Carving a Simple Fisherman Figure.

Introduction: Carving a Simple Fisherman Figure.

About: Liked to draw and paint when I was growing up. Switched to carving and sculpture in my twenties. Work in wood, stone / marble, plaster, and ceramic clay.

Here is my attempt at a step by step guide to carving a simple fisherman figure. Feel free to use it as you see fit. It can be reproduced for carving clubs, if you wish.

The figure will be a bald fisherman with a beard, holding a sou-wester in one hand with the other held palm up, as though feeling for rain. There are white stains on the sou-wester and on the fisherman's forehead, and a seagull sits on a pole above his head. The title is "Why Fishermen Wear Sou-westers".

A block of soft carving wood, 4" x 4" x 10" will be used for this example. Other dimensions may be used, simply by adjusting the measurements. For example if you prefer to make a 5 inch figure just divide all the measurements in two.

The cuts need not be precise or accurate, since they are merely to act as a guide for the placement of features on this caricature.

When you begin to carve, in general, I think a series of small steps is the best approach. Take your time, and use a lot of small cuts rather than a few big ones. It may take a little longer, but you will improve more quickly.

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Step 1: Using a Hand Saw to Make a Basic Head Shape.

Refer to the illustrations, to help make the instructions clear.

... hopefully ....

The cuts in this example are all made with a small hand saw. It worked well for this size. There is no need to own a bandsaw or scroll saw for this carving example, but feel free to use it if you have one.

The top 3 inches will be head, and 1/2" is neck, so begin by marking out a square block. Mark lines down 3 1/2" and another set down a further 2 1/2" or at the six inches down point. These lines all the way around your pice of wood will act as gutting guides later.

The first cuts will leave a 2 1/4" x 2 1/4" x square block on top of our wood.

Measure in from the front of the block, 1 1/4" and down 3 1/2" and mark this on the top and sides and front. Draw a line on the sides angled down to the front edge of the line you made at the 6 inch point as measured down from the top.

Wow. This measuring and marking out is confusing. Hope you can follow where I am going with this. Maybe I should have used metric.

Once the lines are drawn you can begin cutting with the saw. First cutting out the square for the head and a slant down the front for the chest area.

To remove the front, cut down the 1 1/4" guidelines until the 3 1/2" line is reached. Now cut from the 6" line ( the second 2 1/2" line) at an angle, back up to the 3 1/2" line.

For the sides, measure in 7/8" from each side, and down 3 1/2", making the mark along the top as well.

The sides of the head can be remove by cutting down to 3 1/2" and in the 7/8".

Measure 1/2" in for the back and remove as with the sides. Now you should have approximately, a 2 1/4" x 2 1/4" x 3 1/2" block at the top of your wood.

Step 1 b.

Now for the corners. Looking down on the top, the back corners are 1/2" equilateral triangles and the front corners are 1" equilateral triangles. Don't get caught up too much in an exact shape. This is just meant to give you a rough head shape before you begin carving, but do try to keep the cuts even on both sides. This will help keep the figure symmetrical

Step 1 c.

The final cuts to the head will define the neck, chin, nose, eyes and ears.

Measure down from the top, 1" and mark the front for eyebrow location and the sides for top of ear location. Measure down 2" to mark bottom of the nose and ears. Measure down 3" and mark the bottom of the chin.

Now for the cuts.

First the nose and forehead. Measure in about 1/2" at the eyebrow mark and down from the top. From 1 1/2" mark a line angled back up to the eyebrow level. Remove this wood reveal the forehead and top of nose.

Cut in 1/2" at the bottom of the nose and cut up from the 3" mark (or chin) at an angle to remove a wedge and define nose and chin.

The last cut for the fron is to define the neck. At the base of the neck, measure in roughly 1" and cut at an angle down from the chin, to remove this wedge.

Now for the ears. A cut down from the top, and in about 1/4" will define the top of the ear. The bottom cut is at an angle down to the shoulder, or base of the neck and in about 1/2", beginning at the bottom of the ear.

