This mermaid wood carving tutorial makes it easy to carve a two-piece mermaid that you can place on a flat surface—surrounded by glass pebbles—or in a shadow box picture frame that is filled with sand.
The inspiration for this carving came from a two-piece, lawn dragon sculpture that looked pretty cool! I wanted to try the same concept with a mermaid.
Another option is to glue the tail on the back.You will just need to shape the back and tail to fit together.
Use two basswood blocks that are each 1 x 1 x 3 inches (2.5 x 2.5 x 7.6 cm). Of course, if you want a bigger mermaid, just double or triple the dimensions.
Use whatever knife you want (tip: a long blade may help to shape the tail). I used a #39 Stubai V-tool to create the scales. You can substitute another V-tool, wood burn the scales, try a knife, or skip the scales altogether.
A carving glove for safety is always highly recommended. If you’re a lap carver, also protect your precious leg arteries with something hard and flat—like a piece of wood or even a plastic cutting board.
You will also need a ruler and something to sketch your guidelines. I use magic marker so it shows up in the photos. If you make a mistake, simply carve it off and start again.
As always, an acrylic painting guide is included at the bottom of the page. Use whatever brushes you like best.
It may help to watch this video before you start carving your mermaid to understand the key steps.
You will carve off the corner of your wood block to give you a wider plane to work with. Round off the front and back corners (photo 1).
Mark wood for removal on the top of the block that is about 1/4 inch (0.64 cm) in width on each side to help you roughout the tail (photo 2).
The tail will curve from the middle up to the top. Draw a horizontal guideline on the front that is about 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) from the top of the block (photo 2).
Start from the midline (photo 3) and remove wood up to the top of the block. Once the block is narrowed, use your knife to continue to shave wood off—and to curve the end of the tail (photo 4). Tip: turn your wrist as you carve to cleanly shave the wood off. If the wood grain gets in the way, simply change the direction of your carving.
Sketch the tail on the front of your wood block (photo 5). The tail is about 3/4 of an inch (1.9 cm) wide at the bottom, and narrows to 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) in the middle (photo 5). The colored triangle on the top is about 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide across the top. The midpoint is about 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) down from the top of the wood block.
Remove wood on the sides first (photo 6). Once the sides are removed, shape the front and back to create a curve (until the tail looks a little like a banana) from the side (photo 7).
To split the tail (also called the fluke), make a deep stop cut on one side, and remove wood around the stop cut (photo 8). Tip: Rock your knife back and forth to make a deep stop cut. Be very careful here not to crack the wood or break your knife. You may need to make several passes. Repeat on the other side of the tail (completed in photo 10).
Now that you have greater access, refine the end of the tail. Use your knife to scoop wood off from the middle outward on one side (photo 9). Then, scoop wood from the middle outward on the other side (completed in photo 10). You cannot make one long, clean cut across the entire tail, due to the wood grain. Take your time here—and avoid cutting too deeply—or your knife will snag against the wood.
To make the curves on the sides of the tail, scoop wood off from the bottom up—to the midpoint—and then change direction, scooping wood downward to the midpoint (completed in photo 10).
Mermaid tails typically have lines on their flukes (sketched in photo 11). You can hold your knife like a pencil, move it along the guideline (photo 12), and make a second, slicing cut. Or, you can use a V-tool here. Tip: Support the tail in the palm of your hand—and do not make deep cuts—to avoid breaking the tail.
Draw a guideline all around the second wood block that is a little less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) from the bottom (photo 13).
Round off all the corners (completed in photo 14). Draw a midline on the front of the block (photo 14) to help you sketch the oval face. The arms of the mermaid will be crossed in front (photo 14). Draw the shoulders and arms on each side (photos 15,16).
Make the width of the arms at least 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) to have enough wood to work with. The arms extend down about 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) in the front. The hands are about 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) long and 1/4 inch (0.6 cm) at the widest point (visible in photo 14). The colored triangles on the sides and back (photos 15-17) are just to help guide proper placement of the body.
Remove wood to shape the front and back of the head (photos 18,19). Draw the hairline from the front to the back (photos 19-21). The hairline extends about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) from the top—across the back (photo 19)—and curves up on the sides (photos 20,21).
Use stop cuts to separate the bottom of the hairline all around. Separate the hairline around the face in the same manner (completed in photo 22).
Mark where you will carve the bottom of the nose (about 1/2 inch [1.3 cm] down from the hairline), and make a stop cut (photo 22), removing wood from underneath (completed in photo 23).
Sketch the facial details—the eyes, shape of the nose, and the smile lines (photo 23).
Make a pyramid cut that goes up the nose, under the eye-line, and across the cheek. Once you have access on both sides, you can shape and refine the nose and cheeks further (photos 24,25).
Carve the smile lines with stop cuts (completed in photo 25).
Narrow the sides and shape the shoulders (photo 26).
To carve the mouth, draw your knife along the guideline, and make a second slicing cut (completed in photo 27). I used a 1.5 mm micro U-gouge to make a slight indentation on the bridge of the nose (photo 27). You could also make a small V-cut.
Use stop cuts to separate the top of the arms (photo 28), removing wood from underneath. Separate the bottom of the arms—and the hands—in the same manner (completed in photo 29).
Sketch a line to mark the middle of the mermaid’ s breasts (photo 29). Use a V-cut (or a stop cut and second slicing cut) to separate the breasts. Once you have access you can refine the shape of the breasts and the neckline. Note: I painted the top of the mermaid’s purple ”dress” to avoid the risk of the wood crumbling. You could use a stop cut if you prefer.
Separate the back of the arms (photo 30) with stop cuts, removing wood from around your cuts (or use pyramid cuts to remove the wood).
Once you have greater access, you can refine the shape of the back (photo 31).
Use a large V-tool to create the diamond shape scales (photo 32) on the tail and the lower body of the mermaid wood carving. Extend the scales around the sides of the tail and the body (completed in photos 34-37).
Refine the final shape of your mermaid wood carving. Carving feminine faces can be challenging! If you compare photo 29 with photo 34, you can see the difference after the face has been narrowed.
You can also use wide V-cuts to create flowing curls on the sides of the hair (visible in photos 34-37). Turn your wrist as you carve to shave wood off—to thin and curl the hair—on the back (visible in photos 35,36).
Here are the acrylic paints that were used if you want to get a similar look. For great painting tips and techniques, read this.
Photocopy this pattern to size to fit your wood block to guide your carving—or to use with a much larger carving and a bandsaw.