Bits & Pieces, or E Pluribus Unum

I remember being dismayed when Warburton, my mentor in Baltimore informed me that the elaborate carvings of Grinling Gibbons were composed in pieces and then joined together. I believe that I spotted a gleam of pleasure in his eye at my discomfiture. From my limited understanding of carving in those days, it seemed that anything carved from a whole piece was best. Later that day, I assisted him in selecting stock to glue up for a large carving. , I learned that frequently it was neither possible nor preferable to make something in one piece.
The nineteenth-century carvers of show figures and figureheads knew this. Whole logs seem to be a great place to start when working on a large piece. But, the radial splitting of the wood as it moves can begin the process of destroying the figure in the harsh marine environment. Then too, extended arms or legs posed problems. With the single large block, you become constrained to what you can include in that volume. My first eagle proved the point to me. I had a rectangular piece of Cuban mahogany; Now I might recut the block, and reassembled the pieces to get a more fluid design. But, I was at the very start of things and designed the bird within the block. As a result, the carving appeared to be in a straitjacket. Eventually, you either learn these lessons through mistakes or by observing your masters work. I always was a kind of bull-headed sort.

This doesn’t mean that joining pieces together is easy. Old figureheads were held together with “drifts” of iron, bolts, pegs, glue, and careful joinery. I believe that the Penobscot Bay Maritime museum has some x-rays on display that show the impressive ironwork hidden inside some of their figureheads. I’ve used wooden pegs, glue and the odd lag bolt to secure heads and wings on some of my work. I liked the way John Haly Bellamy used to build the “top shelf” on the wings of his eagles. I emulate that not by starting with a thicker plank but by gluing up that section of the blank in several layers. I like the look of drama and movement it gives the birdie. Like Bellamy and Samuel McIntire, I’ve been known to exaggerate the eagle’s neck. This approach makes the head look serpentine. The head needs to be carved apart from the body and added as the carving progresses. On larger eagles, I’ve drilled and countersunk a spot for a screw or peg and then glued and clamped the head in place.
I word about style here. I don’t carve naturalistic wildlife. I carve stylized eagles that reflect the design preference of the 18th and 19th-century masters I admire. Much of my technique won’t serve a carver doing more naturally styled birds.
But, back to bits and pieces. The massive eagle on the wall of the Whaling Museum in New Bedford was assembled from many parts. It was the only practical way to create it. Part of the reason that you can make out the individual parts is that, as you probably already know, wood continues to expand and contract. Being that this eagle has taken lots of weathering those seams started to show.

Searching the Internet, I am sure you’ll find lots of advice on how to and not to assemble blanks for larger carving. I like to use wood of the same species, air-dried if possible, and matched closely for moisture levels. When I first began doing this, I used epoxy, but stopped when I realized that I was getting excessive squeeze out on the glue lines, and as a result, winding up with starved joins ( joins between pieces that lacked enough glue to get excellent adhesion). Starved joins will lead to failures in the blank sooner or later, and the general rule is that they’ll tend to be where you can’t fix them. Remember: a good glue joint is stronger than the surrounding wood.
Depending upon how wet the piece might get in regular use you have a variety of glue choices from resorcinol glues to polyvinyl acetate glues like Titebond II. A certain amount of squeeze out is both expected and wanted. Don’t be excessive in your glue application, but do apply glue evenly, so you avoid starving the join.
If you have spent any time within a boat shop, you may have noticed the large racks of clamps. That’s due to that general law of boatbuilding that you always need one more clamp than you have. Carvers have the same issue when gluing up large or irregular blocks. Be prepared to have a few more bar clamps, C-clamps and such more than you think you might need. Remember to use backing shims between your clamp and the blank to avoid damage to the surface of the blank.
Here is a nasty little dirty secret: I have been known to draw pieces together temporarily during glue-up by using screws to pull pieces together or to hold something in place until it’s dry and cured. You can’t use this where the defect you create will be visible on a carving finished bright with varnish. But, it works great when the visible defect will be carved away or when the piece will be painted.
Always leave a glued up project in a dry, warm area. Always leave everything clamped together a minimum of twenty-four hours. After taking your clamps off, leave the assembled blank to “cure” for a couple of days before carving.
Have fun getting beyond the basic block piece by piece.