#79: Marblewood

Bird number: 112
Date: October 19, 2012
Wood: Marblewood (Marmaroxylon racemosum)
Source: Woodcraft Store

Wood donations to the 100 Birds project have dwindled and I’m having some trouble finding local species to carve, so I’ve resorted to picking up samples at Woodcraft when I’m in the area. I picked up this Marblewood at the same time I bought the Ebony.

There are at least nineteen species of wood referred to as “Marblewood.” The two most commonly available are Diospyros marmorata, an Ebony that is native to Southeast Asia, and Marmaroxylon racemosum, which is native to South America. Apparently, the two woods are visually indistinguishable. I was told that the sample I have is from South America.

The wood is hard, with a specific gravity of 0.99, meaning that it almost doesn’t float. I didn’t even try to carve it with a knife. Surprisingly, I found it harder to carve than Ebony, which is slightly more dense. Also surprisingly, it seemed like hand sanding the Marblewood was easier than hand sanding Ebony.

Whatever its working properties, it certainly makes a beautiful bird figure.

I had some difficulty finding information about this wood. There is very little about it other than the Wood Database entry. Others have said that it’s a very rare and expensive wood. I don’t know how rare it is, but it wasn’t very expensive in comparison to most of the other woods in the store.

Wood turners love the stuff, and friends of mine who make pens say that it’s extremely popular. Pens turned from Marblewood sell out faster than pens made from most other types of wood. The wood is also used for veneer, cabinetry, fine furniture, and flooring. The last surprises me. As I said, the stuff isn’t hugely expensive, but an entire floor of the stuff would be pretty pricey. Sure would make for a nice floor, though.

Me, I’ll stick with carving it. I won’t go buy another piece, but I won’t turn it down if somebody offers.

#78: Gaboon Ebony

Bird number: 111
Date: October 19, 2012
Wood: Gaboon Ebony (Diospyros crassifora)
Source: Woodcraft Store

Ebony is another of those woods that I just had to include in the project, but was unlikely to have drop in my lap. So when I was at Wodcraft for my monthly carving club meeting, I picked up a turning blank. At $30 for a 2″ x 2″ x 6″ piece of Ebony, this turns out to be the most expensive bird in the collection.

Ebony is very hard. There are people who carve it with edged tools, but I used power. It carves beautifully, and makes a very fine dust. It’s a little hard to sand, but the result is stunning.

I’m a little disappointed that the wood cracked after I’d finished the bird. When I cut and carved the blank, those cracks were not there in the breast. I sanded the figure (up to 1,200, wet), and left it to dry overnight. When I came back the next morning, those cracks were there. I’m going to let the bird sit without a finish for a few more weeks, then sand it again and fill the cracks with thin CA glue. That should give a smooth finish, although it probably won’t prevent the cracks from showing.

Of all the Diospyros species, Gaboon Ebony has the darkest heartwood. Close up, you can see that it is a very dark brown color, sometimes with streaks of lighter brown. From a distance it looks black. The wood has been in high demand since at least ancient Egyptian times. It is used for sculptures, carvings, door knobs, tool handles, pool cues, guitar fingerboards, black piano keys, chess pieces, and other decorative items. It’s also the wood of choice for the fingerboards, tailpieces, and tuning pegs on all orchestral stringed instruments.

The wood has very fine pores and polishes to a high luster. Sanded to 1,200 grit, this piece feels as smooth as glass. When I’m done repairing the cracks, this figure will receive a natural finish. A few days of holding and rubbing it will give a very nice shine.

I usually throw out the smaller scraps left from cutting a bird figure out on the bandsaw. Not this time. I put every little scrap of leftover Ebony into a little plastic tub. I can use some of the larger pieces for small carvings. I’ll use the really little scraps for highlights on other carvings: buttons on a snowman, for example, or perhaps eyes on some small figures. I also have a piece that’s about two inches square and an inch thick. I might be able to get a small turtle or frog from that.

