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Whittling a (Wooden) Rubber Ducky

By James Miller

Have you ever been stuck on a problem for so long that you call someone over to help, only to figure it out yourself as soon as you start explaining? I have certainly done this at work, and have seen and heard of others doing it as well. In fact, this is such a common phenomenon that an ideology has sprung up to help remedy the underlying issue and save time for beleaguered coworkers. The idea is simple: instead of disrupting a real, busy person, why not just describe your woes to an inanimate object, such as a rubber ducky? Unlike coworkers, duckies have nowhere else to go and nothing better to do.


Materials & Tools

  • Basswood, 1 ⅜” (3.5cm) thick: 1 ½” (3.8cm) wide x 1 ⅞” (4.8cm) tall  
  • Pencil
  • Glove
  • Acrylic paint, such as Apple Barrel
    • black, antique white, navy blue, crocus yellow, pumpkin orange, true blue
  • Optional: black puff paint (ColorPoint brand). Used to make the eye dots stick out just a little. Regular acrylics would work fine as well.
  • Danish oil
  • Small hand saw (optional)
  • Carving knife with a straight 1 1/2"-2” blade, such as Pinewood Forge’s Harley knife or an OCC knife
  • Toothpick
  • 1/2" flat brush

Preparing the Blank

Sketch the ducky pattern onto a suitable block of basswood with the grain running vertically. I saw most blanks with a bandsaw, but since this pattern is so small, I recommend using a handsaw. Secure the block with a clamp or vice, and saw the basic shape. In other words, remove a rectangular section from behind the head, and a triangular section from under the head. Then, sketch a centerline all the way around the blank.


Knock off the front corners

Since the grain runs vertically and the ducky’s head will be more narrow than its body, slice bold flat planes from the bottom up. Gradually remove more as you progress upwards.


Round the bottom

Ensuring a uniformly rounded ducky is made much simpler by creating a rounded base, since the shape of the base is two-dimensional. Rounding the base will make rounding inconsistencies around the body easier to spot. You can slice straight down with the grain or horizontally cross-grain.

Round the body in towards the base

Now that the base is defined, remove the remaining corners of the body by slicing towards the base with the grain. Overall, when viewed from the front or back, the sides of the body should curve in towards the base just a little more than they curve up towards the head.

Taper the head

Feel free to leave the head any size you wish, but for my duckies, I have come to prefer them with heads more narrow than their bodies. To ensure this, taper the blank so that the head area is at its final width.

Round the dome

Using relatively small knife strokes, chip around the top of the head until you have created a mostly symmetrical dome. If desired, feel free to curve your knife to follow the shape of the dome as you slice. For this ducky, I just kept each cut straight and flat.

Separate the head and body

Using gradually larger stop cuts, cut in between the head and body all the way around. To ensure roundness, view the piece from above. I never shoot for a perfectly spherical head shape, but you will want to make sure to get rid of any remaining corners.

Slice off more around the bottom

Now that the main shape of the ducky is established, create an opportunity for some interesting cast-shadows by slicing around the bottom just a little more at a sharp angle. Now, when placed on a surface, a little shadow will be cast around the base.

Open the eye sockets

Stop-cut out the eye sockets with cuts that cover almost the entire front portion of the head. It is always tempting to try to make each eye socket with just two cuts, but since we are working with such a small piece, it is best to be safe and cut gradually.

Round the forehead

At this point, there tends to be quite a strong brow ridge. If this is the look you are aiming for, feel free to leave it untouched. For a more rounded, gentle look, slice off small chips to remove the sharp angle.

Expose the bill

Stop-cut under the bill to separate it from the head by cutting down from above and carefully slicing up to meet each downward cut. Keep the bill short so it does not become too fragile.

Tuck the chin

I have yet to see a duck with any sort of chin, so make sure to tuck it away by slicing down to the body from under the beak. Then, round the surrounding area with a series of fine slices.

Painting and Finishing

Prepare the base coat by mixing black acrylic paint into water until it is so thin that it would appear as a very light gray when applied to basswood. Then, cover the entire ducky. While this is still wet, blend full strength yellow paint over the whole ducky. You could avoid the beak if desired, but the orange will easily cover it later. If you can suddenly not see the wood grain through the paint, consider rubbing some paint off with your hand or a paper towel, wetting your brush with water, and spreading the yellow thinly and evenly.
Paint the beak orange with a fine paintbrush or toothpick. Then, let the ducky dry. Once the wood feels dry to the touch, decorate it with fine details to your heart’s content. I tend to paint the outline of some tiny wings and some floral motifs formed with simple dots. I tend to do all of the detailing with a toothpick.
Let the piece dry, then apply a wax or oil finish of your choice. Using Danish oil, I submerge the entire piece, remove it, let excess oil drip off, and then stand up to dry overnight.  

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National Wood Carvers Assoc.
PO Box 43218
Cincinnati, OH 45243
National Wood Carvers Assoc.
PO Box 43218
Cincinnati, OH 45243