Handmade gifts can be tricky. If the finished product isn’t gift-worthy, not only will you embarrass yourself, but you’ll also put the recipient in the awkward position of feeling obligated to accept it, whether they want it or not. Handing someone an ugly handmade present is kind of like giving them a beta fish. This is your responsibility now. Deal with it.

So this is the mindset I had when I started carving my first (unrequested) gift.

A couple of months back, my wife and I were invited to a friend’s birthday get-together. A fundamental rule of being a gentleman is that you should never show up to a party empty-handed, so instead of a bottle of wine, I brought a whale.

When I first started carving, I did a lot of faces and busts. They look cool, but they don’t have a lot of utility; they just kind of sit on the shelf as a conversation piece. So for my gift, I decided I wanted to make something that was a little more functional.

Knowing that my friend decorated her place in a nautical theme, I started combing Pinterest for some ideas and happened across this vintage whale bookend.

The allure of crafting something “vintage” as a novice carver is pretty great. Even though it’s new, the vintage designation gives you the freedom to make your finished piece imperfect and aged, and really capitalize on the “character” of the carving  (all things I really love about working with wood).

So I started with a solid  1 ¾” x 3 ½” x 10″ basswood block. I wanted to make this entirely by hand, but I cheated a little and used a circular saw to cut it in half.

I didn’t start taking progress pictures right away, so the first picture I have is the front half of the whale.


I used my knife to round of the top of the head. I cut into the wood around the eye and used stop cuts to form the eye socket and give the impression that the eye is sticking out more than the rest of the head (it isn’t; really, the eyelid is the only part of the eye that is flush with the rest of the side). I used another shallow stop cut to make the eyelid. For the mouth, I used a painstaking series of stop cuts to remove the wood around the teeth, then a V-gouge and the tip of my knife to make V-cuts separating the teeth. The bookend I found to use as a model had a smooth surface, but I wanted a little more detail, so I used the V-gouge again to route the horizontal lines. I then finished it off by sanding with 120 grit, then 180 grit sandpaper.

Then I started on the back half.


Again with the stop cuts. You can see the beginning of cut along the back, and the progress along the tail. The back and tail were the most time-consuming steps, because of how thick the block was and because I was hell-bent on not using power tools. My scroll saw would have made short work of this for sure.  And if you look at the bottom right, you can actually see blood from where I cut my pointer finger. I don’t remember if I was wearing my glove when I cut it.


The finished back half, pre-sanding. The stop cuts on the back and tail were kind of sloppy, and I was really hoping that the sanding would smooth things out a bit.

For the flukes, I wasn’t a fan of the vertical tail from the bookends I found on Pinterest. So, I looked up some pictures on Google to use as a reference (careful when Googling the term “whale tail”). I did a rough sketch on a spare basswood block. I used some stop cuts for the basic shape, and shaved the wood off from the middle of the block out, to keep it higher than the flukes.


After sanding it smooth, I used wood glue to attach the tail. I didn’t take any pictures, but I “clamped” it by holding it in place for a few minutes, then turning it upside down on my kitchen counter and stacking books on the “belly” of the back half. I let it sit that way overnight. Because the top of the back half and the tail had both been sanded, they didn’t sit flush. If I could do this over, I wouldn’t have sanded either surface, and filled in gaps with wood filler.


Almost there. I used a V-gouge again to make the horizontal lines on the back half. To make sure they lined up, I put the halves together and just continued the gouge from where they ended on the front half.

For the lip… tongue… part of the bookend that the books rest on, I had bought these shiny angle brackets from the local hardware store. I didn’t like the bright finish on them, and since I was going for vintage, I decided that I needed to remove it. I looked up online how best to weather zinc finishes, and read, in a couple of different places, that I could just burn it off. I don’t have a blowtorch, or a forge, so I just used some charcoal and my fire pit. I covered the angle brackets with the briquettes. I threw the screws in as well. After letting them cook for an hour, I removed them with my barbecue tongs and dropped them into a bucket of water to cool off.


I was pretty happy with the final product. After the zinc burned off, I was left with some nicely corroded-looking pieces.

While the angle brackets cooked, I painted the whale. This was my first time using paint on any of my carvings, so I had a lot to learn, but it could have turned out way worse. I wasn’t wild about the shade of blue I ended up with (a bit too primary), but it still looked suitably nautical. I used grey for the pupil and to differentiate the lines between the teeth, and, at my wife’s suggestion, dry brushed an off-white color here and there to give it a “salt spray” look. After the paint dried, I attached the angle brackets, and voila.

img_1736Thar she blows.

Overall, I was pretty happy with how it turned out, and wasn’t too self-conscious about presenting it as a gift. It’s definitely no beta fish.