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By Clifton Sears
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Here is my attempt at a step by step guide to carving a simple fisherman figure. Feel free to use it as you see fit, if it is reproduced for others please do give me credit.

The figure will be a bald fisherman with beard, holding a sou- wester in one hand with the other held palm up, as though feeling for rain. There are white stains on the sou-wester and on the fisherman's forehead, and a seagull sits on a pole above his head. The title is "Why Fishermen Wear Sou-westers".

A block of soft carving wood, 4" x 4" x 10" will be used for this example. Other dimensions may be used, simply by adjusting the measurements. The cuts need not be precise and accurate, since they are merely to act as a guide for the placement of features.

On carving in general, I think a series of small steps is the best approach. It's the big leaps that bring about a fall. Take your time, and use a lot of small cuts rather than a few big ones. It may take a little longer, but you will like the result.

STEP 1: Shaping the head

This is a caricature and I don't normally measure anything when doing this type of figure. Everything is a judgement call, aimed at getting the best affect. However, for this lesson, I think a series of measured cuts should allow even a beginner to end up with a three dimensional map of the main features of the head.

Refer to the illustrations, to help make the instructions clear.

The first cuts will leave a 2 1/4" x 2 1/4" x 3" block that we will shape to be the head. Measure in from the front of the block, 1 1/4" and down 3 1/2" and mark this on the top and sides and front. Measure down a further 2 1/2" and, on the sides mar and angle back up to the 1 1/4" line.

You may make all the marks first and then cut or remove the wood as you go. Your choice.

To remove the front, cut down the 1 1/4" guide lines until the 3 1/2" line is reached. Now cut from the 6" line ( the second 2 1/2" line) at an angle, back up to the 3 1/2" line.

Measure in 7/8" from each side, and down 3 1/2", making the mark along the top as well. The sides can be remove by cutting down to 3 1/2" and in the 7/8".

Measure 1/2" in for the back and remove as with the sides. Now you should have approximately, a 2 1/4" x 2 1/4" x 3 1/2" block at the top of your wood.

The next cuts begin to shape the head. Refer to illustration step 1b below.

Basically we will be cutting a triangle off each corner of our top block.

Measure in from the front corners 1" in each direction and join these marks to form front triangles at the corner. Marks down the front and side of the head act as saw guides. Simply cut down and remove this wood.

The back corners will have 1/2" triangles removed in the same fashion.

The final cuts to the head will define the nose, chin, eyes and ears.

Measure down from the top, 1" and mark the front for eyebrow location and the sides for top of ear location. Measure down 2" to mark bottom of the nose and ears. Measure down 3" and mark the bottom of the chin.

Now for the cuts. The front needs to have wood removed to define the nose. Measure in about 1/2" at the eyebrow mark and down from the top. From 1 1/2" mark a line angled back up to the eyebrow level. Remove this wood reveal the forehead and top of nose.

Cut in 1/2" at the bottom of the nose and cut up from the 3" mark (or chin) at an angle to remove a wedge and define nose and chin.

The final front cut is for the neck. At the base of the neck, measure in roughly 1" and cut at an angle down from the chin, to remove this wedge.

Now for the ears. A cut down from the top, and in about 1/4" will define the top of the ear. The bottom cut is at an angle down to the shoulder, or base of the neck and in about 1/2".

Well, that defines the head and should give you a pretty good idea of what future robot washing machines will look like.

STEP 2: Shaping the figure

First turn the figure upside down and we will mark the heels and toes of the feet. From the back measure in 1" and mark a line from left to right to define the heels. A line in 2 1/4" from the back will show the toes. We can return to these later.

The figures left hand will extend forward, so we will remove some of the front. Measure 1" in from the figure's left side and mark down the front. On the bottom measure in 3/4 " and do the same on the left side. Turn the piece so the right side is up and saw down 3". Cut in the 3/4" from the front and remove this wood.

Add some shape to the back by first measuring in 2" and mark a centre line down the back. On each side measure in 3/4" and mark this line. The cut is from top to bottom to remove the triangle wedge on each side of the back.

To define the right arm. measure up from the bottom 3 3/4" and mark the bottom of the elbow. Measure up 2 1/4" to mark the bottom of the hand. Draw a line to join these two points and cut in 1". Turn the figure upside down, and mark in 1" from the right side, making a mark down the front and back to help guide the cut. Saw down to meet the previous cut.

