#84: Lacewood

Bird number: 117
Date: November 19, 2012
Wood: Lacewood (Cardwellia sublimis)
Source: Woodcraft store

I figured that, since I picked up some Satinwood, I might as well pick up some Lacewood to go along with it. Like the Satinwood, there are several species referred to as “Lacewood.” I’m fairly certain that this is Cardwellia (Northern Silky Oak), but I could be wrong. It’s possible that this is one of the South American species.

The grain pattern is reminiscent of American Sycamore, but the color is quite different.

I enjoyed working with this wood, and didn’t suffer any allergic reactions. Some people, including a member of the group I carve with from time to time, have severe reactions. My friend reacted so badly that he had to get somebody else to clean up his shop, empty all the dust filters, wipe down all of his equipment, and remove all of the remaining Lacewood. He said that this is the first wood he’s had a serious reaction to.

When it comes to wood allergies, especially contact allergies, everybody’s different.

The wood is medium dense, easy to work, and takes a really nice finish.

#83: Satinwood

Bird number: 116
Date: November 19, 2012
Wood: Satinwood
Source: Woodcraft store

I don’t know what kind of “Satinwood” I have here. I suppose that by now I should know better than to trust common names. But at the time I bought the wood I had no idea that there were multiple species called “Satinwood,” most of which are not closely related to the others. I have a small piece of the stuff left over from carving the bird. I’ll have to spend some time studying the pictures in the article linked above and compare them against the piece I have left.

Whatever it is, the look does indeed resemble satin.

Those lighter streaks really aren’t mistakes in finishing, or dust that got on the carving. They’re in the wood. The picture does not capture the reflective sheen that makes it look like the woven fabric.

Not that there aren’t finishing mistakes. I noticed while taking pictures that I left some scratches in the wood. The interlocked grain and that natural sheen hide small scratches very well. Looking more closely at the figure, I can see many areas where I should have done quite a bit more sanding. At least, that’s what it looks like. Sometimes. Other times, those “scratches” seem to blend in like they’re part of the grain. It’s an odd effect.


#82: Chinaberry

Bird number: 115
Date: November 18, 2012
Wood: Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)
Source: Neighbor’s tree

I’d been wanting to get hold of some Chinaberry, but it proved elusive. One problem was that I didn’t know what the tree looks like, so I couldn’t find likely candidates. That is, I didn’t know what it looked like until about a month ago when the bright yellow berries started appearing. Then those Chinaberry trees seemed to be everywhere. One neighbor’s tree lost a huge limb, but it seemed like nobody was ever home. Then we had a wind storm that took down another neighbor’s tree. When I knocked on the door and asked, she said, “You can take as much of that tree as you want.”

I took about three feet of the trunk, which is between six and eight inches in diameter. The thicker part is a bit too large for my bandsaw, but I managed to get some good wood from the thinner part of the trunk. It’s a bit rotten in the center, but the usable wood is still thick enough to get a two-inch bird blank.

I love that red streak in the wood. I’m glad I got a good sized chunk of this stuff. It’s much better looking than you can see in the pictures. This wood will be perfect for a particular stylized carving that I have in mind. The wood carves easily with power, sands well, and takes a nice finish. And did I mention the red streaks?

Most surprising to me is how quickly the wood dried. The tree was alive when the wind took it down last month. I cut it a few days later, roughed out some blocks, sealed the ends with wax, and let it dry in the garage for maybe six weeks. When I cut the bird blank out over the weekend, the wood was quite dry. And it didn’t crack at all after I’d carved it. Contrast that with the white birch (not yet posted), which had been drying for several months and was noticeably damp when I carved it.

A member of the Mahogany family, chinaberry is native to Pakistan, India, Indochina, Southeast Asia, and Australia. It was introduced as an ornamental in South Carolina and Georgia around 1830, and widely planted throughout the southern states. It’s since become naturalized to tropical and warm temperate regions, and is considered an invasive species by some. Nevertheless, nurseries still sell it and seeds are widely available. Around here, it’s a trashy tree. We don’t have too much trouble with berries, though, as the birds typically get them before they fall.

