#38: Sassafras

Bird number: 61
Date: April 15, 2012
Wood: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Source: Southern Indiana

My friend in Indiana sent me a box with several hunks of wood–cutoffs from his chainsaw carving work. Some of the woods (butternut and redbud, especially) split so badly while drying that I wasn’t able to use them. But this sassafras, a piece of beech, the Black Locust, and perhaps one or two more survived relatively unscathed.

Sassafras is grown as an ornamental tree. In the past, the wood was used for fence posts and rails, small boats, ox yokes, and miscellaneous purposes. Apparently its use is somewhat limited by scarcity and small size; the trees rarely exceed two feet in diameter.

Dried and ground Sassafras leaves called filé powder, an ingredient in filé gumbo. The oil extracted from the root bark is used in fragrances and food, and in aromatherapy. The oil also was used in root beer, and sassafras tea is made from steeping the bark. However, commercial use of safrole (the primary ingredient in sassafras oil) is banned because it’s considered a potential carcinogen. The oil is also used in making some illicit drugs, so its sale is monitored by the DEA.

I’m just carving the stuff. As far as I can determine, there’s no restriction on that.

I carved this piece with a knife while at my woodcarving club meeting earlier this month. The wood is reasonably soft and well behaved. For some reason, it reminded me of carving sycamore. The rotten spot there on the left side of the head adds character.

I know several people who carve sassafras regularly. It’s commonly used for canes or walking sticks, and others carve wood spirits. Those who carve sassafras are quite fond of it for some reason. Apparently, the wood has a tendency to split while drying (all woods do, but I hear that sassafras is especially bad). The piece I got seems to have been dried already. I had no trouble at all.

I have a few chunks left over. None is large enough to carve another bird, but I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with it.

#37: Oregon Myrtle

Bird number: 60
Date: April 15, 2012
Wood: Oregon Myrtle (Umbellularia californica)
Source: Gift

A friend I traded carving wood with sent me this cutout. She had organized a comfort birds project with her carving club, and one of the people who participated wanted to reward my gift (I sent some wood for them to use for their project) with a gift of his own. So I got this cutout.

The person who sent it called it Oregon Myrtle. In California, they call this California Bay Laurel. It’s not at all related to the myrtles. It’s in the same family as the Bay Laurel, but not closely related. You can use the leaves from the California Bay Laurel in much the same way as you’d use bay leaves in cooking, although the California Bay has a much stronger flavor.

The cutout was from a pattern that’s slightly different from mine, so the bird’s shape is different. The body is more full and the tail is wider. I might try modifying my pattern again to approximate this one, just for some variety.

This wood is harder than what I would normally carve with a knife. I had thrown this cutout into my little carving bag and while I was out one day I started whittling on it. I ended up completing the carving with a knife, but it was somewhat difficult. If I carve Oregon Myrtle again, I’ll probably do it with power.

I’m a little bit disappointed in the color of the finished bird. The wood is actually more of a grey color, and I was hoping that would show when I put the finish on it. I’m starting to think that I need a different finish. It’s still a bit grey, but there’s more brown than I thought there would be.

Nice stuff, though. If I get the opportunity to carve it again, I’ll use a different finish. One that, I hope, won’t affect the color so much.

Making a bird, Part 4: Sanding and finishing

This is the fourth and last part in a series showing how I carve and finish my birds. The other parts are:

Preparing the Block
The Cutout

There’s not much I can say about sanding. After I finished with the diamond burr, I cut a square of 120 grid sandpaper and used it to smooth the figure. As I said in the previous post, the diamond burr works well for removing the really high spots and deep scratches, but isn’t very good for smoothing a larger surface. At least, I’m not that good with it. I always end up with a wavy surface. So I use the 120 grit sandpaper to smooth the figure.

After I’ve finished with the 120 grit sandpaper, I move up to 150 or 180, then to 220 grit. Here’s the figure after 220 grit sanding.

Before I complete sanding, I drill the hole for the hanger, and engrave the bird number and my name on the bottom. The picture below shows the bird with a mark on its back where I’ll drill the hole.

After I drill the hole (about 1/2 inch deep, using a 1/32 inch drill bit connected to my little battery powered rotary tool), I switch to an engraving bit and engrave my name on the bottom of the bird. Then I sand again with 220 grit. At this point I decide how smooth I want the figure. 220 grit is plenty smooth, but I typically will go to at least 320, and often finish by sanding with 400 grit wet/dry paper and a little water. That makes for a nice smooth finish.

