Branching Out

What do you do when you need some habitat to set your bird on?

By: Jerry Simchuck

Creating habitat for your bird should be a fun and exciting stage of any project. You have a wide range of subjects to choose from and many ways to present and build them. One style I like is a non-pedestal presentation—a freestanding habitat on which the bird perches. That’s the approach I chose when it came time to design a new presentation for a black-capped chickadee, and I decided to place the bird on an aspen branch. In this article, I’ll show you how I created the branch. You can apply these techniques to many other types of habitat and presentations.

It’s easy to gather reference material for a project like this. Simply go outside and clip a branch that has a few leaves on it. Make your leaf patterns by outlining the leaves you like, or simply copy them on a copy machine. When fall approaches you might collect a few more leaves to get a sense of the color changes that occur as the year winds down.

When I decided to make a freestanding habitat for the black-capped chickadee, I wanted to choose a species of tree with small leaves that would complement but not overpower the bird. I also wanted something that had a delicate appearance but would be very sturdy and stable. The aspen tree proved to be ideal.


(click any image to enlarge it)

  1. Tools
    When it comes to choosing a torch, you’ll find a number of options available. Left, from top to bottom, are a micro torch, a welding torch, and The Little Torch. I’ll use The Little Torch, an acetylene and oxygen setup from Smith Equipment, for this project. (For more details about torch work, read “Torch Setup for a Bird Artist” by Larry Barth in the Fall 2003 issue.) For the branches I will use 3/32" and 1/16" brazing rod and 1/32" brass rod for the leaf stems. I’ll make the leaves from 36-gauge brass foil.

    To help with the welding, I suggest a set of helping hands (with alligator clips), along with some pliers and side cutters to bend and cut the rods. You’ll also need silver brazing (Safety-Silv with 10% - 56% silver content, cadmium-free) and flux (Stay-Silv white brazing flux) when brazing the metals. I also recommend a welding tile or welding blanket to weld over. Welding glasses or sunglasses are a must for eye protection.

    When deciding what size tip to use for The Little Torch, remember that the thicker the metal, the larger the tip and the hotter the flame. Thinner metal means a smaller tip/flame. The same is true for the amount of silver content for the silver brazing material. The thicker the metal, the higher percentage of silver content you will need for a strong bond, and that requires hotter flame. Thinner metal needs less silver to adequately fuse the metal, and that means less heat.

  2. The Model
    Before you do any metal cutting or welding, make a model. I used long twist ties for my model material. Creating a model will help you iron out subtle details and refine the overall composition.

  3. Branch Locations
    Cut to length and shape a piece of 3/32" brazing rod for the main branch. This will provide the branch’s core and its primary strength. Once you’ve cut and shaped the rod to match your model, mark the places where you will weld on the side branches.

  4. Weld the Branches
    Using 1/16" brazing rod, weld the side branches to the core branch. First apply the flux to both metal rods where you will make the weld. Then heat the end of the 1/16" rod until it reaches a glowing orange color. At the same time, heat the portion of the core branch where you want to fuse the side branch. The core branch is thicker so it will take longer to reach the melting point needed so you can fuse the side branch to the core branch without cutting or melting the core branch. As soon as you see the side branch fuse to the core branch, remove the heat. You should see a solid bond between the two metals, as seen in the photo at right.

  5. Shape Branches
    Use pliers to break the solid flux material from the weld joints. The hardened flux should break off without too much trouble. This is also the time to cut to length and shape all the side branches to their final form and position. You may need to make some minor adjustments to the lengths of some side branches as well.

  6. Final Shape
    At this point you should have a nice artistic metal structure that is stable and able to support a bird. This is a good time to review the composition and design. Notice the odd number of contact points? Odd numbers or irregularities make a sculpture more pleasing to the eye. You can also set the bird over the branch to make sure it’s turning out the way you had envisioned.

  7. Braze the Legs in Place
    Once the branch is shaped to your liking it is time to weld the core legs to the branch. (For details about legs and feet, refer to “How to Make Barn Owl Feet” from the Summer 2008 issue of wildfowl carving magazine). I will typically use brass rods for the core legs, which makes it necessary to braze the legs to the branch with silver brazing. Heat both the branch and base of the legs to the point where the silver brazing melts and flows around the joint once you touch it to the metal. Be careful not to overheat the brass—it might melt, forcing you to make another leg.

  8. Cut the Leaves
    Using your leaf pattern(s), outline and then cut out the leaves from a sheet of 36-gauge brass foil. Make sure that each leaf is different in size and/or imperfections. It helps to create bug markings on some leaves. Also, make an odd number of leaves to place on the branch.

