#94: Bocote

Bird number: 127
Date: December 4, 2012
Wood: Bocote (Cordia alliodora)
Source: Woodcraft

I’m not 100% certain that this is Cordia alliodora, although I do know that it is one of the Cordia species. And since Cordia alliodora is the most common, I figure that’s what this piece is.

The most striking thing about Bocote, of course, is the high contrast in the grain. What’s really interesting to me, though, is how straight the grain is. This piece is a bit unusual in that it has that slight figuring at the base of the tail. Most Bocote lumber you see will have straight grain from one end to the other. A friend who had seen my SpectraPly bird first thought that this was another type of that laminated wood product.

The wood is hard enough that I didn’t even consider carving it with a knife. It’s about 95% as dense as water, so I had to take it a little slow with the bandsaw and use a slower speed with the power carver to avoid burning the wood. Other than that, I had no problems with this figure. The wood machines well, and sanding was not at all difficult. Just more time consuming than most of the other birds.

Bocote is commonly available as veneer, in board form, and as turning blanks, although it is somewhat expensive. The wood is typically used for high-end furniture, cabinetry, flooring, boat building, musical instruments (especially the backs and sides of guitars), gun stocks, turned objects, and small specialty wood items. You’ll find few carved items from Bocote.

The wood is known to cause cross reactions once an allergy to some other woods is developed. For example, you might work with Bocote many times without developing any kind of reaction. But if you develop an allergic reaction to Cocobolo, for example, it’s very likely that you will subsequently be sensitive to Bocote. The body works in strange ways.

Lovely stuff, this Bocote, but pretty expensive. I have another piece of it that I’ll use for something, but can’t see myself buying another chunk unless I have a project that must have this type of wood.

#93: Mansonia

Bird number: 126
Date: December 4, 2012
Wood: Mansonia (Mansonia altissima)
Source: Gift from a fellow carver

A few months back my friend Ed showed me some things that he’d carved from Mansonia. When I was at his place a couple weeks ago he handed me a piece, saying that he found it while digging for something else in his wood stash. The piece he gave me is large enough to make two birds and have a little wood left over.

Mansonia comes from tropical Africa, where it’s apparently quite abundant. It’s been called African Walnut, although it’s not at all related to the Walnut tree. The wood has some of the same characteristics of Walnut, although it’s considerably lighter in color. At least, it’s lighter than any Walnut I’ve ever seen. Working it with a knife is pretty tough, but possible. I didn’t want to work that hard, so I used the Foredom on this one. There were no surprises in carving or sanding, and it finished up just beautifully.

There is less contrast in the grain than in many woods, and from a distance the bird looks rather plain. Up close, the grain really “pops out,” and one gains a whole new appreciation for the subtle beauty in this wood.

Mansonia has good outdoor weathering properties, and is resistant to decay and termite and insect attack. The wood is most commonly used for veneer, but also for cabinetry, boat building, furniture, and turned objects. I know that it’s available as turning blocks, because I saw some at Woodcraft. It’s more rarely available in board form from exotic lumber suppliers. Price will probably be in the mid range for a tropical exotic wood.

According to several sources, Mansonia is one of the worst woods in terms of toxicity and frequency of adverse reactions. The most common reaction is simple skin and eye irritation, but the dust reportedly can cause nausea, giddiness, sneezing, headaches, nosebleeds, infected splinters, and asthma. The bark, and possibly the heartwood, contains a cardiac poison called mansonin, which is similar to digitalis. Granted, it’s not there in high concentration, but I wouldn’t want to be working this wood without wearing a dust mask of some sort.

Extended contact with the wood dust or shavings is not good. Animals who have Mansonia shavings as litter do not fare well.

In other words, be very cautious when working with this wood.

All that said, I didn’t notice any particular effects. I did wear my breather while carving and power sanding, but not while hand sanding. Had I read about the potential effects of the wood before working with it, I would have been more careful.

Despite the potential dangers of working with it, I look forward to carving the other piece that I have.