Well, that defines the head and should give you a pretty good idea of what future robot washing machines will look like.

This may have been quite a struggle to follow, but if you did, you now have a good guide for carving the figure's head and it is a method that differs from some other approaches. Hopefully you feel it was well worth the effort, because ... we ain't done yet.

Step 2: Remove Some of the Front

But before we do that ...

First turn the figure upside down and we will mark the heels and toes of the feet. From the back measure in 1" and mark a line from left to right to define the heels. A line in 2 1/4" from the back will show the toes. We can return to these later.

The figures left hand will extend forward, so we will remove some of the front.

Measure 1" in from the figure's left side and mark down the front.

On the bottom measure in 3/4 " and do the same on the right side.

Turn the piece so the right side is up and saw down 3" to the line we marked first. Cut in the 3/4" from the front and remove the wood.

Step 3: Shape the Back

Add some shape to the back by first measuring in 2" and mark a centre line down the back. On each side measure in 3/4" and mark this line. The cut is from top to bottom to remove the triangle wedge on each side of the back.

Step 4: The Right Arm

To define bottom of the right arm. measure up from the bottom 3 3/4" and mark the back of the elbow. Measure up 2 1/4" to mark the bottom of the fingers. Draw an angled line to join these two points and cut in 1".

Turn the figure upside down, and mark in 1" from the right side, making a mark down the front and back to help guide the cut. Saw down to meet the previous cut.

Measure in from the back of the arm, 1 1/4" to mark the shoulder width. Mark straight down 2". Measure up from the hand 1" and join this to the previous 2" mark to show the arm.

Measure in 1 1/2" to the front and saw out this triangle shaped wedge, first cutting down 2" and then turning the figure on its side, to cut along the top of the arm.

Finally measure up 1/2" on the hand and make a cut straight across to remove a small triangle that will help show the bottom of the hand.

Step 5: The Left Arm

Measure up from the bottom on the left side the same 3 3/4" to mark the back of the elbow.

Measure up 3 1/2" to mark the bottom of the hand. Join these marks and cut in 1". Cut up from the bottom as with the right side to leave the bottom of the left arm defined.

Measure 1 1/4" for the shoulder width. Mark down 1 3/4" and in to the front 1 1/2" to make a triangle wedge. Cut down the 1 3/4" and straight in to remove this wood and leave a defined arm.

Step 6: Legs

To show the backs of the legs, measure up 3" from the bottom and cut from the back of the heels, marked earlier, at an angle up to the this mark.

On the front cut up from the toes to this 3" mark. Finally separate the legs from each other with a single saw cut up the centre, between them, stopping at about 2 3/4".

OK. Now we have a carving blank of the fisherman figure.

I hope this method gives you an idea of how you might begin carving figures by first removing and shaping with a saw.

I am also hopeful that some of you will draw your own figures and either use measurements or perhaps glue the drawing to the wood to allow sawing out an initial shape you can use as a guide for carving.

Time to put away the saw and get out the carving tools.

Step 7: Carve the Face and Head

I am using a combination of rotary tools and knives, but this carving can be done quite easily with just knives.

First round off the top of the head, adding a little slant to the forehead area. A curved carving blade might be best for this but a straight one will do.

To shape out the eye cavity, ear cavity, and nostrils I used a round nose or spherical rotary carving burr.

In shaping the eye cavity, allow room for the eyebrow to slope downward at the sides.

The ear cavity is simply a hole at the centre of the defined ear.

Step 8: Shaping Facial Features

Continue with a straight blade, cutting from below the ear to the chin, on an inward curve to define the neck. Shape the back of the neck with a more straight cut and not in as far. The neck will be thinned a bit more when we do the shoulders.

Round off the ears at the top and bottom, removing a little more from the lower back portion to taper the ear toward the front.

Cut a V groove around the outside top and back of the ear to separate it from the head.

Define the hairline and the beard down to the moustache (remember the guy is a little bald). Define the hairline at the back of the neck in similar fashion.

