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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Francis Brown

Bellamy Eagle - Part 4

So far in prior blog posts we have carved the body and head. Today we will attach the head and finish the carving. Then we'll make the banner and get ready for finishing, which will include gold leaf gilding and painting. Sorry for the long pause in getting to this next blog post. I've had a bunch of commissions that have taken most of my time.

First, by way of preliminary diversion, we'll look a little more into the life of John Halley Bellamy.

By James A. Craig The simple, austere lines and curves that convey the unmistakable sense of steadfast swiftness and strength of a Bellamy eagle—with wings outstretched, often clutching a shield or flags, and brandishing banners—evoke the character and ideals of the American nation in a way no artist prior to its creator, John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914), had envisioned. The son of a housewright, boat builder, and inspector of timber, Bellamy was born in the seaside community of Kittery, Maine. Bellamy was trained by Samuel Dockum in neighboring Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Dockum was a house and ship carver, who made everything from coffins to rocking chairs to the finish work on many Piscataqua River-built clipper ships. Bellamy’s apprenticeship likely lasted six years; beginning sometime after 1851, when he began working for Dockum at the age of fifteen, to 1857.

Bellamy launched his woodcarving career in 1859 by establishing a studio at 17 Daniel Street in Portsmouth, in rooms he likely rented from Dockum. His business card advertises a master woodcarver capable of executing the full array of jobs incumbent upon American woodcarvers at that time.

An 1859 newspaper informs us that he was making ship’s figureheads for the shipbuilders of Portsmouth. After brief stints spent in the shipyards of East Boston and Medford, Massachusetts, the epicenter of mid-nineteenth-century shipbuilding in New England, by 1860, Bellamy had left his commercial clientele behind to work as a decorative shipcarver for the United States Navy. Working first at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, then at the Charlestown, Massachusetts, Navy Yard, Bellamy began an association with the navy that lasted as late as circa 1898–1900. Previously unknown creations recently discovered reveal that from catheads and billetheads to stern boards and figureheads, no facet of a warship’s exterior that could accommodate decorative woodcarving was beyond the reach of Bellamy’s hand. A particular specialty appears to have been gangway boards: large decorative plaques that lined the sides of a ship’s gangway.

His most celebrated creation was the USS Lancaster eagle figurehead. Conceived and carved between December 1879 and August 1881, the majestic eagle is Bellamy’s magnum opus. It is as much a feat of engineering as a work of art, given the challenges of holding intact this three-thousand-pound gilded pine carving with an eighteen-foot wingspan atop the bow of a warship subjected to the unforgiving oceanic environment for over twenty years.

John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914), USS Lancaster eagle figurehead, 1879–1881. Painted and gilded pine, H. 120, W. 232, D. 152 in. Courtesy, The Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, VA. Due to long bouts of unemployment between projects in the post-Civil War navy yard, Bellamy partnered with a fellow navy-yard worker in July of 1866 to form Titcomb & Bellamy, “Makers of Emblematic Frames and Brackets.” Located at 11 City Square, Charlestown, Massachusetts, on the first floor of a Masonic lodge, the firm sought to cash in on a post-Civil War resurgence of membership in fraternal organizations (particularly Freemasonry). Bellamy designed and produced a wide array of frames, clock cases, and what-not shelves replete with the symbols of Freemasonry . His partner, David A. Titcomb, sold them to a dozen states stretching from Vermont to Florida, and as far west as Mississippi.

Personal letters to and from Bellamy reveal he employed apprentices in his Charlestown studio, and in times of high demand, even his father and younger brother Elisha (himself a master woodcarver), in the production of these designs. Close investigation reveals that they were mass-produced, constructed by use of nascent assembly line methods, using mechanical scroll saws and patterns to ensure uniformity of design and rapid production. Bellamy had sold his interest in Titcomb & Bellamy and returned to the Piscataqua region by September of 1872. With the experiences gained from running his fast-paced, profitable workshop and recognizing the economic opportunity of the region’s blossoming tourism industry, Bellamy embarked in a new direction. The patriotic American eagle promised him a wider audience and greater sales than his fraternal carvings ever could.

