#16: Basswood

Bird number: 37
Date: January 28, 2012
Wood: Basswood (Tilia americana)
Source: Store purchase

When I started carving about three years ago, I went down to the local Woodcraft store and bought a box of basswood blocks. All of the blocks were two inches thick, six inches long, and varied in width from one to three inches. I paid something less than $20 for that box of wood, and I learned a lot in carving that up. I don’t do much basswood carving these days, and all I have left from that box of wood is some scraps. This bird used up the last of the blocks from that box of wood.

Basswood is probably the most popular carving wood in the U.S. It’s easy to carve, holds fine detail very well, and has little in the way of grain. Almost all carvers start with basswood. Actually, most beginners try to carve a limb from a tree, get frustrated, and then find basswood. It’s abundant, relatively inexpensive, and very nice to work with. And if you’re going to paint your carvings then there’s little reason to struggle with a harder wood.

Some few carvers sand their basswood carvings and apply a neutral finish. This is the first time I’ve sanded a basswood carving. I also carved this one with a knife rather than with the power carver. Most of the woods I’m using for the birds are too hard to comfortably carve with a knife.

What we call Basswood in the U.S. is almost always Tilia americana (Northern Basswood) or Tilia heterophylla (Southern Basswood). European carvers use several different species of Tilia, often called Linden or Lime. The woods are very similar, as are the several Tilia species common to Asia.

The basswood isn’t as striking as many of the woods I’ve been working with. Truthfully, I was surprised at how nice it looks. My experience with basswood in the past had me thinking that this bird would be rather dull, but the lack of figuring in the wood doesn’t detract at all. In fact, it emphasizes the bird figure. I’m glad I managed to do a good job on the carving. This is, in my opinion, the best carving and sanding job I’ve done to date.

#15: Ash juniper

Bird number: 36
Date: January 27, 2012
Wood: Ash Juniper (Juniperus ashei)
Source: Back yard

They call it “cedar” around here, and lots of people are very allergic to it. Cedar allergy is a common affliction here in Central Texas. Fortunately, I don’t seem to be affected. Sure is pretty on the inside, though.

This piece is from a dead limb that I took out last summer. I’m surprised that it cracked, considering that it’d been hanging dead on that tree for a couple of years. With the recent drought (last few years) and how long it’d been dead, I figured the wood was as dry as it was going to get.

Oh well, the crack adds character.

This juniper is mostly considered a weed around here. It’s a very invasive plant, and can thrive where many others can’t. It’s often the first thing that comes up on over-grazed pasture land, and once it gets established it’ll choke out just about everything else. It’s drought tolerant, but thirsty. That is, it can consume a lot of water, but will survive on little if need be.

The stuff grows all over out here. I would venture to say that it’s more prevalent than mesquite. It makes good fence posts. In fact, I have a few old fence posts in my wood pile. They might end up in the carving pile. The wood’s not good for burning in a fireplace due to the pitch content. Or so I’ve been told.

There isn’t a lot of information about carving it. I know a few people besides me who have and will carve the stuff. Some turners like it. The wood is somewhat harder than the Eastern Red Cedar that I carved a bird from. It smells similar to the cedar, but there is a distinct difference. I found it okay to carve. Not my favorite, but I’ll definitely make a few more things from it.

#14: Tupelo

Bird number: 35
Date: January 26, 2012
Wood: Tupelo (Nyssa)
Source: Unknown

It’s not that I don’t know where I got the wood, it’s just that I don’t know where it was from originally. A fellow member of my carving club gave me some introductory lessons and, knowing my interest in different woods, gave me a block of tupelo.  He also said that I should carve it with power rather than with a knife. For reasons unknown to me, tupelo isn’t often carved with a knife. I have a bit left over after this bird, so I might give it a try to find out why.

People who carve duck decoys and other wild fowl often work with tupelo. It’s light (in weight), and very light in color. The light color means that paints cover well. The comparatively bland look (when compared to most of the woods I’ve been working with) is fine for wildlife carvings, as those typically get painted.

Whatever else I know about the wood tupelo, I found on Wikipedia. It turns out that tupelo honey really is highly prized.

#13: Post oak

Bird Number: 34
Date: January 20, 2012
Wood: Post oak (Quercus stellata)
Source: Back yard

We had to take out a Post oak tree a couple summers back. The tree looked in good shape from a distance, but it had developed a list towards the house.

