It's a lonely life...that of the necromancer, er freelancer

A blog by a designer and illustrator, for designers and illustrators which may contain musings on art, movies and random weirdness.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Figurehead Carving

One other reason I have been lacking in posts for the last month or so (besides being really easily distracted by shiny things) is that I have been doing things for the new England Pirate Faire, billboards (see last post) updating their website, and making props. I was called upon to make a full-sized figurehead of Sir Francis Drake, an English "Sea Hawk" or privateer, who fought the Spanish on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. This was no easy task, as I had never made anything quite like this before, had no idea where to start, and only had about a week to figure it out. I do love a challenge.
After doing some research on figureheads and Sir Francis, I very quickly ruled out wood for several reasons 1. It would be too heavy, 2. it would take too long to work it, 3. It would be too expensive. So what material could be cheaply and locally purchased, would be sturdy enough to stand up to some mild abuse for 2 weekends of outdoor pirate-faire adventure, and could be easily carved? Answer: Blue insulation foam. You know the stuff you use to insulate new construction on houses. I had heard of people carving Mardi-Gra sculptures and theatrical scenery out of foam. The blue stuff was dense, lightweight and readily available. Luckily, I have a good friend who is a carpenter and not only has a workshop in Gloucester, but a great deal of know-how about tools and construction materials. We purchased (5) 8'x2'x1.5" sheets of blue foam, a tube of adhesive and a role of rosin paper.

We cut the sheets of foam in half and glued them together into a block. This gave us a roughly 2' x 2' by 4' block.
We then drew a rough outline of the figurehead onto the front surface of the block.
Then it was time to start carving.

Originally I was planning on using an electric carving knife, like you would use to carve a turkey. But my friend Micah, (the carpenter), was using a nifty little device called a Rockwell SoniCrafter on a remodeling job, and suggested it for carving the foam. It worked like a dream. The SoniCrafter, has a short serrated blade that oscillates back and forth in a short arc at about 20,000 OPM. That means it cut the foam like soft butter.

There was a lot of carving and a lot of blue "dust" small particles of blue foam that got everywhere, and clung to everything. Another difficulty was making sure that the blade did not bite too deep into the foam.

I was able to rough out most of the figure on the second day.

After two days of carving the figure was largely done. It was a process of refining and adding in detail. My original plan was to only use the foam as a foundation and cover the entire piece with paper maché. I thought this would allow for more detail, and also "seal" the foam panels. I found however, that this step was largely unnecessary on everything but the face and a few surface details. I also had to make the head removable. (for reasons that were crucial to the plot of the faire scenario)

This is how the sculpture looked at the end of the third day.

Next came the painting. My friend Dave and I primed the entire sculpture with white acrylic paint. We then filled all the crevasses with black paint, both to outline all the surface details and fill any deep cracks. Then we covered the entire thing with a coat of brown acrylic, to give it depth and the look of real wood in any areas that were not painted in a color.

The color scheme was influenced by traditional color schemes that appear on some figureheads in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. Here is the final appearance of the figurehead.


  1. This is very cool. Thanks for sharing the process.
    I once made the entrance to the tomb for an Easter display at a church. I used the same material with paint and fakes plants.
    it was about 6' tall and you could actually go inside it.