insight - Mike Stripp
Written by and pictures by Tony Mills
From a cramped studio in Knysna, South Africa, there is an amazing outflow of the most incredible bird carvings crafted by master carver, Mike Stripp.
In a world of instant gratification, craftsmen such as Mike Stripp are a revered breed. Their continued striving for perfection and the sheer beauty of their artistry sits in stark contrast to a long gone-era.
However, having the patience to sit for many hours, in intense concentration, detailing the most intricate feather patterns, which add a further aspect of realism to the finished article, is reward enough for the true craftsman.
Born in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, Mike’s fascination with wood began at an early age, making model ships and small pieces of furniture. His interest began with model engineering, building model locomotives. Years later he progressed to carving, first, the most exquisite and detailed rocking horses complete with horse-hair manes, bridles, and saddles, and later evolving his passion into carving lifelike birds. On a trip to America to visit his daughter, an exhibition of waterfowl carving really inspired him to start creating the ultra-realistic pieces that would eventually become a way of life for him. He had, in the interim, put his woodworking skills to the ultimate test by building a sea-going yacht. He then proceeded to sail up and down the eastern coast of South Africa, well known for its treacherous currents and fickle weather, as many a shipwreck along this coastline will attest to.
As one of the few – if not the only – carvers of birds in South Africa, Mike has made a niche for himself in this field, attracting collectors from all over the world who commission him to produce their favourite birds. Although his raptors would appear to be the popular choice, he is able to carve virtually any of the birds requested by clients. He has carved a varied assortment of avian species such as Lilac-breasted Rollers, Kingfishers, numerous owls, the Knysna Loerie, and the nearly extinct Wirebird of the plover family, from the island of St Helena, which he visits once a year. It was on one of his yearly pilgrimages to St Helena that he donated a carving of the Wirebird to the people of the island as part of giving something back to their legacy.
Once Mike has received the go-ahead on a commission, he meticulously researches the bird in question using his well-stocked reference library of birds and, where possible, taxidermy mounts. A series of sketches are made to scale and cut out for later use as templates.
Skins of the birds are often used, if available, from a museum in Cape Town which specialises in ornithology. This is to ensure accuracy in feather formation, beak shape, and talon or leg construction.
Whether the bird being carved is flying or perched will determine the type of wood used for the wings. The most widely used wood for this type of carving is Jelutong (dyera costulata), grown in Indonesia, Borneo, and Sumatra. The wood is closely grained and is ideal for either power tool or traditional chisel shaping.
For birds in flight Mike uses a local wood called Witels, otherwise known as White Elder (Platylophus trifoliatus), for the wings, as this is a much harder wood which can absorb accidental knocks and bumps on the wing tips, which is a risk when moving or cleaning.
The tools for his trade are wide and varied, ranging from tiny v-shaped hand chisels to an electronic dentist’s drill. “There are lots of traditionalists out there who would scoff at the idea of using power tools, but at the end of the day it’s the finished item which is the concern and not how it was done,” Mike maintains, whilst choosing a tip for his burning tool to start detailing the feathers. The burning tool is temperature controlled and the nib is a thin, flat piece of metal which can produce exceptionally thin lines.
Each group of feathers requires a different treatment. The primary feather shafts need to be detailed before work on the web of the feather can begin, while the upper marginal, scapular, and tercials are handled in another way. Mike adds that particular attention must be paid while going through this process to avoid a monotonous and false look to the overall result. Stripp is meticulous in the burning process and will spend hours getting that perfect feel to the feathers. The feet and talons are made of welding rods with the legs being covered with a two-part putty, which dries into a rock-hard exterior, to be modelled at a later stage.
“The real test is in the painting,” says Mike. If this is not done properly then all the work you put into the bird has been wasted. “I will paint as many as 60 thin layers to get the correct colour and blending, but the final result makes the effort worthwhile.” For the painting process Mike uses brushes and an airbrush to get the desired effect. Once the bird has been finished, it is usually mounted on driftwood.
Mike will work as much as three to six months on a bird and this made him realise that he should begin casting limited edition bronzes of his birds, to compensate for the hugely labour-intensive process of creating a one-off carving in wood. Doing this has added another dimension to his work.
Johannesburg, South Africa
“I paint the beak with a series of washes in acrylic, matching the bird in the wild. It is then coated with varnish. When dry, I apply a neutral colour boot polish and let it dry completely. Then I buff it to a smooth sheen,” says Mike.
The picturesque town of Knysna is situated along the Garden Route on the eastern coast of South Africa between Durban and Cape Town. Well known for the oysters, which are harvested in the tidal Knysna lagoon, the town hosts an annual Oyster Festival, where people come from far and wide to attend the festivities.