Measure in from the back of the arm, 1 1/4" to mark the shoulder width. Mark straight down 2". Measure up from the hand 1" and join this to the previous 2" mark to show the arm. Measure in 1 1/2" to the front and saw out this triangle shaped wedge, first cutting down 2" and then turning the figure upside down to cut along the top of the arm. Finally measure up 1/2" on the hand and cut straight across to define the bottom of the hand.

Measure up from the bottom on the left side the same 3 3/4" to mark the elbow. Measure up 3 1/2" to mark the bottom of the hand. Join these marks and cut in 1". Cut up from the bottom as with the right side to leave the left arm defined.

Measure 1 1/4" for the shoulder width. Mark down 1 3/4" and in to the front 1 1/2" to make a triangle wedge. Cut down the 1 3/4" and straight in to remove this wood and leave a defined arm.

To show the backs of the legs, measure up 3" from the bottom and cut from the back of the heels, marked earlier, at an angle up to the this mark. On the front cut up from the toes to this 3" mark. Finally separate the legs from each other with a single saw cut up the centre, between them, stopping at about 2 3/4".

STEP 3: Carving the head

Round off the top of the head, adding more slant to the forehead area. A curved carving blade might be best for this.
To shape out the eye cavity, ear cavity, and nostrils use a round nose or spherical rotary carving burr. For those who prefer to do it all with the knife, a 3/4" spear point blade may work best, making small circular cuts.

In shaping the eye cavity, remember the eyebrow slopes downward at the sides. The ear cavity is simply a hole at the centre of our defined ear.

Of course you know why I shape out the cavities before carving the features. It's just a weird feeling approaching someone's nostril with a rotating rasp!

Continue with a straight blade, cutting from below the ear to the chin, on an inward curve to define the neck. Shape the back of the neck with a more straight cut and not in as far. The neck will be thinned a bit more when we do the shoulders.

Round off the ears at the top and bottom, removing a little more from the lower back portion to taper the ear toward the bottom. Cut a V grove around the outside top and back of the ear to separate it from the head.

Define the hair line and the beard down to the moustache (remember the guy is a little bald). Define the hair line at the back of the neck in similar fashion. Cut from the side of the nose (about midway) down to the beard to define the cheek and edge of the moustache.

A straight cut midway between the bottom of the chin and the nose places the mouth. Finally, make a V cut in the front of the ear.

To finish. simply go over each feature and add as much detail as you are comfortable with and capable of. This will depend on what level you are at.

It is a caricature and some exaggeration is in order, with cuts being a little deeper, to define features more clearly.

I prefer small detail blades for this. Below I show what I have done with the eyes. Note that the eyebrows are high up to give a look of surprise. After all he just received a special gift from his favourite gull.

Simple V cuts help define the beard and hair. After the carving the head, sanding will give a finished look. This can be done by hand or with a rotary, cone-shaped sander.

Here is my finished head.

STEP 4: Shaping the body:

Basic locations of the body features were defined in lesson 1. Now we can begin to carve the features to their final shape.
Begin with the right arm, rounding it and making it smaller.Remove wood from the shoulder to leave it 1/2" out from the edge of the neck.

Narrow in the chest until it meets the neck, then do the same with the back. Some shaping of the neck may be needed to give a ballanced look. Separate the arm from the body with V cuts. Locate the hand and separate it from the shirt.

The left arm is about the same, except you have to keep refering to the right arm, to make sure the length from shoulder to elbow, and elbow to hand, are the same with both arms. More separation of the left arm from the body is needed than with the right arm. A few wrinkles may be added at the elbow creases.

Shape the trunk and lower body, defining the belt line at the level of the left arm. Our guy has ample belly - a few too many lobsters, no doubt. The saw cut from step 3 separated the legs. Widen this to about 1/4". Don't forget to shape a decent bum, after all, he should have one. A line around the legs about 1" up from the bottom, marks the top of the boots.

STEP 5: Detailing

Now to bring it all together.

After the face, I spend the most time on the hands, since they can add a lot of expressive and action. Use your own hands as a guide. Notice that when you hold your hand palm up, in a relaxed manner, the thumb is higher than the little finger and the fingers curl up but the thumb goes out to the side and in, not up.

Er, do take note that when the hand is palm up, the thumb is on the outside of the hand.
It might be best to do the right hand first, since it will later be holding the sou-wester and partly hidden by it.

Detailing the body, involves defining the shirt, pants, belt, and boots. The collar is first, leave it open at the neck. Define the seam where the shirt is buttoned, and leave the shirt open at the bottom to show a little belly. A sight sometimes seen on a busy wharf. Shape the shirt pocket and add wrinkles at the jonts.

