Canadian Woodworking

Haida Inspired Whale Mirror

Author: Garnet Hall
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: December January 2007

This piece is actually my interpretation of the art form and doesn’t represent any one style very closely. I created this project out of my great respect for the Natives of the West Coast and their art and culture, and hope it will be accepted in the spirit it was intended.

My favourite art form is that of the Northwest Coast First Nations. Their highly stylized form of art tells the stories of their culture, with each unique aspect representing something important in their lives.

The art styles of Northwest Coast First Nations vary from region to region and from band to band. The more common styles are Haida, Salish, Nootka, Kwagiutl, Tsimshian and Tlingit. However, for one reason or another, all of these styles are referred to as Haida. Therefore, in this article, I refer to my piece as being Haida inspired.

This is a fairly challenging intarsia project, comprised of a ‘natural’ whale and a ‘stylized’ whale, set on a mirror background. The natural whale is easy to do, while the Haida one presents some interesting fitting challenges.

The mirror makes this piece functional and also adds a look of water. Have fun with this project and use your imagination.

Approach 'inside fitting' one piece at a time. First, cut outside piece.

Then, so that pieces fit inside one another, hold outside piece onto selected wood, and trace inside piece.

Cut on the lines

Hold pieces together, then cut between them

Pneumatic sander

Flex sander

Select the Wood

The selection of wood is a very creative part of intarsia and the wood you choose can have a significant impact on the success of your project. For this project I chose western red cedar, which is an integral wood used by Haida First Nations carvers.

Remember, when I suggest the use of dark, medium dark, medium, and light, the woods you choose should have these various shades ‘in relation’ to each other. Look for interesting grain figure or patterns. I always start with ¾” material and work up or down from there.

Transfer the Pattern to Wood

Trace the pattern onto the wood. You can do this with carbon paper: by gluing the template onto some thin material such as ⅛” hardboard, and cutting it out using a small blade (a #1 Full/Reverse works well); or, by making a number of photo copies of the pattern, cutting out the various pieces, and then gluing them onto the wood with spray glue or a glue stick.

Cut Out the Pieces

This is a crucial step, and the more careful and patient you are, the better your project will fit together. The blade you choose depends to a large extent on your scroll sawing experience. A #5 or #7 DT/R (double-tooth/rev) blade is a good choice for beginners. With it you can make clean, precise cuts. A #5 or #7 P/S (precision skip) blade will cut faster and require more attention. The fastest cutting blade is one with a hook/tooth design. With this blade you can cut ¾” cedar with a #3 or even a #1 blade if you are careful. It leaves a smaller kerf and gives a better fit. But it is easy to over-cut because they are so aggressive.

Cut on the lines. A good method to get a piece to fit inside another piece is to trace one piece over another. Make sure the blade is square to the table. Take your time and cut on the line. When you have the pieces cut out, dry assemble and check the fit. The rest of the pieces can be fitted by which ever method you like. I have had good success holding pieces together and cutting between them.

A spindle sander helps to get pieces to fit snugly together. The fit should be reasonably tight, with no gap larger than a saw kerf. Use a business card as a gauge.

Adjust for Depth

Raise and lower pieces as the pattern suggests. I raise by gluing some scrap plywood to the bottom of the piece, and lower by resawing or sanding the wood thinner. If you prefer, you could use different thicknesses of wood.

Assemble the pieces and mark reference lines to help with the shaping. I gave the natural whale a well-rounded shape.

Shape and Sanding

Before you start any shaping or sanding make sure to have your sanding tools hooked up to a dust collector, have an air filtration device, and wear a good quality dust mask. Shaping/sanding is a very creative step that can really bring a piece to life. You can use a wide range of tools for shaping. I like to use a small pneumatic sander in a high torque power carver. A Flex Sander can be very useful to achieve a nice contoured shape. The flexibility of the sanding strip allows it to form over the shape, giving a smooth contour. Usually I don’t sand past 220 grit, as finer grits just serve to create more dust.

Finishing Touches

For the backing I used a thin, ⅛” backing board because it was going to hold a mirror. Assemble the project on the backing, then trace around and cut out the backing. Re-assemble the pieces on the backing and glue the pieces down with ordinary carpenter’s glue. If you keep the backing flat, you won’t need clamps.

Apply the finish of your choice. I applied two coats of Old Masters Satin, sanding between coats. I finished with several coats of Old Masters Spray Satin.

Attach a hanger clip and mount your completed project on the wall.

I used an acrylic mirror so that I could cut it out with my scroll saw and drill holes in it for screws. Attaching the mirror with screws lets me easily remove the mirror for cleaning.

However, keep in mind that acrylic scratches easier than glass, so be careful. Also, the mirror does not have to cover the whole back of your piece, only the opening that is visible between the two whales.

Haida Inspired Whale Mirror

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