I’ve gone as high as 1,200 grit (wet) on some of the harder woods. It makes for an almost glass-smooth finish. But it really is overkill.

When I started this project, I was using a small eye screw for the hanger. But those eye screws were slightly too large for the figure, and I didn’t much like the the silver (stainless steel, aluminum, whatever) finish. I’ve since begun using smaller pins that I picked up in the jewelry findings section of a big-box craft store (not sure if it was Michael’s or Hobby Lobby).

These pins are two inches long and slightly less than 1/32 inch in diameter. I cut the pin to something between 1/2 and 3/4 inch long, test fit it, then put a drop of super glue on it and push it into the hole.

If I’m feeling especially fastidious, I’ll try to clean up the bit of glue that seeps out around the pin. Usually I’ll just leave it, unless I somehow got a whole lot of glue that will leave a noticeable bump. I let the glue dry for an hour or so before I continue.

I should note here that the super glue is strong enough to hold this bird figure when it’s hanging, but it won’t hold if you put much stress on it. You especially don’t want to twist the pin in the hole after the glue is set. That will break the glue joint and you’ll have to re-glue it.

I like simple finishes, so I typically go with a wax or oil/wax mixture. I’ve used Howard Feed ‘n Wax (mixture of orange oil, beeswax, and carnauba wax) on most of my birds. For this one, I selected MinWax paste finishing wax. Following the directions on the package, I applied some of the wax, let it set for a while, and then buffed it with a soft cloth.

If you decide to go the MinWax route, do yourself a favor and buy a smaller can. I’ve had this stuff for six years and it’s not even half empty. If you make small things like I do, a little container of wax is going to last you a long, long time.

And here’s the bird a couple of days after I buffed off the wax.

And that’s how I take a block of wood and turn it into a stylized bird. It doesn’t take as long as you might think. Now that I have the steps down, I can go from raw block to finished bird with maybe an hour of work. Less than that with a soft wood like this Western Red Cedar. The most time consuming parts are the carving and the first bit of sanding. Getting the figure smooth can take longer than the carving! After that, there’s not much work to do.

The finish work is spread out over a couple of hours because I have to wait for the figure to dry after wet sanding, for the glue to dry, and for the finish to dry. But the amount of work I have to do between times is very small.

I’ve carved several of these birds with a knife, as well. The carving takes a bit more time, depending on the wood’s hardness, but everything else takes about the same.

Making a bird, Part 3: Carving

This is the third in a short series about going from raw wood to finished bird figure. You might want to read the first two parts, Preparing the Block and The Cutout.

When it comes time to carve, I have two choices: a knife, or the Foredom power carver. When I started the project, I thought I’d carve all of the birds with the Foredom, but it’s rather inconvenient to lug that thing around. I can stuff a bird cutout and a knife in my pocket and have something to whittle on at odd moments.

The Western Red Cedar is certainly soft enough to work with a knife, but I chose to use the power carver for this exercise. For these softer woods, I start with a sanding drum with an 80 grit sleeve.

If I’m working with a harder wood, I’ll start with an aggressive carbide bit. The one I use (the only one I have, currently) is this Typhoon.

That Typhoon cutter really is amazing. One can remove a lot of wood very quickly with that thing. It doesn’t take long to ruin a cutout, especially one of soft wood. There are less aggressive carbide burrs, and I’ll eventually get some. But for now I reserve that thing for harder woods or when I need to remove a lot of material. The 80 grit sander is a little slower, but I’m less likely to destroy something with it. When I’m working with a harder wood, I’ll use the Typhoon for rough shaping, then go to the 80 grit sander for more shaping, and smoothing the deep scratches made by the Typhoon.

Remember I said that lugging the Foredom around is inconvenient? More inconvenient is lugging around all the safety equipment and the dust collector. Here I am getting ready to carve. I’m wearing a dust filter, safety goggles, and ear protection. The power carver plus vacuum (for dust collection) make quite a racket, and I’ve found that I can concentrate better if I can attenuate that noise. If I’m going to be working for an extended period, I’ll use ear plugs rather than the plastic ear muffs. They block more noise and are less cumbersome.

If you look back up at the first picture, showing the bird cutout and the Foredom, you’ll notice that I’ve drawn lines from chin to back to outline the head, and a center line down the middle of the figure’s back. There’s also a center line on the bottom of the bird. The center line helps me maintain symmetry. I struggle with symmetry, and I’d be completely lost without the center line.