  9. File and Sand Leaves
    I go over the leaf edges with a file to flatten them and eliminate the possibility of cutting my fingers. You can also use a sanding wheel. I sand both sides of the leaf to remove the oxidation layer and provide more bite for paint adhesion.

  10. Vein and Shape Leaves
    From the topside of the leaf, add the veins using a ball-end knurling tool. I usually place the leaf on a pad of paper to allow for more veining definition. To understand the veining pattern, refer to your pattern or the actual leaf. Next, add shape and form to the leaf. You can use your fingers or any other rounded surface to aid in the shaping of the leaves.

  11. Silver Braze Stems to Leaves
    Silver braze the stems to the leaves using 1/32" brass rod. Follow the same process you used to braze the legs to the branch. Apply the flux to the rod and surface area of the leaf you wish to braze. Then heat the metal until the silver brazing begins to melt and flow around the metal rod. For this step you can use a lower percentage (10%) of silver-content brazing material and lower heat. In the photo at right you see I’m using the “Micro Torch,” which is a butane torch with lower heat output. The Little Torch will work just fine if you use a small tip. Leave yourself extra length to the stem for fine tuning later.

  12. Clean and Shape Stem into Leaves
    To get a realistic appearance, you must blend the stem into the leaf. Using a carbide cutter, grind the excess metal and brazing material so it blends into the leaf. Make sure the leaf’s top is blended down onto the stem. I even go back with a sanding mandrel and clean the surface of any flux and discoloration to assure a good bonding surface for the paint.

  13. Detail Leaves
    Apply the final details to the leaves. Aspen leaves have a jagged edging, so use a diamond flame along the edges to get an effect that resembles your reference leaf. I also refine the bug markings to make sure these imperfections have irregular shapes.

  14. Identify Leaf Placements
    At this point, I’m refining the composition and design by bending and shaping the stems and leaves to follow the flow of the overall sculpture. This is the time to cut the stems to their final length.

  15. Silver Braze Leaves to Branches
    Silver braze the stems to the branches using the same process you used to braze the stems to leaves. Helping hands will come in handy for this step. The key here is to apply more heat to the branch than the stem. You are less likely to melt the stems this way.

  16. Refine Branch Ends and Welds
    I will cover the core branches with epoxy putty, so I don’t worry too much about perfecting the branch welds. I want the branch ends to be exposed metal so I will shape and taper them down to a blunt and narrow end. If the welds for the stems are too large or messy, you might want to go back and blend them into the branch and stem.

  17. Epoxy Putty Branches
    With all the metal work complete, it’s time to build up the branches using two-part epoxy putty Aves Apoxie® Sculpt. This type of epoxy has a long working time so you can create texture while it’s curing. It also carves nicely once cured. Apply the epoxy to the desired thickness based on your reference material. The base will be thickest. By the time you reach the ends you should be down to the metal (if you want to have a little metal exposed). I leave some lumps and bumps in the texture to aid in the realistic look of an Aspen branch. Allow the epoxy to cure over night.

  18. Shape and Texture Branches
    Using a flame carbide cutter I draw across the branches and create a variety of lumps and bumps until it begins to look like the reference branch. The final touch is to go back over all the lumps and bumps with a diamond or ruby flame to soften all the hard edges.

  19. Ready to Paint
    Acrylic paints are durable and work quickly, and I use them for all my sculpture painting. For this project I used Jo Sonja’s Artist’s Colors, which I like for their more realistic matte finish. Some paints will leave a slight sheen to the finish. I want to control the sheen on my painting, so I add a varnish in specific areas that need it. For the aspen branch I used warm white, yellow oxide, yellow light, yellow medium cadmium, pine green, pthalo green, raw umber, raw sienna, ultramarine blue, and burgundy.

  20. Sealing the Habitat
    Seal the habitat with a primer that will adhere nicely to both the metal and epoxy. I used Bulls Eye 1.2.3 Primer Sealer. I typically brush on two coats to create a uniform base. This primer has an off-white color that provides a good base color. You can always add a touch of color.

  21. Dark Green Base
    With the leaves, I wanted to start dark and build up to the light tones. Apply one or two good washes of pine green on both sides of the leaf for a dark green base color. Allow the paint to run into the veins to make them even darker. This will be the darkest area of the leaf.

  22. Primary Green Tone
    Apply the primary green tone to both sides of the leaf. Apply it in washes until the color resembles that of your reference material.

