A decoy carver moves to decoratives by tackling this desert bird.

By: Tom McCollum
Updated March 16, 2018

Thomas McCollum took up carving after he saw a decoy-carving contest at an outdoors show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in the late 1970s. Since his first attempt at a mallard, he’s carved hundreds of decoys and won many ribbons and best of shows. He lives in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Sandra, their dog, Santana, and cat, Kiwi.

Through my years of decoy carving, I often thought about the beautiful work I saw every year at the Ward World Championship in Ocean City, Maryland, especially the work in the decorative life-size category. Every time I attended the show, I left awestruck and with a burning desire to break away from carving hunting decoys and start carving more elaborate pieces. That desire would slowly dissipate as time went on, and I succumbed to the lure of the decoy and resumed carving for various competitions in my area.
The need for change eventually took hold and wouldn’t let go. In May 2011, I finally stepped into the world of textured carvings and things like feet, rocks, and weeds. It was a great feeling, to say the least. It also required a commitment to give up decoys for a while so I could spend several months planning and carving a full-size decorative piece. 

I wanted to do a piece that would include a snake because I had started carving snakes as another way to take a break from decoys. I considered doing a hawk or falcon with a snake hanging from its mouth, but not only had other carvers done that many times, I also didn’t have a piece of tupelo that big. Then, it hit me—I’d do a roadrunner with a rattlesnake dangling from its mouth, standing on rocks and surrounded by cactus and weeds. I had no doubt this would be what I would be working on for the next 10 months.

This article is from the Summer 2012 issue. For more information on our issues, check out our issues page.

Wildfowl Carving Demonstration

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

  1. Reference material would be essential. I also needed an accurate detailed pattern I could refer to for measurements. I purchased such a pattern from Stiller Carving Patterns. Next, I wanted to actually see and photograph a roadrunner up close. I learned that ZooAmerica in Hershey, Pennsylvania, had two live roadrunners. Before the receptionist could hang up the phone, I was in my car and on my way. I took great videos and pictures not only of roadrunners but also of the many cacti throughout the habitat. I purchased cast feet for reference only and glass eyes. Then I took the time to sculpt a clay model before I sacrificed the only piece of tupelo in my shop.

  2. I needed to lower the tail on my roadrunner to fit my tupelo block, and then I transferred my pattern to the block. The bird will be standing on top of a rock, proud, with its bill held high and head turned to the right.

  3. I started to remove wood slowly and cautiously with a hand saw. I was very careful to leave enough wood in the head and bill area.

  4. Using Saburr Tooth burrs, I started the roughing out process and rounded the body.

  5. I very carefully established the head and bill profiles, leaving extra wood in this area for adjustments.

  6. I continued working in the crest and the cheeks. Once I had these areas close, it was time to establish the upper and lower mandibles.

  7. I knew I wanted the mouth open to accept a snake, but I wanted to carve the bill closed and then cut off the lower mandible and add on a new piece to open the bill. This let me hollow the inside of the bill and also run the grain of the wood parallel to the length of the lower mandible to give it strength. It needs to be strong because it will be supporting the snake. I also ran a small-diameter dowel through the length of the upper mandible for strength.

  8. I continued to rough out the thick section of wood I left for the tail. I started by roughing out the lower side of the tail to create a concave underside. The top is naturally convex.

  9. Next I cleaned up both the top and bottom and then drew in individual feathers to be carved and separated.

  10. Once I carved and shaped the feathers, I put some ripples down through the length of the feather. I also carved in the upper-tail coverts.

  11. Adding “humps and bumps” on the surface of the bird creates the illusion of softness. I have noticed that some carvers make a mistake of humping and bumping each individual feather. I like drawing in feather flow lines on the body of the bird and drawing in groups of feathers. Then I’ll take a small bit and carve a shallow groove along my lines and then sand them out, creating an illusion of softness.

  12. It took me two tries to get the roadrunner’s crest right. Luckily, after the first attempt I still had a lot of wood to get it right. I drew in the individual crest feathers very carefully, paying attention to achieving a pleasing, progressive flow.

  13. ​When I carve the individual feathers, I pay close attention to where to stay shallow and where to go deep. Staying accurate in this region will pay off in the end.

  14. The next logical progression was tackling the rocks on which the bird stands. I wanted the bird high above the base and at eye level with the viewer. I thought a rock was just a rock and that I wouldn’t need any reference. I was wrong. So I headed to the mountains to find the perfect rocks to use for examples. I also realized I would have to carefully consider the rocks’ placement on the base and their angle in relation to the bird.

  15. Carving the rocks, however, was simple enough. I used poplar and carved them with a Saburr Tooth burr, leaving them a little rough.

