Introduction: Grim Reaper Carved From a Walnut Log

About: Hi, I'm Sam. I started tinkering with old sewing machines as a kid, and have been making and fixing stuff ever since. Here are some of the projects I've made over the years. Enjoy!

I carved this Grim Reaper out of a log.

With the scythe it is 32 inches tall and took a couple weeks to make working off and on over nights and weekends.

I used an electric chainsaw, angle grinder with wood carving disc, Dremel-type rotary tools with various burrs and bits, some basic hand carving tools, and some other common things like sandpaper and finishing supplies.

It was a fun project and I learned a lot along the way. Read on to see how this was made. Enjoy!

Step 1: Details

I'm a relative beginner with wood carving. I've done a couple of smaller power and hand carvings in the past, but I've been wanting to try to make some bigger things.

This was my first attempt at a larger (mostly) power-carved project. It's not perfect and there are several things I wish I'd done differently, however overall I'm quite happy with the results.

Click through the photos to get a closer look at the details.

The light sapwood and dark heartwood will likely contrast less and less as the sapwood dries out and darkens, but for now the contrast is very pronounced, which adds some aspects I really like.

Step 2: Get Some Logs

My neighbor was cutting down a walnut tree, so I ran over and got some of the pieces.

I chose a log that had a pointy end and screwed it to a piece of plywood.

The pointy end made me think of a hooded, cloaked figure, so I thought: I should make a Grim Reaper because, why not?!

I made a couple sketches and got started.

Step 3: Get Started

I bought an electric chainsaw because I wanted to do this indoors since it's getting cold where I live.

I started roughing out the figure, and this chainsaw worked out much better than I had hoped. I put an Oregon brand chain on it immediately after buying, which likely helped vs. the stock blade that came on it.

Step 4: Start Refining

After some very rough shaping with the chainsaw I switched to a Makita paddle-switch angle grinder equipped with an Arbortech industrial woodcarver disc.

I've had this disc for a couple years and while they're not cheap, they're excellent and very useful. They spray chips out at a startling rate, and they're dangerous. Be careful with power tools.

It would be ironic to meet literal death while creating figurative death.

I wore a leather welding sleeve and a leather glove on my right hand for protection from the high speed flying chips, along with a dust mask, long pants, and full protective face shield.

Step 5: General Tips, and More Refining

With a sculpture project, the photos do most of the talking. Click through the pics to see the progress.

Here are some tips though:

  • have a general idea of what you want and work toward it
  • don't remove too much and limit your future options
  • start with general shapes, like a rough outline
  • don't worry about creating details at this point - but worry about where you're going to want them!

I knew I wanted this to have a visual sense of forward movement, as in: Death is always moving toward you!

So the front of the body was started with a slightly past-vertical line from top to bottom with as much of the log wood preserved as possible. This initial chainsaw cut established a forward leaning stance that dictated everything else. From the head to the back bottom of the log, I wanted a dramatic sweep to create a trailing cloak.

The addition of a swept back scythe later on would lend a lot to this appearance of forward movement, but it just wouldn't have the same effect if the body appeared standing upright vs. leaning forward.

For the right hand I knew I wanted it to be limp-wristed like Mr. Burns, so I blocked out a saggy hand-shape where I'd add fingers later on.

Since the left hand was going to stick out beyond what was possible with the original log itself, that area didn't matter as much because I knew I'd be adding a new chunk of wood to this area later on.

Step 6: Progress Shots

So at this point, the figure could have been turned into a Jedi, or maybe even the Good Shepherd.

Choices choices.

In the end I chose Death.

Step 7: Wood Carving Vise

For a long time I had this idea to make a bowling ball vise for wood carving. I'd never seen such a thing, but I thought it would be very useful.

I started making it before I began the Reaper carving, but it was completed and usable at this point so I mounted the Reaper to my new vise and continued.

This is a separate instructable I wrote for it: Bowling Ball Wood Carving Vise

I trimmed away a few more inches of the bottom still-log portion to make the figure taller, and then removed more material to make the back of the cloak a more straight line from top to bottom.

Step 8: Start Adding Details

Using a rotary tool and wood carving burr, I began carving the skeletal fingers of the right hand. Click through the photos to see the process unfold.

I drew guide marks with a pencil and used a tree-shaped burr to remove material between the fingers to create the bony shaped sections.

I currently have a pair of Black & Decker RTX rotary tools since my first one died after 10+ years of heavy use. I think these things are great, and they're half the cost of Dremels. But I have a cordless Dremel as well, which I also love.

If possible, it's nice to have a couple rotary tools set up with the bits you use most, so you can quickly swap tools instead of constantly removing and swapping individual bits back and forth.