#77: Balsa

Bird number: 110
Date: October 11, 2012
Wood: Balsa (Ochroma  pyramidale)
Source: Hobby Lobby

I suspect most people have done something with Balsa wood. I know that when I was a kid lots of things were made from it, including model airplanes, pieces of model rockets, and building models (bridges, skyscrapers, etc.). The local hobby store had a huge stock of the stuff in many different widths and thicknesses. It’s difficult to find a hobby store these days that has a similar stock of Balsa wood, but places like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby always have some of the stuff. And of course you can get just about any size online. I picked up this piece at Hobby Lobby. I was a little surprised that I could buy such a large piece (it was about 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 12″). I don’t recall seeing Balsa in anything larger than 1/4″ thickness before.

Balsa is very light. Average density is about 175 kilograms per cubic meter: less than 20% the density of water. Balsa is much stronger than its light weight would indicate. It’s the preferred material for modeling. The de Havilland Mosquito, a World War II light bomber, had Balsa wood wings. The wood is also used as core material for composites, including the blades of many wind turbines, the floor pan of the fifth generation Chevrolet Corvette (1997-2004), and many surf boards. Thor Heyerdahl made his raft Kon-Tiki from Balsa logs.

The Wikipedia article says that Balsa is a popular wood for whittling. I find that unlikely. Of all the carvers I’ve met in the last four years, few have even tried carving Balsa, and not one of them had anything good to say about it. Most said that they gave up before completing a project, and nobody said that they’d carved more than one piece from Balsa.

Carving Balsa requires a very sharp and very thin knife (think of an X-Acto knife), a careful hand, and small slicing cuts. The wood fibers will crush rather than cut if you try to push the knife through it. It’s distressingly easy to apply a little too much pressure and end up slicing off something important. In addition, you can’t use the wood itself to stop the knife as you can with a harder wood. An uncontrolled cut will go right through the wood and into your hand. Also, the wood is so soft that it doesn’t take detail well. It’s just not a good material for carving.

Sanding, too, requires a lot of care. It takes only one or two passes over a high spot to turn it into a low spot. Like carving, you have to be very careful not to take off too much. I’m pretty sure that, given a piece of 120 grit sandpaper and an hour, I could sand one of these birds from a block of Balsa wood.

It was an interesting challenge, and the finished product has a bit more character than I expected. The brown specks make for an interesting texture. I can now say that I’ve carved something from Balsa wood, and I don’t think I’ll need to carve anything else from it.

#76: Teak

Bird number: 109
Date: October 9, 2012
Wood: Teak (Tectona grandis)
Source: Reclaimed table

A couple of years ago I was helping my friend Mike clean up around his property. In the process, we threw a rickety old table onto the burn pile. I took a couple of slats from the table top to use in the garage. The idea was to nail them to the top of the rafters, creating some space to store things up off the floor. The next weekend, I cut one to size in preparation for nailing, and discovered that the wood inside wasn’t rotten at all. It was, in fact, quite pretty. I called Mike and told him to take the table off the burn pile.

I’ve made a couple of spoons and a few other little things from the slats, and traded one of the larger pieces to a wood turner for a pen. Unfortunately, the largest piece is about 1.25 inches square, so this is another small bird. But it makes up for size with beauty.

I’ve carved teak with a knife in the past. It’s quite frustrating. The wood is a little bit hard, but the primary problem is that it has a tendency to split out if you carve against the grain. Carving with the grain is okay, but against the grain is a serious mistake. I carved this figure with the Foredom. The tool didn’t have any trouble with the wood. My only trouble was holding on to the piece while carving it. Next time I carve something that small, I’ll keep it attached to a longer piece of wood while roughing it out. That aggressive bit got just a little close to my fingers for comfort.

Teak is cultivated for its hardwood, which is used in making outdoor furniture, boat decks, and other articles where weather resistance is important. It is considered by many to be the “gold standard” for decay resistance. The wood is also a popular, if very expensive, flooring material, and is used for carving, turning, and other small decorative items.

Teak is native to southeast Asia, where it grows in semi-arid areas as well as in moist jungles. Although the species apparently is not threatened, old growth teak is becoming rare. Most teak used in lumber production is plantation grown in Burma, Indonesia and, increasingly, South America.

It’s pretty stuff, and not too bad to work with. I have lots of small pieces, mostly 1/4 inch thick and about two inches wide, and some 1.25″ x 1.25″ pieces that are several feet long. If I ever get around to carving wooden jewelry, this will come in handy.

