#10: Purpleheart

Bird number: 30
Date: December 24, 2011
Wood: Purpleheart (Peltogyne)
Source: Woodcraft store

Shortly after I started on this project, Debra said that she wanted me to carve a bird from Purpleheart. Since the stuff doesn’t grow around here and I don’t know anybody who’s willing to give me a good sized chunk of Purpleheart, I went to Woodcraft and bought a bowl turning square (6 x 6 x 2 inches). I don’t usually pay for carving wood, since there’s plenty of good stuff just lying around for the taking.

You can definitely see some purple in the wood, but it’s not the deep rich purple that you typically see in pictures. It will be, in a month or three. The bowl turning blank was seriously purple before I cut into it. I ran into this same problem a few years ago when I carved a little Purpleheart bear. If it doesn’t turn purple, I guess I’ll just have to carve another one. I have three more cutouts.

Purpleheart is hard. It typically takes me 15 or 20 minutes to rough-carve one of these birds from the cutout. This one took at least 30 minutes. Some of that time was due to me being a little extra careful because my supply of Purpleheart is limited, but mostly it’s because the wood is so dang hard. That aggressive Typhoon bit I have on the power carver tended to burn the wood, it was so hard.

On the Janka scale, Purpleheart comes in at 2,390, and its specific gravity is between 0.79 and 0.86, depending on the source. A cubic foot weighs over 60 pounds. The wood is more dense than Osage orange (meaning that it’s harder to cut), but its side hardness is lower than that of Osage orange. At some point I need to make a post about the difference between Janka hardness (side hardness) and resistance to cutting.

There are 23 different species of Peltogyne, all of which are native to the Central and South American rain forest. Some of the species are endangered. I don’t have any idea which particular species I have here.

I see Purpleheart used more for furniture and other woodworking projects than for carving. Very few people will carve it with knives or gouges. Those who do use gouges usually use mallet tools. I’ve carved only two things from Purpleheart with a knife, and that’s enough for me. You have to be very patient, take thin slices, and strop your blade often. Otherwise you’re going to dull the edge and then probably ruin it by applying too much pressure. Not that I’m speaking from experience . . .

I’ve seen some beautiful things carved and turned from Purpleheart. It’s a distinctive wood, and a beautiful addition to my bird collection. I have three other bird cut out from the piece that I bought. I’m looking forward to carving them.

#9: Mimosa

Bird number: 28
Date: December 22, 2011
Wood: Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)
Source: Neighbor’s dead tree

I’d heard from a wood turner that this mimosa was beautiful wood. I’d been wanting to carve it for over a year, but couldn’t find any. We have a tree in the yard, but there weren’t any dead limbs of sufficient size, and I’m not going to cut up a tree just to feed my carving habit. Last spring I noticed that a neighbor had taken down a dead mimosa tree, so I stopped and asked if I could have some of it. Not surprisingly, he was happy to let me take all I wanted.

It is indeed some beautiful wood.

What surprised me most about this piece of wood was how light it is. I’m used to dark, highly-figured woods being very dense. This stuff is not very dense at all. It’s so easy to cut that I carved this bird with a knife rather than with the Foredom. The only difficulty I had was with the open grain, which is not at all forgiving if you carve against it. It’s been a while since I carved basswood, but the ease with which this cuts reminded me very much of basswood.

I’ve heard that dust from the wood is toxic. It’s tough to find good information. What I know, I posted in my blog earlier this year: Is that wood toxic? Not one to take a chance where my lungs are concerned, I wore my respirator when cutting the blank on the bandsaw, and wore a paper dust mask while I was sanding. I didn’t notice any ill effects.

This is the only type of wood from which Debra didn’t get the first carving. I carved a mimosa bird early on as a gift for the neighbor who gave me the wood. That was before Debra said that she wanted the first example from each type of wood.

I’m surprised that I can’t find more pictures of things carved or turned from mimosa. Google images returns a few nice pieces when I search for [mimosa carving], but only a few. One would expect that a wood this pretty that’s as readily available would be much more popular. It doesn’t seem much good for lumber, but I found it quite nice to carve.

And it is very available around here. The mimosa tree typically lives 20 to 30 years, and there were a lot of them planted in this area when the subdivision was built–about 30 years ago. Our tree is dying (the recent drought was pretty hard on it), and several neighbors’ trees are in pretty bad shape. The neighbor who gave me the limbs last summer has since given me the trunk of the dead tree. It’s about two feet tall and 18 inches in diameter. I’ll have plenty of mimosa for a while.

