#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.

#102: Bethlehem Olive

Bird number: 135 & 136
Date: October 20, 2013
Wood: Olive (Olea europaea)
Source: Woodcraft store

Debra and I were in the Woodcraft store last year right before Christmas, and saw that they had a bunch of Bethlehem Olive turning blanks. I’d already carved an olive bird, but these blanks were from a burl, and Debra really liked the way it looked. So we bought it.

The piece was a little narrow for my standard sized bird, so I carved two smaller birds from it. The idea was to keep one for the collection and donate one to a charity auction. But Debra couldn’t decide which one she liked best. So I decided to make them the Olive twins.

They turned out really nice.

I learned a couple of new bandsaw techniques when working with this piece. See my blog, Bandsaw tricks (link is to an archived version of my blog post), for the details.

#101: Plum

Bird number: 134
Date: October 20, 2013
Wood: Plum (Prunus)
Source: Friend from California

Who says that I have to stop at 100? I’ve decided that I’ll continue to add to the collection if I run across a new type of wood, or a piece that’s in some way special. I don’t have a particular goal for the number of species I eventually want to carve.

It’s unlikely that I’ll know exactly which species of Plum this is, but it doesn’t really matter. Plum is a member of the genus Plumus, which includes cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, and almonds. I’ve carved cherry and apricot already, and the plum is very similar: medium hard, cuts well, nice grain. Oddly, I don’t recall there being a particular odor when I cut or sanded this piece. Both cherry and apricot have very pleasant odors.

Pleasant odor or not, it sure is pretty wood.

One of the nice things about getting wood from friends or finding it lying around is that I get very interesting pieces. The log Jim sent to me was about four inches in diameter and had a couple of knots where limbs had been growing. That made for some twisty grain patterns and color variations. I don’t normally find that kind of thing in wood obtained commercially, which usually has a more consistent grain and coloration.

In the past I’ve done the rough carving and initial sanding with the Foredom power carver and then finished sanding by hand. Over the last six months or so, I’ve learned to use the cushion sander, and I’ve found that I can use that to do all my sanding with power. Sanding goes faster that way, and I’m still able to do a good job. I just have to be careful with the speed because the power sander can take wood off a whole lot faster than I could by hand.

Lovely stuff, the plum. I should make it a point to search out and carve other fruit woods. So far, all of them have been really nice.

All together now

Throughout the year I’ve spent carving these birds, people have been asking me what I’m going to do with them. I honestly had no clear idea of that when I started. At some point in the past year, Debra and I decided that we’d decorate our Christmas tree with the birds, leaving all our other ornaments in the boxes this time.

We realized a couple of weeks ago that we’d need a tree topper to fit with the bird theme. I suggested a larger bird that I could drill a hole in so that it would sit on top of the tree, but Debra had a better idea: a big bird sitting on a nest. I carved the bird and she fashioned the nest.

Debra set up the tree on Friday, and Saturday she got all the birds out of their boxes while I worked on the big bird tree topper. Here are all of the birds, minus the topper, sitting on the desk just before we started hanging them on the tree.

And the tree, with 101 little hanging birds and the big bird in its nest on the top.

Click on either of those two pictures to view a much larger image. The tree image is especially large. You might have to click again to have your browser show the picture in its original size.

A few people asked how we attached the birds to the tree. It’s a multi-step process. When I made the birds, I drilled a small (1/32 inch) hole in each one and inserted a small jewelry pin that I secured in place with super glue. Last week, Debra attached a fishing swivel to each jewelry pin using a small jump ring. We got the pins and jump rings in the jewelry findings section of Hobby Lobby. We got the fishing swivels from our local sporting goods store. I think they’re #12 swivels. Or possibly #10.

The fancy hooks also came from Hobby Lobby.

Some of the birds have barrel clasps from the jewelry findings section, but the fishing swivels look better (not as clunky) and cost less.

Some of the earlier birds (the first 20 or 25) have screw eyes rather than the jewelry pins. For those we just used the hooks without the swivels. I might try to replace the screw eyes with pins, but the hole in the back of the bird is much larger, which might pose a problem.

No magic. Just working with what we could find on short notice.

#100: Banksia Pod

Bird number: 133
Date: December 18, 2012
Wood: Banksia pod (Banksia grandis)
Source: Woodcraft

Banksia is a genus of about 170 flowering trees or woody shrubs native to Australia that have distinctive flower spikes and fruiting cones and heads. The Bull Banksia tree, native to Southwest Western Australia, develops very large (up to 35 cm, or 13 inches) seed pods.

