Use Wood-Carving Skills to Whittle a Family Portrait

Tired of the typical matching family photograph? Hone your wood-carving skills and follow these step-by-step tips for whittling a super unique family portrait.

| March/April 1982

Most people, upon hearing the words "family portrait", immediately envision a framed photograph or painting. Well, the same terms make me think of handsome, three-dimensional wood carvings that draw the admiring gazes of my friends and customers! Whittling portraits may not be as difficult as you think (although it couldn't be called easy, on the other hand), and the skill can help you earn extra money while giving you a lot of pleasure.

Begin With a Snapshot

The secret to success in the field of carved portraiture is having a good photograph to work from. Unless you're a fine artist yourself, you're likely going to have trouble trying to sketch your family on a rough slab of lumber and have the proportions come out close to right. So get a good snapshot and have it blown up to the size you want. Then trace the main outlines, including a border, on thin paper, and set the tracing aside

Select Suitable Wood

The first place to look for portrait lumber is, of course, in your own scrap pile. Search for a piece of board that's large enough for the proposed picture. Then check to see whether it's a good slab to work on: Whittle on a small portion, noting whether the wood can be cut smoothly at an angle to the grain and whether it feels good to carve.

Making the Main Cuts

Once you've selected your material, place a piece of carbon paper between the wood and the tracing, and go over the drawing to transfer it to the slab. Then, with the work laid out, you can begin cutting. It's very important to slice straight down on the carbon lines at first. If you angle the cuts, you'll change the proportions, and you might add 50 pounds to each person . . . or subtract it! Your drawn lines will represent the widest parts of heads, arms, and shoulders, so once you've cut straight down, you should use a gouge to scoop out all of the background surrounding your figures. If your tool is sharp as it should be — and the wood is soft, this job will be a bit like digging out bites of melon with a spoon. You'll need to recut the outline and remove another layer of background some three or four times at least, in order to be sure your figures are sufficiently high to support detail work.

Details, Details

 At this point, the faces of your subjects should appear as raised, flat-topped ovals. Now, you need to give them contoured chins, cheeks, noses, and such. If you were carving a statue, you'd need to leave the nose sticking way out . . . but a face on a plaque isn't seen ,indeed it can't be seen, from the side, because the border obscures that view. Therefore, you'll probably be cutting no more than a quarter-inch deep when making the features.

Let the forehead and the nose tip remain at the level of the original surface of your wood slab . . . the highest points of the cheeks and lips should be shaped to about 1/16 inch below that . . . and the eyes will be deeper still. Cut down to these levels before you try for any smaller detail. Be sure to refer to the photo while you work (otherwise you might well make everyone look alike), and when in doubt, stop and sharpen your tools. Remove the wood in little tiny slices, and when you finish whittling your wife's/husband's/sibling's face stop and ask yourself, "Does (whoever really look that old?" If the answer is no, you need to remove some of the tool marks.

Of course, you probably don't want to use sandpaper on your delicate details carvings . . . instead, sharpen your knife and lightly scrape the angular marks so each cheek, the forehead, the chin, and the lips. The whittled face will get smoother and younger looking in a hurry, so stop when it's right.

Finishing Up

 I finished my first plaque with a coat of clear lacquer. That was a mistake: The carving has looked like plastic ever since. I left my next effort as was . . . but that was a mistake, too. It seems that people like to touch carvings, and soon all the portrait's high spots were grimy.

Since then, I've learned that shoe polish makes a first-rate finish. A neutral or soft brown shade of wax-rubbed in, then buffed with a shoe brush darkens the surface and makes the carving look richer and deeper. The pores of the wood fill with wax, too (preventing dirt buildup and all the details of the portrait seem to stand out very distinctly.

Fortunately, corrections and change can be made up to the last moment. Is some detail wrong, some facial expresssion incorrect? Well, just carve deeper, rewax, and then reevaluate your work.

There's something very precious about a family portrait, and something special about a wood carving made by hand. Together, they can be an unbeatable combination . . . for you, for your friends and relatives, and  —should you decide to turn your craft into a source of part-time income — for your eager customers!

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