I decided I would make a carved wooden shelf for my partner ilovesnails
in the Dodo Swap
. The topic wasn't just the late bird itself but any other extinct creatures, and I'd originally thought of carving a prehistoric undersea scene, with trilobites, dinosaur-like fish and other extinct species. Looking around for images and ideas, I thought of the terracotta decorations
designed by Alfred Waterhouse for the Museum of Natural History in London. I remembered there were some good prehistoric fish designs there, but when I got out the book I have on the museum, none of the fish were really what I was looking for. But I came across the bas-relief Waterhouse drew of a dodo, and decided that
was what I had to do. It would certainly be easier than creating my own design from scratch, and it was a beautiful piece of work.
The size of the shelf was determined by a couple of 1-inch thick boards I had in my stash. They were of a very white, very even-grained wood (something like limewood), and I had scavenged them from a shipping crate. They had some nail-holes (stained with rust) and a few scars that I would have to work around, but there was just enough wood to glue up to make a shelf back about 18 in. (45 cm) wide, and a narrow trim around the shelf, which could be made of plywood.
I printed out Waterhouse's drawing at the size I needed, and traced the outline of the bird and the frame onto the board. Then I used an electric router to take away half the thickness everywhere except the bird and the outer moulding. This would save a lot of time in carving down the background to make the bird stand out.
Unfortunately I was being so careful not to slip and cut into the wood I intended to save, that I didn't notice that the depth of the router started to slip and it was suddenly going much too deep.
I had to go back and cut another piece of the wood (fortunately there were two small scraps left!) and carefully fit it in to replace the spoiled background area. Then, with the full drawing traced onto the two levels of wood, I could start carving.
I started by roughing out the dodo, which went quite quickly (whatever this wood is, it was lovely to carve). Then I began the much slower job of roughing in the background foliage.
The first step was to cut back all the depth behind and between the reeds. This was hard to do, because it was quite deep and the spaces were small. I used an X-Acto knife and my smallest carving gouges (even the micro chisels I usually only use for carving rubber stamps!) and worked away at it until I had it all at least crudely done. It would be easier to clean it up once the surrounding leaves had been carved back further.
From here on it was just a matter of painstakingly working my way up and down across the background, carving each leaf and stem so it was no longer parallel to the surface plane (this is the simplest trick to make bas relief look good - no flat planes) and to make them overlap each other in a way that gave the illusion of depth. Of course I only had about 3/8 in. (5 mm) of actual depth to work with, so it was a slow process to make sure I didn't carve a leaf too deep here when it would have to pass behind another one a little further up. I made a few blunders, of course, but I was able to correct them as I went along.
The nail holes turned out to be a constant nuisance, even though I thought I'd planned around them, and they kept popping up unexpectedly. Some I just couldn't carve out, and I had to use wood filler in them, which unfortunately does show on the finished surface if you look closely enough.
Somewhere about this point the deadline to send our swap packages came and went, and I was still working. Yikes!
Finally I had it all shaped and could go back and and clean up the lowest areas that I hadn't been able to reach before. A magnifying glass was useful to catch spots where I'd missed something or where there were rough patches that needed to be smoothed over. But the dodo itself was still just roughed-in, so it had to be given a final shaping and the feathers (oh, so many feathers!) carved. A final check and a fine sanding (at least of the surfaces I could reach with sandpaper) and it was ready to attach to the shelf, which I'd already put together. Early on I'd imagined carving a frieze of ammonites (because of my partner's love of snails) around the edge, but in the end I settled on a very simple routed border instead. Much more sensible.
I used SamaN
water-based stain, which took to the wood very well. I'd actually wanted a much more olive-green stain, but of course when I ran out to buy it, the local store didn't have it in stock and I had to settle for a kind of raw umber colour. But in the end I was quite happy with it, and though I intended to put on two coats of stain, it looked good with only one so I stopped there. A coat of semi-gloss water-based urethane sealed it after the stain was thoroughly dry.
While the project seemed to take forever to finish, and I ended up sending about a week and a half late
, I enjoyed every minute of carving this. It was exactly the right combination of challenging and repetitive, and I was rather sad when I finished carving the last leaf. (Okay, I'll admit I didn't enjoy doing the feathers on the dodo much at all - that was more annoying than challenging.) It's finally made me eager to finish up a carved toilet seat that I started about two years ago!