Carving A Snake Walking Stick With Scales Tutorial

In many parts of the world, walking sticks aren’t treated as simple walking aids. While the functionality of a walking stick definitely comes first, the choice of design also showcases the user’s personal.

There are a wide variety of walking sticks with ornamental designs focusing on different themes such as nature, animals, etc. Out of the animal designs, snake designed ones are highly popular.

What Makes Snake Walking Sticks Special?

If you’re a woodcarver, you undoubtedly know how difficult it is to carve designs on thin surfaces such as sticks and poles. The purpose of ornamental design is to do exactly that, and what makes snake designs special is the fact that the design needs to incorporate the minute details of snake scales to emulate a realistic look. This task can be achieved through the art of whittling as well as power tools, which is the focus of this article.

If you’re serious about trying to carve snake scales on wood, then the first thing you need to be aware of is that it will take a long while to perfect even if you’re somewhat experienced in wood carving. But the sense of achievement of accomplishing the task will be gratifying not to mention the fact that walking sticks with snake scale designs can fetch a lot of money even if the market is niche.

Step-by-Step Guide to Carving Snake Scales with Power Tools

As mentioned above, one of the two ways of wood carving snake scales is by using power tools. Below, you will learn about the tools that you’ll need for the project as well as the exact steps to teach you the technique

Tools Required:

  • Grinder
  • Dremel
  • Carving Chisels
  • Router
  • Air Brush
  • Woodburner tool
  • Vise or other setups for securing the wood while carving
  • Disc Sander or Sand Paper
  • Orbital Sander

Step 1: Choice of Wood and Dimension

The first thing you need to do at the start of the project is choosing the kind of wood that you will use for making the stick. The choice of wood is very important since it will determine whether you’re going to have an easy or hard time carving the design. The best woods for making walking sticks include hazel, cherry, oak, blackthorn, birch, and holly. Out of all these, blackthorn is the best candidate.

The standard dimensions of a log required for making an adult-sized walking stick is 4 X 4”, but if you want to make smaller or larger ones, you can choose the log size as required.

Step 2: Outline and Rough Cut

Once you’ve chosen which wood to use, it’s time for outlining the design and making the rough cut. First, draw an outline of the snake and the stick’s body with a sharpie or marker. This outline will tell you where to avoid cutting once you starting chipping the wood with the grinder. The grinder will give a rough shape to both the snake design and the stick which you will smooth out in the following steps.

Step 3: Rounding the Stick

Once the rough cut has been performed, it’s time to shape the stick first before moving on the design. To do this, use the router for the best results. Add a couple of 1/2″ dowels on either end of the stick when hooking it up with the sled. If you don’t about router sled turning, then click here to get an understanding of the process. Make sure you use the correct router bit for the process. Round up every part of the stick except the handle where the ornamental design will be made.

Step 4: Carving

Now comes the most important part; carving the snake design. The Dremel will be your primary tool for the job. You will be using various carving bits throughout the process, so have a couple of them handy. First carefully create the shape of the head with the Dremel, once the head has been shaped, use a pencil to outline the eyes, jaw, and nostrils of the creature using a real photo to ascertain the positions.

The real task here is creating small identical indentations that will form into a pattern resembling the scales of a snake. The indentations will be shaped like small triangles except the edges will be rounded. Overlap the indentations from bottom to top by just indenting the top half of each triangle on the first layer which will be shaped like a triangle.

This part of the project will take the most time, so make sure you work on the head details (eyes, jaw, and nostrils) first before moving to this part. Use the carving chisels to detail the head with fine, sharp cuts. Make sure the eyes have light indentations.     

Step 5: Sanding

Once you’re done with carving the snake scales, it’s time to refine the design. The first step of the refinement process is sanding. You can either use a disc sander or sanding paper for this part of the project, it boils down to preference. The main purpose of sanding the walking stick is to make the design of the snake distinctive from the body of the stick by accentuating the shape and scales of the design. Use the orbital sander to add the finishing touches.

Step 6: Wood burning

Once you’ve sanded the stock, it’s time to work on scales again. For this part of the project, you’ll need to use your wood-burning skills. It might be tough to find wood-burning head-shaped tips like snake scales on packaged kits, so either buy one from a store or make one yourself if there aren’t any store or online delivery options in your area. Burning the scales will give the scales the realistic texture snake walking sticks are popular for. You can also use wood burning to add more details to the face if you want.

If you want, you can use wood burning to design the handle as well. First use a pencil to outline the design, then simply outline it again with the burner tip of your choice.

Step 7: Painting

The final step of the process is painting. Unless you’ve experienced in sophisticated wood painting, this part can be a bit hard to learn. Acrylic paints will give you the widest range of color choices and come with the added benefits of being cheap and easy to use. When painting the snake scales, it’s best to do so using airbrushing techniques if you’re not very experienced to give the design a lifelike texture.

Hand painting with brushes is also an equally viable option provided you know what you are doing. Airbrush tools are different from paintbrushes, so the techniques will be very different.  

Step by Step Guide to Carving Snake Scales by Hand (Whittling)

If you’re more of a purist and don’t want to use power tools for carving snake scales on wood, then this set of instructions are for you. Hopefully, you have your chiseling skills down to a pat because that’s what you’ll be doing for most of the time in this style of carving snake walking sticks.

