Carving a New Sign For My Business

For years I’ve wanted to replace the tailgate of my pickup truck with a hand carved sign to use as a unique form of advertising. I’m finally doing it. Following is a photo diary of the process from conception to the final product.

Like everything else this carving started with a vision, and had to be put to paper before any carving could begin. I sketched out a design on a regular 8 1/2 x 11″ sheet of paper and then scanned it into my computer. Once digitized, I imported it into Adobe Illustrator and traced the sketch, then played with it until I was happy with the design. After measuring the original tailgate on my truck, I scaled the design to work on a piece of wood that matched the tailgates dimensions. Below is the finished drawing done in Adobe Illustrator. Click on the image below, and all images to follow to see a larger view.

Once the scale was correct, I printed out a full size version to use as a pattern. This requires tiling many standard pieces of pages together, like a big puzzle.

The wood I will use for this project includes a large antique pine board, 1.5″ thick, 17″ wide and 72″ long, that I bought many years ago from an old house dismantler and saved for just the right project. The measurements of the existing tailgate are 64″ long and 24″ tall. I needed another board to glue up a piece of wood big enough for this project. I also needed to glue another piece where the eagle’s head will be to give the blank enough depth. Here are a couple of photos of the glued up blank.


To get started I need to nail down where the head will be, therefore I am only using the upper part of the pattern to begin with. As it was, I made several changes to the head and other parts of the pattern and had to reprint it three times. Here is the final version positioned on the blank.


Instead of using the common method of placing carbon paper under the pattern and tracing the lines with a pencil, I use a pounce wheel to perforate the paper and permanently mark the wood underneath. This solves the problem of the pencil lines rubbing away. Here is what the pounce wheel looks like and the marks it makes.


Once pounced, the pattern is removed and I trace the pounce marks with a permanent marker to make the line more visible.


I’ve already begun to carve away excess wood on the head glue up. Because I can start at the edge of the wood I use a 35mm wide gouge with a number 5 sweep. For a large carving like this, large gouges are a necessity.


Here is a close up showing how I use a cross grain cut to smoothly remove the wood.


Here you can see I’ve included two more large gouges. The tool that gets the most use in my shop is probably my 35 / 9 gouge. That is 35mm with a very deep 9 sweep. This is the best tool for quickly removing large amounts of wood. Also notice the large V tool, a 12/20. I use this tool to outline areas to be removed. It remove a V shaped groove of wood providing space for chips and preventing wood I want to leave behind from being damaged.


Here is the head roughed out. With the head roughed the rest of the pattern can be indexed off of it.


Before I layout the rest of the template I will start to contour the head. Here I’m using the 35/5 gouge bevel side up to round the edges of the head.


And using the same tool to shape the banner.


I’ve cut the head from the pattern and used it to locate where the banner crosses the eagle’s head.


Using the 12/20 V tool to outline the banner where it exits the eagle’s beak.


Here I’ve finished rouging out the head. You can also see that I’ve cut the tops of the wings off where they curve from the head to the wing tips. I simple  jigsaw made quick work of cutting the wing profiles.


With the head used as an index point, the rest of the pattern is laid on the blank and ready for tracing with the pounce tool.


The major lines of the pattern are traced and filled with permanent marker in silver to contrast with the antique pine patina. Also notice that I’ve removed most of the wood in the right wing.


Again, using the large V tool to outline features.


Hogging out large chunks with the 35/9 gouge.


Another tool pulled out. This is a simple, homemade depth gage. Friction holds the dowel in the hole. I span the uncarved areas to measure the depth of cut. When it gets within an 1/8th inch of the desired depth, I stop with the 35/9. I need to leave wood to remove withstraighter gouges as I later level and smooth the surface.


Here you can see the guide line I’ve marked along the edge. This will be the top of the rope border.


Hogging out more wood with the 35/9 tool.


A couple of hours worth of work.


It’s too bad so much wood gets wasted.

