Carving a Perch and Fry Shoal

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Carving a Perch and Fry Shoal

A recent diving trip inspired Steve Heath to carve this charming underwater scene

Things you will need
• 6mm coarse grit ‘Typhoon’ carbide burr
• 3mm fine grit ‘Kutzall’ carbide burr
• Dividers
• 7/7 palm gouge
• 12/2 V-tool
• 5/3 palm gouge
• 1.5mm diamond ball burr
• 3mm diamond ball burr
• 3.5mm coarse grit ruby flame-shaped burr
• 19mm head bud-shaped fine toothed carbide burr
• 120 grit, 180 grit, 240 grit, 320 grit to 400 grit cloth backed abrasive (I use Hermes RB 406 J-flex) and 1,000 grit wet and dry paper for eye
• Cyanoacrylate adhesive, ideally with brush applicator.
Wood:
• Lemonwood (Calycophyllum candidissimum), yew (Taxus baccata) and pine (Pinus spp.)

The perch is a common freshwater fish

The idea for this little carving came to me at the bottom of a cold lake in north Lincolnshire. I was diving around the footing of a jetty and met a very tolerant perch eyeing up a shoal of fry. Not for the first time I was struck by how many of our native fish species are both exotic and hidden. I decided to use a small lemonwood (Calycophyllum candidissimum) blank I had originally bought for netsuke carving, reflecting a trend in my recent projects towards the compact and bijou. This heavy, tight-grained tropical timber is fairly hard but holds detail well. Any close-grained timber – lime (Tilia vulgaris), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), jelutong (Dyera costulata) or most fruitwood – will also work well. I began by building a reference file of images of my subject, taken from as many different angles as possible, to familiarise myself with how the fish moves. Although this article provides side- and-dorsal view templates, I recommend getting to know your wildlife subject via internet videos as well as photos, books and, if possible, your own field photos/videos and sketches before you tackle this kind of project. It’s amazing how familiarity with a subject makes for a less hesitant, more intuitive carving experience.

1. Use the side and dorsal view templates to outline the perch on your timber blank, ensuring key features such as the eyes and tips of the tail and fin tips align. You can shrink or enlarge the template to suit the size of your blank

2. Use a band or fretsaw to create a rough perch shape. I rough out the blank with a bandsaw rather than following the outline exactly. This allows me more freedom to create when I start using hand tools. It also probably reflects the fact that my skills are better suited to hand tools than a bandsaw

3. Shape the body down to the template outline using a 6.35mm coarse grit carbide burr. I have a core group of power and hand tools and always end up using a combination of items from this group. The tools I use here are by no means the only way this carving can be completed

4. Further define the fins using a 6mm coarse grit carbide burr, moving to a smaller 3mm fine grit carbide burr. Note: the thick 2–3mm red lines along the top edge of the fin ensure enough width is left in the fins to allow further shaping

5. The secret to creating delicate-looking but robust fins in wood is to taper the fin from the base, where it joins the body, to the outer edge. The fine knife-like outer edge of the fin belies a wider and sturdier midsection and base

6. Carve an elongated ‘S’ shape into the tailfin and a gentle curve in the second soft dorsal fin, as indicated by arrows here…

7.… using a 3mm shank fine grit carbide burr. The first spiny dorsal fin tends not to bend and curve
as it moves against the water. Use the 6mm coarse grit carbine burr to taper the pelvic and underside fins to a fine edge, with gentle curves in the outer edge to convey movement

8. Using a pair of simple dividers, transfer key features such as the eyes, gill covers and mouth parts from the template to the blank, constantly cross-referencing to your file of images to ensure symmetry and correct proportion. It’s worth being fastidious at this stage and getting everything nicely aligned in pencil.