The first thing I do is rough shape the figure’s head and beak.

The point here is to form the basic head shape, which I use to guide myself in carving the rest of the figure. This also frees the shoulders so that I can shape them in the next step.

I’m not concerned at this point with getting things exact, and I don’t worry much about smoothing. That will come later.

The next step is to shape the body. I work my way around the body, taking a little from the left top, then right top, right bottom, left bottom, trying to keep it symmetrical as I go along. I’ve found that to be easier than shaping one side completely and then trying to make the other side match.

(click for larger view)

One of the disadvantages of the sanding drum and of the flat-head Typhoon is that the ends tend to form hard lines in the wood when I’m outlining the head. Once I have the head and body shaped about the way I want them, I turn the tool sideways to smooth the separation between head and body.

 (click for larger view)

Making that separation forces me to re-shape the head a bit, which is the primary reason I start by making the head larger than it needs to be.

After I’ve rough shaped the head and body, I shape the tail. That’s the easiest part of the whole process. I then switch to a 120 grit sanding drum for more detailed shaping, and to remove the deep scratches left by the 60 grit sander. Here’s the result, after finishing with the 120 grit sander.

 (Click for larger view)

I tried something new this time. In the past, I’ve gone from 120 grit sander to hand sanding. But I often have trouble with scratches around the beak and in the chest area where the wood is hardest. (It’s harder there because I’m working on the end grain.) This time, I thought I’d try out the 220 grit diamond burrs to see if I could smooth things a bit more before hand sanding.

The picture looks a little odd because you’re looking at the bird through my magnifier. That lighted magnifying glass is a very good thing to have. With it, I could see all of the little scratches in the hard-to-reach places, and the diamond burr made quick work of them. I also used the diamond burr to smooth the rest of the figure as much as possible. It’s too small to do a great job on larger surfaces, but it removes most of the high spots and deeper scratches.

The figure is now ready for sanding.

Part 4: Sanding and finishing

#36: Apple

Bird number: 58
Date: April 5, 2012
Wood: Apple (Malus domestica)
Source: Trade

I don’t know for certain that this wood is from Malus domestica, as it was labeled simply “apple” when I got it. But typically people will write “wild apple” or “crab apple” if the wood came from something other than a domestic apple tree. In any case, my understanding is that the wood from all of the Malus species is quite similar.

Like many other fruit woods, apple is very hard and difficult to carve by hand. To me, it seemed quite similar to apricot and pear. It’s beautiful stuff, though. The only other thing I’ve carved from apple is a small spoon about five inches long.

I like all the figuring in this piece. I’m not sure what caused all the different colors, but the result is striking. It reminds me a lot of the Apricot bird.

Apples are among the most widely cultivated fruits in the world, and almost all commercial production is from M. domestica. There are more than 7,500 known cultivars of this single species, resulting in a dizzying variety of characteristics. But almost all of them come from trees of the same species that have been selected for particular traits. It’s kind of like dog breeds. The miniature poodle and the Great Dane are the same species but have much different traits due to centuries of selective breeding.

I really do like the appearance of fruit woods, and typically will take whatever somebody will give me. They’re a little tough to carve, but they hold detail well and look just beautiful.

#35: Catalpa

Bird number: 57
Date: April 5, 2012
Wood: Catalpa (Catalpa)
Source: Trade

Catalpa is a genus of flowering trees common in the warm temperate regions of the U.S., Caribbean, and East Asia. There are at least two dozen different species, and I don’t know which one this piece of wood came from.

It’s a fairly popular carving wood because it’s soft and easy to work. Had I not been carving several birds assembly line style that day, I would have set this one aside to carve with a knife. It fuzzed up under my carbide bit, but not nearly as bad as the Sumac did.

I don’t have much to say about catalpa. It’s fine to work with and finished up nice. It’s kind of like a lighter Chestnut. I suspect that, like Chestnut, it wouldn’t hold fine detail. The wood really does have a slightly gold hint to it, although not as much as these pictures would lead you to believe.

I hope I run across catalpa again. I’d like to try carving it with a knife, and the color would be perfect for a figure I have in mind.

Making a bird, Part 2: The cutout

This is the second in a short series of posts describing how I create a stylized bird from a chunk of wood. You might want to read the first part, Preparing the block.

At the end of the previous post, I had created a block from a raw chunk of wood. The next step is to copy the bird pattern onto the wood and then cut it out.