Fearing it might fall, we called an arborist, who told us that the tree was diseased and should come out before it fell on the house. I hate to kill a live tree, but we figured it’d be better to take it out rather than wait for the next big blow to knock it down.

The tree service put the tree on the ground, and I spent some time with the chainsaw to cut it into manageable chunks. The smaller pieces are in the BBQ wood pile, and there are several larger pieces (including the seven foot long trunk) awaiting final disposition. This is the first thing I’ve carved from it.

Not surprisingly, the oak cracked while it was drying. I could have found a piece that wasn’t cracked, but I kind of liked the way this one looked. So I carved the bird, sanded it a bit, and then filled the cracks with epoxy. I like the way it turned out.

Post oak isn’t a very popular material for wood working. It’s pretty hard to work with a knife, which explains why not many people carve it. And other oaks are better for power work or for lumber. I’m not sure what makes post oak less suitable than other oaks for turning or for lumber. Around here, most people use the post oaks for fence posts (hence the name) or, more commonly, for BBQ. I can say from experience that oak-smoked brisket is very good.

I have a lot more of this oak. I’ll probably carve a few more things from it, but the majority–even the large pieces–will probably end up flavoring beef, chicken, or other things on the grill.

#12: Crape Myrtle

Bird Number: 33
Date: January 19, 2012
Wood: Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia)
Source: Austin, TX

Crape Mrytle (or Crepe Myrtle) is a common landscape plant here in the Austin area. It’s beautiful when it’s blooming, but otherwise I find it rather dull. We have several of them on one side of the driveway that struggle. They don’t do well in the summer heat unless we water them. I don’t like having to water the trees. If Debra didn’t do it, the things would be dead.

This piece of wood came from a large (about 8″) crape myrtle trunk that I picked up in Austin about three years ago. Landscapers were cutting out some crape myrtles, and I stopped to ask if I could have some pieces. They looked at me funny and said, “take all you want.” I put it up to dry in the garage rafters, and left it there until last month.

Unfortunately, the wood cracked rather badly up there in the rafters. It cracked so badly, in fact, that about all I could salvage was enough for one bird. And it cracked after I’d cut it out. The wood was pretty wet even after almost three years up in the rafters. I let this blank dry another month or so, carved the bird, and then filled the large crack with epoxy.

I was hesitant to carve the wood because it looked very bland when I cut it out. The grain and color just weren’t interesting. It turned out pretty, though. The grain isn’t as pronounced as in many of the other woods I’ve been working with, but there is some figuring and the color is pleasing. Definitely a nice addition to the collection.

As with many of the woods I’m working with, there’s not a lot of information about carving crape myrtle. Some people like to use it for canes and walking sticks because the wood is fairly strong and the limbs grow relatively straight. People also use it for spoons, although I wouldn’t recommend it. The wood has a very unpleasant smell when it’s wet. Perhaps a good waterproof finish would eliminate that.

#11: Apricot

Bird Number: 32
Date: January 7, 2012
Wood: Apricot (Prunus armeniaca)
Source: Georgetown, TX

Members of my carving club have known for about two years that I’m interested in carving many different types of wood. I wasn’t terribly surprised when one of the members asked me if I’d be interested in some limbs he’d pruned from an apricot tree in his back yard. The apricot turned out to be really nice to carve. I carved lots of little apricot dogs, and even used apricot in my Whittle Pup tutorial. I gave away some of the larger pieces last summer, but also kept a few for myself.

I’m glad I did. It’s strikingly beautiful.

People have been cultivating apricots since prehistoric times, so long ago that its native range is uncertain. The likely candidates are Armenia, China, and India. Today, apricots are grown in all parts of the world where the climate supports them. In the United States, almost all commercial production is in California, with some small production in Washington and Utah.

Apricots don’t grow very well in this part of Texas. You’ll find a few people with trees, but it’s difficult to keep them alive during the long hot summers. You have to stay on top of things with pesticides or the worms will eat most of the fruit. What the worms don’t get, the birds and urban deer are likely to scarf.

I’m somewhat surprised that there’s so little information about carving apricot. Whereas the wood is a little on the hard side, it’s not terrible. It carves very similar to cherry, although I think the apricot is a bit easier to cut. It gives off a very pleasant aroma when sanded or cut with a saw. And it looks really nice. I have a few more larger pieces of this wood, and will definitely be carving something from them.