Probably the most important thing to know about Chinaberry is that the fruits are poisonous to humans, in sufficient quantity, and the leaves also are very poisonous. I don’t know exactly what “sufficient quantity” is, but I have heard reports of somebody eating “a handful of berries from the tree” and dying the next day from the toxicity. As far as I’m concerned, one berry would be too many. The leaves make a great natural insecticide, but you have to be careful not to ingest them.

As with most Meliaceae species, Chinaberry has a high quality timber that is medium density and pleasing in color. Boards dry quickly with little warping or splitting, and are resistant to fungal infection. Unlike other Mahogany species, though, Chinaberry is under-utilized. There doesn’t appear to be any effort to grow it on plantations, and there has been no serious effort to harvest the many large stands of wild trees.

Chinaberry is not what I’d call a hugely popular carving wood, but it’s not exactly uncommon. A Google Images search reveals quite a number of lovely pieces.

All things considered, I’d rate it a good carving wood. And I can get as much of it as I want, for free, from neighbors. I just have to spot the cut limbs and trunks before they’re hauled away or burned.

#81: SpectraPly Ember Glow

Bird number: 114
Date: November 18, 2012
Wood: SpectraPly Ember Glow
Source: Woodcraft store

SpectraPly is a laminated wood product made from premium yellow birch veneer and “color wood material,” whatever that is. It’s commonly used for gun stocks, although why anybody would want a psychedelic gun stock is quite beyond me. I’ve also seen many turned objects (pepper mills, kaleidoscopes, pens, etc.) made from this stuff. There are many different color patterns available. I thought it would be interesting to make a bird from one of them.

I know, it’s not a natural wood, but it’s my game and my rules. One is a curiosity. More than one? That would be cheating.

I find it interesting, if nothing else. I had a pretty good idea of how it would look before I carved it, so I can’t say that I’m surprised. I am a little disappointed, though, by the finish. I suspect there’s a trick to finishing this stuff that would make the colors “pop” a little more. I won’t worry about it.

Carving this stuff with the Foredom power carver was no problem. I’ve tried to carve laminated product before with a knife, and was not happy with the result. This stuff is similar to plywood, with the grain on adjacent sheets not necessarily running in the same direction. In addition, the glue between sheets is somewhat hard and brittle. It’s nothing I noticed with the Foredom, but quite evident when trying to cut it with a knife.

It was a fun experiment, but I’m glad that I bought only one sample of this stuff.

#80: Quina

Bird number: 113
Date: November 18, 2012
Wood: Quina (Myroxylon)
Source: Woodcraft store

I thought I was smelling perfume when I cut the blank for this bird on the bandsaw. It turns out that I was partially correct. Quina, also called Balsamo and in the lumber trade Santos Mahogany, is the source of Peru balsam, which is used in perfumery, and Tolu balsam, which is an ingredient in some cough syrups.

The odor is surprisingly strong. By the time I was done carving and sanding this figure, my workshop smelled like a department store cosmetics counter on Black Friday. I’m not complaining too much, though. The odor isn’t unpleasant. Certainly not like Crepe Myrtle.

Again, the wood is much more beautiful than my mediocre photography skills can capture.

The wood is hard, with an average specific gravity of 0.93. It almost doesn’t float. I didn’t find it difficult to carve. However, the Wood Database entry says that the wood has a noticeable blunting effect on cutting edges and that it’s difficult to work with due to its hardness and the interlocking grain. The wood is used for flooring, furniture, interior trim, heavy construction, and turned objects.

The tree is apparently very hardy and quite plentiful in its native habitat of South America. In other areas where it’s been introduced, it is an invasive species and poses a serious ecological threat.

It’s nice stuff. I have a small block that I’ll do something with, and I’d carve it again if a piece falls in my lap. I probably won’t go buy another block, though.

#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.