#8: Black walnut

Bird number: 24
Date: December 18, 2011
Wood: Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
Source: Northern Indiana

A member of the Woodcarving Illustrated forum is a chainsaw carver. He offered to send me some pieces of black walnut, and I took him up on the offer. He also shipped a small amount of cherry, as well. He didn’t ask for anything in return, but I sent him a couple of birds: one from cherry and one from walnut. As usual, though, Debra got the first walnut bird:

I usually carve these birds with the grain running from beak to tail. I thought I’d try an experiment with this one. The grain runs vertically through the figure. It made things a little harder to carve and to sand, but all that end grain made for a much darker-looking bird. It’s difficult to see in these pictures, but there is a grain pattern. The wood isn’t quite black–just a very dark brown.

Black walnut is native to eastern North America, but grows as far west and south as central Texas. There are black walnut trees around here. I’ve been told that the Texas black walnut isn’t as good for carving as what you get up north. I know that’s true for several other types of wood (southern basswood, for example, is darker and more difficult to carve than northern basswood). At some point I’ll get some local walnut and give it a try.

Walnut is a very popular wood for turning, furniture making, flooring, and and even carving. Some say that it’s too hard to carve with a knife, but I rather enjoyed it. I carved Walter the Walnut Whale and this dolphin from black walnut, using just a knife. It’s a bit harder than what basswood carvers are accustomed to, but not as hard as apple or pear. The power carver, of course, had no trouble with this wood.

#7: Cedar elm

Bird number: 21
Date: December 13, 2011
Wood: Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia)
Source: Backyard

The wind took a very large branch off one of our elm trees about three years ago. I had started carving a few months before, and decided I’d keep the branch for carving after I had more experience. I ended up giving away the largest piece, which was about 8 feet long and 12 inches in diameter. I carved two of the smaller pieces, making The Foot and, a year later, a little dog. Most of the rest has been sitting outside behind the garage for three years, curing.

I have to say, I was very surprised at the beauty of this wood. Some wood turners I know have said that they really like working with it, but I’ve never talked to anybody else who’s carved it. Not only is it beautiful to look at, it carves very nicely with the power carver. I don’t know yet how it is to carve with a knife. Carving the foot, above, was mostly sapwood, and those little dog figures don’t give a real good indication.

I really like the twisty grain patterns of the lighter wood here, and the dark streaks in some areas really set it off. This particular figure doesn’t show as much of those dark streaks as some others that I’ve carved since, but I think you get the idea. The two holes on the side in the first picture are worm holes. Although “imperfections,” I think they add a kind of rustic authenticity to the piece.

Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, is native to south central North America. Here in central Texas, it’s almost a weed. It grows everywhere. Little trees shoot up all over the yard. If I didn’t mow regularly, the yard would be full of little elmlets. I regularly have to cut down little trees that come up in flower beds and other places that I don’t mow. The tree is highly susceptible to Dutch Elm Disease, a fungal infection spread by the elm bark beetle. According to Wikipedia, the tree isn’t cultivated very often. Perhaps not, but it spreads like crazy if you don’t take steps to keep it in check.

There’s very little information available about carving cedar elm. There is some information about turning it on a lathe, and a little bit about building boxes or furniture, but it seems that very few people carve it. Those who do work the wood say that it’s beautiful, and the few turned bowls I’ve seen are works of art. Some comments say that the wood is “hard as iron” when dry, but I’ve learned to mistrust those characterizations. So far, I’ve found the wood to be quite nice to work with.

When I completed this bird, I sat back and admired the wood for a while. I’m still partial to mesquite, but I’ll definitely be carving lots more of this cedar elm. One nice thing is that it’s almost as abundant around here as mesquite. I’ll have an essentially unlimited supply.

#6: Mulberry

Bird number: 9
Date: December 7, 2011
Wood: Mulberry (Morus rubra)
Source: Round Rock, TX

My friend Mike has a mulberry tree in his back yard. He trimmed it over the summer and asked if I wanted one of the larger pieces for carving. Of all people, Mike should have known the answer to that. General rule is yes, I want it. Especially if it’s from a fruit tree or if I haven’t carved that type of wood before. Debra has been very understanding about all the random wood I collect. I wonder if she’d be more understanding if she knew how often I turn things down, or don’t stop to pick up limbs and logs I see lying around in different places.

Although the color of mulberry is similar to that of the Osage orange, the woods are quite different. Osage orange is about 50% more dense than mulberry, and is a whole lot harder. With a Janka hardness of only 1,100, mulberry should be rather nice to carve with a knife.