    You can figure on three to four washes. Notice that the leaf’s underside has splotches or small pooling areas. You want to create this irregular pattern. The primary green is a mix of 1 part pine green, 1 part yellow oxide, and ¼ to ½ part pthalo green. You can add more yellow oxide for the underside to get a lighter tone.

  23. Yellow Tones
    Apply washes of yellow oxide, yellow medium cadmium, and yellow light where you want to show lighter tones and even tones approaching the fall coloration. Start with the darkest yellow and work up to the lightest. The edges and irregularities provided the key areas for my focus for the lighter tones. Check your reference material. Don’t be afraid to color each leaf differently. You can even go back and add some green tones if things get too yellow in some areas.

  24. Underleaf Toning
    The underleaf has more of a pale yellow/green tone, even a slight milky look. Add a little warm white to the green mix and yellows. Apply washes of greens and yellows until you get the desired tone. Remember to create variation and even some small pooling of these colors during each wash.

  25. Dark Washes and Imperfections
    Apply a thin wash or two of raw umber to both sides of the leaf, letting it run and fill into the veins and outer edges. Accentuate the imperfections and bug markings by applying heavier washes of raw umber. Wet blend the raw umber into the leaf to create the subtle transition from green and yellow to brown. Apply washes in these areas until you have the desired amount of brown tone.

  26. Highlight Underleaf Veining
    The veining on the leaves’ undersides is lighter and requires highlighting. Dry brush across the veins with a light yellow/green mix. If necessary, add a touch of warm white to make it even lighter.

  27. Stem Base Coloring
    Look at your reference material to see how the colors vary on the stems. My stems were mid-toned at the base of the leaf, and then they became light (almost white) and then darker green near the connection to the branch. Paint the stem with the primary base green color you used for the leaf tops. To create the highlighted area, follow this approach: First add a touch of warm white to the green base and apply it to a wide section of the stem. Be sure to wet blend the outer edges of this section. With each application reduce the area you paint and add a touch more warm white to the mix. This should result in a nice gradual transitional color flow from green to light and back to green as you go from one end of the stem to the other.

  28. Final Stem Colors
    Going back to my reference material, I saw a burgundy color as the stem went into the branch. I applied washes of a burgundy and raw umber mix from the base of the stem up into the stem, and I wet blended this dark burgundy into the stem’s light tone to make a subtle transition from the light green into a light burgundy and finally into a dark burgundy stem base. It may be necessary to apply a thin wash or two of the light green mix over top of the light burgundy section to get a more natural-looking transition.

  29. Branch Base Color
    Use raw umber as the base color for the branches. Dapple the paint on the branches instead of using washes. This technique controls the paint better. Continue to dapple the paint on all the branches until you see a nice variety of light and dark tones.

  30. Branch Color Washes
    I like to get all three primary colors into the branches so I apply one or two thin washes of raw sienna, ultramarine blue, and burgundy (for primary colors red, blue, and yellow). Apply an extra wash of the primary color you want to dominate. In this case, I applied another wash of raw sienna so the yellow tone would be more dominant, which tied in with the yellow tones of the leaves and the bird.

  31. Highlighting the Branches
    Dry brush a 50-50 mix of warm white and raw umber over the entire branch. Dry brushing over the high points helps pull out the lumps and bumps you carved into the surface, giving the branch a distinctive character. This tan mix is only the base of the highlight coloration, though. You will still need to sparingly apply a lighter tone. Dry brush warm white randomly over the branches to create a nice variety of brighter highlights.

  32. Detailing Transitions
    One final point of detail:  Paint the base of each stem where it connects to the branches. Check the reference material and you’ll see a dark band that represents the connection seam. You should also see a green tone on the stem’s lowest portion. Use a mix of warm white, pine green, and yellow oxide to create this green base to the stem. Wet blend this green back up into the burgundy area for a smooth transition. Finally, use raw umber to paint a line around the stem to represent the connection seam, and then seal the branch with Testors Dull Coat. Make sure you catch all surface areas with this sealer. I like this type of sealer because it richens the color a bit as it adds a layer of protection for the paint.

  33. The Finished Branch
    Metal, epoxy, and paint combine to create an impersonation of nature. When you do it right and pay close attention to detail, people might ask you, “Is that a real branch?”

Jerry Simchuk: Since entering his first competition in 1994, Jerry Simchuk has competed regularly at top-level bird carving shows around the country. A full-time artist since 2004, Jerry has started creating wildlife art sculptures in bronze. He and his wife, Kate, live on a small farm in Kalispell, Montana, where Jerry continues to build his reputation as a wildlife artist, carver, judge, and instructor. You can reach him at Jerry@Simchuk.com. 


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