Tools Required:

  •  Carving Chisels
  • Air Brush
  • Gouge
  • Wide Cutter
  • Wood burner tool
  • Vise or other setups for securing the wood while carving

Selection of the Log and Layout

The first part of the process is similar to the guidelines provided above for carving snake walking sticks with power tools. You can choose the wood for the project from the breeds already listed previously and work on the design layout as required. Make the outline of the design as detailed as possible since you won’t be using a Dremel or any other power tool when chiseling the design.

Step 1: Roughing out

In the first step of the process, you need to cut out the walking stick from the log with enough wood left at the handle end of the stick to carve the snake. The process will resemble peeling onions until all unnecessary wood has been removed. If you’re new, just leave some extra wood on the carving area to account for errors

By combining a series of stop cuts and removal cuts, you will have to peel off layers of the log from the carving area of the snake on the stick. The stop cuts will have to be made in such a way that the sides of the snakes are parallel. This gives you a big advantage by stopping you from preventing change in grain patterns by accident or lack of experience as you carve in deeper that can often result in a V cross-section. Make sure you adjust the force of blows from the mallet accordingly.

Step 2: Shaping and rounding the snake

Once the snake’s design has been outlined, start the shaping and rounding process by chiseling off the excess wood from the head and tail of the snake carving. Taper it from the bottom it in such a way that there is ¾ inch depth over the head and the body. The tip of the tail of the carving is to be tapered more narrowly with only 1/8 inch depth at the tip. Use the gouge to round the body.

 The shaping process is important as it makes the design distinct from the rest of the stick. Once you have shaped and rounded the carving with a gouge, make sure to remove the gouge marks. You can easily smooth out the gouge marks using sanding paper. Alternatively, you can also smooth them out carefully with a sharp carving knife.

Once everything is done, use sandpaper to smooth out the entire carving (again if you have already sanded the gouge marks). The shaping and rounding process needs to be done in a precise manner to ensure the realistic look of a snake slithering or perched atop the stick.

Step 3: Detailing and Wood Burning

Now comes the most important part of the project- detailing the snake model. This is where carving the snake scales come into play. First outline the facial features of the snake using a photo or a sketch with the help of a sharpie or marker. Round out the head scales and the corner of the mouth with a carving knife.

As for the scales on the body, cut each individual scale with minimum pressure a couple of times (5 at least) to give the scales a realistic look. The scales should be pressed in the body of the snake using a size 3 V-shaped wide-cutter. Make a stop cut on each side of a scale after pressing them in. The final undercut of the scale depends on what type of scale the designed snake has.

If it’s a smooth scaled snake then the scales get a shallow undercut. On the other hand, if the scales are keel-shaped, then the cut is made at the centerline of the outside edge of the scale. Once the scales have been carved, use the wood-burning set to burn the edges of the scale as instructed in Step 6 of the previous carving technique above.    

To have an easier time adding realism to the piece, a woodcarver named Bob Lehr found a technique that involves heating knife to a low temperature and using it to press in the scales uniformly. When the detailing is done, you can use a knife to remove the tool marks and give the carving a unique whittled texture at the same time.

Step 4: Saining and Varnihing

The final part of the process involves staining and varnishing the entire walking stick. As before, use a real-life photo of the species of snake you’re carving and apply paint using an airbrush tool or paintbrush as you see fit. To seal the deal, you can add two layers of flat varnish to the piece before applying wax or any other staining process.

Best Kind of Wood to Highlight Snake Scales

Color of the wood you’ll choose for the project also plays a crucial role in how realistically the final piece will highlight the snake scales, the main stars of the show. For example, red cedar can accentuate the scales of the design if they are smooth scales. For making keel scaled designs, using light but durable wood like pine will prevent the flaky scales from chipping off by accident or decay.

Make sure you consider all the visual aesthetic factors before choosing the wood for the project.  


To finish off the list, here are some of the most frequently asked questions by newcomers to carving scales on wood:

–          Where to find good snakehead carving patterns?

Any advanced book or website focused on zoology and reptiles would be the best place to find good snakehead carving patterns. The images of the reptiles in these books and websites are sketched in black and white to label the body parts distinctly which also doubles perfectly for wood carving projects.

–          Is it hard to hand-carve a snake walking stick?

It definitely is, but that shouldn’t put you off from trying to carve one by hand. Using power tools prevents you from adding finer details to the carving which can only be done by hand.

–          Is acrylic the only coloring option?

While it’s the cheapest and most popular option, it’s definitely not the only one. You can also use matte, satin or even semi-gloss if it goes with the design aesthetics of the final piece.

–          Should I try wood carving snake scales if I’m new?

While technically you can, it will help greatly if you understand and practice the fundamentals of wood carving or less complex projects first.

Final thoughts

While carving animal scales on wood is definitely rough, it can be a worthwhile experience. Even if an ornamental walking stick isn’t something you need, the effort you need to perfectly carve will make future wood carving projects on small objects much easier for you. So if you feel like you have advanced enough to give wood carving snake scales a try, give it a go.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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