9. Next, use the 7/7 palm gouge to start rounding the main body and defining the features. Remove the boxiness that doesn’t often occur in the natural world – not to do so will lend the carvings an unfinished appearance. Again, power tools or a knife, for example, can be used to soften and round the body’s contours

10. The pectoral, or sidefins, are carved in relief against the body using a 12/2 V-tool. To soften the appearance of the pectoral fins, undercut the trailing edge with the 12/2 V-tool and contour the surface with a 3mm fine-grit carbide burr. This helps convey the delicacy and flowing movement of the fin. Inserts can be used for the pectoral fins, but I was keen to finish the carving from a single blank

11. Fish eyes have evolved to give a wide field of view. They are often large and appear more bulbous than the eyes of many mammal and bird species. To define the circumference of the eye’s roughly circular base, make a series of deep vertical cuts using an inverted 5/3 palm gouge and carve the surrounding wood away

12. Use a 5/3 palm gouge to cut away a triangle of waste from the mouth…

13.… followed by a 1.5mm diamond ball burr to hollow the mouth to a depth of about 10mm

14. The ‘plates of armour’ around the face and gills and branchiostegal rays are initially shaped with a V-tool and palm gouges, then softened using a 3.1mm diamond ball burr for the plate contours and a 1.4mm diamond ball burr for the rays. The trailing edges of the operculum are undercut with a 12/2 V-tool, slightly lifting them from the body

15. The thick upper lip is defined using a 12/2 V-tool and rounded using a 5/3 palm gouge. There is no clearly defined lower lip. The hinge-like plate at the corner of the mouth – see picture 14 – is defined in low relief using a V-tool and 5/3 palm gouge combination

16. Sand the piece, starting with 120 grit and working through 180 grit, 240 grit, 320 grit to 400 grit

17. The 14 spines of the first dorsal fin are drawn freehand on both sides. Ensure the base and tip of each spine line up on either side of the fin. The location of each spine base can be marked in pencil at regular intervals on both sides of the bottom of the fin using dividers. Note that the base of each spine is slightly bulbous, narrowing to a point at the top

18. Use a 12/2 V-tool to cut the grooves between the spines. Take care to ensure the spines and grooves taper from the bottom up to convey the hydrodynamic shape of the fin while retaining strength

19. The spines and grooves are refined further using a 2cm square of 120-grit cloth abrasive folded in half to form a thin abrasive edge and superglued back to back

20. Roughly pencil in the rays of the remaining ‘soft’ fins. Each ray comprises a single soft spine that divides into fine branches at the end. The soft spine is carved in relief using a 12/2 V-tool and 5/3 palm gouge and finished with a square of cloth abrasive as in step 19. The ray branches are created by making two or three cuts with the 12/2 V-tool about midway from the end of the soft spine out to the edge of the fin. A brushed-on application of superglue will strengthen any vulnerable edges on the outer fin. The ragged-edged appearance of some soft fins is common among wild fish

21. For the pupil of each eye, make a hole using a head 3mm coarse grit ruby flame-shaped burr. Although this effect works well by itself, I decided to insert some buffalo horn. Buffalo horn is available pre-cut from stick making suppliers and polishes to a jet-like sheen. Using Cyanoacrylate glue a small piece of buffalo horn to a galvanised nail head – this is a technique I adapted from an article in Woodcarving

22. Tighten the nail into a power carver, so it acts like a simple mini-lathe when the foot peddle is activated. Use 120-grit cloth abrasive to shape a point …

23.… which is then superglued into the pupil hole and sanded flush with the eye using finer
grits of cloth abrasive and finished with a 1,000-grit ‘polish’ with wet and dry paper

24. I mounted my perch on an offcut of sanded yew using a single glued wooden dowel, and this in turn was mounted on a block of burnt pine. The beautifully grained yew offcut was shaped using a 6mm coarse grit carbine burr to evoke the movement of water. Job done! Well, not quite. Something was missing. The fry! Pencil a small shoal of simple fish motifs over the yew mount, then carve these in relief from the mount using a combination of a 19mm head bud-shaped fine carbine burr, followed by a 12/2 V tool to define the fish shapes and 7/7 and 5/3 palm gouges to finish the relief carving. Use a 1mm drill bit to form the eyes

25. Re-sand the mount, re-mount the perch and finish the whole piece with two coats of beeswax polished to a sheen. This piece could be painted but I preferred an unpainted finish to show off the lemonwood’s subtle marking

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