The pattern I’m using is below. The pattern was originally created by Frank Faust, and a version of it was published in Woodcarving Illustrated Magazine in the Winter 2011 issue. My pattern is a slightly modified version of Frank’s. He has given me permission to publish it here.

There are several different ways to attach a pattern to a block of wood. If you’re only making one of something, perhaps the best way is to print the pattern on paper, and then glue it to the block with spray glue or a glue stick. I’ve also taped a pattern to the block using clear packing tape.

If you’re making many copies of something, printing all those patterns gets to be a pain in the neck. I printed the pattern on some thick stock and then trace it onto the wood with a pencil. The pattern gets beat up with use, and I’ve had to replace it twice in the course of carving almost 60 birds.

Another option is to print one copy of the pattern and then make a “master pattern” cutout from some thin (1/8″ or 1/16″ thick) stock.

However you do it, you want to end up with the pattern transferred to your block, like this.

Ignore the other bird tail in the picture. I originally tried to put the bird on the other end of the block, but then I noticed a small crack that might have extended into the bird’s body. So I used this end.

It’s important to align the beak with the edge of the wood on both sides, and to get the pattern straight on the wood. Otherwise your side profile won’t match the top profile, and you’ll have to do some creative interpretation once you start carving. That’s not impossible or even especially difficult, but you’re better off starting with balanced cutout.

With the pattern transferred, I cut the block to size (length and width) and then prepared to cut out the top view on the bandsaw. Note that I’ve changed to a 1/4 inch, 4 TPI blade. I prefer a 3/16 inch blade for this kind of work, but I didn’t have one in the shop. The 1/4 inch blade can make the curved cuts, but just barely. The 3/16 inch blade lets me make a tighter curve. Here are before and after pictures.

What I have at this point is a block that’s two inches tall, cut to the shape of the top view. I need to cut out the side view, but I have the same problem I had when I started: there’s no flat side to place against the saw table. The way I do it is to tape the sides back onto the cutout with clear packing tape, making a block again.

If you look closely (click on the image to get a much larger view), you can see the tape. You can also see the lines where I had cut out the top view.

I can now turn the block run it through the saw to cut out the side view. Once that’s done and I pull all the pieces apart, you can see the bird cutout in the middle.

Now I’m ready to start carving.

Part 3: Carving

Making a bird, Part 1: Preparing the block

Several have asked for more information about how I make these birds. I’ve been meaning to post about that, and over the weekend I spent some time taking step-by-step pictures. I’ll do a series of posts that describe the steps and show pictures.

An online carving friend sent me some wood to include in the project. One piece is what he called Rainbow Red Cedar. This is Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) that has a particularly striking grain pattern. This is what the piece of wood looked like when I took it out of the box.

The piece of wood is nine inches long, and varies from a little less than two, to a little more than three inches thick. It’s something less than four inches wide. I cut the bird patterns from a block that is approximately 2″ x 2″ x 4.5″. So the first order of business is to get a block of the appropriate size.

During this stage of the process, I’m using my Craftsman 3/4 HP bandsaw with a 1/2 inch, 4 TPI (teeth per inch) resaw blade. For the Western Red Cedar, which is reasonably soft, I could use a 3/16″ or 1/4″ blade (3 or 4 TPI), but I’ve found it easier to cut a straight line with the 1/2″ blade, and the smaller blades tend to break more easily in harder woods or thicker pieces.

There are other ways to do what I’m doing here. A table saw is a good choice if you have a flat side to start with, and if the wood isn’t thicker than the blade. And a ripping fence for the bandsaw would be a definite plus for getting a straight line. I don’t have either, so I do what I can with what I have.

In order to cut the wood on my bandsaw, I need at least one reasonably flat side. Otherwise it’s likely that the wood will roll when I’m running it through the saw. I did that once when I first got the saw. It kinked the blade and gave me quite a fright. I’m lucky I didn’t lose a finger, or worse.

Don’t think that you’re strong enough to prevent the blade from grabbing a log were it to roll on you. Even a small saw with a 1/2 horsepower motor has a lot more torque than you can produce. If the log rolls even a little bit, the blade will catch it and pull it out of your hands. The results are unpredictable, but nothing good can come of it. At best, you’ll ruin a $10 bandsaw blade. At worst, the blade will break and the free end will flap around cutting whatever is nearby.

So how do I make a flat side on a non-flat log? By attaching one.

