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Best Option for Large Carving Projects

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  • Best Option for Large Carving Projects

    I have a desire to carve a traditional ship's figurehead and a cigar store Indian, maybe not to full scale, but rather large in the range of three to four foot tall. My question is how to go about creating a large blank for such a project. I have a source for 8/4 basswood boards in Ohio, about a two-hour drive from home. I have purchased from this lumberyard many times and have always been satisfied with their basswood, butternut, and many other wood varieties that I have used to make furniture. I could make a large glue-up, but I am concerned that the change in grain where the boards meet, while it may be slight, will make it more difficult to carve.

    My other option is to purchase eastern white pine beams. I have located a few sources locally for 6" x 12" beams that could be made into a glue-up with only a few joints. I have read that this species was used by American ship carvers because of its availability and ease for hand carving.

    I would appreciate any thoughts or experience that you may have with such a project before I take the plunge and start into this new adventure.



  • #2
    Both LoessHills Sawmill and Heincke offer large basswood blocks. You may want to check them out. I have not done any thing that large for a long time but I sourced some old loges from a tree cutting company back then.

    We live in the land of the free because of the brave! Semper Fi


    • #3
      I would advise (if possible) a visit to the 'Mystic Seaport Museum' located in Mystic Connecticut - the one place that can answer ALL your questions. They have one of the world's largest collections of maidenheads and their experts freely share their knowledge. If a visit is not possible, you may be able to reach out to them via email or phone. I have discussed: wood type, tools, finish.... and all questions answered by those with in-depth knowledge located in the 'Wendell Gallery' / "Ship Carver". The seaport has recreated and restored vintage vessels including the figureheads.
      They have a 'shop' (place where all the ships woodworking is done for restorations and replicas) open to the public. Jeff Rossi, located in the Ship Carver, would be an excellent contact. You may be interested in some of the classes offered there, so be sure to plan any visit for maximum impact.
      Good luck with a great idea!

      P.S. a VERY short video of the shop
      "Quality is not expensive. It is priceless!"


      • #4
        If you can score a single block of basswood from Heineke or LoessHills, so much the better.
        Failing that, you will be spending some time "learning the wood" in order to do a glue up.
        Sounds like you will do some chain saw rough-out.

        I would recommend against pine or any other conifer until you have a sense of how the wood will split, chip and crack. Losing important bits in the chip mess on the shop floor is frustrating.
        I have a couple of 64" western red cedar story poles on the bench, need to be so very careful not to pressure a chip-out.

        Glue ups can be done. This carving is 140+ pieces of yellow cedar. From the railing that's 4 feet away, you can't see the glue seams. The entire surface was textured with very shallow cupped chips.

        The Raven and the First Men: From Conception to Completion - Museum of Anthropology at UBC
        Brian T


        • #5
          johnvansyckel, I sent an e-mail to the carving shop at the Mystic Seaport Museum. I am hopeful that I get a response.

          Brian, I have read that eastern white pine was the choice of John Bellamy and his carving peers in the 19th century American shipbuilding industry, though I am sure that the quality of the lumber has changed since those days. I may try a single piece to see how it carves to sort of dip my toes in the water before I dive in.

          I appreciate all of your input.



          • #6
            In any case, with all of the conifers that I have tried, you have to pay attention to the ring count per inch. 15-30 per inch is the nicest wood to carve, all of them. Less than 12 is compressive squishy.
            More than 40 is kind of boney and pieces chip/split out very easily.

            I've seen perfect western red cedar in the lumber yard, 10 rings/inch fence boards. Keep walking.
            Brian T


            • #7
              Tim, I have a friend that carves carousel horses. she uses 2x6 wood (I don't remember what species) and glues and dowels the "form" together so it is hollow in the middle and starts carving and adds more wood as it starts to take shape. Very interesting to watch. So after it is done, there are pieces of wood with the grain going in all directions for strength.
              And hollow on the inside: 1- to reduce the weight and 2- minimizes cracking and checking. There are books on how to carve a ship's figurehead as well as videos on YouTube (that's where I would start). I hope you get started on this as I've also had the desire.
              Last edited by John Smith; 06-25-2022, 07:34 AM.
              Retired Dimensional Graphics Artist (a/k/a Sign Carver)


              • #8
                You may want to consider Aspen it carves nice green or dry and very affordable in large sizes.

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                • #9
                  Plywood is an interesting option for larger carvings like this one by Bill Prickett.