Bird on the bike

I have four more bird carvings coming next week. This new finishing process takes time, so I batch the birds to make things a little easier on myself. In the meantime . . .

When I’m not working or carving, I spend a lot of time riding my bicycle. My wife Debra bought me the bike for our 10th anniversary back in 2001. At that time, I put a Pink Panther on the stem. He retired after 10 years and 20,000 miles. I had the bike repainted, and was without a mascot until a couple of weeks ago when I finally found a new riding buddy.

It’s a terribly blurry picture, I know. I was in a hurry. This bird is carved from Western Red Cedar and finished with Minwax paste finishing wax. It should stand up well to the sun and rain that I encounter on my rides.

#60: Quaking Aspen

Bird number: 92
Date: August 15, 2012
Wood: Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
Source: Fellow carver

Sitting down to carve this bird with a knife brought back a lot of memories of sitting around the camp fire at San Isabel Scout Ranch, whittling on a piece of aspen. The woods there were filled with two kinds of trees: pine and aspen. It seemed like the pine was always either too full of pitch and messy, or it was dry and hard as a rock. But the aspen limbs were always soft and easy to carve. I didn’t make anything particularly noteworthy back then, but I had fun making a pile of shavings while turning a small branch into a smaller stick.

Aspen is soft, typically straight-grained, and very easy to carve with a knife. It has a distinctive odor that I find pleasant, but perhaps that’s because it brings back so many memories. I know that some people find the smell slightly unpleasant. The wood doesn’t hold fine detail like basswood does, but it’s adequate for my stylized birds and for many other types of carving. One member of the local woodcarving club carves exquisite faces from aspen.

Of course, this piece came from a log that was a bit larger than what I used to whittle on. The log was about four inches in diameter, and long enough to get three bird cutouts. I selected this one specifically for the knot in the back.

The knot was difficult to carve due to the grain change, but it adds some interesting character to the figure.

If you live where Aspen is plentiful, there’s no real reason to buy basswood unless you’re doing very fine detail. Aspen is light, softer than basswood, and carves very well. I really enjoyed carving this bird and look forward to getting hold of more aspen at some point.

#59: Cocobolo

Bird number: 91
Date: August 13, 2012
Wood: Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa)
Source: Woodcraft store

Cocobolo is another one of those woods that doesn’t just drop into one’s lap. It’s not exactly rare, but usually expensive. I managed to get a good bargain on this chunk because it had some defects that made it less than ideal as a turning blank. The wood is very hard, and denser than water. Like the Desert Ironwood, it doesn’t float. I didn’t even try to carve it with a knife.

Cocobolo is a member of the genus Dalbergia, which contains all the true “rosewood” species. It’s probably the most highly desired Dalbergia species, and as such the tree has been exploited. It’s not CITES listed, but the only trees you’ll find these days are in national parks where they’re protected, or on plantations that grow the wood for sale.

One look at the wood explains why it is in such high demand.

The stuff is absolutely gorgeous. My meager photographic skills do not do it justice. In natural light, the wood has brown, yellow, black, green, and red highlights. It also has the distressing tendency to show any carving or sanding mistakes–something that I didn’t realize until after I’d applied the finish. If I were to submit this piece for judging in a show, I’d probably sand the finish off, fix those few rough spots, and finish it again.

I’ve mentioned before that wood dust can be a health hazard. Some woods are worse than others, and Cocobolo is apparently near the top of the list. Everybody I know who has worked with Cocobolo makes a point to stress dust collection, wearing a mask, etc. The guy at the Woodcraft store recommended wearing long sleeves and gloves to prevent getting the dust on the skin. Some people have very strong reactions to Cocobolo. I took extra precautions to prevent inhaling the dust, but decided against the full exposure suit. I’ve not had any negative reactions to any wood dust, and didn’t expect any with the Cocobolo.

I had no trouble working with the wood. I took my time with the power carver to avoid burning the wood, and spent a little more time than usual on power sanding before I started hand sanding. Just wonderful stuff. I have a small chunk (about 1.5″ long) left over that I’ll do something with, but I probably won’t be getting any more of it any time soon. The wood’s too expensive and I have plenty of free wood to carve.

#58: Arizona Ash

Bird number: 90
Date: August 10, 2012
Wood: Arizona Ash (Fraxinus velutina)
Source: Back yard

Arizona ash is a popular shade tree in the Austin area, primarily because it grows quickly and has a large and thick canopy. On the down side, the tree is short lived. Typically, Arizona ash trees live only 20 to 30 years. They live much longer if they’re maintained. Owners who have the trees pruned periodically by a good arborist, and make sure to water and fertilize the tree, can expect the tree to live 50 years or longer.

