Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, kitchen, garden, and out fishing. Many of his DIY projects are featured in his yard.
How to Turn Driftwood Into Sculpture
Bleached by the sun and stripped of its bark by the waves, the silvery-gray patina of seasoned driftwood creates naturally beautiful material for creating unique pieces of folk art.
Searching for driftwood is one of my favorite summer pastimes. As I walk along Humarock Beach just north of Cape Cod, I keep an eye on the high tide line, looking for interesting bits of driftwood. Each find is different. I use larger chunks to make stands for whale and shorebird carvings, and collect as many interestingly shaped pieces of driftwood as I can until I'm inspired to try a new project.
Making the driftwood whale was a fun and challenging project. Fitting the oddly-shaped pieces together into the shape of the whale took quite a bit of time and patience. But the end result was worth the effort.
Step 1: Start With the Base
The sculpture starts with a drawing. I sketched several different whale shapes and sizes until I was happy with this representation of a sperm whale. Since I plan on making several more whales, I used the drawing to make a template. I traced the drawing onto a thin piece of plywood veneer, cut out the pattern using my band saw and then sanded the edges smooth. A jig saw would work just as well.
The whale is just over 20" long and about 4-1/2' wide.
The base is cut from a piece of 1/2" plywood. Using the template, I traced the whale pattern onto the plywood and then cut out the shape. After sanding the edges smooth, I painted both side of the base with black spray paint, making sure to cover the edges completely.
Step 2: Sort the Sticks
It took quite a few pieces of driftwood to make the whale. I sorted through the sticks, looking for naturally shaped pieces to fit into the contours of the base. Two angled twigs fit nicely to form the upper and lower segments of the tail. A small curved fragment became the upper jaw, and I used another small piece with a natural knot to represent the whale's eye. A thin wavy stick outlined the top of head and dorsal sections.
With these key pieces identified, I was ready to attach the driftwood to the base. I started by tacking the angled top section of the tail. After double-checking the fit, I dabbed a little glue on the backside of the twig. Using a 18-gauge pnuematic nailer, I tacked the piece in place with two 3/4" long brads. Wipe away any excess glue with a damp paper towel.
Driftwood is hard, dry and brittle. Even though the brads are small, the wood splits easily. Use only as many brads as necessary to hold a piece in place until the glue dries, and be prepared to replace any damaged sections.
Step 3: Fit the Pieces Together
The bottom tail section was attached next, followed by a straight piece that fit nicely between the two tail segments to form a lateral line down the center of the whale. A little filing and sanding created a V-notch for the tail.
Next, I attached the lower jaw section, then cut and sanded the curved upper jaw for a nice fit.
Step 4: Cut, Sand, and Shape
Working my way from the tail towards the head, each piece was fitted into place and attached with glue and brads. I sorted through the pile of driftwood, carefully choosing each piece for color and shape. Creating the whale sculpture from the oddly shaped bits of driftwood was like constructing a free-form puzzle.
Step 5: Select, Cut, Sand, and Shape. Then Repeat.
Most of the pieces needed to be cut and sanded to fit together. One by one, I picked through the pile of driftwood to find each 'perfect' piece to fit into the puzzle. When ever possible, I started the naturally weathered ends before cutting and shaping the opposite end. Most of the time, I had to mark and cut and shape both ends to create a nice fit. The natural variations of the wood still left small gaps between the rows but since the base was painted black, most of the gaps are not very noticeable.
After selecting a piece to add the puzzle, I marked and cut the stick to size. Each piece was cut a little long, then carefully sanded to fit.
Step 6: Continue to Shape and Sand
Sanding and shaping each piece can be tedious. To make the job easier, I use a sanding drum attachment on my drill press. The spinning drum makes quick work of shaping the small sticks, and the curved profile enables me to create bevels and rounded edges for a custom fit.
For final shaping, I sanded the end of the stick. Rubbing the end against a strip of sand paper by hand provides extra control and reduces the risk of over-sanding and making the piece too short.
Step 7: Knot the Eye
Piece by piece and row by row, the whale was finally starting to take shape. A natural knot in a small piece of driftwood was positioned to suggest the eye of the whale. To highlight the knot, this little section was glued into place. I didn't want any nail holes to detract from the eye.
I left the ends of the sticks long and overhanging the edge of the base. After fitting the remaining rows, I trimmed the ends to shape the head of the whale, then sanded the ends to replicate pieces of naturally weathered driftwood.
The Finishing Touches
It took 35 pieces of driftwood and about five hours to create the whale sculpture. Finding the "right" pieces and fitting them together was fun but challenging, even when I had lots of driftwood to choose from.
A small metal picture hanger attached to the back of the base is all that's needed to hang the whale on the wall. For more visual impact, I made a frame from some salvaged mahogany. The plywood background was painted black.
Looking for an easy driftwood project? Try this little driftwood fish
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Anthony Altorenna
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 17, 2019:
When we see something interesting on our beach, we pick them up and they often are intriguing. I haven't really done anything to it but some neighbours have done something wonderful with them. The one you did is beautiful.
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on October 16, 2019:
Beautiful piece of art !
We selected up a few interesting pieces of wood on the north Oregon coast several years ago. My husband is an artist, so he made good use of them.
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on October 16, 2019:
That is a very attractive design. Years ago we picked up a few pieces of driftwood on a northern Oregon beach. My husband is an artist, so he used them well.