SHAPE UP: Lefty and Doolittle

   Posted by: woodbeecarver   in Carving Projects, Tutorials


The phrase “SHAPE UP” means to develop, take form, become structured, reform and improve. On a personal level it can mean to improve one’s behavior or performance to meet a required standard.  The Wood Bee Carver uses it to refer to the wood carving process in the Whittle-Carving style of knife carving ~ as in ~ “SHAPE UP the carving project to its basic form to be in SHAPE with a good foundation in order to SHAPE UP the form with detailed slicing cuts to a Detailed shape.”  For the Carver ~ SHAPE UP means to improve one’s skill by carving as often as possible in order to learn by doing and expand one’s imagination to guide the carving process to reach a standard of being the best carver within one’s ability.”  SHAPE UP is to remember The more one carves, the better one carves,” and “Practice make progress.”



The subject being considered in this tutorial is a cowpoke being carved in a basswood block six inches tall and an inch and half square. Using the Rule of Three for body proportions as a guide, the hat and head are carved to basic form first. After the hat and head are carved to basic form, then the rest of the block below is divided into three equal proportion with indicating lines draw at the Shoulder, Waist, Mid Knees and Bottom of Feet.

The top of the block is a square which will be carved into a dowel shape by slicing away the four corners and continue to remove corners as they are formed until a round dowel shape is formed.  Across the top draw a center line to indicate the direction the head will be slightly turned. The center line will be used as a visual guide while shaping the side of the hat crown as it is shaped with repeated slice and roll cuts on the top of the brim around the crown using the center line to visually keep both halves of the crown equal in visual forming. Do not draw the top of crown on the top of the block because it will create an optical illusion while carving crown.

Draw a line for the brim of the hat around the side of the dowel which will guide the opening cuts for the shaping of the crown of the hat.

The process for Shaping the crown of hat to its basic form in a “soft” manner is to use a curved cutting edge blade in a “slice and roll” action.  The cut is called the “ice skating” cut in which the cutting edge of the blade is standing up like an ice skate at the drawn line which represents to top of the hat brim. As the blade is sliced forward, roll the blade on its side while keeping the cutting edge slicing wood on up the side of the hat crown.  This slice and roll action is done all the way around the top of brim and side of crown.  While doing this over and over again keep an eye of the center line to keep both halves of the crown being equal along with the front and back of the crown.

As it comes close to the basic form of the crown and top of brim it should look like the last photo above.


Shaping the underneath side of brim and the side of the head is done with a two slice process repeated over and over again to bring this area to its basic form shape.  The first slicing cut is like an ice skate with the cutting edge placed standing on its edge under the brim line and sliced forward across the grain to make a stop cut.

The second cut in this two cut process is to lay the side of the blade on what will be the side of the head making a slicing cut up to the stop cut slow and easy so as not to cut through the stop cut and cut off the brim.  Do this two cut process all around the area underneath the brim until the shape looks like the head is going up into the crown of the hat.

The photo on the left above shows a before and after look under the hat brim. Keep in mind when shaping the head going up into the hat, the front will be carved with the forehead going into the crown while there is excess wood remaining where the nose will be.

Thinning the sides of the head will leave more wood where the ears are located while the area in front of the ears will be narrowed.  A gauge for the angle of this narrowing, the carver can test by placing spread fingers on either side of the head form with the nose area being in the narrowing of the fingers as in the photo above on the right.

Carving the hand holding pipe begins with the anticipated position of the pipe stem coming out the corner of the mouth.  Using the Rule of Three for facial proportions ~ Hairline to Eyebrow; Eyebrow to Nose Bottom; Nose Bottom to Bottom of Chin ~ the corner of mouth is in the lower third of face between the bottom of nose and chin. During the Shape Up of the basic form of the face the eye sockets are indicated and the top of the nose indicated in initial carved facets. The hand holding the pipe is drawn boxy with the curve of the pipe stem drawn in the approximate area of the section of the body block of wood. The photo illustrates a completed carving along with the carved to form that has received the drawn guidelines to give the visual perspective of the position of the hand and pipe in relation to the corner of the mouth.

The photo on the right above illustrates the frontal and profile views of the drawing of the hand and pipe.  The drawn guidelines will guide what wood is removed and what wood is saved during the Shape Up process of carving the basic form. As will be illustrated in the next photos the facial features are carved to basic form in order to position the pipe stem in the corner of the mouth.