There are many types of mulberry trees, but only one common in North America. This is red mulberry, Morus rubra. I can find all kinds of information about the berries, and have even had mulberry pie, jam, and wine. Information about carving it is pretty scarce. Some say that it’s as hard as apple or pear, but those woods are a lot harder. Apple, for example, has a hardness of about 1,700, compared to Mulberry’s 1,100. I suppose I’ll have to try carving it.

The grain is more open than apple or pear, too, so it probably doesn’t hold detail quite as well as those two. Again, I won’t know until I try carving it myself.

I’m told that the wood will change color to a rich reddish brown within a year. It seems to be a little darker now than when I worked with it a couple of weeks ago. We’ll see what happens over time.

You might have noticed that this is bird number 9, but only the sixth entry for the project. I carved birds 6, 7, and 8 from woods that I’d already used in the Hundred Birds Project. This blog only shows the first bird from each different type of wood. That’s why I number the posts and list the bird number as well. Each bird has its number engraved on the bottom. Bird number 9 is the ninth bird I’ve carved.

#5: Osage orange

Bird number: 5
Date: December 4, 2011
Wood: Osage orange (Maclura pomifera)
Source: Southern Oklahoma

Osage orange, also known as hedge apple, horse apple, bois d’arc, or bodark, is considered a small tree. The fruits are green, orange-sized balls that are apparently edible but not very tasty. The tree is native to southern Oklahoma, southwest Arkansas, and eastern and south central Texas. It’s been naturalized in large parts of the U.S., including most of the Midwest. The piece I have is from southern Oklahoma.

The wood has an unusual color. When I first cut into it with the bandsaw, it was canary yellow. This picture gives you some idea of what it looked like, but the yellow was much more vivid. I’m not good enough with my image editor to adjust the colors properly.

The combination of ultraviolet light and oxygen darkens the wood fairly quickly. Left un-finished, the wood would darken to a brownish orange, much like the color in the center of the top picture. Still beautiful, but not quite as striking as the bright yellow. I’m not sure how this piece will darken with the oil and wax mixture I used for a finish.

The wood is hard. I mean really hard. It rates about 2,760 on the Janka scale, compared to 2,345 for mesquite. Hickory, traditionally considered a very hard wood, comes in at only about 1,800. White oak at about 1,300. Specific gravity for Osage orange is 0.76. A cubic foot of the wood weighs 60 pounds. Trust me, it’s hard. I tried to carve it with a knife once, and gave up.

The piece I made this first bird from had a crack down the center. I noticed it before I started carving, of course, but I didn’t realize just how big the crack was. I carved it anyway, figuring that the crack just adds character. I’ve carved three more birds from this wood, none of which had cracks.

I’ll point out two other things about Osage orange. If you want to know more, you can look it up. The Osage indians used it to make longbows, which is where the French bois d’arc comes from (wood of the bow). Some modern bowyers say that the wood is superior even to yew, which is what the historically famous English longbow was made from.

The other interesting thing is that, when dried, Osage orange has the highest BTU content of any wood. It burns slow and hot.

I got two pieces of this wood. One was a 5″ x 5″ board about two feet long. That’s a piece of it sitting on my bandsaw, and is what I cut my birds from. The other piece is a 4″ or 5″ limb, about 18 inches long. I’m not sure what I’ll do with that, but I’ll definitely carve it. And if I run out, I know where to get more. The tree grows in several places nearby.

#4: Mahogany

Bird number: 4
Date: December 4, 2011
Wood: West Indies Mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni)
Source: St. Croix, Virgin Islands

A friend gave me a couple chunks of mahogany that he got from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. I carved a stylized snake from it about two years ago. It’s hard–harder than most woods I’ve worked with. But it really is beautiful.

I was saving this other chunk of mahogany for something, and the birds seemed to be a good project for it. I ended up with two of them. The other went to a family member.

The term “mahogany” is used to describe many different kinds of tropical hardwood, but there are only three species that are considered “genuine  mahogany.” This is probably Swietenia mahagoni, which grows on the West Indian islands and in parts of Florida. The ranges of the three mahoganies are geographically distinct. The other two grow on the Pacific coast of Central America, and in Central America and South America as far south as Brazil.

Mahogany has been used for furniture building since Colonial days (mid 18th century). The wood is also somewhat rot resistant, making it attractive for boat building. You can find mahogany carvings, but it’s typically carved with power due to its extreme hardness. I’ve carved two mahogany with a knife (the snake, and a little dog figure), and found it somewhat frustrating. The wood isn’t uniformly hard, making it somewhat difficult to work with a knife. It finishes up beautifully, though.