#92: Olive

Bird number: 125
Date: December 4, 2012
Wood: Olive (Olea europaea)
Source: Woodcraft

I’m a little disappointed that I ended up having to buy Olive wood, considering there are several olive orchards in the area who undoubtedly have suitable wood available on a regular basis. They have to do something with the dead trees and pruning trash. But I couldn’t get anybody at those places to return my calls. Having now carved Olive and seen how nice it is to work with and how beautiful the finished product can be, I think I’ll spend a little more time trying to get a bunch from the orchards. I really enjoyed working with this wood.

It carves nice and it smells good! When cut, it smells like olive oil. Sanding the bird made me want to take a trip to Olive Garden.

With all the different types of olives available at the grocery store, I expected to say here that I have no idea what type of tree this wood came from. Other than it’s some type of Olive, that is. Turns out, though, that all olive trees are the same species. There are six subspecies and thousands of cultivars, but the trees are essentially the same. Minor genetic differences make up the differences in the size, shape, and taste of the fruits that they produce.

Olives are among the most widely cultivated trees in the world, and their history is ancient. Historians estimate that it’s been cultivated in the Mediterranean for over 7,000 years. Several living trees have been verified at over 2,000 years old. The olive is one of the first plants mentioned in the Bible, and easily the most often mentioned. It also plays a large part in the Jewish and Islamic religions.

The wood is about average hardness for fruit woods, with tight close grain. It’s not often available in lumber form, but bowl turning blanks are fairly common. It’s used for high end furniture, veneer, turned objects, and small specialty wood items. I’ve seen olive wood spoons and other kitchen utensils, and from time to time some very nice carved pieces.

#91: Tasmanian Myrtle

Bird number: 124
Date: December 4, 2012
Wood: Tasmanian Myrtle (Nothofagus cunninghamii)
Source: Woodcraft

Most of the woods I’ve used in the project I’d at least heard of some time in the past. I’d known of and even seen many of the exotics long before I started carving. I’d never heard of Tasmanian Myrtle before, and it looked really interesting there on the shelf at Woodcraft.

Besides, I didn’t have anything from Tasmania.

As interesting as it looked on the shelf, it looked even more interesting when I got it home and cut out the pattern. Finished, the wood has a definite pink hue that doesn’t show very well in these pictures.

It also has some interesting spalting and grain variation. The wood was a little more expensive than the average that I pay for a bird piece, but well worth the premium.

Nothofagus is the family of southern Beeches, native to temperate oceanic and tropical areas of the Southern Hemisphere. They used to be classified in the family Fagaceae along with all the other Beeches, but genetic tests have shown them to be distinct.

Tasmanian Myrtle,  also known as Myrtle Beech (not to be confused with Myrtle Beach, South Carolina) grows in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria, and on the island state of Tasmania. The wood is hard and strong, with a very close grain. It’s used for cabinetry, flooring, joinery, and cogs of wheels if you can imagine. And, as you can see from the pictures above, it can be polished to an extremely fine sheen.

The wood is commonly available in Australia, and occasionally available in the United States where its primary use is for turned objects. It shouldn’t be too difficult to carve with a knife, having a hardness on par with the fruit woods (apple, pear, cherry, etc.). The power carver, of course, had no trouble with it.

Easy to work with, and lovely stuff. I imagine I’ll pick up another chunk of it at some point.

#90: Rotten oak

Bird number: 123
Date: December 1, 2012
Wood: Rotten oak
Source: Friend’s ranch

I know that this is from an oak tree of some kind, but I don’t know the exact species. I cut the blank from a six-inch-thick branch that was hanging dead on one of the oak trees at Mike’s place near Ranger, TX. I know several species of oak that it isn’t, but not exactly what it is. Oh, well.

The wood from this oak, at least up there, tends to rot from the inside out. I suspect that the decay process actually started before the limb was dead. I say that because in trimming some live branches, we found signs of decay at the core while the branch seemed plenty healthy on the outside. Whatever the case, I was somewhat dubious about my ability to create a bird that would hold together.

The result is, I think, rather interesting.

There was a lot of fungus in the wood; almost all the cracks were filled with it. The first thing I did after cutting out the blank was put it in the oven for three hours at 200 degrees. That removed a lot of moisture and made it easier to remove the fungus. I then carved the figure, removed more of the fungus, and put it in the oven for another couple of hours. After one more pass with the pick to clean up the remaining bits of fungus, I sanded the figure and cooked it for the last time. Two fairly heavy coats of Watco Danish Oil should ensure that any fungus that remained is gone, or at least unable to continue feeding on the wood.

