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How to Make a Wooden Whale Figurine: Handmade Nautical Décor

Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, the kitchen, the yard, and out fishing. He writes from his personal experience.

Wooden whale on a driftwood stand

Wooden whale on a driftwood stand

This Is a Whale of a Sculpture!

This wooden whale is an easy piece to make, and it is the perfect accent for adding a nautical flair to any beach décor. Even if you live far from the sea, a handcrafted wooden whale brings a bit of whimsy to any interior design. Its appeal is further enhanced by reusing salvaged materials, making this whale carving a charming and inexpensive folk art project that you can display either indoors or outside.

This little whale is cut and shaped from a piece of reclaimed pine that was destined for the landfill. Some shaping and sanding, a bit of stain, a simple wood-burned eye, and a few coats of Danish oil give the whale a warm yet rustic look. Add a stand that's cut from a driftwood branch found on the beach and the result is an interesting piece of folk art that only takes about an hour to make. It looks good and since the wood was free, the cost for the project is $0.

For a different look, mount the whale to a weathered plank and you've got a wooden whale wall hanging. Here's how I had a whale of a time making several different nautical figurines and wall hangings.

Whale Carving Template

Whale Carving Template

Step 1: Start With a Template

Sketch out a whale design on a piece of paper. I drew out several different versions until I was happy with the size and proportions of the little whale. I settled on a design that resembles a sperm whale with an overall length of about 13" and about 2½" wide. The streamlined shape gives the piece a sleek look.

I plan to re-use the pattern so I made a template from a 1/8" piece of plywood. Cardboard would work just as well but the plywood is more durable and will hold up to repeated use. After tracing the paper pattern onto the plywood, I cut out the whale template using a bandsaw (a jigsaw would work too), keeping the blade to the outside of the traced pencil line.

A sanding drum attachment for my drill press made quick work of cleaning up the edges of the template and shaping and smoothing the curved lines of the whale. A bit of hand sanding touched up a few remaining spots around the mouth and the tail flukes to finish the job.

Cutting the blank for wooden whale carving

Cutting the blank for wooden whale carving

Step 2: Cut Out the Blank

Trace the whale pattern onto a piece of wood. Select a clear, straight-grained piece of stock without any knots. I've made whale carvings from many different types of woods from pine to teak, from light ash to dark walnut, and this is a great project for reusing scraps of hardwood and bits of salvaged lumber.

For the whale wall hangers (shown below), I used a couple of pieces of reclaimed cherry. The old wood has its own character and a rich grain pattern, and it looks good with an oil and wax finish. And I like giving new life to old pieces of discarded wood.

I cut out the whale blank, using the bandsaw again and keeping the blade just outside the pencil line. Take your time, especially when cutting around the curves, and don't force the wood into the blade. Straight-grained wood such as cherry cuts cleanly and easily, while the blade tends to leave saw marks in softwoods like pine (meaning more shaping and sanding). Even with hardwood, it only takes a few minutes to cut out the blank.

Safety Note: In the photo, the bandsaw was turned off and the blade guide was raised above the stock for the photo; before continuing the cut, I lowered the blade guard back into the proper position. Always use care when working with power tools.

A brad point bit drills a clean and accurate hole in the carving blank.

A brad point bit drills a clean and accurate hole in the carving blank.

Step 3: Make a Stand

The whale sits on a short stand cut from a piece of driftwood and a short section of hardwood dowel. To make the stand, start by cutting a 3½" long piece of ¼" hardwood dowel. The exact length isn't critical, but the dowel needs to be long enough to hold the whale securely in the stand. I drilled the holes about ¾" deep into the bottom of the blank and into the driftwood stand. When assembled, the whale sits about 2" above the stand.

Mark the location for the dowel on the underside of the whale, approximately halfway between its head and tail. Take care to position the hole in the center of the blank, and drill the hole as straight and level as possible. If the hole is a bit off-center or the whale pitches up or down or off to one side, you can plug the hole with a short length of dowel and try again.

Drilling a hole in the edge of the board, and getting it perfectly centered as well as drilling it perfectly straight, can be a bit of a challenge—even with a drill press. I use a simple jig, made from a few scraps of plywood, to hold the blank securely and plumb for near-perfect holes every time. It takes just a few minutes to set up the jig, and I always drill a couple of practice holes in a piece of scrap wood to make sure that the jig is positioned properly on the drill press table. I also use a brad point bit; the extended tip makes it easier to accurately position the bit.

Once I'm happy with the results of the practice holes, I clamp the jig in place. Another clamp holds the whale blank in the right position and stops it from moving around as I drill out the ¼" diameter hole for the stand.