Compare the hand basic form carved boxy with the drawn boxy hand in a previous photo to get an idea of the Shape of the hand holding the pipe.  The pipe is carved to basic form as coming out of the boxy hand with the pipe stem entering the corner of the mouth underneath the mustache.  Notice also that the facial features are carved to basic form awaiting detail carving at a later time in the carving process.  Carving in the details too soon before all surrounding areas are carved to basic form may cause the appearance to look out of proportion and wonky.


The photo shows  Shaped Up to its basic form with a good foundation to receive detail carving refinements. The pipe stem has been thinned as well as relieved on its underside with a clean opening. The boxy hand has received some faceting shaping in anticipation of fingers being refined. The Shape Up process is a gradual development of refining the form that becomes a “design by carving” process as the form takes on the desired appearance.  When it comes time to carve the fingers in each section of the planes of the hand divide each section with a perpendicular stop cut in the middle of the plane and then divide each half with a slicing stop cut.  This will indicate the four fingers.  Next, in each stop cut widen the cut with an angled slice along both sides of each stop cut with a slight curing slice.  This will result in the appearance of the bone structure in each finger. Do the same in the next finger plane of the hand. The third plane will be located between the back of the hand and the jaw making only a light widening of the stop cut in the beginning of the third plane.  The center and right  photo above  shows the “detailed” depiction of the hand, pipe and face.


Hand holding the rope begins as a guideline drawing on the block of basswood using the Rule of Three for Body Proportions: Shoulder to Waist; Waist to Mid Knees; Mid Knees to Bottom of feet. The red lines in the drawing indicate these three divisions.  These red lines make it easier to draw in the body parts and accessories proportionally. For example, the elbow of a male figure is right above the waist and the arm from the shoulder to the elbow is the same distance as the elbow to the first row of knuckles on the hand. The coil of rope takes the shape of an oval more than an exact circle.  The hand holding the coil of rope wraps around the side and underneath the coil bending at the knuckle joints cause positioning the fingers as three planes and the rope coil comes out the front of the fist between the index finger and the thumb and out the back of fist between the hand palm and the little finger.


Carving the hand holding the coil of rope to basic form requires also to carve the area around the hand and rope at the same time so that it will all fit together.  Study to notice in the four photos the progression being developed from drawing to the detailed finish of the carving. The wrist, hand and rope are resting on the pistol and holster as well as part of the Concho tie of the chaps that require planning before the hand and rope can be carved.  The hand is carved to form of the planes of the fingers of the hand holding the rope coil. Carving the rope strands of the coil is making individual slicing stop cuts following the direction of the coil and then following each individual stop cut with a slight angled slicing cut to widen the stop cut.  This slow and tedious process is done repeatedly to keep each strand equal.  When the rope is completed it is recommended to soak the rope with liquid super glue to strengthen the wood fiber against chipping and flaking. The individual fingers are carved the same way as described above for the fingers wrapped around the pipe.

All of these steps follow the rule of carving every area of the entire carving project to its basic form or Shape Up to form first and then continue to Shape Up to refine the form till each area is ready for the final Shape Up by carving the details. “Form follows function and Detail follows Form.”


Finally, a hand holding a pistol creates a challenge in design in that when the pistol is held out in front of the subject, there is a risk of breakage due to the thinness of the cross-grained section of the pistol.  While carving towards the pistol’s basic form it will be necessary to keep it “bridged” with the leg portion of the cowboy so that it will get broken during the carving to basic form of the entire figure.


The visual illustrations above emphasize the planes of the hand as they relate to various hand-held activities. Study the illustration of the hand holding a pistol. Notice that the four fingers of the hand wrap about the handle of the pistol with the index finger extended to enter to trigger guard.  The thumb goes on the other side of the pistol so that the pistol appears to be coming out of the fork between the index finger and the thumb. This means that the only part of the pistol that is carved is what is seen. It further means in the drawn guideline is to draw the hand in size proportionally to the arm and then fit the part of the pistol that can be seen in proportion with the hand. Photos showing the temporary bridge.



This entry was posted on Friday, March 8th, 2024 at 2:42 pm and is filed under Carving Projects, Tutorials. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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