Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ducks, yas yas (Part I of who knows)

Some time ago I acquired a book by Ben Hunt, called "Ben Hunt's Big Book of Whittling." There is no date on the book, let alone an IBSN; my guess is that it is early to mid-50s, when I was still in a Venezuelan High School, struggling to get through . It has many interesting projects, but the one that caught my eye was entitled "miniature duck decoys."

The book supplied patterns for a number of decoys: mallards, pintails, and canvasbacks. This seemed like a fun thing to do --- and I am still hooked on duck decoys in miniature. So I had a few blocks of wood, and a Frost carving knife which I use for many purposes, and my first efforts looked a lot like this:
The blade of the Frost knife in the picture is about 6 cm long -- these are not gigantic carving projects!

The short story of how you carve these things is that you trace the pattern on to the block of wood. Since the object is three-dimensional, there will be three views to the pattern -- side, front, back. Then you cut away the surplus wood with a saw. If you have a small bandsaw, that's great. Then you go to work with a knife (or knives). Ben Hunt's book was designed for someone with a two-blade pocketknife; it is a very good project for a restless teen-ager, provided he or she learns to sharpen a store-bought pocketknife. The best description of decoy carving I ever found was in some other book: "Start with a block of wood and cut away anything that doesen't look like a duck."

Unfortunately, my bandsaw, although small by bandsaw standards, is much too big for this kind of work, so I used, mostly, a fretsaw to cut away the unwanted wood. I got my fretsaw at Lee Valley, it can be seen here:,42884,42902

A coping saw can also be used. Then, with the Frost knife (also available from Lee Valley) you start cutting away un-ducklike pieces. With the aid of a Japanese miniature carving set (again, Lee Valley) I had some decoys:
The duck at the rear needs more work, of course. Whee! This is not so difficult. Little did I know where this would lead. It would lead to painting ducks, making tools to carve ducks, finding a way around fretsawing, (which is very tedious, although very accurate), and dispensing with patterns.

The last may seem like heresy, but in fact, what you need isn't a pattern. What you really need is a bird book. From that, you can sketch your own patterns. It really helps if your bird book has at leat two views of a given bird, but truth is, your eye (and brain) has probably seen one gazillion birds, and you can fill it all in from one view. You must, of course, decide on a scale. I will get into all this in more detail later. You might want to start with a pattern from a book/magazine/Internet but after a while you can make your own and save some money. It's much more entertaining to do it yourself.

By the way, I never trace patterns on to wood blocks any more. Instead, I transfer the patterns on to pieces of aluminum beer cans. This makes a much more durable pattern than paper. Take a beer can (not exactly the hardest thing in the world to scrounge) and cut it apart. Use tin snips for the nasty hard parts, but the rest can be cut with scissors. Then place it on a stove and turn it (the stove) on. In moments, the enamel will burn off in a spectacular flame. Blow it out. You have annealed the aluminum: made it soft. Flatten it out with a mallet, hammer, or even a rolling pin. Now you can trace a pattern onto it, and cut it out with any pair of scissors, and voilá, you have recycled a beer can.

In subesquent posts, I will relate the miniature woodwork Odyssey and where it has taken me. Meanwhile, pick up that discarded beer can; it is very useful.


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