Introduction: Making a Carved Snowman Christmas Ornament
I am an advanced woodworker and started making Christmas ornaments as gifts in the early 1990's and each year since I have created a new one. I started making about 30 ornaments a year, but that number has grown to anywhere between 100 and 150. Therefore these ornaments have to be fairly simple and quick to produce. Most of the ornaments I produce are gifts for family, friends and coworkers, however, several people have requested that I sell them some so that they can give them as gifts as well.
Every year many of recipients of my previous years ornaments tell me things like , "I just put your ornaments on our tree", "I have an area of my tree that has your ornaments on it", "I love hand crafted ornaments" and "What is this year's ornament" (I never tell anyone until I have delivered them). It gives me a sense of pride to hear these comments, and I look forward to hearing them as well.
I typically make the ornaments appear to be antiques by distressing them. The ornament that I'm going to provide instructions on is the one pictured above, the Carved Snowman.
Step 1: Getting Started
I have decided to make a carved snowman Christmas ornament out of pine. Other woods that might be easier to work with are balsa and basswood, however, they are also more expensive. Since this is going to be a production run, I first make a template that I will use to quickly trace the outline of the ornament on the pine board. It also makes it possible for me to go back years later and remake the ornament as well. I have made this template out of 1/4 inch hard board. I cut the template out on my scroll saw after sketching the pattern. You can either do the pattern directly on the hardboard, or draw it on a piece of paper and then using "tracing paper" copy it onto the hard board before cutting it.
Step 2: Preparing the Pine:
The actual thickness of the ornament is not critical however it should be thin enough so that if it is hung on a real tree that it does not cause the branch to droop and thick enough not to easily break. I typically make the ornaments between 1/4 and 3/8 ths of an inch. You can purchase pine/basswood or balsa wood of that thickness at many craft stores. If you dont have a bandsaw or thickness planer please continue to the next step. If you would like to size the thickness of your board rather than purchasing it I've including some basic instructions for two methods of producing boards to the appropriate thickness below.
A thickness planer is a woodworking machine that will remove wood from your "thick" board parallel to one side of the board. This machine has cutting blades in it that will remove some of the wood each time the wood is pushed through it -- dont attempt to take more than 1/8 th of an inch off each pass, I remove 1/16 th of an inch each pass. I also flip the board over to remove wood from the other side each time I run the board through the planer. On most planers there is a knob that you turn which will change the height of the cutters, a scale is typically found on the machine so that you can determine the thickness of the board when it comes out of the planer. This method of reducing the thickness of the board cuts away the surface resulting in a thinner board and a wasted pile of chips and sawdust. If you have a 3/4 inch thick board and want the final dimension to be 3/8 ths of an inch you actually waste 3/8 ths of an inch.
Resawing a board to obtain the desired board thickness is quicker and reduces the amount of waste when compared to the thickness planer. Rather than purchasing my wood already cut to thickness I am using a 2x4 as my source of wood. As you can see in the photograph I have set up a rip fence on my bandsaw and have started cutting the wood to thickness I wanted. The cost of the 2x4 was about three dollars and that will produce between 60-70 ornaments (some waste due to avoiding knots). That comes out to less than twenty cents of materials per completed ornament -- dont tell anyone!
Prior to cutting the 2x4 I measured the drift angle and aligned my rip fence to compensate for the tracking of the saw blade. The cut produced on a bandsaw is not typically parallel to the miter gauge slot (which is 90 degrees from the front of the table) but rather at some very small angle. The drift angle has several causes, blade tension, where the blade is on the rubber wheels (they are crowned), the tooth pattern on the blade... I have attach a magnetic fence to the table (I'm using the Carter fence) that is parallel to the saw blade so that can resaw boards to thicknesses about 3/8 ths of an inch. If I had not compensated for the drift angle, the board I produced would have been thinner at one end. Here is a link to more information on resawing if you are interested https://www.instructables.com/id/Resaw-wood-on-the...
I used a 1/2 inch wide - 6 tooth per inch blade and which provides a fairly smooth cut, almost eliminating any need to sand the boards, or plane them. I sometimes will run the belt sander very quickly over the boards to get a slightly smoother surface using 120 grit paper. The more teeth per inch, the smoother the cut, but the gullet between the teeth is smaller so you have cut the wood more slowly.
Step 3: Marking the Outline of the Ornament
This is the easiest step in the entire process, and if you have small children this is a good time to have them help you make the ornaments. My youngest daughter enjoyed helping me make ornaments several years when she was younger -- I even made some extra so she could paint her own. Anyway, trace the outline of the ornament onto the board.
Step 4: Cutting the Ornament
I'm using a scroll saw to cut the basic shape of the ornament. A scroll saw (see the first picture) is a stationary tool that has a blade that goes up and down, so you do have to push down on the pine to prevent it from bouncing on the table of the saw. I prefer the scroll saw over the bandsaw for several reasons:
1) I can get a smoother cut on a scroll saw than a bandsaw. That is because you can get more teeth per inch on a scroll saw blade than a bandsaw blade.
2) The blades are thinner on a scroll saw than a bandsaw. The thinner (front to back) that a blade is, the tighter turns you can cut. The smallest blade I can get for my bandsaw is 1/8 th of an inch, while I can get scroll saw blades that measure in 100ths of an inch.
3) On the scrollsaw I can start and stop the saw with a foot peddle.
4) My scrollsaw has a variable speed knob which I can easily adjust allowing me to have more control during the cut better while my bandsaw only has two speeds and I have to change a belt.
