#43: Butternut

Bird number: 66
Date: May 30, 2012
Wood: Butternut (Juglans cinerea)
Source: Purchase

A friend of mine sent me some butternut a while back, but the wood split and I couldn’t get a bird out of it. Butternut is a popular carving wood (second only to basswood, at least among the carvers I know) and fairly inexpensive, so I picked up a piece when I was at the Texas Woodcarvers Guild Spring Roundup back in April.

Butternut (also known as White Walnut) is harder than basswood, but not so hard that basswood carvers find it difficult to carve. And, unlike basswood, it has beautiful grain and color. Carvers who are tired of painting their carvings or who want to carve something stylistic that shows off wood grain often get a piece of butternut. Searching Google Images for “butternut carving” will show you many good examples.

Oddly, I didn’t carve this one with a knife. I had cut several blanks and was working with the Foredom, assembly-line style.

Butternut is apparently becoming more expensive to obtain commercially. A beetle or fungus or some other disease is attacking the trees. The piece of butternut I have here is clear, but I’ve seen many pieces that have small wormholes throughout. In the past, wormholes indicated wood that had been found dead (lying on the ground, decomposing), but people tell me that now it’s not uncommon to find live trees with wormholes.

I think I selected the wrong kind of finish for this piece. I don’t particularly like glossy finishes, but I think this particular bird would have looked a lot better with a clear gloss polyurethane finish. I have some more butternut and will have to try that on the next thing I carve from it.

#42: Beech

Bird number: 65
Date: May 30, 2012
Wood: Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
Source: Indiana

This is the last of the woods that a friend sent me earlier this year. He also sent some butternut and some redbud, but those cracked so badly that I couldn’t get a bird out of them. Even this bird had a couple of cracks that I had to fill with epoxy.

I don’t have a lot to say about the beech. There was nothing distinctive about working with the wood. It carves like many others that I’ve worked. Sanding was no problem, and it finishes quite well. What surprised me was the varied coloring and figuring in this piece. I had no idea, when I first looked at the log that Dan had sent me, that it would look this beautiful on the inside.

Commercially, beech is used for flooring, containers, handles, furniture, and wooden ware (utensils, cutting boards, etc.). Due to its hardness, it was not widely harvested before the advent of the chainsaw. As a result, there are large stands of old growth beech still in existence.

People do carve beech, although it’s not as commonly used as maple, walnut, and the fruit woods. The wood is a little on the hard side, which would explain why few carvers work with it. I could carve it with a knife, and might do so on a smaller piece that I have left over. I carved this bird with the Foredom.

#41: Desert Ironwood

Bird number: 64
Date:  May 30, 2012
Wood: Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)
Source: Gift from a friend

The first thing to note about Desert Ironwood is that it’s hard. Really hard. The Janka hardness is about 4,000, which makes it by far the hardest wood I’ve worked. (Mesquite, by contrast, has a hardness rating of about 2,350). The wood also is dense. With a specific gravity of about 1.20, the wood doesn’t float.

I actually tried to carve this stuff with a knife, just to see what it was like. It’s not impossible, but I’d need to re-sharpen my knives with a much steeper bevel if I really wanted to hand carve this stuff. I chose instead to use the power carver.

The other thing you’ll notice about Desert Ironwood is that it stinks when you’re working it. The dust is known to be toxic, so I was careful to wear my air filter when I was working with the wood, but even then I could get a whiff of the stuff. And when I removed the filter after cutting on the bandsaw, the odor was very strong. It’s an unpleasant odor, but not as bad as, say, wet crape myrtle. That stuff reminded me of a poorly maintained outhouse.

Working the ironwood with the Foredom, I had to be careful to keep the speed low. Running the bit at high speed tended to create too much friction, burning the wood. A slower speed meant that it took more time to carve, but it didn’t burn. Surprisingly, hand sanding went fairly quickly. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but ironwood seemed to sand much easier than, say, Purpleheart.

In any event, the wood is lovely.

The piece that my friend sent was a log about four inches long and about five inches in diameter, including the bark. The bird’s tail is slightly shorter than the standard bird. There also is a crack on the left side of the breast, which I filled with epoxy. It’s apparently very difficult to get large pieces of Desert Ironwood that are crack-free.

Ironwood grows in the southwestern United States and in extreme northwest Mexico. It is most commonly associated with the Sonoran Desert. The tree is protected on public lands, and most of its range in the U.S. is public land. As a result, and because it’s a slow growing tree, it’s rather difficult to come by. Purchased commercially, the stuff is very expensive. It would cost me about $10 per bird if I were to buy this wood.

Unfortunately, I don’t have another piece large enough to carve a bird from. I do, however, have some smaller pieces that I’ll do something with. The wood is too beautiful to just let it lie there, unused.

#40: Cypress knee

Bird number: 63
Date: May 1, 2012
Wood: Cypress knee (probably Taxodium distichum)
Source: Gift from friend

A cypress knee is a woody projection from the root of a cypress tree. There is no clear consensus on the purpose of these projections. It was thought that their purpose is to provide oxygen to the roots, but experimental evidence doesn’t bear that out. Another hypothesis is that they exist to provide structural support in the muddy soil of the swamps where cypress trees are commonly found.

Not surprisingly, cypress wood is very water resistant. Wood from prehistoric trees is mined from swamps in the Southern U.S. and sold for specialized purposes such as wood carving.

In wood carving, cypress knees are most often carved into wood spirits, Santa figures, or caricature faces. A Google Images search for “cypress knee” returns many examples of both. I can’t recall seeing any other kind of carving made from the cypress knee. Until now.

The wood is light and soft, and carves easily with a sharp knife. It finishes up beautifully, too, which makes me wonder why people paint it! To each his own, I guess.

I enjoyed carving the cypress knee. It got me to wondering if the trunk or limb wood is similar in character. Guess I’ll have to track some down and find out.

#39: Western Redcedar

Bird number: 62
Date: April 30, 2012
Wood: Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)
Source: Western Canada

This is the fourth bird I’ve carved from wood called “cedar.” Of those, two were junipers, one is in the Mahogany family (Spanish Cedar), and this one is in the Cypress family, Cupressaceae. None of them are true cedars. I’m beginning to think that the word “cedar,” as commonly used, means, “wood that smells good.”

Western Redcedar grows in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a big tree, typically more than 200 feet tall and often exceeding 10 feet in diameter. It was an important tree for the area’s indigenous peoples, who used it for housing, totem poles, canoes, masks, boxes, baskets, ropes, ceremonial objects, and many other things.

The wood is straight grained with few knots, is strong and light (although it can be brittle), has a pleasant smell, and is exceptionally resistant to decay. Today it is used extensively for outdoor construction, for the framing of lightweight boats, and for lining closets and chests. It’s also a popular wood for making guitar soundboards.

It makes a nice bird, too.

I’ve carved three of these birds from the Western Redcedar. I did the first in my tutorial, using the power carver. This one, I carved with a knife. The wood really is a joy to work with a knife. It’s relatively soft, and cuts cleanly provided your knife is sharp. The straight grain is nice, too. End grain is a bit harder to cut, and it really shows when your knife is dull. Sanding this wood is also very easy. Plus, it smells nice when working it.

I have a few more small pieces of Western Redcedar that I’ll do something with, and I’m also going to see about getting more at some point. It’s not much harder than basswood, and it’s much prettier. I can think of many things I’d like to make from it.