The belt is next. Just cut it all way around, except where it is hidden under the right arm. once the belt is defined show belt loops by cutting them out and narrow the belt to pass throught them. Define a simple buckle as a round bulge at the front of the belt.

The jean pockets are cut, and then marks to represent the seams, first the crotch then down the outside of the leg. A single cut shows the seam on the inside of the leg.
The back pocket can have a couple of extra V cuts at the top to represent a wallet. Finally add wrinkles and creases in appropriate places. The boots need some shaping and a seam at the top, bottom, and toe.

STEP 6: Painting the figure

Many carvers delight in the wood work, but panic when it comes to painting. The best advice I can offer here is to use the block in method. Block in basic colours, not worrying too much about smearing paint in the wrong places. When it is time to tidy up where two colours meet, simply go over it with the first colour, then touch up with the second, return to the first to get a few spots and continue until a nice even line is reached.

This may be a rough approach, but it works for me.

I will be working with acrylics. If you use other paints simply follow your usual routine.

Of course the first step is the primer. This should be a good quality primer that is 100% acrylic (rated for exterior use). For woods that stain paint, such as cedar, you can use a sealer first, then prime.

Block in the base colours, using crafters flesh tone for face and hands. Paint right over the eyes and eyebrows for now. If you like to mix your own skin tone, I use yellow ochre with a touch of crimson, lightened with white for light skin and add burnt sienna for ruddy skin.

Thin blue with water, until it is very thin and use this on the pants to simulate blue jeans. Don't forget the belt loops and top of pants above the belt.

The shirt is red. The hair is grey. The boots will be black with red trim. Belt is black.

Use a detail brush, to trim up the edges. Solid blue paint will be needed to tidy up the jeans.

Add detail to the flesh tone by having the top of his head a little lighter in colour (mx a little white into the flesh tone) and touching up the cheeks with reddened skin colour. Add a little more red to the skin colour to make the lips, which are not too pink. More like half way between pink and red.

Paint the eyeballs white, the eye brows grey and lashes dark grey. Add a blue iris, a half circle near the top eyelid to give a looking up appearance. A dab of black makes the pupil.

The palms of the hands need a lighter flesh tone and the fingernails can be painted in a very light flesh tone, or given a thin coat of white. Avoid a harsh edge between the light and dark flesh tones on the palms and bald head.

Trim the top and bottom of the boots with red, and do the belt buckle with crafters metalic silver paint.

The final touch is a plaid shirt. The plaid is black over the red base colour. Start with wide verticle stripes, following the contours of the shirt and spacing them out well. First do the back of the shirt, then the front, then the arms.

Do the same thing with wide horizontal stripes.

The final step is to add thin lines (with a detail brush) to the right of the verticle lines and just above the horizontal lines.

With a little luck your shirt should look something like this.

To finish the painting, put a large dab of white paint on his forehead, to represent ... well, you get the idea.

The final step is the finish. Many carvers prefer a good quality varnish and if that is what you use, just proceed as usual. There are now acrylic based varnishes available in craft outlets, that I feel are better suited to coat acrylic paints.

Personally I prefer something that doesn't deteriate and need replacing in 20 years. Okay, so I'm an optomist. My solution has been wax. I give the carving several coats of clear acrylic wax. Then I dull the areas of clothing and flesh by brushing on a coat of carnauba wax. Boots, belt buckles, etc., are left to shine.

The finishing touches for a caricature such as this are his surroundings. They set the scene. The accessories bring the concept together, and, like the title, help add to the overall enjoyment of the theme. They also add depth and detail to the composition, providing substance for those who wish to take a closer look.

The Wharf - or base:

I think it is important to develop a feel for dimensions, relating everything back to the figure. This way you could use this same figure (or a variation on it ) , in different settings of your own design. Use your judgement in sizing things and placing the figure. I chose a small base, since I want it to fit on a small shelf, if you want it over the fireplace a larger wharf would be more appropriate.

The same principals of design apply in setting up these scenes, regardless of size. When trying a new concept I like to make the accessories and try them in several different locations before gluing in place.

To begin, you will need some old wood that has been outside and has turned grey in the sun. Cut the wood into strips, about 3/4 inches wide. Next turn the strips on their side to saw again, making two thin strips of wood with one side aged by the sun.

A couple of these strips can be laid flat and sawn again to make narrow strips, which we will use for the ladder (optional) and the seagull's perch.

You can use a hand saw, or a scroll saw, to do this work. Be especially careful if using a table saw or band saw, employing push sticks.