Mahoganies growing in their native habitats are listed by CITES, meaning that they’re protected. However, all three species have been cultivated on lumber farms in Asia, so there is still a commercial source for the lumber. Because the Virgin Islands are U.S. territories, it’s legal to sell mahogany from there in the U.S. There is apparently some active trade going on right now in the form of mahogany harvested from trees taken down by hurricanes a few years ago. As far as I know, standing trees are protected.

I was fortunate to get my hands on some small chunks. If given the chance, I’ll definitely obtain more of this.

#3: Black Cherry

Bird number: 3
Date: December 4, 2011
Wood: Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Source: Southern Oklahoma

This is another bird carved from wood supplied by Debra’s uncle. He’d given me a 3″ x 3″  that was perhaps 8 inches long. I used some of it to make a pair of salad claws for Debra this past summer.

I’ve always liked the natural look of cherry, and thought it crazy that people would stain it a dark brown. I’ve recently learned that there are many different species of cherry, some of which have very dark wood. This bird is American Black Cherry, Prunus serotina.

I have two other chunks of cherry from other sources. One is very similar to this black cherry, but the wood is lighter in color. I don’t know if it is just natural variation in black cherry or if it’s a separate type of tree. The other is primarily off-white, with dark streaks in it, and the wood is much softer than the black cherry. I’m almost certain that it’s a separate species.

One thing I really like about cherry is that it smells so sweet when I’m cutting it. I don’t detect the smell when I’m carving it with a knife, but it’s very strong when I’m cutting the wood on the bandsaw, and detectable but faint when I’m sanding. I don’t know what it smells like when I’m using the power carver on it, as I’m wearing a respirator whenever I start raising dust with that thing.


#2: Cedar

Bird number: 2
Date: December 4, 2011
Wood: Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Source: Antlers OK

Debra’s uncle is a wood worker. He builds tables and such, and mills his own lumber. He milled almost all the lumber that he used to build his house up in Oklahoma. When he found that I had started carving, he was kind enough to give me some pieces of wood, including two large chunks of cedar. This is probably eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana.

The wood has that distinct cedar odor, and feels quite nice in the hand. I typically put an oil and wax finish on my carvings, but didn’t want to do that to this one, because I didn’t want to mask the cedar odor.

I had a heck of a time getting a good finish on this wood. Every time I thought I had it sanded smooth, I’d find another spot that wasn’t quite right. I finally gave up and called it good, but I’m not particularly happy with it. Perhaps I’ll go back to it after I’ve practiced a bit on other pieces of cedar.

This type of cedar is often used for fence posts because it’s very rot resistant. Because moths avoid the wood (I guess they don’t like the smell), it’s often used for lining closets and chests. Many people like the cedar aroma, but some are allergic to it. Sure is pretty, though.

#1: Mesquite

Bird number: 1
Date: December 4, 2011
Wood: Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)
Source: Backyard

Not only is this the first of the birds I carved, it’s the first project that I started and completed with the Foredom power carver.

In Central Texas (actually, most of Texas), “mesquite” refers to honey mesquite, Prosopis glandulosa, a very hardy tree or shrub that is very drought tolerant. A mesquite tree’s root system is very broad and very deep–often much deeper than the tree is tall. Ranchers consider the tree a range weed and will go to great lengths to eradicate it because it steals water from other plants, including the grasses that the cattle feed on.

Honey produced by bees who have been visiting mesquite flowers is very light colored, with a much lighter flavor than, say, clover honey. The mead I made from mesquite honey was by far the best mead I’ve ever tasted.

The most common use of mesquite wood is for barbeque. Mesquite burns slowly and very hot, and the smoke adds a distinct flavor to the food. Mesquite is very commonly used in “Texas style” barbeque. I’ve learned, though, that you have to be careful with mesquite. Cooking steaks over a mesquite fire makes for some delicious steaks. If you smoke a chicken for two hours over mesquite, however, you will taste nothing but the smoke. A little mesquite smoke is good, but you can have too much of a good thing.

Mesquite is a very popular turning wood for making bowls and plates. It’s very hard and stable once cured. Most furniture makers don’t like it much, it seems, although I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps because of its hardness. It’s also difficult to get very large pieces of lumber quality mesquite. That’s too bad, because the mesquite furniture I’ve seen is stunningly beautiful.

Some people carve mesquite, although that’s typically done with power. I’m one of few carvers I know who will use a knife on it. It’s hard, and hard on tools. But the beauty of the wood makes the extra time spent sharpening worthwhile.

Speaking of hard, you might want to read Rat-Tail Joe Explains Why Mesquite Is Hard.