From Palm Tree to Pintail

Tom Christie looked at some fronds and saw a duck.

By: Tom Christie
Updated April 23, 2019

I’ve done palm frond carvings for the California Open competition in San Diego in the past. The creativity you can use with palm fronds is part of the fun. The challenge is to portray “the essence of the species” while retaining as much of the character of the palm frond as possible.

This year the Ward World Championship added a palm frond category for the first time and dedicated it to the late Bob Sutton. Bob was a good friend and he had called me and several other carvers to promote a palm frond competition at the World show just a few weeks before he passed. I wanted to participate in the competition in his honor. Here’s to you, Bob!

A friend shipped me several nice palm fronds from California and I began to think about how I could use more than one in the composition. I had one slender frond that I thought would lend itself well to a pintail. As I considered the shape of the other, larger fronds and the way they bent naturally, I began thinking about using them for cupped wings. The idea for a palm frond drake pintail in flight was born!

I began the project by doing some research and gathering good photos of pintails in flight. The natural bend of the main frond forming the body made me think about portraying the bird moving fast but also starting to bank into a hard turn. Rather than having the wings and tail cupped for a landing, I decided to have them maneuvering through the turn. Once I had guideline dimensions, I developed patterns for the wings, tail, neck, and head. I would carve the neck and head from tupelo. The rest of the carving would be all frond.


  1. The palm frond has a distinctive natural curve. The outside surface has a hard, smooth shell while the inside is very light, fibrous, and porous. The smaller end that will form the tail in this carving is very solid and durable material.

  2. I developed patterns for the wings using photos and other reference materials for dimensional data and feather layouts.

  3. I also developed patterns for the breast, neck, and head sections. I will carve these from tupelo.

  4. Using my band saw, I narrowed the main body palm frond to form the tail feathers. This part of the frond is very solid and durable so it works well to form the pin.

  5. I had two large fronds for the wings. I took a pattern and taped it to the frond with the narrow part of the frond curving down as shown. I carefully cut this shape out on the band saw. The hard shell of the frond became the upper wing surface. Next, I took a Foredom rotary grinder with a 3⁄4" ball-nose Saburr tooth cutter (yellow/fine) and 3⁄4" sanding drum and carefully removed material from the lower part of the frond to reduce the wing thickness. I then hardened the lower surface of each wing by coating it with epoxy thinned with acetone.

  6.    I epoxied the wing fronds into corresponding slots I had carved into the body. After band-sawing the tupelo breast, neck, and head section, I used a 3⁄4" dowel and epoxy to mount the tupelo to the body frond. Note how I cut and doweled the neck as well to allow rotation of the head to a natural position.

  7. After looking at the carving and referencing pictures of pintails in flight, I decided that the bird’s tail feathers would be spread to help maneuver through the turn. I also wanted to try to convey a sense of speed in the carving and thought that the cupped shape of the hard shell of this large palm frond section would be perfect for this purpose. Once I cut out the tail feather insert and thinned it to 1⁄8", I soaked the back side with epoxy to assure its strength.

  8. I band-sawed a slot in the body frond to accept the tail feather insert and used epoxy to bond the insert in place. I used Bondo to fill the seam between the body and the tupelo breast, neck, and head. At this point I tried various positions of the bird in flight and settled on this one, with the bird banking to the right and slightly ascending. Once I finalized the flight position I was able to set the head in the proper attitude. Then I sealed the entire bird with semi-gloss Deft and sprayed it with primer in preparation for painting.

  9. I first applied a base coat mixture of Liquitex paint and gesso to the entire carving (with the exception of the bill). I used a sponge to provide an even texture and then used the same mixture to comb the areas of vermiculation.

  10. After blocking in the basic colors of the bird, I used a large flat brush with a minimal amount of carbon black to dry brush the areas of vermiculation, highlighting the combed ridges as shown here.

  11. On the undersides of the wings I painted various shades of white, gray, and burnt umber. I will talk more about the techniques I used later in the article when I explain how I painted the tops of the wings.

  12. I used a half-round brush to apply warm white feather tips to the off-white base color, moving forward to the breast and neck area.

  13. I detailed the underside of the tail feathers along with the feet that were tucked in place for flight beneath the tail feathers. I painted the tail feathers with various shades of gray, lightened near the center of the feathers, and then outlined with a lighter mix of gray and white. I used a phthalo blue, white, and carbon black mix on the feet. I combed in some vermiculation near the rump as you can see here.

  14. After painting warm white over the combed area, I dry brushed carbon black on to highlight the combing and indicate vermiculation near the tail end of the underbelly.

  15. Moving to the top side of the pintail I detailed the tail feathers with shades of white and gray. I used a small scrubber to begin to define the tail covert feathers and worked my way up the back of the bird. I added small feather splits with a fine detailing brush. Note the areas that I combed in the base coat to allow for some vermiculation.

  16. Although you can see that the speculum is finished in this picture, I will come back to that later in the article. I used a fine detail brush to add the distinctive scapular and tertial feathers in the area where the wings meet the body. Notice how I have added the rest of the back feathers with a small scrubber.

  17. To begin painting the upper wings, I first used a chalk pencil to lightly lay out the feather placement. In this picture, I am using a small chisel brush and a wash of gray and burnt umber to define the feather edges.

  18. I used a a darker gray mix and a small scrubber to define the smaller feathers on the wing. They are darker at the tips of the feathers and get lighter toward the bases.

  19. After adding white to the gray mix, I switched to the small chisel brush and began to lighten the primary flight feathers near the quill on each one. Later I went back and darkened this up and tied things together with a raw umber wash.

  20. I used burnt umber and the chisel brush to darken the tips of the primary flight feathers.

  21. I blocked in the base colors for the speculum area. The golden color is raw sienna with a touch of white. The trailing edge is off-white (gesso with a touch of raw umber added). The center area of the speculum is carbon black.

  22. After defining the location of the speculum feathers with a faint guideline, I began to dry brush the green iridescent color onto each feather. I used a small scrubber with Chroma green interference paint and built the color up slowly.

  23. I used a fine detail brush and a lighter gray mixture to clean up and highlight the feather edges. Note that I have also added some additional details to the speculum area.

  24. I made a second pass on the speculum feathers closest to the body of the bird with Chroma yellow-green interference paint. This intensified the color and made the iridescence pop.

  25. With burnt umber and a fine detail brush, I added feather quills. I also added some feather splits in various places to further detail the wing feathers.

  26. To add quills to the primary flight feathers, I used off-white.

  27. I painted the bill with a mix of phthalo blue, carbon black, and white and then detailed with carbon black. I used a small scrubber to add the characteristic iridescent rose and green patches just in front of the white marking on the head.

  28. Finally, I added feather details to the head with a mix of the brown base color with some raw sienna to lighten.

  29. I hope this article will inspire some of you to try your hand at palm frond carving. The Ohio Decoy Collectors and Carvers Association is adding a palm frond category to its show next March. I want to thank my good friend Bob Sutton for introducing me to the world of palm frond carving and for all of his encouragement, friendship, and support along the way. We miss you, Bob.

Tom Christie has been carving since he made his first wooden hunting decoys in 1986. He is a six-time World Champion at the prestigious Ward World Carving Championships, and an eight-time IWCA International Wildfowl Carving Association national champion. In 2017 the Ward Foundation honored Tom with its Living Legend award. His web site is www.tomchristieart.com.


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