#75: Fig

Bird number: 108
Date: October 9, 2012
Wood: Common Fig (Ficus carica)
Source: Back yard

There were two fig bushes here when we bought the house. One of them wasn’t very healthy and died a few years after we moved in. The other was impressively hardy and continued to spread until the drought of the last few years. We tried to keep up with watering it, but neither of us really liked the tree enough to make any special efforts. Like many of our other trees, it didn’t fare well in the drought. I chopped the dead stalks early in the summer and burned it in place along with the remains of several other trees we had lost.

Getting a decent sized piece of fig is somewhat difficult. I’ve cut some branches that approach four inches in diameter, but they have a very large pith. Fig limbs also contain a lot of water and tend to crack rather quickly after being cut. As a result, I can get fig that’s wide and long … and if I’m lucky about one and a half inches thick. The piece I carved this bird from was about 1.25 inches square and a little less than three inches long. It makes for a very small bird.

I’ve always enjoyed carving the fig. I’ve made several spoons from it in the past, as well as a couple of caricature animals. It carves easily with a knife, even when dry. The wood is very yellow, with brown highlights and a subtle grain. It takes a nice finish.

The common fig is native to the Middle East, but grows well in similar climates around the world. It’s surprisingly hardy here, and a fast grower. I took it to the ground with a chainsaw one winter, and the next summer it was 12 feet tall and bearing fruit. Quite good fruit, too, if you like figs. Neither of is real big on fig, which is another reason we weren’t terribly upset to see it go.

I am, however, a little sad to lose the fig as a source of carving wood. But there might still be hope. There are indications that it’s re-growing in one place. If so, I’ll try to keep it contained rather than letting it spread as it had in the past.


#74: Texas Ebony

Bird number: 107
Date: October 8, 2012
Wood: Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano)
Source: Fellow carver

A fellow carver dropped this piece of wood in my lap a couple of weeks ago, along with the story of where he got it. He said that a friend of a friend owned a ranch in Mexico, near the Texas border. My friend asked his buddy to bring back “some of that Mexican ebony” on his next trip. He came back with the wood and a challenge: “My friend says that there’s no way you’re going carve that without some serious power tools.”

For some carvers, saying “That wood is too hard to work with knives and gouges” is just asking to be proven wrong. I’ll admit that I tried it, but this stuff is seriously hard. The wood is so dense that it doesn’t float in water, and I’d have to re-shape the bevels on my knives and gouges if I was serious about carving it.

In addition to being exceptionally hard, this wood has a lot of oils in it. Attacking a piece of wood with the power carver usually results in a lot of fine dust particles. Like sawdust, but much finer. This wood, however, just created a lot of fuzz. It reminded me somewhat of small dust bunnies (in military school, we called those “ghost turds”) that you’d find under the bed.

Carving this bird took a while because I had to use quite a light touch on the power carver to avoid burning the wood. I spent some extra time power sanding before I started hand sanding. And hand sanding started with 60 grit in order to get an even surface. I then worked my way up through several grits before finishing with 1,200 grit, sanding wet.

For a finish, I’ve hand-rubbed the figure. I have not and will not put any chemical finishes on it. Just oils from my hands. After a couple days’ rubbing it while I’m watching a movie or reading, the wood is glass smooth and it shines. My meager photographic skills don’t do this figure justice.

Texas Ebony grows in south Texas (south of a line drawn from Laredo to Corpus Christi), in eastern Mexico, and in isolated areas of central Mexico and the Yucatan. It’s not a true ebony (i.e. not in the genus Diospyros). Apparently, the genus name Ebenopsis is a combination of the Greek words for “ebony” and “view.” Thus: “looks like ebony.” According to the Wood Database entry, the heartwood ages to almost black.

The tree is not commercially harvested for lumber. It’s used in xeriscape because it’s drought tolerant. It’s also used in bonsai. It’s interesting to note that some people misidentify Pithecellobium tortum (Brazilian Rain tree) as Texas Ebony.

Because the wood is not commercially harvested, it’s somewhat expensive when you do find it. Specialty wood shops in Texas always have some, usually in the form of bowl turning blanks, but it demands a high price. If you live in south Texas, you can probably get as much of this stuff as you can harvest. It’s commonly removed, piled, and burned in the construction of new roads or subdivisions. Be forewarned, though: your chainsaw will need frequent re-sharpening.

