Viking Dragon Head

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Viking Dragon Head:
Steve Bisco is inspired by a historic woodcarving from the Viking Age.

Steve Bisco is inspired by a historic woodcarving from the Viking Age

This project is based on one of the five carved animal heads found in the 1,200 year old Oseberg Viking ship burial described in the previous pages. I am nominally calling it a dragon head as all Viking creatures are difficult to identify and the University of Oslo cautiously refers to them as ‘animal heads’, but dragons figured strongly in Viking mythology and they look as much like dragons as anything else. I am also not the first to call them dragons, so we will go with that.
The five Oseberg animal heads are all different and appear to be the work of five different carvers. The one I have chosen is the best preserved and, apart from having parts of its ears and a few teeth missing, is in a remarkable state of preservation. Like the other heads, it has a long neck with a shaft mortised through the lower end at right-angles (see photo right), which suggests it was attached to the front of something, like a throne, ceremonial cart or part of a ship – we will never know. The carving is very finely executed in the Oseberg style (see page 19). It has cross-hatching and texturing so skilfully executed in microscopic detail you’d think it had been done by fairies, and it is very hard to replicate. It certainly grabbed my attention when I visited the Oslo Viking Ship Museum.
The timber used for the Oseberg head is, despite having spent 1200 years buried in boggy ground, a rich golden brown. Wikipedia says it is maple (presumably Norway Maple – Acer platanoides) but this is not confirmed in the Viking Ship Museum information, which just describes it as ‘a hardwood’. Maple is not especially durable, so its preservation in the ship grave is even more remarkable.

The original dragon head in the Oslo Viking Ship Museum, with its long neck and the remains of a shaft mortised through it

Not having any maple, I have used a block of limewood (Tilia spp.) 150 x 120 x 210mm which is similar in size to the original. I would not recommend making it any smaller as the fine texturing would become impossible. To achieve a similar ‘aged’ finish I used a mid-oak woodstain and a light brown wax polish.
As the head is the main point of interest, I have not replicated the long wooden neck in its original form. Instead I have made up a simplified stand from 25mm board cut in a shape resembling a ship’s prow. I have finished this with black ebonising lacquer, but you can choose whichever mounting method and finish you prefer. 

BACK TO THE DARK AGES
When copying a woodcarving made 1200 years ago you can’t help but wonder about its creator, who lived in a world very different from our own where life was short and violent and artistic design centred on the mythology of pagan gods and monstrous creatures. Thankfully we don’t have to live in that world, but in making this carving we have to follow the same carving processes and resolve the same practical issues as our Viking did. The complexity of the carving indicates quite a sophisticated set of tools. Many of the cuts could not have been made without a good selection of gouges and a very fine V-tool. This was not a primitive knife-and-hatchet job but very fine work by a skilled craftsman with a good set of tools. Making this copy allows us to shine a small light into the world of our Dark Ages predecessor.   

Things you will need
Tools:
• No.3, 20mm fishtail
• No.3, 10mm fishtail
• No.4, 6mm fishtail
• No.9, 20mm
• No.3, 10mm
• No.8, 8mm
• No.8, 8mm curved
• No.5, 7mm
• No.5, 5mm
• No.5, 3mm
• No.9, 3mm
• No.9, 16mm curved
• 10mm short bent,
• 10mm skewed spoon gouges L&R
• 2 & 6mm straight V-tool
• 2, 3 & 6.5, 20mm chisel
• 10mm skew chisel
• 16mm hooked skew chisel
• Bandsaw
• Padsaw
• Round rasp
• Curved riffler
• Drill
• 25mm & 32mm spade bits
Materials:
• Head: Lime (Tilia spp.) 150 x 120 x 210mm
• Base : Any suitable board 360 x 225 x 25mm
• Woodstain Georgian mid-oak
• Light brown wax polish on head
• Ebonising lacquer on base

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.

PREPARATIONS

1. Get a block of lime 150 x 120 x 210mm for the head and a piece of any suitable board, I used Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), 360 x 225 x 25mm for the base. Make a full-size copy of the drawing and trace the pattern on to the base using carbon paper. Do the same on all four sides of the head, taking great care to align the tracing accurately on each side. Also get some transparency film and trace the top and side head patterns on to it (they will help preserve the pattern as we carve)

Top tip: Be inventive with your workholding to keep the work secure and still while you are carving. An unsecured piece poses risks to you and the work. You may have a proper carving clamp for figure carving, but if not use blocks and battens screwed in various positions as you work around the piece.

