East Meets West: Carving the Eastern Blue Jay

What's a nice bird like the Eastern blue jay doing in a place like Montana?

By: Jerry Simchuk
Photography by Bill Bachhuber
This image courtesy of wildfowl-carving.com

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 been creating wildlife art sculptures in bronze. He currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where he continues to build his reputation as a wildlife artist, carver, judge, and instructor. You can reach him at Jerry@Simchuk.com.

It wasn’t too long ago that the first Eastern blue jay showed up outside the window of my office in Montana. Its unusual call made me jump to my feet and when I spotted it I realized I had never seen this magnificently colored bird from the east in this part of the country before. The blue jay had found its way to the northwestern corner of Montana. East had met west. Since then my desire to carve this bird has never subsided. Anytime I became aware of a blue jay’s presence, I’d go out with my camera and take photos, knowing some day I would capture this bird in wood.

The Eastern blue jay is a large songbird and one of two crested jays in North America. It can be found in about two-thirds of eastern North America. Its distinct call has a squeaking or metallic sound. Once you hear the Eastern blue jay you will never forget it.

The complete article was featured in Wildfowl Carving Magazine's Winter 2013 issue.


Blue Jay Demonstration

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

Step-by-step carving

  1. Reference
    There is a saying that “You can never have enough reference.” I surround my work area with as many photos, magazines, books, and study skins as I can.

  2. Blank and Centerline
    Find a block of tupelo that will fit both the profile and top-view pattern. Ideally, the grain will run in the direction of the tail and head. This will add strength to the primaries, tail, and beak. Use the profile pattern to cut the profile view on a band saw. By squaring up the head on the block, you will be able to turn the head without losing its proper plane. Draw the centerline of the body down the front and back of the cut-out block.

  3. Head Placement
    With the top of the head plane square, draw the centerline for the head along with the outline of the head and body. Notice the pivot point indicated in the above image. This represents the center of the neck and is the point at which you can turn the head left or right.

  4. Block in the Head
    With the top view of the head drawn on the block, cut straight down from the top view to the lower edge of the head while referencing the profile pattern. It is important to make these cuts straight rather than beveled in or out from the base of the head.

  5. Block in Forehead and Beak Profile
    With the profile of the head drawn on and the top of the head balanced, cut away the excess wood from around the front of the head and around the beak.

  6. Wide Points and Under-tail Coverts
    Now locate the widest points on the bird’s body. This will be just above the lower edge of the wing as viewed on the profile pattern. Along the bird’s cape or back it will be down the centerline of the body as well as near the inner edge of the wing as viewed from the top view pattern. Draw in the placement of the undertail coverts. You will round the lower belly region to the centerline of the under body.

  7. Round the Body
    Begin rounding into the reference lines from the previous step to create a smooth and rounded body. When cutting, keep a rounding motion going at all times to avoid creating flat areas. The body should appear round when you look down it.

  8. Draw Head Detail
    Draw in the profile anatomy of the head on both sides of the block, assuring balance from side to side. Also draw the location of the throat group and the top view and bottom view of the beak.

  9. Cut in the Beak and Throat
    With the reference lines in place, begin cutting to the lines for the beak and throat. Starting with the top view, cut from the side straight into the line representing the outer edge of the beak. Don’t be afraid to cut into the line, otherwise the beak will be too wide or thick. Once you’ve completed the top view, do the same thing for the profile view to assure proper size and shape for the beak. Follow the same approach for the throat feather group.

  10. Block in the Top of the Head
    Shaping the head feathers requires first establishing the proper widths. The top of the head is narrower than the cheeks. Draw on the top head profile lines by referencing the pattern. Cut on the outside of this line straight down to the top of the eye channel in front and behind the eyes. There is a flow line behind the eye that is separate from the cheek. You can find it on the profile pattern.

  11. Shape the Back of the Head
    Shape the back of the head feathers to get a rounded shape from the side and top views. Shape behind the cheek patches and below the crest of the head.

  12. Shape the Cheek Patches
    Use the pattern to establish the maximum width of the cheek patch. Gradually taper the cheek into the eye channel. This will create a natural look. Go ahead and start shaping the feathers behind the cheek patch into the nape.

  13. After Shaping
    After shaping the cheek patches and nape, the jay should start to look like this.

  14. Refine Throat Definition
    Take a diamond flame and go back and refine the throat feather group from the lower mandible and lower edge of the malar feather group.