I start removing more wood in the areas that will ultimately be the lowest point in the carving. These lowest areas will be where I paint the lettering seen in the pattern.

Using a large V tool I straighten up the vertical walls and create a 90% corner at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal planes.


I know this photo will cause undue distress to those high and mighty carvers who believe every sliver of wood should be removed in a smooth and orderly fashion with little or no tearing nor any damage to the remaining fibers. Personally, I think that’s a bunch of crap. Carving is nothing more than removing exactly enough wood to reveal the form hidden in the blank. How that wood is removed, in my opinion, is irrelevant. As long as I stop tearing before I reach the final surface, no harm is done. 200 years ago, if carvers had access to power routers they most definitely would have used them. The only reason I don’t use one here is because I hate the mess it makes.

Most classically taught carvers will insist on hogging out large quantities of wood by carving cross grain to avoid large sections of tear out. It’s my opinion that these carvers waste a lot of time and energy.  With a little practice you can remove large amounts of wood very quickly by carving along the grain and tearing out large chunks of wood. The photo below shows you this happening. As you get closer to your final surface you just take thinner chunks and then start shaving smooth shavings of the type classical carvers salivate over.


Here is my homemade depth gauge at 1/8th inch shy of the target. I got to this point using only the 35/9 gouge. Later I’ll go over this surface with a 35/5 and then a 35/2, which will give me the finish surface, no sanding needed.


Here I’ve brought out another tool. A 20/1 chisel used with the bevel down to prevent the chisel from diving into the wood. I’m removing wood from what will be the rope border down to the pencil line. Using the chisel like this makes it act like a wood plane, just taking off the high spots.


Areas that will be lettered taken down to within 1/8th inch.


Here I am starting on the right side banner using the 35/5 gouge. With a limited amount of depth available–only 1.5 inches, you have to create the illusion of depth. I do this with the banner by making it undulate up and down several times from the beak to the edge of the carving. That can cause tear out problems at the bottom of valleys carved in the wood.  I’ll show you how to deal with that in the next few photos.


This next photo shows my gouge moving diagonally down and across the wood. Do that in both directions taking less and less wood every pass.


Here you can see how thin and light the final shavings are.


Moving to the rope border, I use the straight chisel bevel down again to form a round surface.


As you start getting to the smaller details you need more carving tools. Here I’m using a small curved V tool to define the end of the banner.


And another tool, 8/1s, or a double beveled skew chisel. This is a great tool for doing fine paring, and because it’s skewed it gets into tight corners.


The end of the banner almost finished. Notice it doesn’t just lay on the rope border, it falls onto it and around it like it would do if it was made of cloth. Little details like this add depth and reality. Once I finish smoothing the lower areas adjacent to the banner I will finish up the edges and do some final smoothing.


And still another tool is needed. This is a small fishtail gouge with a number 7 sweep. It nicely matches the curve on the center circle of the rope knot.


The center removed and now working rounding the edges with 2 sweep gouge held upside down.


Another carving session finished. The number of carving tools used has tripled. As the project progresses, many more will be needed.


A look at some of what I’ve accomplished so far. Not counting glue up time and farting around with revisions to the original design I’ve got about 4 1/2 hours of actual carving.


A better view.


After a weekend break from carving my new sign, I’m back at it. Today I worked on the right side flag. About half the work is basic linen fold work, the rest is creating the bunched up wrinkle effect from wrapping the flag around the standard. I started with the linen fold work at the bottom of the flag near the center shield. I started by taking a section of the large pattern and laying it along the bottom of the panel and used the pounce wheel to mark the outlines.

After marking the outlines I started at the top of the folded over area and roughed out the major folds.


After the major folds are roughed out I start with the bottom of the flag. This is the toughest part to carve, but also the most pleasing to look at. I started by defining the very bottom of the flag where it lays on the rope border.


Here I’m using the large V tool to undercut the major fold to blend it in with the bottom.