Cut from the side of the nose (about midway) down to the beard to define the cheek and edge of the moustache. A straight cut midway between the bottom of the chin and the nose places the mouth. Finally, make a V cut in the front of the ear.

Step 9: Finishing the Head

To finish, simply go over each feature and add as much detail as you are comfortable with and capable of. This will depend on what level you are at.

Try to keep the eyes and ears a similar a possible.

It is a caricature and some exaggeration is in order. Cuts should be a little deeper to define features more clearly. I prefer small detail blades for this.

Above, I show what I have done with the eyes. Note that the eyebrows are high up to give a look of surprise. After all he just received a special gift from his favourite seagull.

Simple V cuts help define the beard and hair. After the carving the head, sanding will give a finished look. This can be done by hand or with a rotary tool. Some people prefer not to sand and leave the whittle marks to show how it was made. Choose what works best for you.

Step 10: Carving the Arms and Hands

Basic locations of the body features were defined earlier. Now we can begin to carve the features to their final shape.

I began with the right arm, rounding it and making it smaller.Remove wood from the shoulder to leave it 1/2" out from the edge of the neck. Narrow in the chest until it meets the neck, then do the same with the back. Some slimming and shaping of the neck will be needed to give a balanced look. Separate the arm from the body with V cuts. Locate the hand and separate it from the shirt.

The left arm is about the same, except you have to keep refering to the right arm, to make sure the length from shoulder to elbow, and elbow to hand, are the same with both arms. More separation of the left arm from the body is needed than with the right arm. A few wrinkles should be added at the elbow to indicate folds in the shirt.

Step 11: Shape the Hands and the Rest of His Body

The left hand is open and palm up. The right is palm up also, to hold the sou'wester. Just a rough shaping is good for now.

Shape the trunk and lower body, defining the belt line at the level of the left arm.

Our guy has ample belly - a few too many lobsters, no doubt.

The saw cut we made earlier separated the legs. Widen this to about 1/4" near the boots

Don't forget to shape a decent bum, after all, he should have one.

Step 12: The Finishing Details

Now to bring it all together.

After the face, I spend the most time on the hands, since they can add a lot of expression and sense of action. Use your own hands as a guide. Notice that when you hold your hand palm up, in a relaxed manner, the thumb is higher than the little finger and the fingers curl up but the thumb goes out to the side and in, not up.

Do take note that when the hand is palm up, the thumb is on the outside of the hand. Position it correctly.

It might be best to do the right hand first, since it will later be holding the sou-wester and partly hidden by it.

Detailing the body, involves defining the shirt, pants, belt, and boots. The collar is first, leave it open at the neck. Define the seam where the shirt is buttoned, and leave the shirt open at the bottom to show a little belly. A sight sometimes seen on a busy wharf. Shape the shirt pocket and add wrinkles at the jonts.

The belt is next. Just cut it all way around, except where it is hidden under the right arm. once the belt is defined show belt loops by cutting them out and narrow the belt to pass throught them. Define a simple buckle as a round bulge at the front of the belt.

The jean pockets are cut, and then marks to represent the seams, first the crotch then down the outside of the leg. A single cut shows the seam on the inside of the leg. The back pocket can have a couple of extra V cuts at the top to represent a wallet. Finally add wrinkles and creases in appropriate places.

The boots need some shaping and a seam at the top, bottom, and toe.

Step 13: Painting the Figure

Many carvers delight in the woodwork, but panic when it comes to painting.

Of course many prefer the look of natural wood and finish with wax or a clear urethane.

The best advice I can offer, for those who like color and are not sure if they can do it, is to use the block in method.

Block in basic colours, not worrying too much about smearing paint in the wrong places. When it is time to tidy up where two colours meet, simply go over it with the first colour, then touch up with the second, return to the first to get a few spots and continue until a nice even line is reached.

This may be a rough approach, but it works. I will be working with acrylics. If you use other paints simply follow your usual routine. Of course the first step is the primer. This should be a good quality primer that is 100% acrylic (rated for exterior use is best). For woods that tend to stain paint, such as cedar, you can use a sealer first, then prime.