Bellamy’s first eagle carving commissions were for large eagles in the round or long, wide forms for commercial and civic clients. Placed conspicuously in areas of high traffic, these eagles provided Bellamy with an income and popularized another type of eagle carving he had conceived in Charlestown. Known today as the “Bellamy eagle,” these two-foot-wide painted plaques are among the most celebrated and instantly recognizable pieces of Americana. Easily transportable, affordably priced (only one or two dollars apiece), and sporting any number of political, fraternal, religious, holiday, and personal sentiments, from “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” to “Merry Christmas!”. The Bellamy eagle easily appealed to a wide and diverse clientele.

Like his Masonic-themed carvings in Charlestown, Bellamy employed nascent assembly line production methods for optimum mass-production—reducing details, streamlining, and deconstructing the eagles down to their most basic components. In crafting these birds, Bellamy harkened toward the minimalism found in the coming century’s works of modern art. Consisting of four pieces held together with a minimum of hardware, they were easy to craft and his shop was able to fill orders ranging from five to seven hundred at a time for local patrons like Portsmouth brewer Frank Jones, and those further afield, like the Manhattan Storage & Warehouse Company of New York City. Once again he hired his father, brother Elisha, and probably his younger brother, Charles Jr., to help with the volume of eagle carvings produced from 1872 to the early years of the twentieth century. Yet even while producing some of his more elaborate eagle plaques (Fig. 10), Bellamy also toiled as a house carpenter, fashioning interior and exterior decorative carvings for Portsmouth and Kittery homes. He also carved furniture and works of pure whimsy. In his day, John Haley Bellamy was a literate poet and urbane raconteur who enjoyed close personal friendships with many of the leading writers and artists of his day, including Winslow Homer, William Dean Howells, and the incomparable Mark Twain.

The last of his nine siblings to pass away, his hands gnarled with arthritis, his mind deteriorating with age, in February 1911, Bellamy was deemed legally incompetent and forced to reside with a cousin in Portsmouth; he died from a stroke on April 5, 1914.

Nowadays, carvings that Bellamy charged one dollar for easily fetch as much as $160,000 at auction, and larger pieces have sold for $660,000. His was an artistic vision that has defied changing temperaments and fashions. To gaze into the fierce eye of a Bellamy eagle is to look into the very soul of the American nation. This biographical info was gleaned from James A. Craig's book ( "American Eagle: The Bold Art and Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy"

Music break....

I played this tune for my mom, who's now 91. I record my stuff in my living room with a cheap tape recorder, so apologies for the sound quality!


Let's (finally) get to the carving.....

Last time we finished the caving of the head.

Next, I usually sand everything, as necessary, with 80 grit. Remove any stray bits and clean up ragged areas. This is not a fine sanding by any means. You can go to 100 if you want, but I rarely do. Pine really clogs sandpaper, especially at lower grits.

We have not added any feather detail yet, so now is a good time to do that. Then we can attach the head to the body.

The "veining" of the feathers is accomplished with a V-tool. Start by drawing a double line (like a leaf) down the center of each feather. This forms a "V" at the tip of each feather. Carve carefully and be aware of grain changes. You might have to adjust directions if the grain does not cooperate. As mentioned before, almost all the carving on these eagles consists of curves so the veins should also have a gentle sweeping curve in the direction of the feather's curve.

If you mess up and the lines are too wavy just erase by using a number 3 or 5 gouge to remove the lines.

This "veining" will be done on all of the feathers including those on the head. I skip the smallest feathers that rim the edges up over the top of the wings close to the head. Just gets too busy when the feathers are that small. You can see these feathers here (also a nice view of how the back of the head was undercut where it meets the body) .....

You can see from the next photo that I have not attached the head to the body yet. It's easier for me to work it to this point while it is still free of the body and clamped in a vise......

I like to add a series of squiggles (that's a technical ornithology term) on the big feather on the back of the head. I saw this on an original Bellamy, and like to incorporate it......

Let's attach the head next.

I will backtrack a wee bit and mention that we wanted to shape the back of the neck so that, when attached, it appears to be lifting up off of the body. This step was referred to in the last post, but I did not have a picture available. Place the head on the body and determine in what position it will look best; not looking straight up nor looking down too much. Now make a pencil mark where the neck meets the body on each side of the head/neck piece. This is where you want to undercut the head/neck as it tapers upward into the head. Undercutting allows the upward lift of the head as well as reveals more of the wings by not crowding them out with too much head and neck material. Negative space is an important part of the aesthetic of carving just as it is in art, sculpture, architecture, etc. Taper the head down to about 3/4 inch at the beak.

