Helpful Tips for Constructing Large Sculptures: A Step by Step Guide to Flat Joints

I’m back with another of my Tips & Tricks Blogs with some (hopefully!) useful tips for fellow sculptors! Hopefully others find it interesting too though!
I’ve recently completed a large dragon sculpture that needed several pieces adding on. I thought I’d walk you through that process and share some tips for constructing large sculptures. I hope you find it helpful!

A large barn that's used as a chainsaw carving workshop. In the foreground a males wearing Stihl clothing is hoisting a large redwood dragon sculpture using chains. The photo is an exampl of Simon O'Rourke's large scale work featured on his blog with helpful tips for constructing large sculptures

Why Do Sculptors Use Multiple Pieces in Their Work?

Using multiple pieces for a sculpture definitely adds a challenge! However, it’s often unavoidable. I carve a lot of large-scale works, and in many cases need to add pieces for width or height. In the dragon I’m working on for example, it has widespread wings and long-reaching neck. Quite simply, there isn’t a piece of timber big enough to cover all those dimensions so I have to construct the sculpture in a few pieces and attach them.

This isn’t unique to me or uncommon. In fact, there’s evidence that artists created sculptures in multiple pieces since early Greek and Roman times. If you look closely, a number of ancient sculptures have visible joints with locating pegs. There are also lots of example of sculptures with pieces missing and we can see the flat surface where that piece was attached.

a classic greek sculpture in marble of a naked female. the arms are missing and show the flat surface mid-bicep where the pieces would be attached.

Tips for Constructing Large Sculptures: Ways of Attaching Pieces

There are numerous ways to add parts on to a sculpture, including use of screws or bolts, glue, or dowels. It’s worth noting that I always use glue in addition to any joint to ensure no water ingress into the join.

With much of the wood I use being green/wet, I’ve found the only glue that holds and sets well is polyurethane glue. This glue sets faster when it is on a wet surface, and expands to fill cavities, making it ideal for large wood sculpture construction.

Sculpture Simon O'Rourke using powertools to create a dragon wing in redwood. It will later be added to a sculpture and features in a blog with helpful tips for constructing large sculptures.

Traditional style mortise and tenon joints are great if you can be really precise. However I’ve found they’re not ideal for my large-scale pieces. It’s hard to find a way of creating such joints when the grain of the timber may not necessarily be going in the right direction.

Metal fixings (eg timber screws or coach bolts) are a strong way of joining in conjunction with glue. However, it can be tricky if I need to do additional shaping or detail afterwards and I have to be super careful as chainsaws don’t like hitting metal!

Large redwood dragon sculpture in the process of being assembled. it features in Simon O'Rourke's blog with helpful tips for constructing large sculptures

Using Wooden Dowel for Constructing Large Sculptures

So, with mortise and tenon joints and metal fixings being less than ideal, what do I actually do when constructing large sculptures?

After years of carving, I’ve found that if a piece needs shaping afterwards, it’s far better joining it with wooden dowel. It holds the joint securely and I can easily cut through the any excess dowel afterwards without damaging my tools. Let me break down the process with some photos to illustrate…

Illustration of flat joint technique for assembling sculptures, part of Simon O'Rourke's helpful tips for constructing large sculptures

Step One

Create two flat surfaces where the pieces will be attached

Step Two

Join and glue the two surfaces. Clamp or screw until the glue dries.

Photo showing chainsaw sculpture Paul Edwards at work on a dragon sculpture. it highlights a glued neck joined with bolts for strength, step two of attaching pieces on a large-scale sculpture

Step Three

Remove the screws/clamp. Drill holes through the joint in several places, ensuring they are the right size for the dowel.

Close up of Paul Edwards drilling a hole into the side of a dragon sculpture in preparation for adding dowel

Step Four

Glue the dowel into the holes. Once dry, continue shaping the surface – as shown below!

Final Thoughts

This technique has proved extremely effective on my large-sclae sculptures, including The Dragon of Bethesda, Love Leading the Pilgrim, and many more. Did you find this walk-through helpful? What tips do you have for attaching large pieces? Drop a comment and let me know! And watch out on my socials for the finished dragon, coming soon!

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