Canvasback Head Carving Demonstration

By: Keith Hendrickson
Updated March 14, 2018

I discussed custom carving knives and some basic cuts in the Winter and Spring 2016 issues of Wildfowl Carving Magazine. For the following demonstration, I used knives for everything except the initial band saw work. I’ll use a good variety of blade styles and sizes so you can get an idea where different shapes can come into play. For this particular demonstration, I’ll carve a generic canvasback head. It will work for a decoy, as a coat/hat/gun rack or even cut in half and mounted on a plaque to hang on the wall. This demonstration doesn’t require precise or detailed bill carving, so it’s a great project for learning how to use and control a knife. I will demonstrate using white cedar. Here in the Carolinas we call it juniper. It carves great but definitely has a defined grain. That can be a bit of a deterrent, but carvers need to learn how to read that grain and deal with it. So let’s get to it:


Click on an image to see a larger version.

  1. I set the pattern on my 2 1/4" stock, making sure the wood grain runs with the length of the head and bill; you want that grain to run straight down the bill. I cut out the head using a band saw and drill in a 3?16" hole for the eyes using a drill press.

  2. I draw a center line all the way around the head, and draw in a top profile.

  3. I draw in the width of the bill on the top of the head and also under the bill. I then draw in the round neck profile on the base of the neck.

  4. The arrows indicate the directions you will carve as you round off the head. About halfway along the head, the wood will carve better moving forward as you round in toward the bill. As a general rule, it is easier to slice toward the back of the head as you round there. The wood will have a tendency to split if you carve from the very back of the head forward, or back from the front of the bill.

  5. Using a flat-edged general carver, I use either a stop cut or V-cut to notch in the underside of the bill all the way into the width of the bill. (Check part one in the last issue to reference these cuts.) These notches on both sides of the bill will prevent the wood from cracking in the area that you want to keep for the bill while you remove the excess.

  6. Remove the excess wood on both sides of the bill, using push cuts and paring cuts.

  7. Work slowly as you set the curves of the base of the neck. Use a swept blade and make sure to use a slicing motion to keep from splitting the wood in these thin areas. Each corner will want to carve in a different direction. The important key is that you don’t want the sides of the neck to split out under the base. Slice forward when working toward the front of the neck; slice to the rear when working to the back of the neck.

  8. Once you get the curves set, you can then slice up the neck without worrying about splitting the base.

  9. With the neck base done, I switch to a knife with a larger blade and work on rounding the neck and head. The wood will carve easier if you slice forward toward the bill for the front half of the head and slice toward the back of the head and neck in the rear. Don’t hesitate to use a large tupelo knife here, as it will get you into areas that are harder to reach with shorter blades while you hold the bulky head in your hand.

  10. Round off the top of the head up to the top profile lines you drew in initially. You can also begin carving into the top of the bill at this point.

  11. Once I get the back of the neck and top of the head rounded into my top profile, I switch to a narrower swept blade and start working on the neck under the chin. This area can be difficult, so you may hear a bit of blade chattering when the blade wants to bounce along the harder grain instead of cutting into it. Keep that strop handy for when this happens.

  12. Using a medium-size swept blade, I start refining the head shape. My cuts get smaller along with the wood chips. I switch from one side to the other to try and keep both sides symmetrical.

  13. Pay attention to the widest points on the cheeks. Without getting into them, try and carve out all the flat areas of the head. You can see this best looking down from the top of the head.

  14. At this point, I start working on carving in the hollow areas of the eyes. For this I use a curved blade/spoon carving knife. This type of knife does an excellent job at scooping out the eye areas of duck heads. This knife is also great for carving in the curves around the neck once you have attached the head and are working in a nice neck transition.

  15. I switch back and forth between the curved spoon blade and the narrower sweep to fine tune the eye channels.

  16. I use the narrower sweep to fine-tune the bill and any other areas on the head.

  17. Once I get the head where I like it and have good symmetry, I’ll use a fine wood rasp or sandpaper to finish my carving. You can do lots of carving with sandpaper. On gunners, I like the look of some rasp and knife work, but for a show piece I sand out all my tool marks.

  18. If this is for a gunner, the head is pretty much completed. The only thing left would be to do any fine detail work on the bill. I plan on using this head on a working decoy, so I’ll just add a bit of definition to the bill margins where the bill runs into the head. I’ll use a small straight-edge detail knife. First I need to draw in the bill margins. Looking straight at the front of the head, I try to get my lines even on both sides, checking from the top of the head and also from the front and side until both sides are fairly symmetrical. I may have to make small carving corrections on either side till I can get my lines to look fairly accurate.

  19. Using a stop cut, I cut straight into the grain. I’ll run a cut about an eighth of an inch deep along the bill margin I drew.

  20. Slice at a shallow angle into the stop cut from the feather side of the head/face, and cut along the length of the bill margin. Clean up your cuts or make them deeper, depending on your preference.

  21. We’ll call this demonstration complete at this point. Time to start sanding.

Knife carving can certainly become addictive once you’ve finished a few projects with some good wood. I recommend sticking to basswood or white cedar for those first few projects, and make sure to keep your knives sharp. Get a decent strop and sharpening compound. Once you get used to that first knife or two, try a few other sizes or designs—maybe buy a couple from some other makers. I’ve found some blades by one knife maker work better in certain situations, and handles made by another feel better in my hand after I’ve carved for an extended amount of time. Before you know it, you’ll have a drawer full of knives from many different makers. But be warned: knife collecting can be as addictive as knife carving.

This article was featured in Wildfowl Carving's Spring 2016 issue. Read more about this issue on the Spring 2016 table of contents page.



I have not made this yet so I cannot rate it.

Include a Photo Include a Photo

Click the button above or drag and drop images onto the button. You can upload two images.

Cancel Reply to Comment

Thanks for your comment. Don't forget to share!


Report Inappropriate Comment

Are you sure you would like to report this comment? It will be flagged for our moderators to take action.

Thank you for taking the time to improve the content on our site.

Sign In to Your Account

Close Window
Sign In with one of your Social Accounts
Sign In using Email and Password