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Carve The Cumberland Dove
By Vic Hamburger


In 1971 I had the opportunity to spend a week in the Cumberland Gap, where Tennesee, Kentucky and Virginia all come together in the tri-state area. While there, we visited a local crafts shop and I bought a bird carving. I decided it was a dove, carved by one of the local artisans, probably with nothing more than a pocket knife and some sandpaper. Initials burned in the bottom only hint at the carver, J.W.H.

A few years ago I was looking at the carving and decided to use it as a pattern for a stylized bird. I call the pattern my Cumberland Dove to honor it's heritage. (Click HERE for the pattern) I have carved several of these now over the past few years and have learned several things about this pattern. First, it never looks quite the same each time. Second, it provides a good workout in carving differing grain directions, and lastly, it is more difficult than it first would appear! The channels that delineate the wings add a great deal of dimension and additional thought to the work.


The Original and the Blank

The blank is about 3" high, 3 1/2" long and 2" deep. I have carved this out of butternut because I love the grain pattern possible with butternut. The original has eyes carved in but I have not done that on my finished pattern. They were the only detail carved on the original. You can see my center line drawn on the blank, a line that I will maintain until I am ready to sand, it is the last thing I carve off. This blank has a couple of dark streaks running thru the right side, adding character and a bit of a carving challenge with the harder grain pattern.

Here is my selection of tools and "stuff" for carving. A glove and thumb guard are the most critical in my book, carving is no fun when you have cuts! The thumb guard is overwrapped with Vet wrap, the colorful sticky tape that you can buy at Agway and similar stores. It is 2" wide and more useful than the narrow stuff. A pencil, my bench knife (custom made years ago), 3 gouges by Stubai, and my sharpening strop. My blank and the original dove finish the assortment on the bench.



The blank is marked up with (darker than normal) lines to outline the wing bulges. The head is also drawn at it's widest point for quick stock removal. The first task will be to remove the excess wood around the wings, outside the head, and round over the back and belly to make the wings appear folded into their pockets.


Begin carving by outlining with a flattish gouge to remove the corners, or use the flat bench knife. Continue to deepen and define the wings with #7 gouges, removing the excess wood around them to allow you to go deeper still with the gouge again. Your aim is to end up with a rounded body, coming out to the wings, that meets them in a shallow trench left by the gouge. Under the wings, near the base, the same curve forms a well defined baseline around the bottom of the dove, a long oval shape from belly to tail.

The bench knife allows me to carefully shave off wood evenly and smoothly. Rounding the edges of the wings down into the trench left by your gouge, and rounding the back and belly into the same trench from the opposite side. The back is fairly flat, it is not as round as the belly will be. Photos 4 and 5 show the dove nearly completely rough carved except for the head. You can see that under the head, I have left the chest area flat for the time being. I have also left the center line on both parts as well, just to help me maintain symmetry.

Symmetry is all important to a carving like this. I seldom carve one side fully before carving the other side. Rather, I carve a bit here, then carve a bit there, all the time holding the carving up to look at the outline. I rotate the bird around it's centerline axis at times to insure that it is uniform on both sides all around. Be VERY critical at this point! Getting the symmetry right is part of the allure of a smoothly carved stylized bird like this.


Once I am satisfied with the body, and have the wings properly defined and set in place, I can start to round the head. At this point, the grain is all important! carve downhill from the top to back of the head, rounding uniformly and taking smooth cuts. Once that is done, narrow the front towards the beak, leaving plenty of wood for the beak itself. Carefully round the head toward the front, going with the grain, and come up with smooth, very sharp cuts from the chest up into the lower beak area. Take light cuts, watch your symmetry, and don't remove too much wood from the beak. miscarving the beak now will result it either a lot of work to correct it, or losing the carving altogether! The beak will be the most noticible part, the whole head is what makes this carving a bird, just like the face makes the caricature carving.

Once you have everything but the beak done, carefully remove thin slices of wood from either side to narrow the beak and give it definition. You can leave it 2x fatter than you think it should be in the end, because you will be sanding the final shape shortly. carve under the head and blend it into the neck carefully, it should seem obvious how to blend everything as you get it rounded.

When you are done, go over the carving visually against a strong light, to find any sharp edges where the knife can go back and smooth out the carving. A bit of careful finish carving now with a nice sharp blade will save lots of time sanding. Lastly, carve the center lines off so there are no bandsaw marks left anywhere.

Burn or carve your initials and date into the bottom of the bird for the future.


