How to Make a Simple Whale Carving: Handcrafted Nautical Folk Art Sculpture
This Is a Whale of a Carving!
This wooden whale sculpture 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 whale carving 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 reclaimed piece of pine that was destined for the landfill. Some shaping and sanding, a bit of stain, a simple wood-burned eye and few coats of mineral oil gives the whale a 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 I used bits of salvaged wood, the cost for the project is $0.
For variety, mount the whale to a weathered plank, and you've got a hanging wooden whale sign. Here's how I had a whale of a time making this little carving.
How to Make a Wooden Whale Sculpture
Make 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 properties of the little whale. I settled on a design that resembles a sperm whale, with an overall length of about 13" and just over 2-1/2" wide. The streamlined shape gives the piece a sleek look, and it works well for this primitive sculpture.
I plan to re-use the pattern repeatedly, 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 for 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.
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 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 blade tends to leave saw marks in soft woods like pine (meaning more shaping and sanding). Even with hardwood, it only takes a few minutes to the cut out the blank.
Photo note: The bandsaw was turned off and the blade guide 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.
Making a Stand
The whale sits on a short stand cut from a piece a driftwood and a short section of hardwood dowel. To make the stand, start by cutting a 3-1/2" long piece of 1/4" 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 3/4" 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. 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 1/4" diameter hole for the stand.
A Little Sanding & 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 smooth and shape the curves, cleaning up edges and removing any saw marks. After rough 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.
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. To preserve the natural look of the wood, a few coats of food-safe mineral oil closes the pores of the wood, followed by a polishing with butcher's wax to give the piece a smooth feel and a warm sheen. 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 mineral oil followed by a coating of wax to give the wood to a soft shine. The whale carving is ready for display!
Whale Template #1 - Scale: Each Square = 1 Inch
Whale Template #2 - Scale: Each Square = 1 Inch
Make a Whale Sign
A piece of weathered wood turns the little carving into a rustic wooden whale sign. Popular in just about every nautical gift shop and seaside art gallery, our version transforms a simple carving into decorative wall art that can be used indoors or hung outside. 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.
I like to use pieces of salvaged wood for the backer boards of the sign. The whale sign in the photo to right is my version of a humpback whale. The whale is cut from a piece of walnut, and I positioned the piece so that a natural knot in the wood represents the whale's eye. It is mounted to a piece of maple for contrast. There's a simple frame hanger tacked on the back.
Variations on a Theme: Make a Whale Wall Hanging
The size and shape of the whale carving works 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.
The whale in the top of the photo was cut from a piece of reclaimed 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 reclaimed from a discarded table. The whale is mounted to a couple of pieces of milled cedar slats that were once part of a backyard play set.
Rustic Wooden Whale Signs
Nantucket Whale Carving
Sunny, an artist living in Nantucket, shares his technique for carving a whale from a piece of driftwood.
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Do You Like Wood Carvings & Sculptures?
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© 2014 Anthony Altorenna