Block in the base colours, using crafters flesh tone for face and hands. Paint right over the eyes and eyebrows for now. If you like to mix your own skin tone, I use yellow ochre with a touch of crimson, lightened with white for light skin and add burnt sienna for ruddy skin.

Thin blue with water, until it is very thin and use this on the pants to simulate blue jeans. Don't forget the belt loops and top of pants above the belt. The shirt is red. The hair is grey. The boots will be black with red trim. Belt is black. Use a detail brush, to trim up the edges. Solid blue paint will be needed to tidy up the jeans.

Add detail to the flesh tone by having the top of his head a little lighter in colour (mx a little white into the flesh tone) and touching up the cheeks with reddened skin colour. Add a little red to the skin colour to make the lips, which are not too pink.

Paint the eyeballs white, the eye brows grey and lashes dark grey.

Add a blue iris, a half circle near the top eyelid to give a looking up appearance. A dab of black makes the pupil.

The palms of the hands need a lighter flesh tone and the fingernails can be painted in a very light flesh tone, or given a thin coat of white. Avoid a harsh edge between the light and dark flesh tones on the palms and bald head.

Trim the top and bottom of the boots with red, and do the belt buckle with crafters metallic silver paint.

Step 14: The Plaid Shirt

The final touch is a plaid shirt. The plaid is black over the red base colour. Start with wide verticle stripes, following the contours of the shirt and spacing them out well. First do the back of the shirt, then the front, then the arms.

Do the same thing with wide horizontal stripes.

The final step is to add thin lines (with a detail brush) to the right of the vertical lines and just above the horizontal lines.

A little patience should produce the effect of a plaid shirt.

Step 15: Finish the Painting

To finish the painting, put a large dab of white paint on his forehead, with just a touch of black at it's center, to represent the seagull's gift.

The final finish or overcoat is an based varnishes available in craft outlets.

I sometimes dull the areas of clothing and flesh by brushing on a thin coat of paste wax.

Boots, belt buckles, etc., are left to shine.

Step 16: Make a Wharf

The finishing touches for a caricature such as this are his surroundings. They set the scene. The accessories bring the concept together, and, like the title, help add to the overall enjoyment of the theme. They also add depth and detail to the composition, providing substance for those who wish to take a closer look.

The Wharf - or base:

I think it is important to develop a feel for dimensions, relating everything back to the figure. Use your judgement in sizing things and placing the figure. I chose a small base.

The same principals of design apply in setting up these scenes, regardless of size. When trying a new concept I like to make the accessories and try them in several different locations before gluing in place.

To begin, you will need some old wood that has been outside and has turned grey in the sun. Cut the wood into strips, about 3/4 inches wide. Next turn the strips on their side to saw again, making two thin strips of wood with one side aged by the sun.

A couple of these strips can be laid flat and sawn again to make narrow strips, which we will use for the ladder (optional) and the seagull's perch.

You can use a hand saw, or a scroll saw, to do this work. Be especially careful if using a table saw or band saw, employing push sticks.

Determine a good size for the base by laying sticks down and standing the figure on it. I used a small 3 by 4 inches frame, but I rarely measure this kind of base. It works better to size it to the figure.

Build a little height to the wharf by laying two cross pieces on each end, then adding two lengthwise pieces. I assemble this size wharf using a glue gun and transparent glue sticks. You could use wood glue for more strength but I have had good success with a glue gun.

Attach the figure to the wharf, slightly to the left of centre. For extra hold on the figure you can drill a very small hole in the wharf and put screws up into the feet.

You can add more height to the wharf. Simply repeat two more cross pieces and two more lengthwise. Adding more height will make it look like a wharf, but be careful not to make it too high.

Make an upright post, from one of the narrow sticks. It will need to be long enough to go from the bottom of the wharf to about 1 1/2" above the figure's head.

Make a cross piece for a perch, establish the length by positioning the figure on the wharf and having the seagull above his head. Glue a triangular support piece in place.

Attach this pole to the back, right corner of the wharf, using the glue gun.