SHAPING THE HEAD

2. On the side profile of the block, mark the position of the centre of the roughly circular mouth on both sides, taking care to line them up exactly. Using a 32mm spade bit (unless your block size is different to mine) carefully drill in from each side to the centre to open the hole through. Refine the hole with a round rasp to get the required mouth profile

3. Using the top and bottom profiles of the head, carefully make a few crosscuts with a saw at intervals from the edges of the block back to the pattern line. These will help to shape the top profile later

4. Cut around the side profile of the head. A bandsaw is the best tool for this, but if you don’t have one use whatever saws you have and chisel the edges back to the line

5. Fix some wooden blocks on your bench so you can secure the head block on its side and standing upright, with a little packing and a few wedges around it when needed. Draw a centreline around the head and, using the saw cuts made earlier and the transparency, redraw the top and bottom profiles of the head

6. Chisel wood away from the sides back to the top and bottom profile lines, and check across with a ruler for alignment

7. Use the top and side transparencies, and the finished photos in step 19, to fix the size and position of both eyes and draw them in. Carve away the square edges to form the three-dimensional shape of the eyes and the top of the nose. Add some extra fixing blocks to secure the irregular shape of the head as you work

8. Now work backwards along the top of the head and neck, rounding off the square edges. Cut around and between the curiously-placed ear lobes so they protrude above the sloping sides

9. The thickest part of the head lies on a line from just under the eyes back to the centre of the neck. The sides and underside below this are slimmer than the top part of the head, so keep shaving away the wood down to the underside and around the chin

CARVING THE DETAIL

10. We need a smooth surface to carve the detail on, so sand it smooth with 120 and 180 grit abrasive. Re-draw the pattern around the mouth, nose and chin using the side transparency. Carve the gums to the correct position and hollow the inside of the mouth with a spoon gouge. This is a tricky area to carve. The original has tear-out evident in this locality too. Make it as clean or ‘authentic’ as you like

11. Carefully carve the teeth (four upper and four lower). Notice how they are set back slightly into the gums. The teeth protrude across the grain, so take great care. A curved riffler is useful to refine the shape with less risk of breakage. Hollow out the mouth again inside the teeth. The dentistry is best carried out in a bench vice

12. Now use a fine 2mm V-tool to carve the decorative detail around the mouth. Hollow out the nostrils with an 8mm No.8 gouge

13. Mark in the area of diagonal cross-hatching on the top of the nose. Note how the lines curve slightly with the contours. With the fine V-tool, cut in the border rings around the eyes then, very carefully and neatly, carve in the diaper pattern of the cross-hatching

14a. There is no easy way to transfer the knotwork pattern on to the three-dimensional surface of the head. You have to draw it in by hand using the transparencies and the finished photos as a guide. Use a light-coloured crayon to sketch the flow and position of each ‘ribbon’ then, when you are happy with it, use a darker one to define the edges and show the crossovers. To clarify the maze of lines, colour in the background areas that will be chiselled out. The side, top and underneath patterns must all join up

14b. Using very sharp chisels and gouges, cut out the background areas to a depth of 3mm. Some of the ‘ribbons’ are very narrow and may break out if you cut straight down, so cut along the edges first with the small V-tool and then work back to a neat vertical edge. Mark the overlaps in the ‘ribbons’ with the V-tool

15. When you cut out the area around the ears, hollow out and form the ears to their finished shape

16. Before adding the more delicate fine details, cut the mortise in the neck to exactly fit the thickness of the board of your stand – preferably 25mm. You can drill a hole of this diameter first, then square it up to a neat and accurate mortise

ADDING THE FINE DETAIL

17a. We now finish off the very fine detailing on the front diaper pattern. On each of the diamond shapes cut earlier, carve two very fine cuts across it with the 2mm V-tool, alternating the direction on each diamond

17b. The bulge behind each eye is divided into ‘leaves’ about 8mm wide with a rounded top end, and each leaf is subdivided by two fine V-tool cuts

18. We now come to the fine detailing on the ‘straps’ of the knotwork. First carve a narrow border along both sides of each strap, taking care to emphasise the crossovers, then add the very fine texturing to each piece. The broader areas have fine cross-hatching in a square or diaper pattern, and the narrower strips have various patterns of parallel lines and cross cuts. All the cuts are made with the 2mm V-tool. Try to vary the patterns on the narrow strips so you can follow the flow of individual ribbons

19. The carving phase is now finished. The four photos show the top, bottom and both sides of the finished head. Use these for reference when carving and when drawing the pattern in step 14

FINISHING

20. Now we need to make the new lime wood look like the Viking original. I used Georgian medium oak woodstain, put it on with brushes to work it into the textured surface. When dry, I brushed a light-brown wax polish sparingly into the carved detail and buffed it up with a cloth to a soft sheen

Top tip: When you use a woodstain on a carving, test it first on a piece of the same wood to make sure it gives the effect you want. Dyes can be scarily dark when wet but will usually dry much lighter. It must be applied to clean, bare wood, and the dye may be absorbed differently on end grain and side grain. You will normally need some kind of polish or lacquer after the woodstain to bring out the colour and give it a gloss or sheen.

21. Cut out the stand shape from the 25mm board with a jigsaw or bandsaw. Cut the tenon at the top end to fit the mortise in the head, and cut out the slots in the joint of the stand and cross-piece so they fit together accurately. Smooth the edges with a spoke-shave if necessary and sand the pieces thoroughly. Give it a coat of sander-sealer and another light sanding before painting. Finish the stand with three coats of ebonising lacquer, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Put masking tape round the top tenon to keep the bare wood clean for gluing. With all parts finished, glue the head on to the stand. Slot the crosspiece into the base of the stand and the Viking dragon head is ready to be displayed where it can frighten children

22. The finished dragon’s head on the stand

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