  15. Establish the Eye Channel
    Now cut in the eye channel for both eyes. Find the width by referencing the top view pattern. The width is the innermost front portion of the eye. Cut from the back of the eye and move forward to the center edge of the upper mandible. Cut the eye channel on both sides evenly until you get the right width. Verify the balance from side to side as you view the head from the front.

  16. Soften Around the Eye Channel
    Go ahead and taper the cheek patch into the eye channel gradually for a natural look to the face.

  17. Define Upper and Lower Mandibles
    Once you’ve established the proper widths, it becomes easier to give the upper and lower mandibles their proper shape and form. Round the upper mandible up to the centerline, with the lower edge having a slight roll under (into the crease). The lower mandible will have more of a flat bottom while still having a rolled lower edge. It too will roll in at the upper edge (into the crease). This is the time to create the inset appearance of the throat feathers as they lie up under the lower mandible.

  18. Nostril Whiskers
    Establish the nostril whiskers by first drawing in the top view and profile view and then cutting them in using a diamond flame. Cut around the front of the forehead from the top of the whiskers down to the sides. Also cut in front of the whiskers as they lie over the top of the upper mandible.

  19. Round the Head
    At this point, all the head feather groups are in place, so round off all harsh edges. Make sure there are no flat spots on the head, with the exception of the back of the crest.

  20. Define Crest Feathering
    Draw in the feather flow for the crest to assure proper flow and effect. Use a carbide cylinder to create the depth and definition of the feathers at the back of the crest. Once you’ve cut the main separations into the crest, go back with the diamond flame to refine and clean up the separations and feather shapes. You want to get an interlaced and layered look at the back of the crest, as seen in this photo.

  21. Define Eye Socket
    Verify the proper placement for the eye, assuring balance from left to right and up and down. Draw a 7 mm circle that you will follow when cutting the eye socket. Use a carbide cylinder to cut straight into the head with a slight forward angle. Verify the eye will set down inside the cut and make sure the lower outer edge of the eye will not be exposed. After establishing the depth, eliminate the harsh edges by rolling out of the eye socket into the feathers around the face.

  22. Establish the Wing and Cape
    Use the profile pattern to outline the wing, as it will reside on the body. Use the top view to outline the wing as it will appear looking straight down on the body. You now have two lines representing the cape and wing section. These two lines need to meet as one after the cut. Cut straight into the line of the top view and straight down to the line of the profile view. This will create the single line for the cape-wing section. Use the same principle when cutting the excess away to create a single line for the lower wing line. Cut on the outside of the line of the over wing. Be sure not to cut too deeply into the lower wing so you will have enough wood to shape the lower wing and wing tip.

  23. Shape the Wing, Cape, and Side Feathers
    With the wings cut into place, smooth and round the wing. The wing should have a smooth flow from the top of the primaries all the way to the wrist. Smooth out any lumps or bumps in this area. The soft feathers that flow up to the wing or over the wing should be smoothed and rounded at this time. With the wing in place, smooth and round the edges of the cape to appear as though the cape feathers flow on top of the wing.

  24. Tail Definition
    Rough in the tail by cutting up into the centerline on the underside to give it an arched appearance. Taper the top slightly to the outside edge. Be sure to leave about 1/8" of thickness on the outside of the tail for layering the feathers later.

  25. Flank, Vent, and Under-tail Coverts
    With the tail and wings in place, refine the placement and shape of the flank, vent, and under-tail covert feathers.

  26. Definition of Wing Groups
    Draw in the individual feather groups that make up the wing. Going from front to back these groups are scapulars, medium wing coverts, greater coverts, alula, primary coverts, tertials, secondaries, and primaries.

  27. Cut in Wing Groups
    Once you are happy with the layout for both sides, you can define these groups. As you cut these groups in, create a definite drop off from one group to the next. For a looser feather group separation, make greater steps from one group to the next. Once you have cut in the steps, round the lower edges to soften the transition from one group to the next.

  28. Soft Feather Groupings
    In the breast, belly, under-tail coverts, and cape, create flow lines that radiate out from the centerline to the tail. Use S-curves and arcs to randomly connect one flow line with another so it all appears graceful. Once you are pleased with the look and flow of these groups, cut them in using the diamond flame. Be sure to vary the depths of these cuts. Typically, you will have shallow cuts in the breast and go deeper in the centerline area and as you move to the back portion of the belly and flanks. After cutting in the groups, roll off the edges on both sides of the cut to represent a smooth transition, as shown here.

