01 August, 2013

Tutorial on Carving Peg People: Mother Earth and her Root Children (Felted Playscape: Part II)

Carved wooden peg people
Created Summer, 2013

Once I finished the playscape, I began to work on the characters who live, learn, and play there.  I decided to create some of the characters from one of my favorite stories, The Story of the Root Children.

There are a few different versions of this story you might know. I like them all, but I find Ned Bittinger's paintings (in the Audrey Wood version) particularly enchanting.  

from When the Root Children Wake Up by Audrey Wood

I could not hope to make anything 1/100 as beautiful as his works, but looking at them inspired me to try something I have not attempted before, carving wooden peg people.  

I am not a stranger to peg people.  I love using them in the classroom.  We use them for a "first day of school" project.  The children paint and decorate one to represent themselves.  They are then strung on  a string and hung on hooks outside each center area. When I was teaching at a Catholic school, I used peg people to create a classroom creche.  I also painted a few in a whimsical way, and then added them to the block area.

But to give peg people a little extra personality, a little extra zing if you will, they might need a wee bit more than paint.  Shaping peg people (as I have discovered after creating 10 of them) gives them a little more personality.  Children have marvelous imaginations and certainly do not require the level of detail I have given my creations, but I enjoy making them.  Plus in the past, our students did seem to especially enjoy playing with toys they knew I had created with our class in mind. 

When preparing to begin this project, I pulled out my trusty dremel, my sand paper, and my little metal file.  If you want to follow along with this "tutorial", you can use a dremel or any other wood carving or shaping tools you prefer.  Oh, and I also used a set of earplugs (the dremel is LOUD), a pair of safety glasses, and at times, a dust mask. I did not want any sawdust or pieces of wood in my nose, eyes, or mouth.  Yuch.  

Now . . .

1.  Before beginning, closely examine your peg person.  Look at the wood grain and choose the location of your person's face keeping the wood grain in mind.  The last thing you want is for the wood grain to mar the face of your creation once you add your polish or wood oil.  

**Note:  Keep an open mind about the character you are creating.  I have had a specific character in mind when I began and then decided the wood "wanted to be" someone else, half way through my shaping process!  

2.  Check out some websites with "how to draw/sculpt a human head."  I am certainly FAR from an expert on this, but experimenting and trying new techniques has been fun.  I like:


The pictures are much more detailed than you will need for this shaping project, but it really helped me to see how far a human's forehead, nose, and chin might stick out, the shapes of the back of a person's head etc.

3.  Draw basic features on the face with a pencil even if you want your final product to be more open ended and without a face.  It helps with the shaping of the head.  Draw on the hairstyle you think you will want as well.

4.  Draw on the location of your characters' arms or whatever else you think you want to add.  I added a tiny baby to this mother's arms.  (Photo above)

5.  Begin shaping your character's head keeping in mind who you think you are creating.  Remember . . .
  • Leave room for your character's hair - sometimes hair may be bigger than your character's face
  • Keep in mind that men usually have wider jaws and thicker necks than women do - so sand slowly.  Once wood is removed, you can't put it back on!  
  • Begin using your dremel with the sanding tool, at medium speed.  I found that if the speed was too slow the sanding bit slipped about on the wood too easily, and if the speed was too fast, I sanded the wood away much too quickly.  Once you get the hang of shaping, you can always turn up the speed.  

6.  Shape the sides of your character's face along the cheeks and forehead, leaving the hairline intact.  You can come back to "style" the hair, later. 

7.  Move downwards and shape the chin.  Shape the neck as much as you can - or wish. (You will need a different tip for the dremel, to shape the neck later so if you don't want to deal with the neck right now, it is not a big deal.)

8.  Shape the shoulders.  Peg people have shoulders like linebackers so if you are not creating a football player, you may have to sand off quite a bit of wood in this step.  

9.  Move down your peg person and begin to shape the chest, arms, and lower body (which is covered with a dress in both of the above examples.)

** Note:  I have created 9 females and 1 male so far.  As I do when I am needle felting, I have a much easier time creating women in long full skirts.  Men wear pants (or trousers), and carving 2 legs (and making the peg person balance in them) is pretty tricky.  

**Also Note:  See how the blonde girl looks a bit as if she is leaning in to hear what the dark haired girl is saying?  If you want your character to stands bolt upright, watch your character's waistline.  If the front is lower than the back or vice versa . . .

10.  Now that the general shaping is complete, change the tip on your dremel to this one:
Our dremel is pretty ancient and honestly, I haven't a clue where the directions are so I just sort of tried out a few tips and this one seemed to work the best.  

  and begin work on your character's neck, chin (if it needs more work), hair, arms and hands etc.  This is the tip for more detailed work.  This is also the time for you to bring out your inner hair stylist.  Finish up and/or add details to your character's hair style including ridges for parts, hair tucked behind ears, or wisps of hair escaping from ponytails.  You can also add extra details with other materials.  I used one more tip for the dremel when I created this little girl, the small drill bit.  I drilled 2 small holes in the bottom sides of her head and glued in two leather braids.  I love how the braids add to this character, and I am delighted with the way she turned out.  

11.  Use your hand file to add final details and smooth out lines that are too defined.  Make sure the neck is the same thickness on both sides and that your character's head and arms are as symmetrical as possible.  Once that is complete, use a fine grit sand paper to smooth over your whole peg.  Don't worry if it smooths over some of your tiniest details.  You can put them back in with a woodburner later, if you wish.  

12.  Optional:  Use a wood burning tool to add other details.  You might want to show the neckline of your character's shirt or dress, sleeve cuffs, fabric creases, or buttons.  You might want to add in pieces of hair or define the location of a hair part.  

13.  Optional:  Use non-toxic watercolor or acrylic paint (watercolors are softer, but allow the woodgrain to show) to add color to your character.  

14.  After the paint is dry, use steel wool to smooth out any wood grain that may have been raised in the painting.

15.  Seal with non-toxic natural wood polish or mineral oil.  

16.  Add extra pieces to give your character extra extra zip!  How about a felted hat or a dried chinese lantern lantern?  

(By the way, this lantern was dried and sent to me by my dear friend, Sandra.  Check out her gorgeous items on Etsy, here. ) 

Okay, so that is generally how to carve a peg person - to give it that little extra je ne sais quoi.  If you have really been paying attention here you have probably noticed the figures I have shown you so far in this post have NOT been the root children.  That is because they were made from the very smallest peg people.  I love how tiny they are and how they fit perfectly in my felted playscape.  But they were a little too small for my tutorial because the details cannot easily be seen. So now you have seen the larger version of carved peg people in this post (and hopefully the details are slightly more visible than they would have been otherwise) and once again, here are my tiny adorable root children.  Tah dah!  Hi there, guys!

And in case you missed them in their felted playscape . . .

I hope you find that helpful and one day, if you find yourself in need of a little project, 
take painting and decorating a peg person a step further, carve it! And let me know how it goes!  


  1. these are great, I definitely want to have a go at some one day!

  2. Wow! Your peg people are amazing!

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Karen. I am blown away by your talent. Is there any chance that you would be willing to make a few of these to sell to those of us that are less talented? I would *love* to chat with you about the possibility if you are at all interested. lindajordantodd (at) (opposite of cold) mail (dot) com


Thank you for your comments. They are always much appreciated. : )