While I wait for my Christmas tree to dry out, I thought I would post one of my earliest projects.

This Viking is the first completed carving that I’m actually proud of. Not because it’s aesthetically all that great, but because it’s evidence of a huge improvement from my first carving. This is actually the third piece I completed (my second piece is further down in this post). I learned a lot from making this piece, so that makes it inherently valuable, too.

But it also means a lot because it was a request from a couple of good friends, and the first carving I gave as a gift.

The original request was for a Viking, which, first of all, hell yes. What’s more manly than a Viking? But I had no idea how to do it, considering I had only carved two tikis so far. So, I poked around on Pinterest (not just for planning kids’ birthday parties anymore) for some inspiration and found these two carvings:

The lack of eyes and detailed noses really appealed to me, because I wasn’t that skilled in regards to carving those features (and I’m still not). There’s something about the minimalist take on the eyes that I’m especially fond of; how they can be suggested using light and shadow. I guess that isn’t too different from how eyes are typically carved, but these take that idea to the extreme. I dig it.

I started out with a simple basswood block I bought in a three-pack from Michaels. It cost around $6, though I doubt I paid that much. Never pay full price at Michaels. You can always find a coupon.

Beginning carvers learn quickly that Basswood is the carver’s go-to wood for obvious reasons. It’s among the softest woods recorded on the Janka hardness test at 410 pounds-force (for the curious, the hardest wood is the Australian Buloke, with a Janka hardness of 5,060—more than twelve times harder than basswood. For a chuckle, watch how long it takes this guy to saw through only TWO INCHES of Buloke). In addition to being soft, basswood is evenly textured and incredibly lightweight.

To begin, I sketched a simple face on my basswood block, inspired by the pictures I found online.


I started carving with the helmet nose piece, cutting into the block where it meets the mustache and sweeping up into it. From there, the stop cuts continued, first along the vertical lines, then continuing with the helmet and beard.


At this point I wasn’t yet sold on not carving the eyes, but seeing the way the brim of the helmet cast a shadow, I was definitely feeling it. Notice in the picture above, the cut to start forming the upper rim of the helmet. This is before I used stop cuts to really define it.

I then finished shaping the helmet and horns, which were a huge pain in the ass. I learned from this carving that cutting down (or up?) into the wood from the end of the block is painful, painstaking, and a waste of time. It’s much, much easier to follow the grain on any given side and sweep away at the wood rather than trying to cut into it on a flat surface (rookie mistake, I know… now). If I was able to start this one over, I would have kept the stop cuts above the brim of the helmet and just moved the knife up to shape it out. Oh, well. Live and learn.

After shaping out the basic Viking, I went to town with a small V gouge on the mustache and beard. I also used stop cuts to carve out hollows for the eyes, and a V-cut with my knife to separate the different sides of the mustache. If really added a lot to the piece overall.


I got a little carried away here. Notice the diagonal cuts I attempted with the V gouge in the mustache. That helmet may not be perfect, but these are the part of the carving I dislike the most. Gouging diagonally like that really caused the fibers to tear out rather than giving me the clean lines I was hoping for. In retrospect, I should have continued the gouges vertically, or used v-cuts with my knife, rather than trying to force the gouge against the grain.


Here’s the viking, pre-sanding, next to my second carving, another tiki.

After this picture, I sanded both pieces down to remove some of the flatter cuts and to round out some of the features, particularly the helmet.

Before I gave the Viking to my friends, I really wanted to finish it. I read from a couple of places that staining basswood can be difficult and unrewarding—because the wood is so soft and porous, it takes stain unevenly and can cause the finished piece to be blotchy—and that painting is often a good way to finish basswood. To this point, I had no experience painting anything, and really wanted to give the piece a natural finish.

I gave it a lot of thought, and actually bought a pre-stain treatment that I brushed into some test pieces of scrap basswood I had. Applying the stain to the pre-treated pieces, though, produced a color that was far too light. I wanted this piece to look like something that could have been unearthed from an archaeological dig site, so ultimately I decided to stain it with Rustoleum Kona. I left the stain on for a few minutes, then rubbed the hell out of it with a clean rag to remove a lot of the dark color.

Ultimately, I was left with this:


The dark stain made the eyes even darker, which I loved. I also really dug how it soaked into the grooves of the beard and mustache, and barely took to the flat surfaces I kept as part of the helmet. This dude looks like he’s seen a battle or two. It was definitely a happy accident.

Like I said, I learned a lot after carving this guy. And while it’s not the most perfect Viking I’ve ever seen, it’s stylized enough that I can definitely count him as a major victory in learning the hobby.

And it definitely doesn’t hurt my ego to know that he’s proudly displayed on the living room shelf of two very good friends, either.