Remembering Finnegan: a Scroll Saw Stencil Portrait




Introduction: Remembering Finnegan: a Scroll Saw Stencil Portrait

About: Vietnam era veteran (USAF), former air traffic controller, former entrepreneur, former clergy, former chauffeur. Currently retired and busier than ever. Devoted husband to an extremely talented wife and fathe…

We have owned and deeply loved many dogs over the years - our home is not complete without our dogs. But Finnegan was our once in a lifetime dog. Those of you who love dogs will know what I mean; Finnegan was special in every way. He was our very first purebred - up until Finnegan, our dogs had been strays or had otherwise been abandoned by their owners for one reason or another. Actually, Finnegan was sort of like that, too. He was a purebred Sheltie (Shetland Sheepdog), but the breeder knew he was going to be oversize for the breed so we got him for about half what a quality Sheltie would normally cost.

He did in fact turn out to be oversize, coming in at just under 50 pounds and 20 inches high at the shoulder (breed maximum is 16 inches), and one of his nicknames was Moosebutt. But he was the smartest, sweetet, most gentle, funniest dog we had ever known. He taught me how to do obedience training and how to herd sheep. At six months old he won his first obedience trial and had his title at nine months. At ten months old he won his first herding title and collected four more. Judges in both obedience and herding told us that Finnegan had the potential to be a national champion - he was that good. Whenever we entered a herding or obedience trial, other owners who knew us would stop what they were doing and watch. You've probably seen videos of herding dogs - the intense gaze, the menacing crouch, the frantic circling and barking to keep the herd under control. That wasn't Finnegan. If you've ever seen the movie Babe you've seen herding the way Finnegan did it: it was as if he walked up to the sheep and said, "Excuse me ladies, but I would appreciate it very much if you would follow this gentleman over here with the staff. I'll walk along behind you to make sure you remember where to go and keep you safe." From the moment I said to him, "Watch your sheep" until the last obstacle was cleared and I told him quietly, "That'll do, Finn", I didn't have to say another word to him. I never even thought of herding sheep until Finn - and will probably never herd again. No other dog could be what he has been.

We lost Finn to cancer two and a half years ago at only eight years old Sometimes life is incredibly unfair. But right up to the end I do not believe there was a single day that Finn was not able to fully enjoy ife - and not a single moment that he didn't enrich ours beyond measure. Finn's little kennel brother, Spoof, is still with us - and he has a new brother, Murphy, to keep him company. They are both wonderful companions, but not a day goes by that we don't miss our once in a lifetime dog.

Step 1: Creating Your Stencil

There are several online tutorials demonstrating how to use Photoshop or various other graphics programs to turn a photo into a stencil. To be honest, I found them all to be exercises in frustration. Researching available software, I discovered Coyote Stencil Shop 3.0 from It has a shallow learning curve and helped me turn my source material into a decent stencil quickly and easily. I highly recommend it.

Whatever process you use, choose a clear, good contrast photo of your subject. I had a wonderful picture of Finn doing what he loved to do most - herding his sheep (Figure 1). I cropped it down to just Finn (Figure 2), and processed it using Coyote Stencil Shop 3.0. Figure 3 shows the resulting black and white stencil.

Next, I used this stencil and a light box to fine tune my work. With a clean sheet of paper over the prototype and a copy of the original photo beside me for reference (Figure 4), I began tracing outlines with a sharp pencil.

This is where the artistic eye comes in. I want to make a portrait of Finn, not just a picture of a dog. Two important criteria to producing a good likeness are facial features and overall textures. The facial features need to look like Finn, so that's why I had the original photo beside me to check as I worked. Also, Finn had long hair, and smooth lines in an action shot would not reflect this well, so I had to be sure that his flying mane and full coat were represented in the image with lots of fine lines. It was going to make for a time-consuming cutting job, but it had to look like Finn.

One rule of stencil making that carries over into cutting a stencil from wood is that the finished stencil cannot have any "islands" or "dropouts" - every part of the stencil must connect to every other part, so that if you pick it up, no piece will fall out. You need to be aware of this as you develop your stencil.

Once you've traced and modified your outlines, you'll have something like Figure 5. It's really hard to tell if it looks much like Finn at this point, so you need to fill in the areas that will be cut out in order to really see how it will look. Now you have something like Figure 6. Compare it to your photo and make any adjustments you think will enhance the effect. Once you have a stencil you're satisfied with, it's back to the light box.

You need an image where the cutout areas were filled in to know how the stencil will look once it's cut. But in order to actually do the cutting precisely, you have to go back and create a template consisting of just the outlines again. This will make it much easier to see where your blade is while you're doing the cutting, helping with your precision. Overlay your work with a clean sheet of paper in the light box and use an extra fine Sharpie or other permanent marker to trace your edges. The result will look like Figure 7.

NOTE 1: I do this step using an adhesive backed paper which makes it easy to put it on the wood when I'm ready - just peel the backing off and apply. If you can't find adhesive backed paper, just use plain paper and, when you're ready to apply it to the wood, use rubber cement brushed onto the back of the paper - then smooth the paper onto your wood blank.

NOTE 2: One rule of stencil making does not apply to the woodcut version: In making stencils, you can't make your lines too thin as when the stencil is used, the paint you apply will seep under thin lines. But in the wood cut version, the template=the stencil=the finished product, so your lines can be as thin as your scroll saw blade will allow you to make them.