Chop out this excess wood any way you want. I'm using a hand saw here (ultra-cheapo model which happens to work great), but it could be done at the bandsaw or with carving gouges....

Attach the head....

I like to predrill holes for two long screws from the back of the body that will help fasten the head to the body. These can be countersunk and the holes plugged afterwards. Use wood glue and have the screws all set to tighten everything down before glue up......

I did not leave a lot of material on the body in the case above. That was a mistake on my part, but with those two 3 inch screws there is plenty of holding power. Normally, though, I leave more meat on the body to attach the head to.

Here's a top view....

On the more elaborate eagles, I leave the carving unfinished in the area where the head and body will join so that I can blend the head feathers as they flow into the body. In those instances the feather carving is completed after the head is attached. Here's an example of what I am talking about......

Cut a dowel to make wooden plugs for the 2 screw holes in the back if you want. I typically use old slot screws and don't worry about plugs. Here I'm cutting the plugs flush with the back......

Now we can finish the feathers. I follow Bellamy by making more squiggles. This is one way to mark the maker. For some reason every eagle carver does theirs in a consistent but uniquely different way. As for the veins, these are also in pairs and offset (like leaf patterns commonly seen) on each side. You can draw them in first if you want, but not necessary to go to the trouble. If one side of a feather is too constricted in space, just add double hash marks. Here are the 'William Francis Brown squiggles'.....

Here they are on the head.....

We are almost done carving. Use a number 9 or similar gouge to make the pupil. This is always fun as it suddenly brings out some character to the eagle. Carve it at the front of the eye to give the appearance of forward movement. You can rotate the tool carefully to dish out the pupil. I like to paint this red after gold leafing the eagle.....

Lastly, we need stars on the shield for this eagle. They could be just painted on, but I prefer to carve them out. There are many ways to do this and I've seen it described in complex ways. I keep it simple and just use my V-tool. It does not create a perfect point at the bottom, due to the geometry involved using a V-tool but this can be cleaned up a bit with an awl or whittling knife, or a small number 2 or 3 gouge). I use my Phiel #13/20 which is 90 degree V-tool to carve larger stars (> 1 inch or so), but my smaller #16/6 or 14/12 (45 or 60 degree) V-tool is OK for these 3/4 inch stars. I use a stencil to space out and draw the stars in first......

Clean up with sandpaper. Usually I use 100 and if I am feeling energetic will go to 150 at this point. I use a file to remove any bandsaw marks from the edges and go over with 100 grit after. Areas that I do pay a little more attention to include the beak and the very tops of the wings. These look nice when sanded smooth. But otherwise its just a quick overall sanding to remove any stray fibers and smooth over any particularly rough spots. We don't want to lose too much of the crisp detail. Painting covers a multitude of sins (true for windsor chairs also!).

We'll start the finishing next week. First we will make a banner, carve the lettering, and then paint it and gold leaf the letters. We will also start the gold leaf gilding of the eagle next time.

Check out my classes. This is a good year to sign up as we'll probably only have 5 students per class. That means lots of attention from our world-class artisan master teachers....

Maine Coast Workshop School of Woodworking

Camden, Maine

Wm. Francis Brown


2021 Class schedule

June 14-18, 2021 Alexander Grabovetskiy (from FL) – Classical Carving

June 19-21 Marty Leenhouts (from MN) – Chip Carving

July 5 – 8 Frank Strazza (TX) – Marquetry and Inlay

July 12 – 16 Mary May (SC) – Acanthus Carving ‘Deep Dive’

August 9 – 14 Matt Kenney (MA) – Make a Kumiko Tea Cabinet

September 13-18 Ray Journigan (VA) – Make & Carve the iconic John Elliott Chippendale Stool

October 3-9 Alf Sharp (TN) – Make a Queen Anne Chair

Lot's of details on the website.

Here's an interview with Popular Woodworking Magazine which describes my classes, vision, and a little about my philosophy.

Thanks for following along. I hope you are enjoying this series. I have plans to start covering my furniture projects, and will share lots of techniques I've perfected over my 30 years of woodworking.


"May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace."

-Numbers 6:24-26

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