#103: Live Oak

Bird number: 137
Date: May 27, 2015
Wood: Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)
Source: Back yard

Debra and I planted two trees in memory of our fathers a few years back. Both were doing well before the drought started. The Burr Oak survived, in large part because it was closer to the house and therefore got more water because I could easily drag the hose to it. The Southern Live Oak was up near the road, about 200 feet from the water spigot. I’m not certain that the tree died due to lack of water; these Live Oak trees are known to be very drought tolerant once they’re more than five feet tall. But I didn’t water it as often as I did the other.

In any case, the tree died and I had to take it down. I saved the trunk, though, and this bird is made from part of it. I already have a few types of oak birds, but that tree was special to us and therefore deserving of a place in the collection. This is the Dad Bird.

Southern Live Oak is one of many different types of evergreen oaks, many of which are called “Live Oak.” But when Southerners talk about Live Oak, this is the species they mean.

Live Oak is hard, heavy, and difficult to work with. As a result, it’s not commonly used for building things. Native Americans used many parts of the tree: acorns for cooking oil, leaves for weaving rugs, all parts for medicinal purposes, and bark for dyes. It’s a pretty common residential tree around here, providing good shade as well as wildlife habitat (squirrels, mostly).

The wood is also very strong. In the days of wooden sailing ships, Live Oak was a much sought after building material for the ships’ frames. A story is told about a Naval battle between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812 in which some of Guerriere’s cannonballs bounced off Constitution’s hull and one of the American sailors shouted “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” That, supposedly, is the origin of the name “Old Ironsides.” The ship has been rebuilt several times, usually with Live Oak. The one time it was rebuilt with Red Oak, the wood rotted in about 20 years.

I didn’t have any particular trouble carving the wood. I did have to be a little careful not to burn the wood by going too fast, but other than that it carved just fine and sanding wasn’t terribly difficult. The wood is hard, like most oaks, but not nearly as hard as some of the other woods I’ve worked with on this project.

Every time I work with found wood, I’m pleasantly surprised by irregularities that I wouldn’t normally see in kiln dried wood that I purchase at a wood store. Knots, cracks, and other “imperfections” are considered flaws by most carvers and wood workers, so the stores don’t often carry pieces that exhibit those features. But I like those features because they add character to my bird carvings. This piece, for example, has a large crack across the breast, and a couple of knots that add variation to the understated grain of the oak.