Here the first two layers are roughed out.


The bottom is completely roughed out now.


I’ve drawn another line along the border to define the lower part of the arc of the rope border. This helps me trim around the bottom of the linen fold. I begin to undercut the bottom of the flag to give the linen fold effect more depth and life.


One of the downsides of working with old wood is that the outer layer tends to oxidize and dry out. This makes carving it a real pain. Once you get down past this punky area where the wood just seems to fall apart, the wood is fine. To solve this problem I soak the area in linseed oil. Some carvers use water to wet the wood but that can raise hell with expensive carving tools. Also, the water evaporates and dries out pretty quickly. Oil soaks deep into the wood, and using raw linseed oil prevents it from drying before I finish the carving. The only downside to the linseed oil is that is darkens the wood and makes it hard to see what your doing.


Moving on to the rest of the flag. I used another piece of the pattern to pounce the lines for the wrinkle in the rest of the flag. I don’t know what the accepted term is for these wrinkles, but I call them blousing–as in a blouse or shirt. I probably heard or read the term somewhere, but who knows. Anyway, I vary the look of the wrinkles by using both V tools and veining tools. This causes some of the creases to look sharp and some to look more smooth.


After the bottoms of the wrinkles are defined I create the roundness with a 8mm number 2 sweep, which is almost flat. I put a very small inside bevel on this tool so I can use it bevel down and bevel up.


Here’s the flag completely roughed out.


And a better view. That’s about another 4 hours worth of carving. Tomorrow I’ll finish the end of the standard and the tassels, and then I’ll do some final smoothing.


I got in another 3 hours of carving today. I started with the end of the flag standard, which is essentially a spear point, but when I was drawing up the pattern I copied a pattern I had made for a Bellamy eagle a while back. Bellamy’s standards have a strange end. I made some changes as I went along. The little bow tie thingy I left alone until I can figure out what to do with it.

The tassels took the most work, but when properly done they can be striking. The carving tools keep getting smaller. This is a photo of a scary sharp 5mm number 2 sweep held bevel up to shave off the thinnest shaving to round a tassel cord. A tiny inside bevel keeps the gouge from diving into the wood. This gouge, a small V tool and an even smaller 2mm number 2 sweep.


After the cords and tassels are rounded I used the small V tool to define the rope twists and the tassel strands. Here’s the rope work roughed out.


Holding the small gouge like a pen gives you great control. It’s perfect for rounding over the cord.


Here are the tassels finished. That awkward looking bow tie shaped thing above the ball will be taken care of later when I figure out what to do with it.


Before I can add the feathers to the wings I had to smooth out the area. It seems like a waste of time because most of it will just get carved away, but having a smooth surface makes it much easier to lay out the feathers. The photo below shows what the surface looks like before I start smoothing.


Here you can see how using a large 35mm number 2 sweep I ride the bevel of the tool just taking off the high spots. Notice the thin wispy shavings.


Smoothing requires the sharpest tools. To keep them sharp I use a hard felt wheel with fine rubbing compound and I also keep a leather strop on the bench and touch up the tool every few minutes of carving. It takes just a couple of seconds and keeps the tool cutting the best it can. When the grain gets a little funky a diagonal slicing cut gets the job done. You can see the tight thin curl coming of the blade.


Before I get started laying out the feathers, here is a photo of the wing area smoothed. Though this smoothed are will be carved up, having a smooth surface makes it much easier to layout the feathers, and more importantly, it makes it easier to guide the carving tool along a straight line.

Using a pencil I quickly lay out the feathers. I use these lines as a guide only and adjust the layout as I go.


Feathers can look complicated but they really are pretty easy. A tool that makes them easy is the macaroni tool. Why they call it a macaroni tool, I don’t know, but this is what it looks like.


