Introduction: Wood Carving With Files - a Small Deer

About: I am a retired health care professional, with a life long interest in woodwork. I was taught the basics at school in the 1960's and taught myself fine woodworking techniques in the 1980's. I like to use hand t…

I am very fond of carving small animals, the deer being a particular favourite. I was inspired as a child by a little carving from the Erzgebirge region of Germany that my mother had. The legs were very spindly and later broke, but the memory of the carving’s loveliness stayed with me all these years.

I was put off carving for a time, when I read somewhere that one must have a whole bunch of (expensive) tools, but always believed that there was a simpler way, hence this instructable.

Certainly, the original Erzgebirge carvings were done with a carving knife, (Sloyd or similar) and have wonderful crisp lines to them - quite lovely!!

  • I do not use a whittling or carving knife, except for hollowing out the ears, where I use a thin NT cutter with snap-off blade sections. One can, of course, use a Sloyd knife if you wish.
  • I use a coping saw to rough out the blank.
  • A hand drill, with a 5.5 mm drill bit, (7/32 inch) - not critical - must be of a diameter suitable for the coping saw blade lugs to pass through.
  • I use 6 inch (15cm) half-round, flat and round, (rat tail) coarse files.
  • I also use engineering needle files that one can buy in a set.
  • A junior hacksaw.
  • My vice is a nine inch Record woodworking vice; fitted with wooden jaws of brown maple– I do lots of other types of woodwork.
  • Wood for carving the deer needs to be fairly hard – I have found that the softer woods like Jelutong are prone to break – legs & ears especially. Woods that I use include, (but not limited to), black walnut, kiaat and Boire.

    The piece that you choose should have the grain run from the feet to the rump of the animal (i.e. vertically) and not horizontally, (the carving will break very easily if horizontal).

Step 1:

I trace out a pattern for the carving onto photocopy paper and choose the wood - here I have chosen a piece of Kiaat with a nice grain pattern. This piece is quarter-sawn - wood cut this way has lovely grain.

Step 2:

I cut out the template and stick it onto my wood piece. I use paper glue - thinned white glue will serve well also.

Step 3:

I cut out the shape of the deer roughly with a coping saw.

Step 4:

Next I use a hand drill to drill three or four holes around the area beneath the animal.

I slip the coping saw blade through the holes, attach the blade to the frame and tension it. Then I roughly saw out the wood underneath the animal, sawing from hole to hole.

Step 5:

I will use files to file down to the line.
Mark a centre line all the way around the animal, (seen in later pictures, not these).

Step 6:

Now to thin the head, I turn the carving on its side and use the half round file, flat side down – or as here a flat file. Looking from the front, you can see that the head is thinner than the rest of the body, (circled).

Step 7:

Now I mark out the ear hollows, almost a type of curved wedge shape – you can see what I mean on some of the later photos. I use an NT cutter to hollow them out - one can, of course, use a carving knife.

I usually remove the piece from the vice and hold it, using my thumb from behind to guide the cutter, (almost like some do when whittling).

Take your time – if you rush this, it is easy to go too far and cut through the part that will become the ear rim. In the photo to the right, you can see more clearly the shape of the hollow – apologies for the fuzzy quality of some of the pics.

Step 8:

Now I use a Junior hacksaw to part the ears. This is done after hollowing out the ears, as they are less likely to break at this point. Cut a ‘V’ shape as seen from the front of the animal.

Continue hollowing, now with a round needle file, ( 2nd photo).

Shape now the front of the ears with a flat needle file, (3rd photo), to the left and to the right, to round them. Repeat for the backs of the ears, (4th photo).

Step 9:

Use the round needle file at the angles shown in the pictures, front and back, to shape the crown of the head.

Step 10:

Now it is time to thin the neck. I use a round needle file for this. It is best to angle the piece in the vice as shown.

Do both sides.

Step 11:

Now we file the cheeks roundly – I have used a flat file – the flat side of a half-round will serve equally well, (1st two pics).

Then lightly bevel the edge between the cheeks and the forehead, (pics 3 and 4).

Step 12:

Start shaping the rear of the deer on both sides (pic 1), and bevel over the top of the trunk (pic 2).

Start shaping the chest, (pic 3).

Do both sides (pic 4).

Step 13:

Shape the upper back legs, (pic 1).

With a hand drill, drill carefully between the back and then again between the front legs, (Pic 2).

(Use a thinner drill bit than before, of a size that will admit the file that is to be used next.)

Remove wood with a file to sculpt the legs, front and back, (pics 3 and 4)

Step 14:

Now bevel the four edges of each leg as shown, (pic 1).

Now is a good time to assess the appearance and the slimness of the animal. Thick legs on a deer look stolid and un-lifelike – excessively thin legs may break.

Spend some time on this and carefully thin the legs and adjust anything else that you see fit, while the animal is still on the base - it can be tricky to adjust things later, after parting the animal off its base.

Step 15:

Now one can part the deer off with a junior hacksaw. Do this very slowly, part the way through front and back legs, at first, then the final cuts.

Draw the eyes in with a pencil. Make sure that the eyes are level and also line up looking from the top.

I leave the wood unsealed or varnished, just as is straight from the tools. The originals from Germany were stained, with the hooves stained slightly darker. Of course one can do this too, if you wish.

Step 16:

The finished deer. The original one had little white spots on its flanks - that is a lovely addition. One could use white paint or gesso, (for priming artists boards), applied with a cocktail stick, the point slight cut short so as not to be too pointy.

This same carving technique can be used with other animals – I have carved rabbits, a squirrel and horses, but almost any other animal can be done. The horse above is carved in Indian Rosewood.

I draw out a template from a photograph and adjust the size with a photo copier. Our local timber yard sells sample pieces of wood and indeed also has an off- cut section, where one can find small pieces of lovely woods, for a small sum.

The whole thing need not be expensive at all - my woodwork teacher of fifty years ago encouraged us to be liberal with ideas, but conservative with materials. I think that the same holds good today.

Have fun!!