Head Carving Tutorial - Steve Sanford

Steve Sanford

Well-known member

Here is a bunch of slides of my head carving process. I offer it simply as the way I do it - definitely NOT the only way. There are lots of ways this process can unfold - and lots of experienced and accomplished carvers on this site and elsewhere. I hope it is useful as is but welcome feedback, thoughts, suggestions, alternatives from new and old carvers alike.

I will be posting a similar bunch of slides on carving the body in a couple of days (epoxy is still curing....).

The bird is a decorative "mantelpiece" Mallard Drake. Nevertheless, the process I use for fancy or gunner is pretty much the same - so I hope it is useful as a demonstration of my method. You decide where on the spectrum between utilitarian and "precious" you want your birds to be.

You should be able to view the slide show (in Picasa) at this link (Chuck - please help if this is not working!):


Each slide (of 66 total, I think) is captioned with the instructional narrative - so slow the show down to more than the default 3 (10 or 15?) seconds per slide.

As you jump in, bear in mind the words of my favorite poem, from Joel Barber in Wild Fowl Decoys:

The Art of Decoy Making

...And I says, says I,
Take an ax, man, and be done with it.
But they must lie in a sea and ride
Like a hove-to Gloucester schooner.

I'm happy to answer any questions or help in any way I can. And I look forward to seeing results "On your workbench".

All the best,

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Great tutorial! Thanks for taking the time to do that. It answered a few questions I've had milling around in my brain for awhile.
Select a pattern. This is a "mantelpiece" decorative Drake Mallard


This is a Gunner Pattern. Life-size Mallard is typically 14" long.


Draw pattern onto stock. I am getting both head and upper body out of 3" Sugar Pine.
Make sure grain runs through length of bill.


Saw out head profile but leave "block" beneath bill as support when cutting the plan view later on.


Leave about 1/4" of wood to hold block in place.


Locate centers of eye sockets from pattern.


Measure and mark "ramp" on bill.


Measure and mark maximum jowl width.


Draw in rounded front of bill and nail.


Lay out rounded brow lines.


Ready for sawing plan view.


Measure and mark depth of eye sockets. Outermost part of eye (cornea) should be just barely visible beyond brow.


Mark height of jowl width.


Measure jowl width back from bill tip.


Lay out cheek contours.


Round back of head and neck.


Use a 7/16" brad bit for eye sockets and set depth on drill press.


Bore eye sockets on both sides.


Saw corners of bill tip first.


Saw sides of bill back toward cheeks.


Back out blade after reaching cheek lines.


Saw plan view from rear toward bill.


Stop sawing just before you hit the bill cut.


Saw other side all the way to bill cut; remove.


Complete cut through 1/4" you left earlier to remove block under bill.


Remove block.


Snap off the first side.


Mark jowl points.


Mark lower edge of bill and center line of throat and neck.


Draw a line at widest part of cheek to bill. NOTE: Unlike other reference lines, some of this will be carved away before carving is done. Draw concentric circle on bottom of neck. This neck is skinnier than a typical gunner. Gunner would usually be either round or longer front to back.


I carve the entire head - and some of body - with an X-acto #22 blade. I buy them in bulk and discard when they are dull - which is usually a few birds' worth of carving.


NOTE: Do not carve into reference lines until told to do so. This goes a long way toward achieving and maintaining symmetry. Start carving down from brow line to eye channel and forward part of cheek onto bill.


Carve straight down (perpendicular) from brow reference to eye channel. DO NOT ROUND BROW UNTIL LATER!


Round cheeks out toward jowl but keep curve convex - NOT concave. Note that some of the reference line on the forward cheek will be removed as you carve toward bill.


Round back of head behind jowl. Head is slightly wider behind eye socket than in front of it. Also start to round neck and make neck slightly narrower below jowl. This should be a gentle taper top to bottom.


Round neck sections to lines on bottom of neck.


Note contours over jowl and back of neck.


Note how eye channel fairs into wider back of head and how neck tapers gently below jowl.


Carve out V-shaped pit between the bill processes on the ramp. Keep this area as full as you can (much easier to carve this area accurately with Foredom or other power carver).


Draw "eyebrow" line between brow reference line and eyeline. It's about half-way in between.


Draw flattop on crow - about half of the crown width - and the round over to the eyebrow line.


Round both sides of crown.


Mark round on bottom of bill tip.


Carve round bill tip from beneath.


Round over bill tip from above.


Draw seam between bill and face. Note that "hinge" is rearward of upper bill process.


Carve this area with tip of knife. First work from the face down into the wood (about an 1/8 of an inch) with the tip of the knife. Then use the belly of the knife to hollow the bill around where the nostrils will be.


Screw a hardwood block onto bottom of head with 2 deck screws.


With head in vise - you'll need to move it repeatedly - use narrow strips of sandpaper to "shoeshine" (or strop) the head from all anglers. I start with 40 grit and work down to 80. The helps to restore symmetry.


Complete sanding by hand. Start with coarse and go to 150 grit.


Redraw bill edges, nostrils and nail.


Obsessive-Compulsives (like me!) can draw underside of bill, too. (Just in case Shelldrake swim into the rig and glance upward.....)


Lightly establish bill lines with a wood burner. Do not go too deep because it will cause painting problems later on.


Burn nostrils - about 1/16" deep - with burner.


Draw "crater" around upper half of eye socket.


Carve and sand "crater" toward socket - round it so it's convex, not concave. Finish sand with 150 grit.


Fill eye socket completely with water-based wood filler. I usually add a bit of water to my tub of it to make it a bit more fluid - like sour cream.


Set eye - 9 mm brown for a Mallard - into filler. Eraser on pencil gives good control for this.


Scrape away most of filler with palette knife. Make sure there are no air pockets in filler.


Use wet brushes to establish eye shape and to fair filler into surrounding wood.


As mentioned earlier, eyes should be just barely visible beyond brows when viewed from above.


When filler is thorough dry, use knife and fine sandpaper VERY carefully to get finish contours.


I frequently prime bill in finished colors to check likeness to species. It will be sealed with varnish - or even epoxy - when whole bird is done later on.


Just another view for contours.



Ready for the body!


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Excellent tutorial Steve!

I put the text and pics in here for those that prefer it that way, but the link to the slideshow is still live as well if that is anyone's preference.


That was fantastic! I love the band sawing tricks. What a difference a 1/4 inch can make (for safety sake) when cutting out the top view of the bill. I'll be adding that step to my process.

Thanks for taking the time to share your talents.
Thanks for sharing that. I need to bring this to the shop with me. The "pit" I have always seemed to have an issue with, but your pics gave me a different view that clears up some issues I have had with transition to the bill.

Wow Steve, that was awesome! I appreciate the time you put into this to make it easy to understand and see what each step accomplishes. Thank you for sharing your expertise.
Steve: Great tutorial. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. I 've abandoned my plastic decoys several years ago and hunt with a small puddle duck rig of mixed cork and wooden birds, some of which are carved by "duckboats" members. About 20 years ago, I tried to carve some wooden gunning decoys without resultant success. Your many post's have motivated me to give it another try ! Thanks. Ken
Steve, I have to echo everyone's sentiment so far. Excellent job on that tutorial. It is filed for future use this summer. For now, a couple of pond boxes are on the menu.

Chuck, thanks for reporting the pics into a post here too. Makes searching for it later a lot easier.
This sure helped me understand about what one must do to go about sculpting. You are to be commended for the excellent job in presenting this tutorial. Well done.
I always marvel at the artistry that is involved within the making of a decoy.