A crappy picture but basically the tool is shaped like a U channel. It has three sides–like three sides of a rectangle. It allows you to make an L shaped cut. By running it along a line you cut two perpendicular lines. You can do the same thing with a V tool, but if you lay the V tool too much on its side, the wing of the cutter digs in and tears the wood. Here are two quick cuts outlining a feather.


As you can see where the lines intersect create a problem. This is easily taken care of with a small gouge.


After a couples of hours of work all the feathers are defined. Next task is to carve the quills and veins. Here is another photo showing the top of the wings. I started back cutting and rounding this edge. This lighten ups the look of the wings.


Today I’m carving the quills and veins on the feathers. A couple of good sharp V tools is all you need. Normally I carve the veins in relief. In other words the quills sit higher than the feathers. On on this eagle I want more definition and shadow so I’m using a single groove cut with a large V tool. By cutting it deep I create a strong shadow and the illusion of a raised quill. Here’s a photo of the large V tool digging a trench.

After each feather is veined I cut the quills. There are endless ways of doing this. From simple straight lines to fully carved and elaborately detailed. I’m keeping it simple with basic S shaped veining. The best tool for this is the long bent V tool. The bend lets you lift the tool quickly out of the wood giving the cut a fine tapered ending. Begin the cut with the tool parallel to the quill.


As soon as the tool bites into the wood lean it to the left. It behaves like a motorcycle. You lean in the direction you want to go.


As soon as the tool starts turning left begin to move it to the right in a nice smooth motion. As you reach the end of the cut use the bend in the tool to lever it out of the wood.


Here’s the feathers completely veined.


The area below the flag where the text will be is completely smoothed.


And a few more views of the feathers.  I won’t be posting any thing for a few days. I’m going to carve the other half of the sign before I get to the head. No sense in repeating everything.


I took several days to finish carving the other half of the eagle–the same parts I’ve already covered and didn’t want to duplicate. I made some design changes regarding the shield area. There isn’t enough wood to give the depth I want so I glue more wood onto the existing shield. I actually glued on two additional layers. One to accommodate the curve of the shield, and a smaller piece to carve the Liberty head from. I originally planned to carve her in relief from the shield but realized the shield area wasn’t thick enough. Being right in the center of the carving, no clamps would reach the new wood so I had to get creative.

I placed a 2 ton floor jack onto the new wood, then put a 4×4 on the jack and jacked off the floor joist above. Here’s a couple more views.


The big chunk of mahogany the jack is sitting on is just a spacer to help me reach the floor joist above. Here’s everything all glued up.


Here’s another view showing the other half of the wing and flag carved.


Here I’ve glued Liberty’s head onto the new wood. If you’re wondering why I didn’t cut that piece of wood for Liberty’s head before I glued it on, it’s because I used that piece of wood as a caul for the piece below it.


I’m using a large straight chisel to carve away the waste starting at the corner, taking thin slices.


On the end grain I hold the chisel on a 45 degree angle. It makes it much easier to remove large chunks of wood. Once I cut at 45 degrees, the rest of the wood can easily be removed by holding the chisel straight up.


Liberty is roughed out. This only took about 15 minutes.


Here I’ve drawn in the claws and upper outline of the shield.


Starting to shape the shield. The shield is convex, curved side to side and top to bottom.


Here is the shield roughed out. The curves don’t show up. In the photo showing the extra shield material glued on, you may have noticed it didn’t go all the way to the bottom tip. That’s because of the curve on the shield. That wood wasn’t needed. You can see in this photo where the top layer blends into the bottom layer.


Ever wonder what to do if you screw up and cut something off that wasn’t supposed to get cut off. When I glued the piece on the shield there was a corner not glued down good enough and it broke off. Simple fix. Epoxy a new piece in. Here you can see I cleaned out an area nice and square. I cut a piece of wood for the repair, then traced around it and carved away a nice pocket for the new piece.

Here’s the new piece glued in.


This is the epoxy I use. It’s available at Woodcraft and online. A very economical way to buy epoxy.


A small anvil works great as a clamp until the epoxy hardens.


