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Sunday, 8 November 2015

Carving a statue inspired by the Gruffalo: carved using some rather special wood and then painted

It's always exciting to produce a kind of sculpture that I don't get to do very often. One example would be painted woodcarvings based on recognisable characters.

Recently, I was asked to carve just such a piece. It was a bit like carving a portrait of a person; there's a definite 'right' and 'wrong' look to such work and it's important to get it right!

gruffalo sculpture

The request was for a statue about 40 cm (16 inches) tall that took its inspiration from the hugely popular children's book 'The Gruffalo', which was written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. The first thing to do was to find some timber to use. I had some suitable pieces of Lawson's Cypress in the workshop (it's called Port Orford cedar in the US), which were to be used in a carving project that had to be abandoned a couple of years ago.

Lawson's Cypress is a softwood and can be a bit hard to carve using traditional hand tools such as gouges. It seems to want to  'chew up' a lot, even when the tools are very sharp. However, this timber was a bit special and I really wanted to use it, so most of the carving was done with power tools, particularly an Arbortech mini carver and sander.

arbortech mini carver

The wood originally came from a large tree taken out at Ashton Court mansion, on the edge of Bristol, during landscaping work a few years ago. Some bits of the trunks had been left there to rot and, with the permission of the estates department, I went with a couple of friends to mill some in situ with chainsaw mills, to use in woodworking projects.

chainsaw mill ashton court

The person who requested the sculpture is a fan of Bristol City soccer team, who have their ground just below Ashton Court. The trees were also well-liked in the area and there was some controversy when they were cut down. I knew that the future owners would appreciate their statue being made from this very special timber.

First, an Arbortech Pro-4 disc was used to rough out the shape. These things are very aggressive and need to be treated with respect! I have mine fitted to a Makita angle grinder with a paddle switch, so that if my grip is released the grinder stops. Many angle grinders (including Arbortech's own brand ones) have thumb push switches which can, in my experience, clog up with wood chips making them impossible to turn off and therefore dangerous.

arbortech pro 4

Once the basic shape was there, the mini carver (with a similar but smaller disc to the Pro-4, mounted on a boom) was used to refine it.

A Dremel rotary tool made detailing a lot easier than using hand tools on this timber, although some cuts were still done with gouges.

The Dremel was also very handy for texturing the fur on the figure and for drilling holes for the spikes and claws, which were carved from bamboo. You can see the tip of the Dremel on the right in this photo:

I fixed the ears, horns, claws and spikes on afterwards, as they would have been too easily broken across the grain or might have looked clumsy if carved in one piece with the rest of the figure. All of them were shaped using my trusty old Opinel knife, with which I learnt to carve over twenty years ago! The ears were whittled from cedar and the horns from sycamore.

whittling wood

The figure was starting to take shape. I must admit that it almost seemed a shame to paint the carved wooden sculpture. I was very pleased with the surprised and happy expression, perfect for a surprise gift!

Grey undercoat was suitable for the areas to be painted with a drier-coloured topcoat, but the eyes, teeth and horns needed white undercoat so as not to look dull.

At this point, I also remodelled the feet because they weren't quite right; not enough toes and not outward-pointing enough. Then it was time to start putting the colours on, using enamel paints.

Suddenly, painting the sculpture definitely seemed like the right thing to be doing.

With a bit of shading and blending - I knew those childhood days spent assembling and painting model kits would be useful one day - the carving was pretty much finished. All that was needed was a spray coat of acrylic lacquer (to protect the paint) and a base made from oak with green baize underneath.

gruffalo  woodcarving