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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Francis Brown

Carving a Bellamy eagle - part II

We'll pick up where we left off in our last blog post: So far we have covered the selection of wood, making a pattern, gluing up the necessary parts to achieve the proper width and high points at the top of the wings and the extra piece for the head.

I have received some nice feedback. There is interest in adding a Bellamy eagle carving class at the Maine Coast Workshop. So we'll plan to teach this for sure; stay tuned by signing up for updates at

Next, we'll continue to refine the wing shape and start carving the feathers. Before we do that, let's look a little more into the interesting history of the original eagle carver, John Haley Bellamy......

I'll be giving a series of talks to accompany an exhibit of my eagles at the Camden Library in Camden, Maine in the summer of 2021. I'm working on getting Bellamy expert, James Craig, who is curator at the Portsmouth Historical Society in NH, to come up to speak at one of the sessions. I'll also try to time this event to complement one of my Bellamy eagle carving classes at the Maine Coast Workshop so students can enjoy both.

Widely considered to be the pinnacle of American woodcarving, the Bellamy Eagle vies with such hallowed icons as the Statue of Liberty, the Great Seal of the United States, and Old Glory itself in representing the United States. Yet what of its creator? Who was the man responsible for giving flight to this most celebrated piece of Americana?

Woodworker John Haley Bellamy (1836-1914) carved stylized representations of American eagles at his shop on the grounds of his family home, the iconic Pepperrell Mansion in Kittery Point, Maine.

To write American Eagle: The Bold Art and Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy author James A. Craig spent five years in detective work, examining all the newly-available evidence of the carver’s life and career. His heavily illustrated biography examines the master’s carving with new appreciation and documents his continuing influence on woodcarvers today.

"CRAIG’S COLORFUL ACCOUNT of Bellamy’s life and career vigorously argues for a man with a vision for his art. Creating a body of work that was ambitious both in scale and sheer volume, Bellamy translated his skills as ship carver into a populist decorative form that was potently infused with his nautical upbringing and surroundings. Craig’s work offers tremendous depth to our appreciation of Bellamy’s quintessentially American sculptures." — Daniel Finamore, Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History, Peabody Essex Museum

"JIM CRAIG’S RICH AND ENGAGING STORY of the life and work of John Haley Bellamy is a tremendous contribution to the literature on American sculpture. These masterful carvings, born of commerce and meant to ornament the daily life of the young Republic, are inextricably tied to American culture at its most fundamental level. Craig’s masterful volume imparts a fascinating and unforgettable look at Bellamy’s life and times and the breathtaking artwork for which this remarkable artist is so justly renowned." — Paul S. D’Ambrosio, President & CEO, Fenimore Art Museum & The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, NY

Bold and Brash: the Art of John Haley Bellamy” was an exhibit at the Discover Portsmouth Center a number of years back......

If there was any doubt of the importance of 19th century Kittery Point, Maine, woodworker John Haley Bellamy, it was dispelled when collectors, museum curators and dealers from throughout New England and beyond came to the Discover Portsmouth Center to revel in his collected works.

With more than 100 pieces from private and public collections throughout the United States, the largest Bellamy exhibit ever held opens today at the center. John Bellamy is known for his stylized representations of American eagles that he carved at his shop on the grounds of the family home, the iconic Pepperrell Mansion.

“It is extremely important that Bellamy be honored in this way,” said Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth. Bourgeault, who bought his first Bellamy eagle at age 17, has been dealing in Bellamy’s works for more than 40 years. He sold one of the eagles in 2005 for a record $660,000. The eagle, with a banner flowing from his beak that states, “God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength,” was in the exhibit.

“He was a great American patriot and a great scholar,” said Bourgeault.

Here's a video of Craig's wonderful Bellamy presentation.

And here's my dad at 92, just back from ushering at church, holding one of my Bellamy carvings........

Not to brag, but he was one of the top US long distance runners in the USA. It began back in the 1950's when he won the PA State Champ's as a walk-on freshman, running for Upper Darby High School (but I digress).....

Allan Katz, another dealer in Bellamy eagles, came to Portsmouth from Woodbridge, Conn. Katz harkened to Bellamy’s “democratic” roots. Bellamy, his family and his apprentices produced thousands of eagles at his workshop, which were reasonably priced and sold locally.

“He made art for the masses, and in doing that he became very successful,” said Katz.

Concurrent with the exhibit, the Portsmouth Historical Society is publishing a 240-page, lushly illustrated biography, “American Eagle,” by author and independent curator James Craig.

Craig spent years working on the book, and tracked down many of the owners who allowed their work to be displayed in the exhibit.

Here are some of my Bellamy carvings.....

Bellamy's "War & Peace" eagles are shown in the next photo. Traditionally, right facing eagles represent war and left facing represent peace. On American emblems and seals, the eagles are always peace eagles, on war ship they are war eagles. I'm currently carving these two, at 7 feet each, for a client in Camden, Maine.......

Well, that's enough history for now. Let's get back to our eagle:

We left off with the shaping of the wings.......

Remember that we built up the top of the wings by gluing on extra basswood (or pine) blocks to achieve that extra inch and a half or 2 of height. No need to start with a 4 inch thick board when you would have to remove 80% of it - that would be way too much work and wasteful of good wood!

BTW, I screw a piece of 2x4 to the underside and clamp that in a vise to hold my eagles for carving. You only need a 4x4 foot square area to carve, so this is a hobby that folks can do almost anywhere. And ignore all those tools, it took me a lifetime to accumulate that many. You can get by with a basic set for under $250 total. I'll be selling these quality sets along with mallets (both of which I can obtain for a discounted price from Schaaf Tools) for a very good price at the Store on the Maine Coast Workshop soon.

