Introduction: Woodcarving Panther Statue
My 50th high school reunion was coming up this year and I had a bucket list thing to do before then that I never got to. My high school is Porterville Union High School in Porterville California. Our colors are Orange and Green in recognition of the agriculture/orange growing economy. Our mascot is the Panther and our ugly old fiberglass one from the 50s (see photo above) has long since died and gone to fiberglass heaven. It was in pretty rough shape from being stolen by Tulare high school and thrown in a canal several times. We had no mascot. Thus I carved this one and dedicated it to the school this September at our reunion.
I keep forgetting to list the tools I use. I figure everyone should know!
Band Saw of course
Lots of various types of clamps.
Forstener, wood spade, and twist drill bits
Many different carving gouges that I have accumulated over the years
A couple different size carving mallets
7" disk sander
12" wood planer
Lincoln 110V wire feed welder
power hack saw
spray paint guns
hot glue gun
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Step 1: The Design
I started the project with the design. I wanted to make a statue that couldn't be ignored so my spec was a 10' long cat from nose to tail. I started by learning as much as I could about panthers. I also downloaded every panther image I could find on the internet. I always need a paper pattern for my carvings so I employed a secretary at work who has an art degree to do some sketches. The main thing I needed from these sketches were the relative sizes and orientation of the body parts. I would get all the fine details from my downloaded pictures of actual cats. I took a few of the views she drew to Kinko's and had them blown up to scale on white paper. For the finer details, especially of the head, I got good head-on & side views and superposed dimensioned grids on the pictures which allowed me to get an accurate layout of the various parts.
Step 2: Body Construction
I planned on carving the cat from mahogany, staining it black and varnishing it. This was an important decision because mahogany weighs twice what basswood does which is the desired species for a painted cat. Plus it costs twice as much! In retrospect I probably should have used basswood because I ended up fiberglassing over the wood and painting it but the mahogany one is much stronger so still probably a good choice.
Using the plan layout I first built a core box of plywood that cut out a bunch of cost and weight that I would have incurred with a solid mahogany block. You see the notches in the side of the box. These were filled with 2" thick mahogany boards and allowed the cat body to be rounded off without the plywood showing through.
The next step was to clad this box with 3/4" thick mahogany boards on all 4 sides. To this core box I attached 2" thick leg blanks with several drywall screws. They had to be removable during carving to get at some of the hard to reach spots to carve. The legs were eventually screwed and glued to the body and the screw holes capped with mahogany plugs. A chest extension was added to the bottom of the box with more 2" wood. That addition is hollow again to save cost and weight.
I also added some blocks on the back to render the shoulders, hips, and backbone. Several photos show many more wood blocks being glued to the leg blanks to flesh them out. I ended up using nearly 2 gallons of yellow carpenter's glue on this carving.
Step 3: The Important Head Construction
The head is the most important part of the carving and required the most detail work so I made it separate from the body and attached it at the very end of the project. I didn't take a picture of it but the whole mouth and lower jaw was made separate from the head so it could be detached to carve the mouth internals and also to reach the 5/16" bolts that anchor the head to the body (you can see the holes for the 4 drywall screws under the head in the top photo above. That whole jaw dropped out, giving access to almost the top of the head/neck). I attached 3/4" thick plywood boards to the back of the head and to the neck of the body. With the jaw out I could reach the two bolts that screw these two pieces together using Tee nuts on the board in the neck.
I also made the brow removable so I could slip in the glass eyes. I got the eyes from a great little company I found on the internet that specializes in custom glass eyes of every conceivable design. With the large scale of this cat I needed eyes about 1 1/4" diameter. She didn't have the color I needed so I sent her the spec and she printed up these great yellow panther eyes (Panthers don't have cat eyes, they have round pupils!) for her standard price. She is Megan Petersen @ Beaded Designs.
Step 4: The Tail
One problem sculptors have with big cat statues is how to make the very long tail that won't easily break. The obvious solution is to have the tail tucked around the body and attached to legs, the ground, and/or body. I rejected that approach because it depicts a cowardly posture for the cat and Porterville Panthers are far from cowardly! I made the tail from glued up 3" cubes of wood with a 3/4" wide slot half way through the block. These small sections were glued together to form the segmented curved shape. One key to what I hope is a pretty indestructible tail is I mounted these blocks over a 3/4" threaded rod I got at the home center. The blocks were angled on my 12" sanding disk, glued end to end over the rod, then 3/4" square strips of wood were glued to fill the slots that span the block joints. In addition I filled the void in the block groove with urethane adhesive that hardens to a rubber consistency. This should help the rod give 100% support to the wood yet allow the steel to expand at a different rate than the wood and not fracture the joints. The steel rod extends into the body cavity and is epoxied into a hole in the plywood core box.
Step 5: Carving
With all the major parts made, I started the carving. I have some big carving gouges for this work (2") and I got a great workout for a month or so for my left arm! The design dictated the cat be standing on a hill so none of the feet are in the same plane. I built 3 plywood boxes to support the feet during construction. You also see the lifting strap around the body. This thing is HEAVY!!! I am 6'3, 270# and in pretty good shape. In spite of that I couldn't lift the body to standing from lying in its side.
The head was on and off several times in this process and you will notice that there were no feet for quite some time. note the white filler in the pictures. I gave up the idea of staining and varnishing the wood and decided to cover it in a layer of fiberglass mat and resin. This will be in a high school, not an art museum and probably exposed to some weather and in constant exposure to little heathens. I used polyester body filler instead of wood chips to fix imperfections.