  29. Wing and Tail Feather Layout
    Draw and cut the individual wing and tail group feathers with a safe end diamond cylinder. Make sure the layout is not too uniform. Mix it up by making some feathers more or less exposed than the adjoining one.

  30. Feather Shaping
    Go back and clean up and/or refine the individual feathers using a diamond flame. Round the edges of these individual wing feathers so each one appears to stack softly onto the feather below. Where separation is desired, don’t round the edge all the way down to the lower feather.

  31. Define Vent Feathering
    The vent feathers are loose and fluffy. One way to achieve this effect is to create a number of random steps from one feather to the next. Use a cylinder bit to create loose, random, and deep cutting steps across this area. Clean up the steps and edges with a diamond flame. With all the feather groups and individual feathers in place, sand the bird smooth and get it ready for texturing.

  32. Adding Splits and Quills
    Define splits with the stones and burning tips. Start with a coarse stone to define the splits. Follow up with the flat-edged burning tip to refine the feather edges, clean up the splits, and burn in the quills.

  33. Refine Bill
    Clean and refine the upper and lower mandibles. Smooth the surface with either fine sandpaper or a fine white stone. Then take a burning tip and refine the upper and lower mandible separation line with a crisp edge.

  34. Setting the Eyes
    Using clay as the backing, set the eyes into the sockets based on the width as referenced on the pattern. The eyes should also be set so they are looking slightly forward. Be sure the eyes appear straight up and down in the head as opposed to angled down to the cheek or up into the head. Check from various points of view to assure the eyes are in balance from side to side and front to back. Using Elmer’s Wood Filler, fill in around the eyes. Open the eyes by using a paintbrush to remove excess filler until you achieve the desired look and attitude. Try to open the tips of the almond shape to around 7 mm wide. Once the filler has dried, clean up around the eye using a fine diamond flame to blend it in flush with the surrounding area of the face. To refine the eye ring and lids, use a white stone. I hold the bit in my hand to assure better control.

  35. Texture Hard Feathers
    The primary and tail feathers are hard feathers and are the only ones you will burn. Burn each line as fine and tight as possible. Shallow is better than deep.

  36. Texture Medium Firm Feathers
    The medium firm feathers are the tertials, secondaries, and greater coverts. Use a ceramic stick or sharp white stone to texture these feathers. This gives them a softer look than burning, yet they appear firm because they have fewer splits and a texture flow similar to the hard feathers.

  37. Draw in Soft Feathers
    Draw in all the individual feathers in the various soft feather groups (tail coverts, cape, scapulars, remaining wing coverts, breast, belly, flank, vent, and head).

  38. Texture Soft Feathers
    Splits are the key to creating soft feathers. You need many splits. Cut them in using random lengths, widths, and spacing between splits. Also, make sure to cut the splits in an arching motion rather than in straight lines. Use the course stone (green or blue) to cut these splits in. Using the ceramic stick or sharp white stone, create the final fine texture to these soft feathers. Keep the soft feather effect by making arching cuts rather than straight lines as you did with the splits. Tight and fine is the key to this final texturing step.

  39. Lay in Lores
    Using a fine diamond cylinder or a coarse stone, cut in the main splits for the lores and small group of feathers around the eye. Finish the texturing of these feathers with the ceramic stick.

  40. Nostril Bristle Texturing
    Use a coarse stone to cut in the nostril bristles that radiate out from the base of each nostril. Create them varying lengths, depths, and spacing. The nostril bristles are stiff so go back and burn these in to create the stiffer look.

  41. Feather Refinement
    If you have any lifted feathers, this is the time to undercut and create separation from one feather to the next. Use a fine-pointed flame and undercut at an angle, leaving plenty of thickness to the upper feather. You don’t have to undercut very deeply to create the effect of separation. For shallow separation, you can use a burning tip instead. Re-establish any texture on these feathers using the burning tip to bring back the soft edges.

  42. Carving Completed
    The finished Eastern blue jay is complete, sealed, and ready to paint.

Life-size Eastern Blue Jay Pattern


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Nice plan and document. What size wood blank did you use for the Blue Jay? If I turn the bird side view horizontal what would be the length to match the top view? I was hoping to use a 3 x 2 3/4 x 10 piece of basswood.

Hello! That's a great question! I have reached out to the carver, and I'm waiting on a response. I will comment here as soon as I hear back.

Jerry Simchuck says, "The Eastern Blue Jay measures about 9" long from tip to tip. I would use a block of wood that measures 10" x 4" x 4" to get the pattern to fit and be able to do the cutout."


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