Now comes the part most folks hate, the sanding! There are tricks, like everything else, that make this a bit easier for you. First, I use the "swiss Gold" paper that many of our favorite suppliers sell. DON'T waste time with the stuff from the discount home centers or even your hardware store! Spend the extra money and buy the Swiss Gold. It is cloth backed and lasts 10x longer than paper backed sanding stuff. I have it in the following grits in ascending order of coarse to fine, 80, 120, 150, 180, 280, 400. I start with a piece about 3" square and fold it into thirds, with one side hidden beneath the flap of the second fold. This gives me a firm, yet flexible sanding pad that I can work with for hours.

Start with the 80 grit. Smooth the bottom, then the belly, around the wings, onto the back, and finally the head. That is easier said than done! 80 grit will cut quickly, so be careful NOT to remove wood that is intended to be there, such as edges around the wings, the tail, and beak. Sanding will lighten the wood and hide the grain. As you sand, you will see spots that are a bit deeper than the surrounding area, and will not be sanded yet. Keep sanding until there are none of those spots visible. The bird should be smooth and uniform looking, with it's final shape now obvious!

The head is last to sand with the 80 grit. Carefully sand with the grain, first the back and then around the front. You can use a single thickness of sandpaper wrapped around a finger to get under the head, into tight curves, and otherwise smooth areas that are needing attention. Likewise, you can use the edge of the tri-folded paper to get into tight curves, gently sanding the spots around the wings that need definition and smoothing. Be very critical at this point, you are now deciding the final shape of your bird with this step. If something needs to be recarved, go ahead and carefully go over it with your knife and gouges. The Swiss paper will not leave as much abrasive in the wood as cheaper sandpaper will, so you stand less of a chance of damaging your tools.

Once you are satisfied with the initial sanding, move up to the 120 grit and repeat the same sequence of sanding. Wipe the carving often with a terry cloth towel to keep it dusted and so you can keep your grip on the carving. it becomes slippery with each sanding step, and dropping the carving at this point could be disasterous to a cleanly cut edge! Once fully sanded with 120, do the same with the 180 grit paper and briskly rub it with the towel. By now, the bird should look like photo 6 and be quite silky smooth to the touch.


Now to create the hard deep finish, you will need a can of spray lacquer or two. I have one each of gloss and semi-gloss by Deft. I have used a can of Krylon gloss, but the spray is thicker and lays on a heavier coat than the Deft brand. I start with the gloss to give the entire bird 2 full coats over 4 sessions. I spray the bottom 2x, then the top 2x, each time allowing a couple of hours drying time between coats. This fills the pores of the wood and stiffens the wood for the next steps.

Once the 2 coats have dried completely, I again sand the bird with 180 grit paper to remove the slightly raised grain and smooth it to a fine surface. If the lacquer rolls up in the sandpaper, stop and let it dry another day, it is not fully cured. Once it is fully sanded with the 180 grit, sand again with the 280 or 320 grit, then again with 400 grit.

You can now take one of two paths with this. You can either mist on 2 more coats of semigloss lacquer, let it dry and if it is smooth enough for your taste, you can give it a going over with a gray nylon pad from the painting/sanding dept of your hardware store, followed by a coat of paste wax and a good polishing.

The second choice is to give it a couple more coats of lacquer, a bit heavier perhaps, and let dry completely. Then, using 400 grit wet/dry paper (The black stuff form 3M, available in automotive centers) and some water with a drop of soap in it, wet sand the carving to a further level of smooth. Once dry and clean, you can wet sand again with 600, 800, 1200, 1500 and 2000 grit wet/dry paper. Be careful NOT to sand thru the lacquer. To avoid that, be sure to give the bird a couple of heavy coats of finish before starting the wet sanding process. You don't need to sand much with each grit, just a light going over will usually get it smoother than you ever though possible.

Once you are satisfied with the final sanding, give it a final light misting of lacquer and let dry. A final sanding, wet, with your final grit of paper will usually get you a uniformly smooth and delightful finish. I have, for some of these carving, used a drop of water on my finger tip and a bit of rottenstone ( again, from your paint dept at the hardware store) to rub out the finish with my finger. Iadd water and rub until the entire carving is glassy smooth and can be terry clothed to a good shine. A finish coat of wax will protect your carving for years to come.

The finished bird and the original inspiration in a side by side comparison. One is folk art, the other is sculpture, but both are clearly the blending of wood and inspiration into a thing of beauty. I hope you try carving one, I have included the pattern with this article for you.

The sample carved for this article will be part of the silent auction at Chipping Away, Inc, to raise money for Marnie Whillock. I hope you will consider supporting this fine effort with either your carvings or your bids to help Marnie!


For more information and to view items donated for the auction, click HERE


Vic Hamburger
Westborough, MA


Vic Hamburger, a carver from Westborough, MA, is a member of New England Wood Carvers (NEWC), and a frequent contributor to WOM. You may contact Vic at vhamburgATbellatlanticDOTnet