Step 2: Apply Your Stencil to the Wood Blank

I'm using 1/4 inch maple for my portrait which will be attached to 1/2 inch walnut that will serve as both background and frame. I find the colors of these woods to be excellent for this sort of work, but use your imagination. As mentioned, I use adhesive backed paper for my template, so all I have to do is peel off the backing, carefully center the paper on the wood, and smooth it on (Figure 8). If you are not using adhesive backed paper, brush a layer of rubber cement onto the back of your template then smooth it onto the wood. Don't brush the rubber cement onto the wood - the wood will tend to absorb it and this will make it harder to remove once the cutting is finished.

A woodcrafting bonus - Stack Cutting: Since the wood I'll be cutting is only 1/4 inch thick, it is easy to cut not one - but two or more exact copies of the work simultaneously. To do this, before drilling your blade entry holes. just stack two (or more) pieces of wood together and secure them around the edges with painter's tape (Figure 9). Then as you cut, you'll be cutting as many pieces as you have joined together. There is a bit of drawback to this, however. The finer the scroll saw blade is that you are using to cut, the more the blade will flex as you cut. This means that the deeper into the stack a piece of wood is, the more likely it will be that this flexing will cause the cuts to be inaccurate in that piece. As a result, the finer the blade, the less you want to stack cut. In a design such as the one I'm doing here I will be using a #1 blade because there is quite a bit of fine detail. This means my absolute maximum stacking is going to be two pieces - and even then I'm going to have to work slowly and keep my blade tension high to avoid blade flexing as much as possible. Just be aware that the finer the blade and the thicker the wood, the more you have to pay attention and take care not to force the cutting. Let the blade do the work.

Step 3: Drilling the Blade Entry Holes

Each area that will be cut out of the template will need to have an entry hole drilled into it in order to insert your scroll saw blade. Depending on the complexity of your template, this can be a lot of holes - and you have to be certain that the holes you're drilling are in the areas to be removed and not in the areas to be retained. For this reason, you may want to go back over your template with a fine yellow highlighter and highlight the areas of the stencil that are going to be removed. Doing this will also help reveal any areas where you might have a dropout so you can correct the template before cutting. Drill an entry hole in any section that is highlighted - do not drill them where you have not highlighted (Figure 10). A complex stencil can have a hundred or more areas to cut out, which means drilling a hundred entry holes. Be certain before drilling that you are putting each and every hole in the right place! Depending on how small the areas to be cut out are, use the smallest drill bit that will allow you to insert the blade you'll be using to cut. I used a 3/64" bit for this project. Be certain that your blade entry holes are perpendicular to the wood surface.

Step 4: Cutting the Wood

This process takes time and patience (Figure 11). Cutting this particular stencil took me about four hours at the scroll saw. Take breaks. Don't rush the job or force your cuts.

Lettering: I decided that I wanted to cut Finn's name into the project. I chose the Park Avenue font and sized it to fit nicely along the bottom of the piece. I had to modify the letter "g" and the letter "a" so I wouldn't have dropouts. Once the portrait itself was done and I separated the two stack cut pieces, I applied the lettering template with rubber cement (Figure 12).

Blade flexing - especially when stack cutting - produces variations from the original template which can be interpreted as artistic license. But when you're cutting something as mechanically precise as lettering, variations from the template are just plain sloppy. For this reason, working at the scale we're talking about here, I would never try to stack cut lettering with a blade so fine; the bottom piece would undoubtedly come out looking like a mess. This is why I separated the pieces and cut the lettering individually.

Step 5: Mounting the Stencil

I cut my backing piece of walnut to yield a 1 inch border all the way around the portrait. I want the centering to be exact, but I don't want to make any marks on the wood, so I cut two pieces of 1/8 inch scrap wood exactly one inch wide and clamped them to two adjacent sides of the walnut (Figure 13). I also wanted to avoid any glue squeeze out as much as possible, but I want glue on every piece of the wood, so I poured out a puddle of carpenter's glue and used a small wad of paper towel to dab into the glue and then onto the wood. This helped ensure that there was glue - but not too much glue - on the entire back of the piece. The stencil was then butted against the scrap wood guides, a piece of flat wood placed over it, then clamped to dry.

Step 6: Finishing

I have an affinity for the natural look of wood, so I don't usually use stains and such. But a simple finish such as Danish Oil will heighten the contrast and bring out the natural grain of the wood, so that is my go-to finish for a project like this. Simply brush on a coat of Danish Oil - making sure to get it into the recessed areas as well as you can - - let it soak in, then buff it lightly. Figure 15 shows the piece before applying the finish and Figure 16 shows the piece with Danish Oil applied.

So there you have it - and I hope you'll agree that the portrait does in fact look like Finnegan. It's how we will always remember him, happy as a dog can be and doing what he was born to do - tending to his sheep. Thank you for taking the time to visit my Instructable, and


Radical Geezer

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    4 Discussions


    4 years ago

    What a great way to honor someone so special. You brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing.

    Radical Geezer
    Radical Geezer

    Reply 4 years ago

    After two and a half years, it was still really hard to put this together. Thanks for the kind words.


    4 years ago

    From an Old Coot to a Radical Geezer: this is such a touching story added to an well thought out and described 'ible. I want to do this. I offer you a BIG thanks for sharing this with everyone.

    Radical Geezer
    Radical Geezer

    Reply 4 years ago

    Thank you so much! Let me know how it turns out for you.