Beautiful stuff. I’ve been wanting to get some of this for a while now, and am looking forward to carving other things from what I have left. I even have a couple of ideas that should really show off the wood.

#73: Yellow Birch

Bird number: 106
Date: October 2, 2012
Wood: Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
Source: Reader from Vermont

This is the second piece of wood sent from the person who works at the Birds of Vermont Museum. I received it a couple of months ago, rough-cut it, and let it dry in the garage. I ended up carving it a little too soon (before it was completely dry), but I managed to get away with just one small crack.

Yellow birch is a fairly common tree in the eastern U.S. and Canada. It’s a large tree, usually around 60 or 70 feet tall, unusually up to about 100 feet. It’s the provincial tree of Quebec, Canada.

The wood is used extensively for flooring, cabinetry, and toothpicks, of all things. I’ve also seen it used for cooking utensils and turned objects. I don’t see a lot of birch carvings, which I find somewhat curious. I carved this bird with a knife, and found the wood to be quite nice to work with. Carved green, the wood is plenty soft enough to work with a knife. Dried, it would be pretty hard but still possible.

In any case, it sure is pretty stuff.

#72: Eastern Hemlock

Bird number: 105
Date: October 2, 2012
Wood: Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Source: Reader in Vermont

A reader who is involved with the Birds of Vermont Museum contacted me some months back and offered to send me some wood from her area. She ended up sending me two nice pieces of Eastern Hemlock and Yellow Birch. Both were still pretty green, so I rough cut them, sealed the ends, and put them in the garage for a while to dry. I didn’t wait long enough.

I noticed that the Hemlock was still a little green when I cut out the bird pattern, but figured that it was dry enough to work without cracking. I made the cutout, carved it with my knife, sanded it … and then let it sit. I think that last was a mistake. I probably should have put the Danish Oil on it immediately after sanding. Instead, I waited a few days until I’d finished sanding the other two birds in this batch. As a result, I ended up with a few cracks.

Those small black lines on the left side are cracks that appeared after I’d sanded the bird. One larger crack along the side seems to have sealed after I put the Danish Oil on it. It shows as a faint line on the left side of the figure.

Eastern Hemlock is a type of pine tree that’s native to the northeastern U.S, southern Ontario, and extends as far west as eastern Minnesota and as far south as Alabama and Georgia. It’s the state tree of Pennsylvania.

Hemlock is a large, long-lived tree. The wood is used for crates, general construction, pulp production and, because it’s unusually good at holding spikes, railroad ties. It has little value as firewood, and the untreated wood is not very resistant to decay or insect damage.

It sure carves nice with a knife, though. It probably doesn’t hold detail very well, but it sure was a joy to carve.

By the way, Eastern Hemlock is not at all related to the poisonous Hemlock plants.

#71: Vitex

Bird number: 104
Date: October 2, 2012
Wood: Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus)
Source: Neighbor’s yard

My next door neighbors trimmed their Vitex tree a couple of months back. I saw the branches lying there in the yard and asked if I could take a couple of the larger pieces for carving. As expected, they were happy to let me have whatever I wanted.

When I got the wood I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get a bird out of it. There were many cracks and bug holes, and lots of rotten soft spots. But I figured that all I’d lose was a little time. So I cut the branches down, squared them off on the bandsaw, sealed the ends with wax, and let them dry in the garage over the summer. It was difficult, but I managed to make a bird cutout and carve it.

I cut this bird from a crotch in the tree where several branches met. That made for some interesting grain variation, but also resulted in a rather difficult piece wood to carve. The head had many soft and crumbly spots mixed in with some really hard knots. The second picture shows the many bug holes in the right side. That side, too, had some soft crumbly areas.

The wood carved well with a knife, which is a good thing. I would have had some real trouble carving those soft spots with power. I suspect that even one of my sanding discs would have made a real mess of that crumbly wood. I considered filling the bug holes and smoothing the left side of the head with epoxy, but in the end decided that I’d rather show the wood in as close to a “natural” state as possible. The Danish Oil seems to have stabilized the the soft spots, and the polyurethane finish sure makes it shine.

I’d like to get hold of a clear piece of Vitex at some point. If the grain is similar to this, with all the variations, it could make for a really interesting carving.