I added the feet as separate pieces glued to the legs. The claws were in turn separate pieces glued in holes in the feet so they could be made to honor the wood grain direction.
That pile of wood chips is nearly 2' tall and over 3' in diameter. It is one of I think 3 that I generated and I am guessing represents about $150 worth of mahogany.
Step 6: The Hill
As carving was about done I turned my attention to making the base mount. With the school colors orange and green it seemed an obvious choice to use a red sandstone cliff just like the familiar Windows screensaver. This thing had to be somewhat mobile so I made a cart on casters from thin-walled steel tubing. The base cart was welded up then I made steel tubing cages to match the plywood box stands I had used during carving to hold the cat. These were welded to the cart with 1/2" holes drilled in their cover plates. Lengths of threaded 1/2" steel rod were set in 6" deep holes drilled up the cat's legs with polyester body filler. These bolts stick through the holes on the mounts on the cart and very securely lock the cat to the hill.
Next I used 1/8" Masonite sheet, sticks, staples, hot glue, whatever, to make a pattern mounted on the cart on which to form the fiberglass hill shell. It is a sandstone cliff so has very distinct flat erosion surfaces where the layers of sandstone are weathered away. This buck was covered with window screen using staples, that in turn was plastered with wall plaster. That was sealed with a coat of Kilz primer. When that dried it was waxed with parting wax and sprayed with PVA to let the 'glas release.
3 layers of fiberglass mat and resin were applied. Finally the 'glas shell was popped off and all the buck material disposed. No one ever said fiberglassing is easy or fun!
This shell was mounted to the cart with some 1/4" countersunk flat head machine screws under each cat foot and with angle iron tabs fiberglassed in 8 places around the skirt, and bolted to the base of the cart.
A trick I use to stiffen fiberglass molds is to use 5/8" foam insulation rope, split in half and attached to the part with a hot glue gun and covered in a layer of fiberglass. This gives a strong very light weight reinforcement to naturally flexible 'glas. This shape is ideal to simulate the edges of the sandstone layers that don't get eroded away on the cliffs. I applied several rings around the mountain as shown in the photos. I cut the rope in half using a little tool I made from wood and a razor blade.
Step 7: Finshing
As mentioned I put a layer of fiberglass on the carving. As the picture shows the resin brought out the beauty of the mahogany. Too bad the natural finish couldn't be used. This surface was covered in polyester body filler (plastic) and a LOT of sanding later was ready to paint. The paint job is exactly what you do to paint a car.
The first layers of paint were heavy coats of polyester filler/primer which is just liquid body filler. This surface was sprayed with a light mist coat of contrasting color 'guide coat'. When sanded, this guide coat highlights low spots that the sandpaper can't reach, allowing them to be filled with putty, sanded. re-primered and so on until the surface it perfect.
The next step was to color coat the body. I sprayed it with flat black primer then immediately sprayed it with catalyzed urethane clear coat that was tinted with black pearl powder. Three more coats of just clear urethane finished the body. This was color sanded to 1500 grit wet paper then polished with a power buffer and automotive polishing compound.
The mouth was handled independently. I hand brushed the teeth white, gums black, and tongue pink with enamel. This was sprayed with urethane clear tinted with white pearl powder to simulate the glisten of wet surfaces and a couple coats of plain clear urethane.
I LOVE catalyzed urethane. It is rock hard, sands and polishes like a dream and almost impossible to screw up while spraying.
The claws were painted with 'chrome' fingernail polish. You don't what to mess with Porterville Panthers!
I debated whether to add whiskers or not. My wife, also a Panther, said 'yes'. I just used bristles from my shop broom. I figured these should be pretty sturdy over the long haul.
The hill was painted to simulate a sandstone cliff of course. I first painted on a coat of Kilz primer that had been filled with a lot of 20 mesh silica sand. Then I bought 4 sample jars of latex house paint in shades I matched to photos of sandstone cliffs. The home center sells these 1/2 pint jars which are perfect size for craft projects. I thinned them with water and sprayed the layers of sandstone with different shades. This was treated with a coat of brown stain and finally sprayed with a couple coats of flat lacquer.
Step 8: The Finished Product
I drilled holes and glued in some plastic bushes for the requisite green color. Look at the pictures of red rock cliffs and they all have these scraggly bushes hanging on them. I used miniature boxwood and parsley which seem to mimic the typical desert plants.
The dedication plaque was going to cost about $550 in cast bronze. I already had about the national debt invested in the project so I decided to make a wooden one and paint it to look like bronze. I used good quality birch plywood and wood letters I got off the internet. I think it came out great.
I know what you are saying; panthers don't roam desert sandstone cliffs. You just don't understand PANTHER PRIDE!!
UPDATE; forgot to show the unveiling at the school in my original posting! the football team helped unload it and put it on stage in the Panther Den (you non-members would call it the cafeteria). That is the principal and vice-principal on the right, me on the left. All in Panther green!!
Final update: I was honored to be featured in the local newspaper with an article on the cat. The to have the reunion committee use a photo of my panther on our reunion commemorative brochure. one photo shows the statue in it's current display location in the school library, inside a glass door with exposure to the public walking by.
They are using it for promoting school spirit too! Here is a photo of the league MVP water polo player next to the panther.