#86: White Birch

Bird number: 119
Date: November 19, 2012
Wood: White Birch (Betula papyrifera)
Source: Friend in Canada

A friend in Canada was kind enough to send me three pieces of White Birch from a freshly cut limb. I cut the wood into blocks and covered it with wax to slow down the moisture loss. Wood that dries too quickly usually cracks, and this stuff was wet.

The rule of thumb for drying wood is one year per inch of radius. That almost assures that no cracks will develop after cutting out the pattern and carving. You can speed that up if you use a kiln, or you can let a small piece dry for a couple of months and then hope for the best. I’ve had pretty good luck with the latter approach as long as I don’t mind a few small cracks here and there. Even those can sometimes be avoided by drying wood in the oven for a few hours at a relatively low temperature (200 degrees or so).

Because the wood samples my friend sent were only four inches long, this bird is somewhat smaller than my standard two inch wide carving. Nevertheless, it still looks great.

I could tell that the wood wasn’t quite dry because the power carver made little curly bits rather than dust like it normally does with very dry wood. After I did the rough carving, I sealed the figure in a small plastic bag to let it dry more slowly. Each day, I would open the bag to let the moisture out, and then re-seal it. I still ended up with a few small cracks, up near the beak, but no huge splits. I call them “character.”

White Birch has a very large range that covers Canada from East to West, and also includes the extreme northern parts of the United States. Like Aspen, it is a pioneer species: one of the first to come into an area after fire, for example. Pioneer species stabilize the soil and make it possible for other species to survive in the area.

Birch is a soft but moderately heavy wood. Overall, the tree doesn’t have a huge economic value, but it is quite useful. Seasoned properly, it makes excellent firewood. The wood is also used for popsicle sticks, furniture, flooring, and an engineered wood product called OSB (oriented strand board). You can make birch syrup by boiling down the bark, and you can use the bark to make boxes. A Google Images search reveals quite a number of White Birch carvings, including a lot of kitchen utensils.

#85: Black Willow

Bird number: 118
Date: November 19, 2012
Wood: Black Willow (Salix nigra)
Source: Down by the creek

The back entrance to our subdivision is a low water crossing of Brushy Creek. On the road side of the creek stands a Black willow tree. It loses rather large limbs from time to time, and ever since I started this project I’ve been hoping to see one down. It lost a smaller branch over the summer, but it wasn’t quite large enough to get a bird. Two weeks ago I drove by and saw a 5″ limb on the ground, which quickly ended up in the back of my truck.

That limb must have been hanging dead on that willow for a long time. The wood was very dry, and there was so much insect damage that I feared I wouldn’t be able to get a large enough piece to carve a bird. I worried needlessly. It took a little creative work with the bandsaw, but I managed to cut out a couple of blanks.

This willow was soft enough to carve easily with a knife. I sat down with my carving group one morning and had this carved in 30 minutes or so. Another 30 minutes or so of sanding, and it was ready for finish. A thoroughly enjoyable wood to carve.

This is my favorite method of obtaining wood for my birds: finding an old branch that otherwise will rot away or be hauled off and burned. It also produces some of the more interesting figures because it will show irregularities and “imperfections” in the wood. Commercially available wood usually comes from straight, “clear” parts of the tree, with a minimum of knots and insect damage.

The Black Willow tree has a very wide range, covering most of the Eastern United States from the Atlantic coast to South Texas. It also occurs in much of Arizona and California, and a relatively small area of Colorado. It is a medium-sized, fast growing, and short-lived tree. The root is very bitter and in the past has been used as a substitute for quinine. The bark contains salicylic acid (similar to aspirin), which explains its use for fever reduction, headache, and cough treatment by Native Americans. The limbs also were used for basket making.

#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 (likely Zanthoxylum flavum or Chloroxylon swietenia)
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.

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.