Cool carving a fish tutorial

Carve yourself a fun and funky fish.

Carving a fish from wood isn’t smelly at all (unlike carving a fish to clean it). 

We came up with this fun design that features bulging eyes, a wide tooth grin, and silly scales all over.  

It is bigger than our usual whittles, but goes pretty quickly once you roughout the shape.  

Let’s get going!

Carving a fish
Wooden fish carving

Supplies needed for our carving a fish tutorial

We use a basswood block that is 3 inches (7.6 cm) across and 2 inches (5.1 cm) high.  For best results, remember to strop your knives before you start this carving a fish tutorial. 

A good sturdy knife for removing wood and a detail knife are all you need.  For roughing out, we use a Helvie boxcutter.  For some of the detail work (like the fish scales) we use an OCC Tools straight knife (1 1/2 inch blade).  

Of course, if you prefer using a bandsaw for your roughout, simply use our pattern at the end.  

You will need a round object to draw the scales and a pencil to sketch your design. 

We never carve without a good safety glove and always recommend one for you. 

Carving a fish tutorial at-a-glance



Carving a fish: First steps

Using your roughout knife, round all the sides on the wood block (i.e., round the four sharp corners).  

Draw your guidelines as follows:

  • On the front of the block, loosely draw the eyes, mouth, and teeth (photo 1).  Use a pencil with an eraser so you can get the shape that you want (we use magic marker to help you see the pattern).  Don’t worry if your drawing is not perfect.  It doesn’t have to be.  
  • Draw a line all around the block that is 1/4-inch (0.65 cm) back from the front of the head (photos 1-4) to mark where you will cut the block to carve the eyes and head.  Make it about a 1/4-inch (0.65 cm) wide and color it in.  Also add a colored triangle where you will split the eyes (photo 1).

  • On the top of the block (photo 4), sketch an oval that is about 1 1/2 inches (3.8 cm) long.  Draw on the tail and color the wood that you will remove (photo 4).  

  • Color the wood that you will remove on the sides around the tail (photos 2,3).  It is about 3/4 of an inch (1.9 cm) wide.  
Fish carving guidelines1. Front view of fish carving guidelines
Right guidelines for fish carving2. Right view of fish carving guidelines
Left guidelines for fish carving3. Left view of fish carving guidelines
Top guidelines for fish carving4. Top view of fish carving guidelines
Back guidelines for fish carving5. Back view of fish carving guidelines

Carving a fish: Separate the head

Using a sturdy roughout knife, make a V-cut on one corner (photo 6).  Continue to make a series of V-cuts to separate the head all around (photo 7).  Don’t cut too deeply.  You will extend the head back later, but for now, you just need access to split the eyes. 

Once the head is separated all around, use a deep pyramid cut to split the eyes (photo 8).  Or, you can make several V-cuts (start with a small V-cut in the middle and work your way outward). 

V-cut on wood6. Making a V-cut
Separating head on fish carving7. Continuing to separate the head
Pyramid cut on wood8. Making a pyramid cut to split eyes
Caricature drawing for fish face9. Progress of eyes and face

Carving a fish: Separate the tail

We use a stop cut to start to remove the wood around the tail (photo 10).  It is a bit of a workout.  We find that removing wood is meditative and don’t mind using just a knife.  But feel free to use a fishtail gouge.

Color more wood that you will remove on the back to shape the tail (photo 11).   We use a pyramid cut to start to remove wood to split the tail (photo 12).  Continue removing more wood a little at a time, using a series of V-cuts (or stop cuts).  Tip:  If you are using a knife, use one that is sturdy and be careful not to break the tip.  

Keep removing wood until you have the rough shape of the split tail (photo 13). 

Carving tail of wooden fish10. Using a stop cut to start wood removal
Basswood marked with magic marker11. Marking the tail for wood removal
Cutting tail on fish carving12. Starting to cut midtail
Roughed out tail on fish carving13. Tail is roughed out

Carving a fish: Round the body

Now that you have created the rough shape of the tail, you can use your knife to remove wood to create a round, fat, fish body, starting on back of the fish (photo 14).   Then, move to the front, behind the eyes (photo 15).

After rounding the body, create a curve on the tail (photo 16).   We shave the wood off, but you need a knife that has some flex (to avoid breaking the tip).  If you do not have this type of knife, make a wide V-cut instead.  

Continue refining the tail until your fish carving looks similar to photo 17.

Shaping back of fish carving14. Starting to round the back
Rounding eyes on fish carving15. Rounding the body behind the eyes
Shaving wood off fish carving16. Curving the tail
Refining tail of fish carving17. Refining the tail

How to carve a fish: Draw some details

Draw a fin on each side of the fish carving (photos 18,19).  You can see how they look from the back in photo 19.  

Also draw a line that arcs on both sides (photos 18,19).  You will separate these lines later. 

Fins drawn on wooden fish18. Fin is added and arc is drawn
Left fin drawn on fish carving19. Left view of fin and arc
Back view of fins on fish carving20. Back view of drawn fins

Carving a fish: Carve the details

Using your knife, make stop cuts to separate the fin on all three sides (photo 21).  

Then, draw a line under the fin and across the body (photo 22) where you will remove wood (save this for last to avoid breaking the fins).  This will make the fin stick out below the body of the fish (see photo 30 for reference).  

