Figureheads – part 3

Wow, a whole year has past since the last entry on this series, now that’s what I call ‘occasional’!

OK, so if you recall, I made a big thing about the importance of the jaw-line.  Well, now that I have finally taken some photos of the Brest Tiller, I can illustrate the point with the view of the face from under the neck.   The image also nicely illustrates the prominence of the nose, and, if you look very carefully, the curve of the forehead is just about visible too. dscf3772
















tiller to Brest – update

Things are progressing, slowly, but I am still more-or-less on schedule, having managed to cobble together somewhere near 20 hours carving on the tiller in between and around other work.  I know I felt I would leave the rope-work until the whole thing was roughed out but in the end I have concentrated on getting it done and now the ropework is nearing completion; I think about 5 more hours should see it done.

Hopefully you can see that the work is much deeper and more fully rounded.  You might also see where I have started some fancy ‘whipping’ on the one end: more of that in a later post.  Incidentally the only tool I am using at the moment is a 10mm skew-chisel – the pointed end is essential for getting into the tiny spaces


tiller to Brest

The tiller is coming along, the pictures say it better than my words – about half the length of the knotwork is roughed out, progress is working out at just over an inch an hour – so 12 more hours carving will finish this stage, then I guess about another 15 hours to refine the carving.

The first picture shows the whole length, the spiral roughed out to the left, the pattern marked out and the roughed-out knots in the second, and the third shows the depth of carving the whole length will be carved to eventually. The only tools needed are a small chisel and a v-tool (aka parting tool)


carving update

Hi All,

things have been a bit crazy recently (excuses, excuses) and I haven’t had time to post anything – most of what I have been commissioned to carve has been surprise gifts and so not things I can blog about, but in between times I have been working on the two side cheeks for my crossbow project, and have also worked on an antler end-plate.  I will post an update on the side cheeks soon but for the time being here is the end-plate.

This piece measures a little over 2 inches  tall by 1 inch wide and  represents archangel Michael slaying the Devil – I have no idea what the end plate would have been carved to represent so I have followed the theme of archangel Michael from the antler plate under the fore-grip (see earlier post). It is equally possible there was no end-plate, or that it carried a floral motif, or that it carried a prayer – these are all elements used on the original crossbow. Any comment?crossbow tail piece

first antler relief carving finished (well, nearly)

OK, well, for anyone that might be interested, this is how my second  carving in stag-horn (antler) is coming along – the bulk of the carving, to all intents and purposes is finished, except for some sharpening up here and there, which I am leaving until it is mounted in a cross-bow – at current rate of progress that will be this time next year…. Oh, it will need some kind of antique-effect wax to help pick-out the details and slow down moisture movement too So, for your delectation I present archangel Michael as based on the carving on the underside of the Ulrich crossbow attributed to Heinrich Heid von Winterthur (probably Swiss, active Stuttgart, recorded 1453–1460) held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).   michael and scalesThe carving measures 2cm by 21cm and is a maximum of 1mm deep, but perhaps most interestingly (to some), I strongly believe the ‘crosslet’ in the diamond at the base has been mis-identified, and is in fact satan carved as a dragon – if you look at the hd image on its strongest magnification (  you can just about make out a mouth and a head – you will need to select additional images. Although badly worn, an image of satan in the underworld with the earth represented by oak leaves and archangel michael guarding the way to Heaven makes sense (at least to me). I am very grateful too, for the work by Dirk Breiding (Met Museum publication The Crossbow of Count Ulrich V of Wurttemberg, Met Museum Jounal, vol 44, 2009) in which he points out the scales containing the penitent and the tower, and the demon pulling at the scales, all of which would have been extremely difficult to identify without his work.   Only one carving tool was used for this, a small skew chisel using  the point as a scraper.

netsuke finished

OK, well, lots of experimenting, but this is what I have ended up with.

moon with owl in oak tree, ryusa style netsuke, diameter 4cm

owl in oak tree with moon, rear view


Antler is very resistant to staining and to painting, even these stains have only sat on the surface.  The branches and leaves have been picked out with an acrylic ink, heavily cut with thinners, and the owl has been coloured with a stain known as ‘Yashabushi’ – alder cones boiled down for an hour give a yellow/brown dye, then some iron oxide (rusty screws and nails) react with the tannic acid in the dye to darken it – the more iron oxide, the darker the colour.  The dye should also be left to age – the older it is the better it works (apparently). The final touch was to apply a clear wax and warm with a hair drier to pull the wax into the carving and protect against dirt.


I am deeply indebted to the contributers to the Carving Path forum (see links) without whom this project would not have been completed.

antler carving

It is always good to push yourself, and so I thought I would try something different – antler carving!  The main reason for this is to have a crack at relief carving, like this


Crossbow of Count Ulrich V of Württemberg (1413–1480)

side detail of carved antler, photo/collection New York Met Museum of Art







, or like this,

Crossbow of Count Ulrich V of Württemberg (1413–1480)

Crossbow of Count Ulrich V of Württemberg (1413–1480), detail of carved antler inlay








but I also need some ‘car-carving’ (see June 2013), and, since I have always loved Ryusa-style Netsuke (pronounced net-skee), thought I’d have a go at carving one to establish how antler performs as a carving material.



This is as far as I have got, but the carving is done (more or less) and it is ready for staining (deep-breath)









This is what I have found out about antler carving, but remember, this is my experience with carving one piece from one antler-crown

1. when antler dries it goes very hard but this surface crust takes exceptional detail

2. a splash in warm water and antler goes very soft, rediculously easy to carve and doesn’t dry out for several hours – when soft like this it can even be bent/straightened

3. there is no grain as such and antler does not split or splinter, so no wedging pieces off deliberately or accidentally  You can get away with murder as far as technique is concerned – there is no grain to carve with or across.

4. tools pushed straight into antler will get stuck

5. ordinary carving tools are perfectly fine for carving antler without re-profililng them, gouges are ok but scrapers and engraving tools are fantastic.  For anyone carving antler often then re-profiling your tools to steeper cutting angles is a good idea, so they act less like cutting tools and more like scrapers

6. antler is incredibly strong and can be carved very fine without worrying if it is going to snap

7. If you use saws or rasps or pyrography then antler smells really badly but otherwise doesn’t smell noticeably

8. when carved to a thickness of less than 3mm antler becomes transluscent – you can see light through it

This post will be updated when the owl in oak tree with moon-and-clouds netsuke is all finished, have fun!