Determine a good size for the base by laying sticks down and standing the figure on it. I used a small 3 by 4 inches frame, but I rarely measure this kind of base. It works better to size it to the figure.

Build a little height to the wharf by laying two cross pieces on each end, then adding two lengthwise pieces. I assemble this size wharf using a glue gun and transparent glue sticks.

You can add more height; simply repeat two more cross pieces and two more length wise. Adding more height will make it look like a wharf, but be careful not to make it too high for small shelves.

Make an upright post, from one of the narrow sticks. It will need to be long enough to go from the bottom of the wharf to about 1 1/2" above the figure's head.

Make a cross piece for a perch, establish the length by positioning the figure on the wharf and having the gull above his head. Glue a triangular support piece in place.

Attach this pole to the back, right corner of the wharf, using the glue gun.

Make a simple ladder with two uprights and two steps, and attach this to the left side of the wharf. Attach the figure to the wharf, slightly to the left of centre.


Since this is a caricature, the style of carving for the bird should be loose and not very detailed. The overall affect should draw a smile first, attention to detail second. This also helps make the fisherman the center of interest.

Use a scrap piece of wood roughly one inch long and 3/4 inch thick. Below is a side view for basic shaping.

Once the basic shape is finished a few details will complete the affect. The beak can be separated with 'V' cuts, and the eyes defined by making simple round bulges. Use pencil marks to help position the features.

Shape the wings with an undercut along their edge, starting at the top of the back and going toward the tail. Have one wing tip overlap the other and undercut the bottom wing tip to give the proper affect. A couple of straight cuts along wing length will be enough to indicate feathers.

Similar cuts on the top of the tail will add to the affect.
Gulls have a web foot, and in this case, the bottom of the feet must be cut to fit the perch. Separate the feet ( allowing them to be oversized will to add to the humour). If you have ever seen a common gull land in a tree top you will know just how well suited they are to this type of caricature.

Sand and prime the carved bird with white acrylic primer. Paint the beak and feet bright orange. The wing tops are grey with black wing tips, and the tail is white.

Glue the gull above the figure's head, in target position.

The sou-wester is shaped to shed water from the head, well out onto the back, so the neck stays dry, ... most of the time.

I model my sou-westers after the kind I used to wear. They were black, and stiff, so they held their shape. Quite different from the modern plastic ones, that are usually yellow.

The wood for this should be about 1 1/2 inches by 1 inch by 3/4 inches thick, but I encourage you to simply hold a piece of scrap up to the figure and use judgement on size. You can rough cut this with a scroll saw or simply whittle it out.

Once you have the basic shape prime and paint the hat black, and glue to the figures hand.


A buoy line has two parts. The length near the surface is designed to sink so as to avoid boat propellers, and the length near the bottom floats to keep it off the bottom at slack tide, thus avoiding entanglements. The sinking part is usually green in colour, while the floating line is usually orange or yellow. If you do not have access to these colours, use any two colours of string.

Cut about 12 inches of green and about 16 inches of orange. Tie the two together (you can use any knot - I have to be more careful, fishermen check my work and will give me a hard time if everything isn't correct). Make a coil from this string, tie it with a simple knot, and glue it to the wharf - er no, belay that. Wait until you have a few coils of rope and the buoy finished, position them for best affect, then glue in place.


(pronounced 'boo-ey' in the city and simply 'boy' in my neck of the woods)

It is about 3/4 inches thick and about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. It is whittled round and the front end is pointed. At the tail end drill a small hole and insert a stick for a buoy handle(it is usually about half as long as the buoy.

The string or rope is attached to the front end through a hole. Be careful not to drill this too close to the end, as the wood may chip away.

Pass a string through this hole and bind it in place with small string or fishing line.

Paint the buoy in whatever combination of two or three colours you find pleasing. I sometimes use my father's mark of yellow with black stripes.

The accessories affect eye travel, just like in a painting. The eye tends to enter this scene with the largest figure (the fisherman) and then should follow a circular course to seagull, down to wharf, etc.

Strive for a balance and the overall affect should not be too cluttered or too barren. If you make a larger wharf you may need to use more rope and buoys to give a pleasing affect.

Make a name tag from thin scrap, burn or paint the title, and glue it to the wharf. Brush or spray your favourite finish over everything, and set up for display. The weathered wood can be left unfinished.

And now, me son, you are a carver of fishermen. :)

Hope you enjoyed the exercise, and happy carving.

I am available for questions and comments.

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