Make a simple ladder with two uprights and two steps, and attach this to the left side of the wharf.

Step 17: Carve a Simple Seagull Caricature

Since this is a caricature, the style of carving for the bird should be loose and not very detailed. The overall effect should draw a smile first, attention to detail second. This also helps make the fisherman the center of interest.

Use a scrap piece of wood roughly one inch long and 3/4 inch thick. Below is a side view for basic shaping.

Once the basic shape is finished a few details will complete the affect. The beak can be separated with 'V' cuts, and the eyes defined by making simple round bulges. Use pencil marks to help position the features.

Shape the wings with an undercut along their edge, starting at the top of the back and going toward the tail. Have one wing tip overlap the other and undercut the bottom wing tip to give the proper affect. A couple of straight cuts along wing length will be enough to indicate feathers.

Similar cuts on the top of the tail will add to the affect. Gulls have a web foot, and in this case, the bottom of the feet must be cut to fit the perch. Separate the feet ( allowing them to be oversized will to add to the humour). If you have ever seen a common gull land in a tree top you will know just how well suited they are to this type of caricature.

Sand and prime the carved bird with white acrylic primer. Paint the beak and feet bright orange. The wing tops are grey with black wing tips, and the tail is white.

Glue the gull above the figure's head, in target position.

Step 18: The Sou'wester

The sou'wester is shaped to shed water from the head, well out onto the back, so the neck stays dry, ... most of the time.I model my sou-westers after the kind I used to wear. They were black, shiny and stiff, so they held their shape. Modelled after the original oiled leather but made from artificial materials. Quite different from the modern floppy plastic ones, that are usually yellow.

The wood for this should be about 1 1/2 inches by 1 inch by 3/4 inches thick, but I encourage you to simply hold a piece of scrap up to the figure and use judgement on size. You can rough cut this with a scroll saw or simply whittle it out from a piece of wood.

Once you have the basic shape prime and paint the hat black, and glue to the figures hand.

Step 19: Buoy and Line


A buoy line has two parts. The length near the surface is designed to sink so as to avoid boat propellers, and the length near the bottom floats to keep it off the bottom at slack tide, thus avoiding entanglements. The sinking part is often green in colour, while the floating line is often orange, yellow blue , black, brown. Any two colours of string will give the effect..

Cut about 12 inches of green and about 16 inches of orange. Tie the two together (you can use any knot - I have to be more careful, fishermen notice my work and will give me a hard time if everything isn't correct). Make a coil from this string, tie it with a simple knot, and glue it to the wharf - er no, belay that. Wait until you have a few coils of rope and the buoy finished, position them for best effect, then glue in place.


(pronounced 'boo-ey' in the city and simply 'boy' in my neck of the woods) It is about 3/4 inches thick and about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. It is whittled round and the front end is pointed.

At the tail end drill a small hole and insert a stick for a buoy handle(it is usually about half as long as the buoy.

The string or rope is attached to the front end through a hole. Be careful not to drill this too close to the end, as the wood may chip away. Pass a string through this hole and bind it in place with small string or fishing line. Paint the buoy in whatever combination of two or three colours you find pleasing. I sometimes use my father's mark of yellow with black stripes.

Paint the buoy with bright colours as these are used to make it visible on the water on windy days.

Step 20: Final Touches

The accessories affect eye travel, just like in a painting. The eye tends to enter this scene with the largest figure (the fisherman) and then should follow a circular course to seagull, down to wharf, etc.

Strive for a balance and the overall affect should not be too cluttered or too barren. If you make a larger wharf you may need to use more rope and buoys to give a pleasing affect.

Make a name tag from a thin strip of wood. Use a wood burner or write the title with fade resistant ink, and glue it to the wharf. Brush or spray your favourite finish over everything, and set up for display. The weathered wood can be left unfinished.

And now, me son, you are a carver of fishermen. :)

I decided to make a limited edition of this theme and I cast a few each year. I show an example in the second picture.

Hope you enjoyed the exercise, and happy carving.

Feel free to post any questions or comments.


Clifton Sears

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