THE WISE OLD OWL? by David Barrow


I sit here pondering the comparison between the sayings, ‘Wise Old Owl’ and ‘Silly Old Fool’. Why? Because having enjoyed my first foray into wood carving as detailed in the last edition of Fifty Five Plus, I was tempted to try my hand at something requiring skills at another level altogether. Was this a case of ambition dwarfing ability? Another folly in the making.

The temptation to venture forth was the opportunity to carve the remnant of a one hundred and fifty year old church pew; a piece remaining from a renovation project undertaken by the Mudgee Men’s Shed to which I belong. Of particular interest to me was the timber; Australian cedar which today is rare and much sought after for the making of fine furniture. The timber has a deep red colour, burnishes beautifully and in contrast to the extremely hard wood used for my earlier bowl, it is relatively soft and easy to work.

So presented with the end of an old church pew, complete with a gold number denoting a seating place perhaps used by generations of the same family, I contemplated how I could do justice to this fine relic steeped in history.

Back to the owl. Owls have long fascinated my wife, particularly those from Norway where she was born. ‘Could you carve me a Norwegian Owl?’, came a plaintive cry. ‘Well, of course darling’, I naively replied, allowing ego to subvert common sense.

Having made such a positive commitment I then set about the task with some trepidation. The first task was to search online for sketches and images of owls and the choices proved boundless. However, given my almost non-existent experience in carving anything requiring fine detail, the quest was to find an image that minimised reliance upon high order skills. The image needed to allude to an owl rather than be highly lifelike and complex.

At last such an image was found and this I scaled-up to fit the desired area on the cedar pew. This was done using a grid pattern similar to that adopted by portrait artists. Within each square of the grid I was able to draw the owl onto the timber in the correct proportions.

The moment of truth had now arrived. Despite the reduced level of detail, would I be able to carve the owl having never previously handled fine wood working chisels. The earlier bowl had been a hewing exercise with heavy chisels as opposed to carving.

Ever so carefully my education began. I was creating a three dimensional object from a drawing so I was mindful of the need to create the relief that highlighted prominent features such as the beak, the distinctive eyes and the feathers overlapping one another at various depths. And what fun this was.

Given my lack of expertise, I decided early on to minimise the risk of error by not using a mallet. Every cut was done by manipulating the chisels by hand. Slower to be sure, but safer. Quickly I learned the importance of having ultra sharp tools and sharpening proved to be a skill of its own. By trial and error I obtained very good results by running the chisels over of sheet of 600 grit sandpaper laid flat on the bench top followed by the use of a piece of leather to hone away any remaining burrs.

Slowly, owl-like features emerged from the cedar. I found it difficult to create smooth, clean cuts because the timber was rather soft (and my expertise limited) and probably because I did not maintain the optimum cutting edge at all times. Tearing rather than cutting often resulted. The final result was not something a true carver would put his name to, however I convinced myself that this was a work that should be observed from a distance where the overall effect could be appreciated. Much like looking at a Monet impressionist painting which in close-up appears as a mass of fuzzy, stippled dots but at a distance becomes a masterpiece.

Pew No 41 Takes On a New Life as an Owl

My effort is hardly a masterpiece, but I was delighted by the suggestion of a fellow Men’s Shed colleague to use gold leaf to highlight the three dimensional relief of the carving. I applied the gold leaf, also a first, to those features requiring ‘a lift’ and a transformation ensued. My rather ordinary carving now became subliminal to the features highlighted in gold leaf. The owl had come alive. A ‘trick of the trade’ had saved the day and I can sincerely say I enjoyed the experience and I am proud of the end result. If I can do it, anyone can.

Footnote:  My wife loved her Norwegian Owl and she declared me a genius.  I denied this but was secretly a very happy carver.   I am not sure if it is an upside or a downside but orders for my work are mounting!  Maybe Christmas will bring many surprises!