"Carving a Tree Spirit" #3: Cottonwood Bark

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Blog entry by mpounders posted 12-30-2011 06:03 PM 7182 reads 0 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 2: Beard and Eyes Part 3 of "Carving a Tree Spirit" series no next part

First, you need some bark! You can buy cottonwood bark by the pound and get some really great wood, that is much thicker and wider than what I found in my neighborhood. Or, you may find your own, if you live further north than I do! Look for a tree with thick ragged bark, or the cotton-like flowers(?) when it blooms. Look for dry bark that has fallen off or a tree that is dead. I collected several garbage bags full from a tree that was struck by lightning. I washed mine and scrubbed with a nylon brush to remove dirt and debris that could damage a tool and then left it out in the sun to dry.

I’m using a piece that is abought 17” long and maybe 2” thick. I’m primarily using my utility knife and a smaller detail knife on this one.

Pick a likely looking spot, something thick, and use the utility knife to clean off the upper (loose) bark in a space about 3” long. You will see the rich reddish color beneath the gray outer bark. Cut this into a pointed area so that the nose will really stick out. We are creating a corner to carve the nose on, just like we did in the previous carving and the Santa. Draw the line to define the top of the nose, a triangle shape for the nose and lightly sketch the moustache.

Cut out the notch below the nose and the slope of the nose up to the top line. Be very, very careful! The greatest thing about carving bark is that it is so soft! And the worst thing about carving bark is that it is so soft! It takes a sharp knife and a delicate touch. It’s like carving styrofoam, almost.

Cut the forehead down to the top of the nose, making that long shallow V-shape. Draw in the eyebrows, eye slits, and nose again. Remember, the lowest part os that V, the top of the nose, will be the center-line of your eyes.

Make the cuts to define the nose and round them over. I use a small sharp detail knife, because a longer blade can easily cut areas that you don’t want it to! Work slowly, taking small cuts. Bark can be very delicate and a mistake may require a design change….although super-glue can be helpful with really crumbly bark. Define the upper eyelids by making a slanting cut following the curved eyebrow down to the line for the eye-slit. Cut a deep triangle chip between the corner of each eye and the nose.

I try to follow natural crevices in the bark for the moustache. I used the crevice on the left side of this face and then just made a little notch on the right side of the nose (at the top) to kinda match it. Draw in the lower edge of the moustache and make a relief cut to make it stand proud and then round it over. Draw in the lower lip, make a c cut underneath it and then deepen the cut right under the mustache to make it look slightly open.

Draw in and carve the reverse 3’s on each side of the face to define the temple and cheeks. Round them, but be careful!

Now make a straight cut across for each eye. Undercut this a bit, so the upper lid hangs out over the lower. Carefully deepen and widen the cut to create a dark shadow for the eye. Then cut out a little half circle below each line to indicate the pupil. I centered these pupils to make him stare right at you!

I round over the edges of the face slightly, to make it appear like he is peering out from the crevices in the bark. Here is another wood spirit in a different style, carved from a small piece of bark.

It only took about an hour to do this carving. I sometimes leave them unfinished, since the wood has a tendency to darken when a finish is applied. Sometimes I just wax the face or maybe spray a light coat of laquer. People carve houses and all sorts of things from bark. You can even flatten the back on a sander and then join two pieces to do an in-the-round carving. Have fun and thanks for looking!

-- Mike P., Arkansas,

5 comments so far

View Rob W's profile

Rob W

434 posts in 3562 days

#1 posted 12-30-2011 06:38 PM

Awesome as usual!

-- Rob — I've cut it off twice and it's still too short!,

View Frizz's profile


10 posts in 2798 days

#2 posted 12-30-2011 08:45 PM

Well done Mike!

View wizzardofwood's profile


229 posts in 2895 days

#3 posted 12-30-2011 09:07 PM

really nice job….........looks like your having toooooo much fun….....jim

-- wizzardofwood..... "ITS MY JOB TO AMAZE YOU"

View Dave's profile


11429 posts in 2865 days

#4 posted 01-01-2012 06:13 AM

Thanks for the lesson it looks great.

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

View Roger's profile


20928 posts in 2829 days

#5 posted 01-01-2012 05:57 PM

oh yesss gr8t spirit.. you really bring em out Mike

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed.

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