We have one Arizona ash in the back yard, next to the garage. We don’t have it pruned regularly, but it’s at least 17 years old, and I suspect older. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the tree has been here for 30 years. We don’t take special care of it, and it’s still going strong. It drops small limbs from time to time, usually on the garage roof where I have to climb up and pull them down. I prune the tree every few years, but I’m hardly a good arborist. Now that I mention it, there is a lot of dead wood in that tree. Perhaps I should get out the pole saw soon.

This bird is carved from a limb that I took off the tree a few years ago. It had been sitting in the firewood pile.

I had no idea that the wood was so beautiful.

The holes in the side are from some kind of insect. The hole in the tail was a knot that fell out while I was carving.

I really was surprised at the beauty of this wood. I find it surprising that I haven’t heard more about people carving or turning it. The stuff is plentiful around here. Not as common as mesquite, but not at all difficult to obtain. I showed this bird at my wood carving club meeting last week, and afterward a half dozen people approached to tell me that they had some Arizona ash wood that they’d be happy to let me have.

I would classify the wood as medium hard. It rates 1,320 on the Janka scale, with a specific gravity of about 0.53. It’s somewhere between black walnut and cherry in terms of hardness. I carved this bird with the Foredom, but the wood should carve well with a sharp knife. It also should hold detail very well. Anybody who enjoys carving fruit wood should enjoy carving Arizona ash, too.

This is the fourth bird I’ve finished with the Danish Oil / Deft method. Although the finishing process takes a little longer, it gives a depth to the carvings that I just didn’t get with the simple oil / wax method. I think I’ll stick with this finish for a while.

#57: Pecan

Bird number: 89
Date: August 8, 2012
Wood: Pecan (Carya illinoinensis)
Source: Back yard

When we bought the house in 1995, there was this little pecan sapling out behind the garage, surrounded by a couple of mesquite trees and an ashe juniper. The tree couldn’t have been two inches in diameter and we questioned whether it would survive. It survived until last year, when the drought killed it off. When I took out the tree, I saved every bit of it that was more than two inches in diameter. The main trunk is about eight inches thick. It’s all in the garage now, drying.

Except for this piece.

I honestly had no idea that pecan was so beautiful. Most pictures I see show pecan to be a much lighter brown color, often with a reddish hue. This wood is much darker than most pecan I’ve seen. Nonetheless, it’s lovely stuff.

Pecan is a species of hickory. In addition to the nuts, of which the United States produces the vast majority (between 80% and 95% of the world’s annual crop), the wood is used in building furniture, for wood flooring, and for smoking meat. It’s also a fairly popular turning wood. The wood is very hard, typically requiring mallet tools or power for carving.

I have no idea yet what I’m going to do with all the pecan I have from that tree. I have a few years to think about it while the trunk dries.

#56: Mystery wood

Bird number: 88
Date: August 7, 2012
Wood: Mystery wood (unknown)
Source: Friend

A friend asked if I was interested in a piece of wood that he had in his shop. He said it was relatively hard and nicely figured, but had no idea what type of wood it was. I accepted, figuring I’d do something with it. I hadn’t planned on making birds from unknown wood species, but then I thought, “why not?” It’s my project and my rules, after all.

The wood is indeed hard, as advertised, and it’s beautiful stuff.

I suspect that this is some kind of Rosewood, although I wouldn’t venture to guess what kind. The reason I think it’s Rosewood is that this piece gave off a fairly strong, sweet odor when I was working with it. As far as I can tell, it smells how others describe the smell of Rosewood. But then, trying to describe a smell is somewhat difficult.

That’s okay. I don’t have to know what the wood is. I have a fairly large piece from which I can make other things. Probably not with a knife, though. The wood really is very hard.

#55: Kauri

Bird number: 87
Date: August 7, 2012
Wood: Kauri (Agathis australis)
Source: Woodcraft Store

I’ve said before that I prefer to obtain the wood I use for these birds as “found wood”–either something I pick up or that people send me. But I found this wood on the sale table at Woodcraft last month, and it’s unlikely that I’d be able to obtain it any other way. Whereas kauri is readily available, this piece is from an ancient kauri or swamp kauri. The wood is 30,000 to 50,000 years old. At least, that’s what the sticker said.

The wood is relatively soft, about like the Western Redcedar. It should carve very nicely with a knife, something I’ll certainly try with some of what I have left. I had no trouble at all working it with the power carver. The only trouble I had was with sanding, but it seems like I have trouble getting a good finish on all the soft woods.

The pictures don’t do it justice. The wood has a sheen and subtle color variations that are quite beautiful.

After sanding, I applied two coats of Watco Natural Danish Oil, let that cure for three days, and then applied two coats of Deft Satin spray polyurethane. The process takes longer than the Howard Feed ‘n Wax that I’ve been using on most of my birds up to now, but it does give a nicer finish. I just might make this my standard finishing process.