I had to be careful when carving the bird because there are many very soft sections of wood, and in some places not very much thickness between the outside and the hole that runs right down the middle of the figure.

I considered making up a story about how I found this bird in the burned-out remains of my grandfather’s barn. I think I could make a pretty convincing case, except for my name and the date that I carved on the tail.

This is what I consider a true “found wood” carving. It’s an interesting challenge, trying to make something recognizable out of a piece of wood that’s so far gone. Loads of fun, and a unique piece.

#89: Bloodwood

Bird number: 122
Date: December 1, 2012
Wood: Bloodwood (Brosimum paraense)
Source: Woodcraft

A friend gave me a piece of Purpleheart a few years ago. I showed it to somebody else, who swore that it was Bloodwood rather than Purpleheart. Having now worked with Bloodwood, I can’t imagine how that guy confused the two. They are wildly different in color and in working properties. Bloodwood is red to reddish-brown, with white or yellow streaks. It’s also somewhat harder than Purpleheart, which is purple to brown in color.

It’s interesting to note that the wood’s dust has been reported by some to cause thirst or salivation, and occasionally nausea. I don’t recall experiencing those symptoms, but I did notice some itching on my hands when I first started sanding this figure. Enough so that I put it down and intended to put on rubber gloves before working with it any more. I didn’t do that, but also didn’t experience any more irritation. So I think the itching was coincidental.

I rather like the way it turned out.

The wood is hard, with an average dried weight of 1,195 kg/m3, meaning that it doesn’t float in water. I had to be a little careful with the Foredom to avoid burning the wood. Sanding took a little longer, as you would expect with this harder wood.

The wood is durable, strong, and hard, and takes a very fine finish. It’s a popular wood for turned objects, trim and accents, as well as larger structural elements in furniture.

#88: Lemonwood

Bird number: 121
Date: December 1, 2012
Wood: Lemonwood (probably Calycophyllum candidissimum)
Source: Woodcraft

By now, I should know better than to trust common names. There are three different trees commonly called “lemonwood.” The only one for which I can find reliable lumber photos is Calcophyllum candidissimum, a South American tree. Those pictures do closely resemble the wood that I made this bird from, so I’ll go with that.

Whatever it is, it sure does look nice.

The wood was medium hard and cut quite well, with no tendency to burn. I knew when I bought the wood that it would look nice, but it finished up much better than I expected. That blemish on the left side of the head adds a really nice touch.

I hope to get another sample of it at some point. But it’s too expensive to buy. Lovely stuff, and a pleasure to carve.

#87: Redheart

Bird number: 120
Date: December 1, 2012
Wood: Redheart (species unclear)
Source: Woodcraft store

The most important thing to know about Redheart is that it’s beautiful when finished. The next thing to know is that it smells bad. The Wood Database entry says that it “can have a distinct, rubber-like smell when being worked depending on species.” I suppose I could characterize the smell as “rubber-like.” Say, like an old tractor tire that sat on top of a manure pile for several years of sun and rain before being washed off and stored in a hot barn for the summer.

Other than the smell, it’s fine to work with: medium-hard, straight, close grain, and no tendency to split or tear. Sanding was no problem, and it really did finish up nice.

This is probably Erythroxylum mexicanum, although I can’t say for sure. That is the most common species sold as “Redheart,” and it has the characteristic rubber-like smell, but apparently there are other members of the genus that look and smell the same.

The Erythroxylum genus also includes the the two species from which cocaine is extracted, but I don’t know if they have bad smelling red wood. I consider it very unlikely that I carved a cocaine tree.

Turned objects from Redheart are quite common. Turners love the stuff because it is beautiful and easy to work with. It’s a little on the expensive side as far as exotic woods go, but the color can bring a premium for turned objects. I don’t see many people carving it, though. Carvers are less apt to buy expensive carving wood, probably because the market for high-end carvings is much smaller than the market for turned objects.

I have enough to do a couple more small pieces, but I don’t expect to be working with it after that. The wood’s too pricey for me to go out and buy more. Plus … that smell!

#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.