Here's what we should accomplish today.....

After dishing out the wings (hand tools such as a scorp, adze, large carving chisels, or power tools such as an Arbortech, a grinder with chainsaw attachment, or a grinder with the Galahad or other aggressive grinder attachment), I sand to about 80 grit level. No need to sand much more than that since we will be carving most of the surface anyway. But having a decently smooth flow should be achieved at this point.

I taper down to about 1/2 inch or less at the bottom of the wings. Start at the high points at the wing tops and around the area where the head will be attached and taper the wing down toward the outer wing tips and down to the lowest parts of the wings. I typically will taper on the back side of the eagle at the wing tips so that the wings have a slight upward lift over the 20% or so toward the wing tips. In other words, the back will be raised off of the wall surface when the eagle is hung up, giving an appearance of movement.

Draw in the feathers now.....

Depending on the length of the wing and size of the eagle, I will make 3 to 5 rows of feathers. The feathers of each successive diagonal row, moving outward, will be progressively larger as shown above. You can see the diagonal lines that serve as a rough guide to the vertical rows of feathers. The first row, along the far right side of the right wing (shown here) is carved along the top edge and down the sharp inside bend of the wing. It is made up of small plain feathers which will not have any quills or require much further carving once they are smoothed and blended.

So we are finally ready to do some carving. I use a big V-Tool to outline feathers, starting with the first vertical row of small feathers described above. Try to make this "setting-in", and really all cuts with carving tools, smooth without tear out. With carving you will get a feel for which direction to go. Go with the grain as much as humanly possible. You will get "catches" whenever you start to cut against the grain. Change directions or angles (I will also change hands - make yourself do this enough and you will become ambidextrous to some degree which is a great boon for carvers). I tend to make my feathers of deeper relief than Bellamy did. I think Bellamy cranked out his eagles at lightening speed and I'd probably do overall shallower relief as he did if I had too get things done quicker.

Smooth and round over (a little) that first row of small feathers using a number 2 carving gouge or straight chisels.

After the first row of feathers is chopped out you'll need to lower the entire playing field before starting on the second row of feathers. Use a number two or whatever you can comfortably fit into the space without digging in and making deep gouges. Spoon bent carving chisels can be helpful, but I rarely need these. A number 5 might be needed to level out the hard to reach area where the wing is deeply curved.

Now, move on to the second row of feathers: set-in again with a V-tool, and then shape the feathers with a slight rounding over. In general, try to avoid large areas that are perfectly flat when carving. Almost all aspects of these carvings are rounded or curved (a good tip for almost all types of carving).

Here's one of my eagles in progress as well as a completed eagle (primed for gold leaf). You can get an idea of how I did the feathers from these. Vary the feathers any way you wish - these folk eagles are highly stylised and are far from real life so there's plenty of room for artistic license. Interestingly, I have done some true-to-life carving of New England birds recently and it's much harder working within the stricter guidelines of reality!

Note the large size of the uppermost feather(s). I think that graduating the feather size from top to bottom and especially from left to right (and vise-versa on the opposite wing of the eagle) adds to the overall sculptural appeal. Everything should flow smoothly in a graceful manner, again with a slight lift at the ends of the wings if desired.

Note that I've left extra room adjacent to the head attachment area so that the head feathers can be carved to flow into the body after the head is attached. Some eagles have an abrupt transition where the head is attached, but I often prefer to make this transition flow so feathers on the separate head piece will be continuous as they flow into the body. We'll get to this in an upcoming blog post. We'll also cover the head carving which can be a bit tricky to get right (got to get that dignified look that says "Don't Tread on Me"!),

We'll also get to finishing including gold-leaf gilding, and making a banner when it's called for or desired. Almost any eagle works with a banner. Sometimes I'll carve the banner right out of the original chunk of wood. Other times it works best to add the banner separately.

You can see that I have some fun with the feathers on the head with overlapping and slightly different shapes. There's not always much rhyme or reason to this; let your eye decide what looks good and don't be afraid to get creative.

I'll end this post with a few more photos of my eagles. If you want to learn how to carve from the foremost teachers in the world, please sign up for a class at the Maine Coast Workshop. It's a labour of love for me, but if it is to make it past these initial years and get off of the ground, I really need a show of interest and support. Needless to say it was a tough time to start this in 2019. Had to cancel everything.

These classes are fairly unique because I have instructors who are not only the finest carvers in the world but are also widely recognized as exceptional teachers. We are also different in that we offer small class sizes in an intimate small shop environment, in a wonderful historic setting. We can accommodate beginners as well as advanced in the carving classes. Camden, Maine, along the mid-coast, is voted a top 10 USA vacation spot each year and is a truly wonderful place to bring the family.

Feel free to write with any questions. Thanks for reading!

--Wm. Francis Brown

Camden, Maine

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Here's our class schedule, so far, for 2021:

Mary May - From Charleston, SC. Acanthus carving deep dive based on her new book

Marty Leehouts - chip carving master from MN

Ray Journigan - Make a Chippendale Phila. stool. Period Furniture Cartouche winner from VA beach. Lots of hand tools work, joinery, and carving.

Alf Sharp - Another Cartouche winner, from TN. Make a Queen Anne armchair.

Alex Grabovetskiy - Russian born, living in FL, Alex won actually an award as "World's Best Carver"! Classical carving class for all skill levels.

Matt Kenney - From MA, Author of the new book: "50 Boxes"; make a contemporary tea cabinet with his famous Komiko style designs

Also, Windsor chairmaking, Ladderback chairmaking, Nantucket Basket class, Green Woodworking, Traditional Floor Cloth, Saw sharpening, Tool sharpening, and Hand tool only classes ---> check out the website & stay tuned on this blog for updates.......

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