Repeat on the other side.

Separating fin on wooden fish carving21. Separating the fin
Marked wood to remove on wooden fish carving22. Marking wood to remove under fin

How to carve a fish: Carve the eyes

Make a stop cut at the midway point on the outer side of the eye (photo 23) and remove wood from above it.  Shape the eyes, sketch the eyelids and the pupils, and mark more wood to remove from the sides of the fish head (photo 24).

Remove marked wood from the sides.  We use a roughout knife and shave the wood off (photo 25).  Cut along the eyelid guideline and remove wood from underneath (photos 25,26).  This will separate the eyelid from the eye (photo 25).

Whenever we use a pull cut (sometimes called a paring cut), we always slip on a thumb guard for safety (photo 26).  

Carving eyes on wooden fish carving23. Separating the eyes
Caricature eyes on wooden fish carving24. Wood to remove is marked
Narrowing sides on wooden fish carving25. Shaving wood off
Caring eyelids on wooden fish carving26. Separating the eyelids
Finished eyes on wooden fish carving27. Eyes are carved

Carving a fish: Refine some details

Cut along the guidelines for the mouth and teeth (photo 28).  Once the mouth and teeth are separated, refine the teeth by removing wood at a downward angle on every side (photo 29).  

Once the mouth is shaped, you can remove some wood under the eyes so they bulge out.  Cut back into the head and remove wood from above your cut.  This will create a flat surface above the mouth (see photo 31 for reference). 

Carving mouth on wooden fish carving28. Cutting along the guidelines
Shaping teeth on wooden fish carving29. Remove wood with angled cuts

Carving a fish: Add the scales

Before starting the scales make a small V-cut to separate the lips (see photo 32 for reference).  Remove wood underneath the fins (see photos 31,35,36 for reference).  Use stop cuts to separate the top section of the fish, removing wood from underneath (see photos 35,36 for reference). 

To draw the scales, use something with a small round shape (we use the end cap of a magic marker, as seen in photo 30).  Create your first row of scales.  On the second row, center your round item in the middle of the first scale to create the pattern (illustrated in photos 30,31).  

Repeat until all the scales are drawn on both sides of the fish and on the top and the bottom.  

Using your knife, cut along the top guideline of each scale (photo 32).  We use a pull cut, but use whatever cut is most comfortable for you.  Then, slide your knife under your cut to carve a little bit of wood off beneath the first cut (photo 33).  Tip: Make sure your first cuts are deep enough to cleanly remove wood from the second cuts. 

Work your way around the sides of the scale in the same manner.  Tip: practice a row or two on a piece of scrap wood until you get the hang of it. 

Drawing scales on wooden fish carving30. Drawing the scales
Scale pattern on wooden fish carving31. Scale pattern on one side
Carving scales on wooden fish carving32. Cutting the outline of the scale
Removing wood on scales on wooden fish carving33. Removing wood underneath the cut

Carving a fish: Adding lines

Carve a series of lines on the tail and fins (photos 34-37). You can use your knife to make narrow V-cuts. But if you have a V-tool, it will be much faster to use it here.

Make some lines short (and others long) on the back of the tail (photo 37).

 Carving a fish: Prepare for painting

Clean up your cuts and remove any wood fuzzies.  Also deepen any cuts that you think will enhance your carving.  

Prior to painting, wash the carving in warm water and a little dishwashing detergent.  You can use a light brush to help remove dirt and pencil marks.  

Fish carving prior to painting34. Finished front of the fish carving
Left side of unpainted fish carving36. Left view of finished fish carving
Right view of fish carving before painting35. Right view of finished fish carving
Back view of unpainted fish carving37. Back view of finished fish carving

Painting your fish carving

All paints are Delta Ceramcoat acrylic (except where noted) and are diluted with water.  We repeatedly dip the brush into a mason jar filled with water and use the brush to swirl the water into a few drops of paint, until the wash is cloudy.  You can use a small plastic cup, ice cube tray, or a plastic painting palette to water down your paints.  

We favor flat and round brushes, but use whatever you like best. 

  • Eye whites and teeth: Artist’s Loft titanium white.
  • Scales: Yellow amarillo.
  • Shading on scales: Artist’s Acrylic burnt umber (1 toothpick drop) mixed with yellow amarillo.
  • Eyelids, fins, tails, and dots: Tahiti blue.  Tip: dots were applied with the tips of different sized paint brushes.  When completely dry, we dry brushed the tail, fins, and eyelids with titanium white. 
  • Nostrils: Black magic marker (or paint, if you prefer)
  • Outline of mouth: Bright red (very diluted).  
  • Eye pupils: black magic marker outline and black paint center.  After completely dry, add a speck of 100% titanium white with the round end of a toothpick. 

For great painting tips, click here.

Front side of painted fish carving
Right side of painted fish carving
Left side of painted fish carving
Back side of painted fish carving

Free, full-color fish carving pattern

Simply increase or decrease the size of the pattern for use on a bandsaw.  Or use it as a color guide for painting. 

Carving a fish tutorial summary

  • Carving a fish is simple with our step-by-step tutorial.
  • This is a fun and colorful fish to add to your wood carving collection.
  • The scales are easy to carve once you get the hang of it.
  • This fish carving makes a great gift for a child or an adult.

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