How to Make a Wood Figurine Sculpture

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Wood carving is a form of subtractive sculpture which means material (in this case wood shavings) are removed from the sculpture rather than added to it. Because wood cannot be re-added to the sculpture once it is removed, carving requires careful planning, cautious execution and delicate finishing skills. The softest, easiest woods to carve are balsa or basswood.

Things You'll Need

  • Modeling clay
  • Clay modeling tools
  • Block of balsa or basswood
  • Wood carving set (including gouges, rasps and chisels)
  • C-clamps
  • Small pieces of plywood
  • 3 sheets of sandpaper (80-grit, 120-grit and 220-grit)
  • Measure the dimensions of your wood block and create a replica (either the same size or scaled down) with your modeling clay.

  • Sculpt the clay with your clay tools into a model of the figurine you would like to carve in the wood, making any design adjustments at this time.

  • Mark your block lightly with a pencil until the general structure of your figurine is visible on all sides of your block. Mark each section to be removed with an X. Allow for at least a 1/4 inch of excess wood on the shape of your figurine on all sides as you will be rasping and sanding down to the size of your finished sculpture.

  • Clamp your block to your work table, using the C-clamps. Before tightening the clamps, insert the pieces of plywood between your block and the clamp. Because balsa and basswood are soft woods, clamps placed directly onto your block will dig into your sculpture.

  • Use the large gouges from your wood carving kit to remove the X-marked sections of excess wood from your sculpture. As you gouge into the wood with one hand, keep your other hand on your sculpture to stabilize your wood, making sure to gouge away from your stabilizing hand, not toward it. Check your sculpture against the clay model from all sides periodically as you work through this process to ensure you do not remove too much. It may be necessary to repeat Step 3 at this time, re-marking your block as the figurine begins to take shape.

  • Use the rasps and chisels from your wood carving kit to remove the remaining 1/4 inch of wood bulk, shaving down slowly until your figurine resembles your clay model in size and shape, also removing all ridges left by your gouges.

  • Finish the completed figurine with the sandpaper, moving from the medium grit to the fine grit to the extra-fine grit until your figurine is completely smooth.

Tips & Warnings

  • As basswood and balsa are very light, you may want to affix your sculpture to a prefabricated base made out of a heavier wood. If you do, pre-drill a hole in the base of your sculpture to make room for the screw, or you will split your sculpture when you attempt to attach it.
  • You can stain your figurine with regular wood stain or or paint it with acrylic colors. If you choose to paint, prime your wood well before applying color as these woods are very porous and will absorb your color if not primed.
  • Gouges, chisels even rasps are very sharp. Never point them toward your hands or body as you carve. Always carve away from yourself.
  • Basswood and balsa are extremely soft and fragile; use an increasingly gentle pressure as you move from carving to shaving to sanding, as the more you remove from the block the more fragile your figurine becomes.

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