Here’s the repair carved and blended into the rest of the wood. The dark line is epoxy where it filled a small gap. Once painted or gilded, this repair will be invisible.


Finally starting to work on the head. That head portion I cut out of the pattern is now used to carve the details.


To cut around the tongue I first drill out around it to remove most of the wood.


Here I started to round the beak. This is all done with a 20 mm #2 sweep held bevel up.


A lot of undercutting under the lower beak. Normally I would completely carve away the back side of the head but because people will be able to walk by and touch or grab this carving, I’m leaving some support behind the more delicate areas.


I’ve switched to the 35mm #2 sweep to round the back of the neck area.


The blade is used bevel side up. The slight curve to #2 blade helps eliminate flat spots on a convex surface.


This picture shows how small the inner bevel is on this blade. I created the bevel using a strop. It’s just big enough to keep the blade from digging into the wood when the blade is used upside down.


Here’s the head roughed out and ready for detailing.


And here it is ready for feathering.


Here are a few shots of the finished head.


The following entry is the carving of Lady Liberty on the shield. In the first photo you can see I carved right up to the outline of the pattern. This is the most important step if you want to end up with a carving that looks like the face you are supposed to be carving. A proper silhouette is always recognizable. By carefully carving the silhouette, the final product will resemble the subject, even if you manage to screw up some of the details. Once you get the outlining done you can start rounding.

Here is the basic shape of the head roughed out.


The nose is the toughest part of this particular subject. Go at it a little bit at a time.


Start to shape the cheek, eye and lips a little at a time so the proportions stay correct.


Here everything is roughed in.


Oh, and here are the claws finished. I skipped that part.


Here I’ve outlined the lower lid.


And here is the lower lid finished. It’s is very subtle compared to the upper lid.


On to the rest of the lady. Here cleavage is tricky. You have to fool the eye with some perspective.


Here is her hat and dress done.


Here are a couple of shots of Lady Liberty complete.


I saved the rope border for last because I clamped the carving down on the edges. The border would have gotten dinged up by the clamps and my constant leaning on it. I started by laying out lines every half inch.

I used the V tool to define the braids.


Then I use a fishtail gouge with same curve as the rope braid to shape the strand.


Here is the rope border done on the right side. All I have left to do is finish the left side of the border and do some final smoothing and clean up and the carving work will be done.


The carving work is finally completed. The rope carving was a long and tedious six hour process. Here’s what it looks like all done. It’s the first time I’ve seen it off the bench.

Now that the carving is finished the first thing I did was soak it in sanding sealer. This is for two reasons. First the old dry wood is like a sponge and needs some protection from the elements. I will be applying several coats of sealer before I begin painting. Second, before I begin detailing, or cleaning up all the fuzzies, stray bits of wood and stubborn areas of torn grain, I apply the sealer to stiffen or harden the wood. It makes the final detailing much easier. Here’s a photo of the carving soaked in sealer.


After taking almost as long to paint and gild my new sign as it did to carve, it is finally done.

The sign is finished in a combination of Old Village oil paints, One Shot sign paint, 23k gold leaf, and something called osmalto, which is finely ground black glass. This is glued to the sign using paint and gives a textured background and adds some depth and sparkle to the signs background.

I mounted the tailgate to my truck with some basic gate hardware I bought from Tractor Supply. I also added two weather proof padlocks to help prevent it from being stolen.

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13 years ago

saw this driving down the road in front of us and looked up your website just to compliment your work! it’s absoluutely beautiful!!!

brandon taylor
12 years ago

hey john, remember me? i was the recon guy for you at secor when all the bullshit went down…..saw a guy carving eagles at a craft fair….they cou;dnt hold a candle to you…so i told him about your site then when i showed him he was amazed…just wanted to tell you that ….hope your doing well my friend…..

Alan S
2 years ago

Incredible work! Thank you for sharing this for people who have no idea how this is done.