This one is about eight inches long and about four inches in diameter.

The outer surface of the pod is kind of fuzzy, and the wood directly under the fuzzy layer is very soft and crumbly. I cut the ends off and squared up the sides so that I could get a bird pattern on the thing.

Cutting this stuff made a huge mess. The wood is somewhat brittle, and the harder bits around the cavities tended to break off. I had to be extremely careful with this because the blade had a tendency to wander. But with patience and care, I ended up with a bird cutout.

I thought I’d be able to carve this bird with a knife, but the wood alternates between crumbly, brittle, and very hard. So I instead used the Foredom power carver, using a light touch to avoid getting the bit caught in one of the seed holes. I learned a while back that a bad things happen if that bit grabs an edge.

Sanding, too, was somewhat difficult. All those holes. But it was worth the effort. The final product really is unique.

You might notice that I left the tail a little thicker than with most of the other birds. The pod really is brittle. I was experimenting with a piece slightly thicker than my typical bird’s tail, and it snapped unexpectedly. I figured I’d leave this one a bit thicker to prevent it from breaking off.

The figure’s back is about at the center of the seed pod, so you don’t see a lot of holes up there. A shot of the bottom shows a lot more holes.

The wood sure finishes up nice, though! And the holes add a unique character.

Wood turners really like Banksia pods. Just do a Google images search and see some of the beautiful turned objects. The pods are kind of expensive here in the U.S., though, so you don’t often see turned objects at craft shows and such.

I enjoyed carving the Banksia pod, especially after somebody told me that there was no way I’d get a bird from it. He sure was surprised! That said, I doubt I’ll be buying another one of these pods any time soon. Unless I come up with some crazy idea . . .

#99: Spalted Tamarind

Bird number: 132
Date: December 18, 2012
Wood: Spalted Tamarind (Tamarindus indica)
Source: Woodcraft

If you’ve lived for any time near the Mexican border or you like to shop in Asian markets, you’re probably familiar with the tamarind: a pod-like, pulpy fruit with a sour/tart taste. It’s used quite a bit in Asian and Mexican dishes, and also in some candies. I like the stuff in small doses, but only occasionally. I discovered some tamarind flavored bubble gum (I still swear that it was Bubble Yum brand) when Debra and I were on our honeymoon in Cancun back in 1992. I really liked that stuff but haven’t been able to find it in stores since. I used to look whenever I ran across a candy store in Mexico. There are some online suppliers, but like the stores in Mexico, they have tamarind/chile flavor rather than tamarind alone.

The quest continues.

I don’t know where Woodcraft got the tamarind wood. It’s not something you find very often, probably because the wood just isn’t very interesting when compared to cherry, black walnut, and the many exotic woods that are freely available. Spalting, though, makes any wood interesting. I would have been happy to carve regular tamarind, but the spalting made the wood quite striking.

Spalting is discoloration caused by fungus. It usually happens after a tree has died. Under the right conditions, some types of fungus colonize the wood and their activity can cause different types of discolorations. This piece of wood exhibits zone lines: the dark brown or black irregular lines that are most prevalent on the left side of the figure’s head.

This bird is smaller than most of those in the collection. The wood I got from the store was about 1.75 inches wide rather than the two inches that I normally use. The bird is a little less than four inches long as opposed to 4.5 inches for most of the others.

The wood was soft enough (although just barely so) to carve comfortably with a knife, which was a pleasant break from all the power carving I’ve done recently. I thought at first that I was going to have trouble getting a smooth surface when sanding, but it turned out to be pretty easy. I really did enjoy carving this stuff. It would have been better, though, if I could have had a piece of tamarind gum to chew on while I was working.

There is some danger to working with spalted wood, by the way. Some of the fungi that cause spalting also like lungs. Inhaling the dust from spalted wood can lead to the fungi colonizing your lungs, leading to serious respiratory problems. As always, you should wear some kind of dust mask when raising dust from carving or sanding. And be sure to tell your wife, husband, or whoever makes medical decisions if you’re incapacitated that they should let medical personnel know about your wood carving if you ever end up in the hospital with respiratory problems. People have been known to die from respiratory infections caused by inhaling wood dust, especially if it’s from spalted wood.

I’m glad I bought a 12″ piece of this wood. I look forward to making a few more things from it.

#98: Burmese Blackwood

Bird number: 131
Date: December 18, 2012
Wood: Burmese Blackwood (Dalbergia cultrata)
Source: Woodcraft

Burmese Blackwood is a member of the genus Dalbergia, commonly called the Rosewoods. Two other birds in this collection, Yucatan Rosewood and Cocobolo are also Rosewoods, and I strongly suspect that my Mystery wood is, as well.

