Alpha, Part One

Carving a gyrfalcon

By: Ted Smith
Updated June 03, 2019

With the help of his wife and a great number of friends, Ted Smith has been a full-time bird carver since 1979. The carving shows that he enjoys most are the Columbia Flyway Wildlife in Vancouver, Washington, and the Ward World Championship in Ocean City, Maryland. Ted lives in Nampa, Idaho. Email him at tjsmithbirdcarver@cableone.net or visit his website at http://deerflatwildfowlartstudio.weebly.com.
Back in the late 1990s a falconer friend by the name of Jim Hansen asked if I would be interested in joining him while he exercised his white phase gyrfalcon. I could not pass up the opportunity to photograph one of my favorite birds of prey. Watching this gyr fly and hunt turned out to be an unforgettable experience. The bird’s size, attitude, and grace were outstanding. In all the years that I have been taking pictures of birds of prey, I had not been around a bird that I had enjoyed so much.
When I got home, I started collecting gyrfalcon information, including study skins and a cast bill, so I could do a carving. I called the resulting piece Omega. When I finished the carving, I displayed it in my showcase at the Boise airport before I delivered it to my client. A gentleman from Houston saw it there and contacted me about carving one for him. After we talked about the cost and delivery time, he decided the timing wasn’t right. Twelve years later he was having his office remodeled, and he found my letter and the photographs of Omega. The timing must have been right, for he called me and placed the order. This was my third gyrfalcon carving, so I had some definite ideas of what I wanted to do this time and also what I wanted to do differently from my earlier pieces. I had a great piece of tupelo that I had purchased from Pete Palumbo, so I was ready to begin.

When I composed this piece, I was working with black and white, hard and soft, and—by adding the wolverine skull—some sense of mystery. When figuring out the composition, I did not lock into a final look as I knew I would make changes along the way.

In an effort to make my carvings as realistic as I can, I like to have access to study skins. For this carving, I visited the Archives of Falconry in Boise, where I got to study and photograph seven different white-phase gyrfalcons. The study skins ranged in length from 19 to 21 1⁄2 inches. The color markings were also completely different from bird to bird.
The study skins give you feather shapes, feather patterns, colors, and the size of the feet and talons as well as letting you photograph areas that you cannot get from a live bird. I use the measurement of the upper mandible as a gauge when blowing up photos for my patterns. Be aware that measurements from a study skin cannot be relied on, due to what the taxidermist did when mounting the bird and shrinkage from the drying of the skin.

I make up patterns from photos I have taken and found in magazines and on the Internet. When doing a carving, I like to make up at least two or three, and I end up using the one that I like best. Most of my patterns in my files have additions and notes I added later as I went from carving to carving.
When I cut out the block, I leave extra wood around the head, bill, neck, and also the wing tips. Just remember, this is an art piece. I always find someone who finds fault with a sculpture. (Except for my wife, and she knows that I am the best!)


For a closer look at each step, please click on the image to enlarge.


  1. First, I collected a large black rock from Owyhee County and photographed it from five different angles to make patterns. I enlarge the patterns to the correct size and cut out the rock on the band saw.

  2. I use a 4" grinder with a carbide grinding disk to remove large amounts of wood so I can get the rock carved down to workable shapes and sizes. One look at the floor and you can see how much sawdust this creates!

  3. Hollowing the rock will greatly reduce the sculpture’s weight. I remove two pieces of wood and use a Forstner bit and Foredom grinder to hollow.

  4. Someone—I won’t name names—ground through the side of the rock during the hollowing process, so I added a small piece of wood to cover the hole. It now looks like part of the main rock.

  5. After I clean up the carving and add texture to the largest portion of the rock, I use an old tack hammer to create the texture. I still have to add a shelf area for the wolverine skull. I use two real rocks for the pattern.


  1. I ​borrowed a wolverine skull from a friend, photographed it from six different angles, and turned the photographs into patterns with my copy machine. I make most of my patterns on transparency film so that I can view them from both sides. I also make notes on the patterns in case I want to make changes on them in the future.

  2. This is the carved skull with the reference photos in the background; I use texture paste applied with a sponge to mimic the look of aging.

  3. The skull is completely carved and I have sealed it with two coats of Deft sealer. I use a dowel with a screw in the end as a holding fixture.

  4. This is the finished skull. It will add an important visual element to the sculpture. I find that when I view a bird sculpture from all sides, my interest drops when I lose sight of the eyes. Adding a third element in that area will increase the interest level.


  1. Since I do very poor sketches, I rely on reference photos to come up with my patterns. I also feel that you can never have too many photos before you start carving. I photograph birds every chance I get, but it seems like there is always an area of the bird for which you need more information. Most of my photo efforts concentrate on close-ups of the eyes, head, the underside of the tail, and the feet.