  16. The legs really slowed up my forward progress. As a decoy carver, I had never made legs or feet. I went through some frustrating trial and error until I finally reached a solution. I protected the bottom of the bird with masking tape and then set a ball of clay between the rock and the bird that would position the roadrunner at the correct height. I used a piece of all-thread for the leg, along with a wood dowel going into the rock and into the body of the bird. The section of all-thread going into the rock sat permanently in a pool of epoxy.

  17. While the bird was sitting in place, I used Apoxy Sculpt to create the legs and feet. I used wood for the nails. The carving was shaping up fine to this point and I felt I had passed most of the major obstacles.

  18. For the habitat’s base, I used pieces of my decoy cork. I shaped the cork and filled any holes with patching plaster.

  19. I made dirt by taking a rasp to the cork, and then I glued it to the cork with Jansen Cork Sealer. I put another coat on top of the simulated dirt to lock it all down.

  20. I also used little pieces of scrap basswood to carve and place rocks here and there, along with some sticks, to add realism to the whole thing.

  21. What to use for the cactus’s needles? Deciding to make everything possible from wood, I found a Hawthorne tree and collected about 200 of the sharp thorns. I had to spend several evenings peeling bark away from each thorn. They are very sharp and strong but will flex to a certain degree.

  22. I made the cactus from tupelo. My first attempt proved to be a failure, so I went back to the drawing board and looked closer at my pictures to determine the design, flow, and pattern of the needles. I got it right the second time around.

  23. I had to shape the surface for the placement of hundreds of needles, and I used the same stropping technique I use for decoys.

  24. Finally, a drop of wood glue between each needle with some cork dust finished the plant off to my satisfaction.

  25. The snake offered more unexpected challenges. First, I had to fit the head of the snake into the open mouth, giving the illusion that the roadrunner was crushing the head. If that wasn’t enough, I had to be sure that the dead snake was hanging limp from the mouth. I made a jig with the same angle as the open mouth so I could keep on sliding the snake’s head in and out until I got it right. I used pencil graphite to mark the wood and show me where I had to remove more.

  26. I hung a string down from my floor joist in my shop and used it as a plumb bob for the dangling snake. The line you can see on the jig in the previous image shows where the plumb lay. I wanted the snake to hang limp. I finally had to make a cut into the snake’s neck to continuously make adjustments to the body until I had that limp, dead look. After numerous attempts, I was finally satisfied.

  27. When I textured the snake, I had to burn every individual scale. I hand carved the belly scales with a utility knife.

  28. I used a sharp utility knife to carve large feather splits and a cylinder type stone for the smaller splits.

  29. A wood burning pen finished the bird’s texturing. I needed to pay attention to feather flow when cutting in the splits and texture. This, I think, is more important than anything else. My burn lines are somewhat close, but I was more concerned with accurate feather flow. At this point in the project, I needed to take a break for a few days before coming back fresh to begin painting.

  30. I painted the habitat first. I textured the rocks with modeling paste and tinted gesso, exactly the same way I would texture a decoy. I primed everything else with a warm, light gray gesso.

  31. The rocks are gray, with various reds, blues, greens, ochres, and umbers mixed in while the paint was still wet on the rock. Then I applied some dry brushing and spritzing over the rocks. I wanted to end up with three slightly different colored rocks. I made the weeds from a plastic milk bottle. All I needed was a pair of scissors, a little heat to shape the curvature, and some paint. For the habitat base, I used white and raw umber, with a little color here and there worked in.

  32. The roadrunner has a lot of the same colors, just in different values. I used white and raw umber for the feather edges, raw umber for the majority of the back feathers, along with markings of white and raw sienna, and violets and greens I airbrushed onto each feather.

  33. The long tail offered a challenge and made it hard to reach some parts of the bird. I painted the tail first with equal amounts of ultramarine blue and burnt umber and then later airbrushed with different values of phthalo blue and violet.

  34. The feet are white and raw umber with an umber wash. They are a permanent part of the rock but I can lift the bird off for transportation.

  35. The belly is a light gray mix of white, raw umber, and a little sienna. The edges are even lighter.

  36. The chest feathers are raw sienna and a touch of red to make an orange with dark umber centers and light edges.

  37. The crest is equal amounts of burnt umber and ultramarine blue with blues and violets airbrushed onto each feather.

  38. I sprayed the cactus with varying amounts of greens. The needles are white and raw sienna. Eventually I sprayed the cactus with Krylon matte finish. 

  39. The snake has different values of sienna, white, umber, and black.

  40. The finished bird. It required stamina and patience for me to get here, but I think it was worth it.



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I tried my hand at carving a Miniature Roadrunner with a skull as habitat. I was happy with results. See attached photos. Ed Fox


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