The knuckle joint gaps were carved by hand with a small wood carving knife.

Step 9: Add Material for the Left Hand

The left hand that holds the scythe was made from a chunk of wood from another walnut log. It was cut so the grain matched the location of the wood where it was going to be added to the figure.

The grain also happens to runs in line with the completed fingers, making them stronger than if I'd used the wood with the grain oriented differently.

The chunk of wood was drilled with a 1-inch hole then the figure modified to fit the chunk as tightly as possible where it was going to be added.

A wooden dowel was glued into the chunk and a hole was bored into the figure. The hole in the figure was bored out oversized to allow some wiggle room to adjust final position as needed to hold the scythe staff properly. A wooden rod was used as a stand-in to help position the hand chunk as needed.

Some KwikWood 2-part epoxy putty was used to affix the new hand-chunk to the figure.

Step 10: Refine the Hood

The hood was refined further at this point with the grinder, and some small details added.

The trailing hood point helps add to the appearance of forward movement, but it also just looks better than a big old dopey helmet shape.

Step 11: Carve the Left Hand

Dremel-type rotary tools are great for removing small amounts of material and doing detail work, but for removing a moderate amount of material I like this Foredom flex shaft rotary tool.

I hung it up on an old tripod, and with my new vise and a stool to sit on, this proved to be a really slick setup.

I started with the angle grinder and carver disc to knock the shape down a bit, then switched to the Foredom.

This creates a lot of saw dust so I wore a dust mask and a full face shield.

The rough hand shape was then refined further using my smaller B&D rotary tools and a couple of different carving burrs. For some of the work I switched to non-powered carving tools (I have this Flexcut carving blade set).

Click through the photos to see progress. More refining was done later on, but this got me close to the final look of the left hand.

Step 12: Carve the Face

The skull face was roughed-in with a round ball burr at first, then a tree-shaped burr for the nose area.

A small tree-shaped double-cut carbide bit was used for the groove between the teeth.

Step 13: Death, You've Got Some Gnarly Teeth

The teeth were carved by hand using Flexcut chisels. Strop often and keep them sharp.

I love the gnarly look of these teeth. It would look weird if they were symmetrical and "perfect."

Step 14: Make the Scythe Staff

The scythe staff was made from a block of kiln-dried alder. A shape was sketched out on cardboard, cut out and test fit on the figure to see how it looked.

The shape was traced onto the wood and the piece cut out and refined using a little bandsaw (10" Rikon saw is what I have and it's running Timberwolf blades).

The staff was then carved down to final shape using the Foredom.

Step 15: Make the Scythe Blade and Handles

The scythe blade was made from a 1/4" thick piece of walnut from my scrap pile.

A shape was drawn and then cut out using the band saw, and the edges are sanded with an oscillating sander.

The top of the staff was notched with the band saw to fit the blade, and the blade was glued in place with a couple of maple dowels pinned through.

Two small handles were made from alder. The upper handle was glued in place with a maple dowel as shown in the photos.

The lower one had a screw epoxied into it as shown. This lower handle is used to hold the completed scythe in place on the figure, by screwing it though a clearance hole at the bottom of the staff and tightening it into a pilot hole drilled into the base of the figure.

Step 16: Finish Him!

The scythe was finished with several coats of spray lacquer with some light sanding between coats.

For the skeleton face, I initially torched the eye sockets with a small butane torch, and used a wood burner on the nose and teeth. However this didn't make the areas as dark as I had wanted, so I went back with black craft paint to darken the eyes, nose, and teeth.

I coated the entire figure with boiled linseed oil and left it for a few days to cure. I then touched up the visible epoxy putty joints on the left hand with some craft paint. I mixed some colors to try to match the darker wood colors, which hopefully would blend in and not draw attention to the joint.

I then coated it with many many layers of spray lacquer. Some people might say "BLO.. then lacquer?" Well it's what I had on hand, and I wanted a little more depth and some shine which the BLO doesn't do. We regularly put oil-based stains then add a finish coat over that once it's cured, so I figured, what's the harm. I like the way it turned out.

I put the scythe in place, stuck it in my driveway and told the four trick-or-treaters we got this year:

Don't mess with Death!

Step 17: What Should I Make Next?

So I have to say: carving is incredibly therapeutic and definitely puts me into a flow state. I recommend it if you need a way to detach, and want to get into an engaging and challenging creative zone.

You should start small with just some simple basic tools, and see if you like it.

Hey - I've got more walnut logs, and I'm open to suggestions. What should I make next?!

Thanks for checking out my Grim Reaper project.

Have a good day!