Here, I’ve attached a piece of 2″ x 4″ lumber to the wood with three screws. I now have a flat surface formed by the two inches of lumber and a few contact points on the wood. That’s stable enough that I can run the block through the saw to create a reasonably flat side.

The same trick works with raw logs, too. Here’s a 4″ hackberry log attached to a 2×4.

With one flat side, I can remove the 2×4 and use the flat side as the basis for flatting the other three sides so I end up with a block. Here you can see where I marked the lines along which I want to cut in order to make two more flat sides.

Cutting the last side was just a little tricky. The wood wasn’t quite two inches thick at its narrowest point, and I needed at least two inches in order to fit the bird pattern. So I drew a line on the side, where the wood was a little more than two inches thick.

This resulted in a block that’s not completely flat along one edge, but that’s okay. I can just cut off that excess. I didn’t get a picture of the block after making that final cut, so you’ll just have to imagine the block.

You should note that my block’s edges aren’t perfectly flat, nor are the corners perfectly square. It’s nearly impossible to cut a a perfectly straight line on a bandsaw if you don’t have a fence. You can, however, cut a reasonably straight line and make a block that’s close enough to square so that you can do a simple pattern cutout.

Next time, I’ll show how to make the bird cutout from the squared-off block.

Part 2: The Cutout


#34: Spanish Cedar

Bird number: 56
Date: April 5, 2012
Wood: Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata)
Source: Trade

The name “Spanish Cedar” is confusing. The tree isn’t a cedar and it doesn’t come from Spain. Cedrela is a genus of seven different species in the Mahogany family. I suspect it’s called “cedar” because it has a distinctive odor.

Cedrela odorata is the most common species. It is an important timber tree, providing a light, strong wood that is resistant to termites and other wood boring insects. And it smells good. You’ve probably smelled it if you’ve ever had a wooden cigar box or been in a humidor at a cigar store. The wood is also commonly used for small articles to be stored with clothes–much as we use Eastern Red Cedar for chests, closets, and things that we store in closets or clothes drawers.

Cedrela is also used for the necks of some guitars.

As I did with the Eastern Red Cedar bird, I left this one unfinished. I sanded it smooth but didn’t want to put anything on the wood that would mask its odor.

The scratches and pits you see are from the carbide bit on my Foredom power carver. The wood turned out to be a lot softer than I realized, and I was a a little too aggressive when carving. I could have sanded the scratches out, but the bird was already thinner than I had planned.

Cedrela odorata is CITES-listed, meaning that there are restrictions on international trade of wood from its native habitat (southern Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean). The wood has become naturalized in some parts of Africa, Asia, and Hawaii, and is also used as an ornamental tree. As I understand it, there are no restrictions on trading in wood from those areas. For reasons I don’t understand, it’s apparently not possible to grow Cedrela commercially (on a plantation).

The other six species of Cedrela, by the way, have similar wood but they’re not commonly used due to scarcity.

I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of this. I’d like to try knife-carving it, and I love the smell.

#33: Staghorn Sumac

Bird number: 54
Date: April 2, 2012
Wood: Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
Source: Trade

This is another bird carved from a blank provided by Frank Faust. It’s the first I’ve worked with Staghorn Sumac, although I’ve worked before with Fire Leaf (or Flame Leaf) Sumac, Rhus copallina, before. My recollection of the Fire Leaf Sumac is that it’s quite a bit harder than this stuff. But I was carving that with a knife. I carved the bird with the Foredom, and it tended to fuzz up quite a bit.

For some reason I had trouble getting this bird’s shape right, and getting a smooth surface (sanding) was a real problem. I put a finish on it a few days ago and then noticed quite a few spots where I hadn’t smoothed it sufficiently. I’ll just say that getting an oil/wax finish off a soft wood takes quite a bit of sanding.

You might not be able to see it very well, but the wood does have a greenish tint. It was much more green before I put the finish on it. The finish made it more yellowish.

Staghorn Sumac is a hardy tree that has a lot of different uses. I had no idea that so many parts of it were useful. I’d want to make sure the tree I was getting leaves or berries from wasn’t poison sumac before I started making tea. Or before I started carving it, for that matter. Poison sumac is, according to some, the most toxic plant species in the United States.

I know of a few people who carve Staghorn Sumac, but it’s more commonly used for turning and for lumber. I have a pen that somebody turned from Staghorn Sumac. It’s unfortunate that I only got this one piece of sumac. I’d like to carve some more of it and experiment with different finishes to see if I can get the green to come out more.