Carving the White Whale
A True Tale of Calluses, Craftsmanship, & Creating That “Perfect” Gift
David didn’t tell me he wanted a whale for his birthday, let alone a whale carved out of a block of wood.
But when I first met David back in September of 2014, there was definitely something in his robin-egg eyes that conveyed that wish.
“Carve the white whale,” a voice beckoned from behind his baby blues, like we were in some strange, Herman Melville interpretation of Field of Dreams.
“If you carve it, and it is of good quality, and then you give it to me, I will be super happy and will totally consider you my favorite uncle,” his eyes continued, rather specifically.
At this point, I should probably note that David is my 10-month-old nephew. And the whale — that famed, mammoth, mammalian monster of the deep — has been this kid’s spirit animal since before he was even born.
By “spirit animal,” of course, I mean the animal his mother chose when it came time to decorate his future room and pick out his future clothes.
Whale pillows, whale pajamas, whale onesies, whale artwork on the walls, a whale mobile spinning above the crib…
Yes, I am slightly worried that when he grows up, my nephew David will reject our species and join a local whale pod.
But I will save that concern for another story.
My intrepid woodcarving project began in earnest in January of 2015, approximately 8 months before the little (aquatic?) mammal’s first birthday.
Yes, I did have some woodcarving experience when I started out, mostly in the form of whittling sticks on camping trips. But a year earlier I had gotten a bit more serious about the craft, purchasing an Exacto-brand carving knife with interchangeable blades.
Needless to say, that thing was a complete piece of shit — a flimsy, screwdriver/boxcutter hybrid that would have been the perfect tool had I been carving the whale out of cardboard (which, in retrospect, might not have been such a terrible idea).
So, in preparation for my journey, I purchased a set of three German-made chip carving knives. Wooden handles, steel blades — these were the real deal.
Each knife had a slightly different blade. One had a long skew edge, another had a double-sided curved edge, and the third had a straight edge with a round neck.
I can personally attest that all three blade styles are perfectly adept at slicing through the fleshy skin of the hands, fingers, and thumbs.
Call me Ishmael. Some months ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on Netflix, I thought I would mess about a little and see if I could carve my nephew the notorious white whale. Argh … argh.
— opening lines of Moby-Dick (special, made-up edition)
On the Chopping Block
I was staring down at the rectangular block of wood with my weapon in hand, preparing to make my first strike, when the realization came to me:
It’s going to be a real bitch carving that whale’s tail out of a solid block of wood.
Based on the images I’d been referencing, carving out all of the wood necessary to create some separation between the whale’s torso and the whale’s tale by hand would’ve added some serious hours to the project.
So, I did what any good, God-fearing, beef jerky-eating, wood-carving American would do in such a situation.
I went to the hardware store and picked up a coping saw. (For those of you who aren’t super knowledgeable in the saw department, that’s the kind with the skinny blade and the C-shaped frame.)
Using some clamps I already had on hand from a previous project, I fixed the wood block to the table and sawed out the (very) rough shape of the whale’s tale.
After that, I was off to the races, by which I mean I was off to sit on my ass for hours on end, carving and carving and carving.
Evolution of a Wooden Whale
January the 18th: There is a whale hidden inside of this block of wood. I will find him — and free him — with my German blades of steel.
January the 19th: Progress is slow, but my spirits remain high; high as the topsail on a Spanish galleon’s mizzenmast … or something.
January the 27th: The sea was angry that day, my friends.
February the 1st: The illusive whale hath begun to show himself. There just appears to be a little bit too much junketh in his trunketh.
February the 8th: Holy crap, I might actually pull this off. I mean … ye scurvy cur, I have the white whale in me sights.
February the 9th: I’m bearing down on the mighty beast. Success is within my grasp. All I have to do now is keep a steady course and be careful not to screw everything up …
Then I Screwed Everything Up
If you were under the impression that I knew what the hell I was doing up until this point, allow me to dispel that myth for you now.
You see, once I had finished giving the wooden whale a smooth surface with the help of some 100- and 150-grit sandpaper, I proceeded to screw everything up quite royally.
My plan all along had been to finish the wood with some type of varnish or stain once the carving and sanding were completed. But in my haste to be done with the project, I made two stupid mistakes:
First, I probably (definitely) applied the finish way too early in the process. I should’ve done more carving. Or more sanding. Or both.
Second, the product I chose for the finish — a spray can of lacquer — was unequivocally the wrong choice.
I had imagined that the lacquer would produce a clear, glossy finish once it dried. Instead, it was black and matte, and formed an opaque shroud over the wood’s natural grain patterns.
Right before my very (horrified) eyes, the whale morphed into a monstrosity.
Why hadn’t I read that stupid lacquer label a little more carefully — or, ya know, at all?