Sanding and shaping the whale carving blank

Sanding and shaping the whale carving blank

Step 4: A Little Sanding and Shaping

Cutting out the blank and drilling holes in the wood can leave a few saw marks and other rough spots. I like to use a sanding drum attachment for my drill press to clean up edges, smooth out the curves and remove any saw marks.

After sanding on the drill press, I used a router to round over all of the edges on both sides of the whale (be careful when routing the end grain on the thin lower jaw). A little hand sanding around the mouth and tail and the whale is ready for some finish.

This whale is made of maple and sits on a driftwood stand.

This whale is made of maple and sits on a driftwood stand.

Step 5: The Finishing Touches

I used a wood-burning tool to create the eyes. Take a moment to measure and position the eyes symmetrically, so that they are in the same place on both sides.

Pine is a light-colored wood that takes finishes well. I opted for a cherry-colored stain to darken the color of the whale. I like how the stain adds color and depth while accentuating the grain patterns of the wood.

After the stain dried overnight, I finished the whale with several coats of Danish oil followed by a coating of wax to give the wood a smooth feel and a warm shine. The whale carving is ready for display!

Wooden whale wall sculpture variations

Wooden whale wall sculpture variations

Make a Whale Wall Hanging Variation

The size and shape of the whale carving work well for creating a nautical wall hanging. Mount the whale carving to a piece of wood, tack a small picture hanger to the back, and the whale is ready to hang on a wall.

A piece of weathered wood turns the little figurine into a rustic wooden whale sign. Popular in just about every nautical gift shop and seaside art gallery, our version transforms a simple silhouette into decorative wall art that can be used indoors or out. Add a name or a house number and you've got a customized, one-of-a-kind welcome sign that adds a nautical flair to any entryway.

The whale in the top photo was cut from a piece of cherry that was once part of a small bookcase. After sanding the wood smooth and protecting it with several coats of oil and wax, I mounted the whale to a weathered cedar plank that was originally painted gray.

The lower whale is also made of cherry, this time from a piece of thicker wood that was salvaged from a discarded table. The whale is mounted to a couple of pieces of cedar slats that were once part of a backyard playset.

Humpback whale wall hanging

Humpback whale wall hanging

The Humpback Whale Wall Hanging

The whale in the photo above is my version of a humpback. Cut from a piece of figured walnut, and I positioned the piece so that a natural knot in the wood represents the whale's eye. By contrast, the humpback is mounted to a piece of light-colored maple. There's a simple frame hanger tacked on the back.

Mom and calf humpback whales

Mom and calf humpback whales

Mom and Calf Humpbacks

For the next versions, I made a smaller humpback. The smaller whale is cut from maple and the larger whale is mahogany. The calf is positioned in front of the mom, making a 3-D sculpture that's almost 1½" deep.

The mom and calf are mounted to a custom handmade frame.

Nantucket Whale Carving

Sunny, an artist living in Nantucket, shares his technique for carving a whale from a piece of driftwood in the video above.

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.

© 2014 Anthony Altorenna

Tell Us About Your Arts and Crafts Projects

Michael Higgins from Michigan on December 17, 2014:

Great hub! You explained everything very well. These whales are nice and I'm sure I'll be trying to make one before long. Thanks for sharing.

ecowhale on July 26, 2014:

I bought some of those on eBay, perhaps from you since they look the same.

RoadMonkey on July 26, 2014:

I love looking at and handling wooden items. These whales look great and you have provided clear instructions.

Ibidii on July 26, 2014:

Congratulations on Lens of the Day! I made a birdhouse and a coffee table top when I was at blind school. I was blindfolded for the bird house and did the coffee table without my glasses. It was part of my training at Blind school as an adult. I can appreciated the time and talent it takes to hand carve items not using any electrical machines. Both my Grandfather's hand carved items. The one made canes and toys in the hobo fashion with chains and balls within balls. It was awesome. I hope we can find one of the canes he made and or anything else they made and have a photo or two of it. I want to do a story on it. My brother made some things in high school and had a carving set that Grandpa gave him. I remember them letting me use it and I did cut myself on the tools as they are razor sharp! Great story/lens! I saw a lot of the whales and other things at the museum in Victoria Canada by indigenous people of Canada. Awesome works!

tabletalk on July 26, 2014:

Well Done! I really like this lens, and I can see why it WON Lens Of The Day!Congratulations to you! Of course, I am a little partial to wood projects myself as my lenses indicate. I have never tried the carving style, I think you may have inspired me to do so with this lens. Thank you.

Marie on July 26, 2014:

These are beautiful whale carvings complete with excellent instructions. I'm just imagining these with house names/surnames carved in as well to make a beautiful and functional wooden sign.