how to carve fan birds

fan birds are a wonderful traditional craft of eastern Europe. I first became aware of them when my friend Del Stubbs in the US wrote to me about them in the mid 1990’s he carves very fine ones.

I saw lots of them when I visited Russia in 1998 including some huge ones in the Ethnographic museum in St Petersburg, I remembered these as being almost 4 foot wingspan but they could have been a little less. I took photos in poor light and they loose quality through transfer to digital but I shall put them up here anyway because I know folk that will be interested.

Around that time my friend Owen Jones the swill basket maker started making small ones from skip wood, recycled old pine. This is one of his.

I had a brief play about 4 years ago, this is as far as I got, too many other things on the go stopped me having time to play further.

I posted about them on the green woodworkers forum and my friend Sean Hellman followed it up, researching and experimenting until he now makes really very wonderful fan birds. Last weekend I visited him and photographed the process step by step. Sean carves them mostly from ash which is boiled first. The eastern European ones are mostly very slow grown pine. First 2 saw cuts.

chisel down into the saw cut, nice wide stance.

 smooth out the little hollow with a knife.

 Start riving off the feathers less than 1mm each.

 most of the way there.

 initially the base of the feathers was left at about 7mm or so for strength whilst riving, now it is taken down to about 1mm, Sean judges the thickness by holding it to the light, when it is see through it is thin enough.

 This shows the profile you are aiming for well.

 Next carve the head of the bird first rough sawing it then carving.

 Now if you have done all that right the feathers should twist and pivot back quite happily.

 Each one locks into the groove in the one before.

 nearly there

 The finished bird

 Sean is one of the few green woodworkers I know who really puts the hours in to experimenting and working out new (or old) techniques. It takes a lot of dedication, he is currently working on large shrink pots.

 and here are a few more of his finished birds.

I bought one from him a couple of years ago and it hangs above my stairs where I see it every day. This new one will hang from my mirror in the van. You can buy them from Sean mail order here

More on fan carving here

and related but different Japanese fan carving here

4 Responses to how to carve fan birds

  1. David Cockey September 24, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    The Woodwright's Shop with Roy Underhill had an episode on "Lumberjack Fan Carving" several years ago featuring Glen Van Antwerp from northern Michigan, USA who learned the technique from his father and grandfather. The episode can be viewed at Click on the "Lumberjack Fan Carving" episode.Glen Van Antwerp's website is at

  2. Robin Wood September 25, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    Thanks for the link David his fans look great, will have to check the vid out.

  3. Sean Hellman September 26, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

    Great to see you the other day Robin, always good to share skills. Have you had a go yet, or are you still waiting to get hold of that slow grown Scots pine?

  4. paul September 29, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

    odd you should post this now; i had been thinking of having a go at fan carving when i am free next weekend.i keep getting distracted from the things i CAN do and things i should do (ie: house chores) by new ideas