If I hadn’t been such a moron, I would’ve noticed the words “black” and “matte” printed clearly on the can.
After weeks of slicing up my hands and breathing in wood particles, the end result was utter garbage. I would share a photograph of just how awful it looked, but I never took any photos of the whale when it was in that monstrous state.
It was simply too monstrous to be documented.
For the next three months following the incident (which shall henceforth be known as The Great Whale Devastation of 2015), the horrid block of whale-like wood would remain tucked away on a bookshelf, far from the prying, innocent eyes of my nephew — a nephew who might never know the joy of having his own hand-carved wooden whale.
It was truly a dark time.
The Old Man & the Plea
“Why don’t you just sand off all the lacquer?” the grizzled sea captain asked, looking at me as if I had the IQ of a ballast stone.
That “grizzled sea captain” was my father, who is, in truth, the captain of a 17-foot center console named The Logic.
He’s also been known to look quite grizzled on occasion. (You can see an artist’s rendering to the left.)
We were at a family get-together at my apartment back in May when the old man gave me the sage advice. My nephew was also there, which had prompted me to produce the proto-whale and explain my woodcarving woes.
Prior to this little family shindig, I had been toying with the idea of scrubbing the whale clean with turpentine. But the old man’s advice seemed considerably more reasonable. Plus, it would allow me to correct some of my earlier mistakes in shaping the whale.
Thusly, I re-took up arms and attacked the whale with a renewed sense of vigor. Dust particles flew, new calluses formed, and by the end of June, I had nearly sanded away all evidence of The Great Whale Devastation of 2015.
June the 26th: Aww yeeeaaa, boooiii.
Righting the Ship
My intrepid woodcarving project was back on course, but there was still much work to be done: namely, more sanding, more sanding, and more sanding.
Ultimately, however, I was unable to remove all traces of the wicked lacquer’s residue. (It had seeped in so deeply in some spots that prolonged sanding in said spots would have undoubtedly messed with the whale’s shape.)
Once I was satisfied with my sanding efforts, the next step was to once again coat the whale with some type of varnish or stain. But this time, I actually paid attention to the solution I chose.
June the 28th: I enter the hardware store, scanning the shelves for an appropriate product. And there she blows: toy maker’s finish.
“What are you using this for?” a bearded man behind the checkout counter asks cordially as I dig through my wallet.
“A whale,” is my solemn reply.
Toy maker’s finish produces a glossy, protective coating. And best of all, once it dries, it’s non-toxic.
Actually, according to the product label, it’s “a ‘non-toxic when cured’ finish,” with that middle part — “non-toxic when cured”— in quotes, as if to say, “Oh yea, this stuff is toootally non-toxic when cured … provided you don’t bite it, or lick it, or sniff it, or touch it, or breath near it…
… or look at it.”
But assuming this finish is legitimately non-toxic after it’s had plenty of time to dry (and I do assume that), this is good news for my nephew.
Based on how this kid eats, he will likely try to devour the whale the first chance he gets.
The Jonah story in reverse.
Ultimately, the toy maker’s finish did an excellent job of highlighting the natural grain of the wood. Unfortunately, it also did an excellent job of highlighting the many impurities left over from my initial (botched) attempt at varnishing the beast.
I figured the more coats of finish I applied, the more I could drown out the inconsistencies in color. (This turned out to be quasi-true.)
Then, after applying the fifth (sixth?) coat of toy maker’s finish to the wooden whale, I discovered, as one often does, that I was doing it all wrong.
Some late-stage internet research revealed that I should have been buffing the wood with 0000-grade steel wool between successive coats. I had simply been applying more finish after each coat dried — sans buffing — like a total rookie.
Like a total. Goddamned. Rookie.
So, after several days of thinking that I was on the brink of (finally) being finished, it was back to the hardware store …
July the 13th: I enter the store. The bearded man acknowledges me with a smirk.
“Can I help you find anything?” he asks.
“Yes. Some steel wool,” I reply.
“I need to buff my whale.”
With just under two months to go before my nephew’s birthday, I’m satisfied with the current state of the whale.
That being said, I can’t definitively say that I’m done with it — I’ll probably continue to buff it and coat it with finish right up until I hand it over.
The end result won’t be perfect. But then again, perfection is a flawed concept to begin with: it’s inherently subjective (or at least that’s how I think about it).
Take the wooden whale as an example: How would one evaluate a wooden whale’s perfection? What would the criteria be?
Anatomical accuracy? That’s not what I was going for.
Absolute symmetry? Not what I was going for either. Symmetry was surely a guiding principle, but at no point did I take any measurements or get too serious about trying to balance the whale’s two hemispheres.
The whale has several quirks as a result, but I’m of the humble opinion that these quirks add character. I want my nephew to be able to look at this someday and recognize that it wasn’t 3D-printed or mass-produced in a factory.
Someone made it.