Step 5: Mark the Carving Lines on the Ornament
As you can see on my template I have drawn the lines that I need to relief carve around. The marks outline the connection between the biggest and medium snowballs, the vest, the scarf and the hat. I sketch these lines onto the wooden ornament using the pattern as a guide. Because these are handmade, accuracy is not important just make sure you have a similar set of reference lines.
Step 6: Carving the Ornament
In the first picture I show the carving along the edge of the snowman as well as the ball on top of the hat along with my carving knife. I have carved away some of the sides of the snowballs, as well as the pom-pom of the hat to make them look round. Please note I do this roughly leaving high and low spots. I do this so that during the antiquing process it looks more handmade and worn (more to come on that later). I also round over the edges of the hat, scarf and vest, but not to the same degree.
I cut along the other layout lines with my knife holding the blade vertical to the wood and cut to a depth of about a tenth of an inch or so (see the second and third picture -- the knife is on the right side of each of these pictures). This type of cut is called a stop cut. I then angle the knife low to the wood and carve towards the stop cut removing the wood adjacent to the stop cut. This type of cut is called a stop cut and can be seen in the fourth picture (note the angle of the knife and the wood being removed). The stop cut prevents the cut removing the wood that I want to remain. As an example I want the scarf to be the highest point, so I make a stop cut on the line of the scarf and then on the outside of the scarf I carve away the wood. I do this carving technique along the scarf, the hat and the vest. An example of this is shown in the fifth picture where you can see the bottom of the scarf has a relief cut around it.
For the area where the two snowballs meet (bottom and middle snowballs). I start by making a stop cut along the intersection of the two snow balls. Then I make a relief cuts on both sides of the line giving the illusion that the snowballs are round.
Lastly I used a "V" carving tool to cut lines in the end of the scarf so that it appears that they are strings on the end of the scarf. If you dont have a "V" tool you can make very shallow relief cuts to provide the same affect.
A couple things to keep in mind when carving:
1) Sharp knives & tools make carving more enjoyable and safer -- when carving with a dull knife you have to push harder to make cuts and therefore have less control over the knife or tool
2) Carve away from yourself whenever possible, and if you have to cut towards yourself remove small amounts of wood very carefully supporting the wood securely. I will rotate my hand while my thumb is planted firmly against the wood, this limits the amount of movement of the knife that is possible
3) Draw the knife across the wood "slicing" the wood as you are cutting (start the cut using the blade near the handle and as you slice the wood move the knive so it cuts closer to the tip), this makes cutting more easy and produces better results
4) Try to cut across the grain as much as possible -- cutting up hill or with the grain will often result in splintering or spitting the wood
5) Use a clamp or other means to hold the wood when carving it -- keep your fingers out of the way of the knife
Step 7: Painting, Antiquing, Signing,and Adding the Hanger
Now that all of the carving is done I paint the ornament. I use acrylic paint available at most hobby stores. The colors are a personal choice. When making dozens of these at a time I paint the same section of multiple ornaments. I started with the antique white paint (do both sides for a more professional look). When that was dry I then used barn red to paint the vest, hunter green for the scarf and yellow for the hat. When that was dry I returned to the antique white to paint stripes on the scarf. I used the tip of a pencil to dip in black paint then touched the ornament to make the eyes, mouth. I painted black stripes on the hat as well. The carrot nose was painted last. Multiple brush sizes and shapes were used to paint these ornaments.
Using 150 grit sand paper I scuffed up the ornament specifically removing paint from areas that would worn over the years -- the edges of the ornament as well as the areas that were adjacent to the carved areas (look closely at the scarf, vest as well as the connection between the snowballs). Be careful not to remove too much paint. Once the ornament is sanded I put on rubber gloves, grab a can of medium dark (color and brand not important) oil based stain and lightly rub stain all over the ornament. The stain does several things. First the exposed wood darkens giving it an aged look, the second is that the oil slightly darkens the paint and changes the brightness, and thirdly it catches in the deep carved areas. That is really where the magic happens, sometimes I'm not happy with the look until I apply the stain.
Signing your work:
I take the time to use a permanent marker to put my initials and the date on each ornament -- unless I use a wood burner, or take even more time and paint it. I enjoy hanging these ornaments on my tree and like to know when I made them, as well as noting the increased quality of my work over the years.
Attaching the hanger:
The last step is to add a hanger. I have found that using a 20 gauge black wire works best for me. The black helps retain the "old fashion" appearance as well as provides an attached hanger (no lost hooks for these). I drill a small hole in the top of the ornament. Then I cut a 7 inch long piece of 20 gauge wire. I thread the wire through the hole and producing a circle. Overlapping the wires at the top of the circle by about an inch or so, I wrap/twist the loose ends around the wire forming the circle. Then I take the wire loop I just made and holding it just above the ornament I twist it one and a quarter turns. This will position the loop above the ornament in the same plane as the ornament so when it is hung on the tree that it will face outward.
Step 8: Final Thoughts
If you design your own ornament and are going to make a bunch of them I suggest that you complete a sample ornament first. This will allow you to work out any bugs/design changes, make a pattern, as well estimating the time required to complete the number you plan to make. I speak from experience and many late nights when I mis-estimated the time to complete the complex snowflake ornament one year...UGH!
Also, look for time saving processes. I often times will use carpet tape to put 2 or three ornaments together for scroll sawing. Painting in groups reduces the clean up required. And do all the marking, all the cutting, the painting and antiquing for all the ornaments at the same time -- create a one man assembly line! And above all, enjoy making them and giving them out!