  2. I have cut out the tupelo bird on the band saw; I leave extra wood in the area of the head and wing tips in case I need to make adjustments when I mount the bird to the rock.

  3. I am always in a hurry to get carving, and that can lead to mistakes! I first carved a head on the block and added eyes. It would have been far better for me to have rough carved the body and mounted it on the rock first so that I could get the bird’s attitude right. I ended up cutting off this head and doing a new one.

  4. This is the second effort on the head. I can now adjust it to the angle that will look best and then glue it onto the body. I used 16 mm eyes on this one instead of the 14 mm eyes I used for Omega. I start with a Tohickon #123 Flint Aspheric lead crystal eye and paint it to get the look I want.

  5. When carving the head separately, I leave extra wood in the neck area so I can move the head around until I get the best look. I also have a casting of the gyrfalcon bill on hand so I can make sure all measurements are correct. I always carve the bill first. If it’s not right, I will discard the head and start over again. If the bill and eyes are not carved correctly, the sculpture will never look right.

  6. With the rock completely carved and textured, I fit the body of the bird to the rock and add some square brass tubing so it will return to the same spot each time I put the two back together. Now I can get the tilt of the head the way I want and glue it on the body. This is the first time I get to view what the completed sculpture will look like.

  7. I’ve glued the head to the body, cleaned up the neck, and fit the body to the rock. It is time to rough carve the body and start to shape the wings. The wing length on this carving is 153⁄4 inches. On this carving, I carved both wing tips from the main block. Sometimes I insert one, which gives me room to finish carving the upper-tail coverts and tail feathers.

  8. I start out using my Gesswein grinder and a pear-shaped diamond stone to trace around each feather, and then I knock down the leading edge of the feather with a split mandrel and 220-grit Swiss sandpaper. Try to relieve some feathers more than others to keep things from being too uniform. I have penciled in the primary feathers. Be sure to carve the upper set first and leave enough wood for the lower set. 

  9. I undercarve some of the shoulder feathers so they will look like they have air beneath them. Just be sure not to do too much of this or it loses its value.

  10. I’ve penciled in, carved, and textured some of the cape feathers. I use a wood burner to outline the quill and a red ceramic stone to texture the feathers. Be sure to show splits in some of the feathers. On a white bird like this, you need to create all the visual interest you can.

  11. All the upper feathers on the right wing have been penciled in and relieved. I use a 3⁄32 split mandrel with 120-grit Swiss sandpaper to knock down the edge of each feather.

  12. I use a Colwood wood burner with a GB tip to give lift to the secondary feathers. The GB is bent and ground in the Bob Guge style, for raising quills and detailing feathers. I get mine from the Cascade Carvers Supply catalog.

  13. To create the splits in the tail feathers, I use a pointed diamond bit. I do the ripples with a round diamond bit, and clean up with my sanding mandrel.

  14. All the wing coverts are carved and ready for texture. I will use a blue ceramic to do the texturing, stopping from time to time to sharpen the edge. I like a soft look on these feathers.

  15. The falcon is ready to be sealed. Note the small stack of rocks on the lower right. They did not add to the composition so I ended up removing them.

  16. To construct the feet, I cut a 5⁄16" brass rod in 11⁄2-inch lengths, and then heat, bend, and flatten them with a hammer and anvil. This also shows a completed foot from a previous failed attempt.

  17. I use my Gesswein to grind the rod to the talon shape, and polish it with my buffer. I have a special container on hand to keep the talons in the correct order.

  18. I use silver solder to attach the brass talons to the copper wire I use for the toes. I then shape the toes to the rock.

  19. I use QuikWood to form the fleshy parts of the toes and legs. I have made some tools to duplicate the texture on each toe and leg. I use the cast peregrine foot as reference.

  20. These are the finished toes. Be sure to check your photos and study foot. The trick is to make it look like the toes split the feathers and still fit the rock.

Final Steps

  1. Here you can see how I strengthen the center of the bill with a brass rod. The hooked tip is very easy to damage if it’s not protected. I use super glue and baking soda to seal the rod into the bill. The white line around the neck area is QuikWood. I glue the head on with epoxy, then grind out a trough and fill the trough with QuikWood, which I can texture to match the wood.

  2. In an effort to duplicate the gyrfalcon’s nostril, I insert a small nail in the hole and add a drop of wood filler to the top of it. I have carved and textured the feather groups on the head.

  3. This view shows the overall shape of the body with the carved and textured primary feathers. I use a Colwood wood burner with a B tip on them.

  4. I added a piece of 3⁄4" plywood to the bottom of the rocks to give the total unit more strength, tying the shelf to the main rock. Note the sample rocks in the foreground. I will refer to these when I duplicate the lichen—something I will discuss in part two.


Gyrfalcon (50% size) 




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