a few slashes with a V-tool along the neck and body to give the impression of scales and enhance the feeling of life and movement

14. Form the front leg so it emerges realistically from the body and stands planted in the bottom right corner with the claws overhanging the edge of the frame. Carve some hollows in the feet and up the lower part of the leg to make it look sinewy

15. Now form the back leg so it goes underneath the tail and sits with the foot on the edge of the frame. To look natural the leg must turn inwards at the knee, and the back of the thigh must turn slightly outwards so the body seems to be twisting slightly. That way the tail can flow out and over the leg

16. Roughly shape the tail and its swirls to sort out the levels. The tail must flow smoothly over the back leg and under the front leg, and then flick up at the voluted ends

17. Now you can finish by carving the detail on the tail. Use curved gouges to create smooth flowing hollows in the acanthus leaves and the volutes, and smoothly flowing lines along the tail back to the body

18. Slightly undercut all around the dragon to make it stand out from the background, and work the background down another 1mm to remove any stab marks. Scrape it with a small flat chisel to get a smooth and level surface, and use the depth gauge to check it is all at the same depth


19. On the outer side of the frame use gouges, and moulding planes if you have them, to finish rounding and shaping the back edge as shown on the drawing. Finally, refine the inside and outside of the frame with cabinet scrapers to get a neat, smooth finish with sharp mitres in the corners

20. Normally oak is best left without abrasives, but in this case you will probably need them to refine the surface of the frame. The dragon will look livelier if left with a good tooled finish. The whole carving can now be polished with a good wax polish and should look like this


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