This carved like the other Rosewoods I’ve worked with. The wood is hard, but cuts well and carves nicely with the Foredom. Sanding was not a problem. All told, the wood was a pleasure to work with.

Burmese Blackwood is native to Southeast Asia. Like many Rosewoods, it is highly sought after for use in furniture, musical instruments, turned objects, and flooring. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the tree as “near threatened,” mostly due to over exploitation of the timber. However, the wood is not CITES listed. I don’t know enough about the IUCN to say whether they’re reliable, but I would expect the wood from a threatened species to be somewhat more expensive than what I paid for this piece. I will, however, do a bit more research before I buy any more.

#97: Black Palm

Bird number: 130
Date: December 17, 2012
Wood: Black Palm (Borassus flabellifer)
Source: Woodcraft

I was surprised at how dense this wood is. The few types of palm wood I’d ever seen were quite fibrous and very light. Not as light as Balsa wood, but also not as solid. It turns out, though, that there are some 2,600 different species of palm trees. So I guess it’s no surprise that some would be hard and dense. Coconut palm (also known as Red Palm) is also very dense. I hope to carve that some day, too.

Palms are neither softwood nor hardwood, and by botanical definition not even trees. They’re monocots: structurally more like bamboo, grasses, orchids, etc., than what we typically call trees. They grow much differently than trees and as a result do not have annual growth rings. There is no “grain” to the wood, which really isn’t wood at all. Technically.

Wood or not, it sure looks nice. The fibers create an almost feather-like pattern on the figure.

It carves and sands like wood, too, and it’s used for many of the same things that wood is used for: flooring, boat building, walking sticks, knife and tool handles, rafters, furniture, and turned objects.

The only trouble I had with this piece was sanding. The alternating dark and light areas made it very difficult to distinguish scratches from the natural features. I spent a lot of time bent over a lighted magnifier, sanding. I think all that work paid off.

#96: Mopani

Bird number: 129
Date: December 17, 2012
Wood: Mopani (Colophospermum mopane)
Source: Woodcraft

Mopani (also mopane) is one of the heaviest woods found in South Africa. With a specific gravity of 1.23, it’s very hard and durable. Because of its termite resistance, it’s long been used for building houses and fences, as well as for mining timbers and railway sleepers. Outside of Africa, it’s used for outdoor accents, bases for lamps and sculptures, aquarium ornaments (the wood sinks, after all), turned objects, and other small specialty items.

I love the stuff. I bought it mostly because I was intrigued by its hardness, but when I made the first cut with the bandsaw I knew that it would be lovely.

I had to be careful to use a slower speed when carving, so as not to burn the wood, and sanding took a while although it wasn’t especially difficult. When I finished sanding, I spent a day hand rubbing the bird to see if I could get away with an “all natural” finish like I did with the Texas Ebony. The wood is certainly oily enough, and the bird did look good. But it didn’t shine like I wanted it to, so I went ahead with the polyurethane finish.

The result is one of the more beautiful birds. It looks glass-smooth, and the grain appears to have some depth.

I bought a fairly large piece of this, and am looking forward to making a few other things from what’s left. I can’t say what, exactly, I’ll use it for, but you can be sure it that will be a stylized carving that will show off the grain. And I’ll likely buy more of it at some point.

#95: Amazakoue

Bird number: 128
Date: December 17, 2012
Wood: Amazakoue (Guibourtia ehie)
Source: Woodcraft

I’ve become jaded. By any reasonable measure, this is a beautiful wood and I should be wowed by it. But I was actually disappointed when I finished sanding it, I think because I’ve been working with so many beautiful woods recently. The last ten or twelve woods I’ve worked with are, in my opinion, more striking than this one.

Amazakoue is hard enough that I wouldn’t want to try carving it with a knife. I didn’t have any problems carving with the Foredom, but I had a frustratingly difficult time sanding the silly thing. For reasons I don’t understand, getting a smooth finish on this figure was exceptionally difficult.

The tree is native to tropical West Africa. The wood is used for flooring, fine furniture, cabinet work, veneer, turned objects, and musical instruments. It’s often used as a less expensive alternative to Indian Rosewood. I’ve seen a few references that describe Amazakoue as “a walnut-like wood,” although none of them say how it’s like walnut. My experience is limited to black walnut, which this doesn’t resemble at all.

It really is a beautiful wood, and I’ll get over being jaded pretty soon. I hope.