The wood carver’s guide to finding and selecting raw materials
Once again, I want to express my sincere and boundless gratitude to my friend Wendy Rome for organizing my thoughts and correcting the mistakes of my bad English.
Every business, including wood carving, has its beginning — its starting point. Within that business, each process starts with a single step. A master wood carver doesn’t just pick up a knife and start carving. Long before that knife meets wood, the carver goes through a series of processes and decisions. This article focuses on ‘found wood’ and some of the decisions carvers make when selecting wood to carve.
A wood carver starts with finding good carving wood. The wood must be suitable for carving and, hopefully, appealing to look at. It must be structurally sound so it doesn’t break or rot. Ultimately, the quality of the final product depends substantially on the carver’s careful selection of the raw material.
Wood Carvers Must Familiarize Themselves with the Law
Before setting out on a wood-hunting trip, carvers should familiarize themselves with local laws. Governments often regulate their natural wood resources. These laws can vary significantly from country to country and from one part of a country to another.
Some laws may only permit harvesting from trees that have died, whether on the ground or still standing. In many countries, however, people are free to cut down live trees. I find this particularly disheartening. Live trees are one of our most precious resources and I encourage all nations to preserve existing trees and promote the planting of additional trees.
In some jurisdictions, even trees that have died are protected and someone who tries to harvest any part of such a tree for personal use can face stiff penalties. For these trees, which have died through natural processes or even through another’s carelessness, I believe that the wood shouldn’t go to waste. But the law is the law.
In some jurisdictions, trees growing on public lands can be harvested without restriction. Some laws may limit where a carver may search for such wood. And some countries restrict the types of trees that may be harvested.
Know the laws that apply to where you plan to hunt for wood. Comply with them. Respect the importance that countries place on their precious resources.
The Wood Carver’s Hunt for Wood
Once you understand the legalities of wood harvesting in your area, it’s time to find some carving wood. Harvesting newly-cut trees or limbs allows you to work with “green” wood — wood that still retains a high level of moisture. This raw wood is softer and easier to carve than dryer wood, which tends to be harder or even brittle.
Some prefer to work with dry wood because it is less likely to crack than is newly harvested green wood. Dry wood can be obtained from wood sellers, but the carver who enjoys the hunt can find dry woods either from trees that have been dead for some time or by recycling wood from wood creations that others have discarded, often after decades of use.
Choosing Woods For Spoons and Other Wood Utensils
Wood carvers have traditionally used fruit trees, birch, and aspen for making spoons and wooden utensils. Avoid coniferous trees and bushes with poisonous or intoxicating berries. Coniferous trees are not suitable for making spoons because they have a high resin content that can affect flavors and emit an odor.
Beginners may prefer to start with soft woods like birch, linden (basswood), or apple wood. These woods are easier to carve than are some of the hardwoods that carvers often use. A beginner can use these woods to develop good carving techniques before moving on to harder woods.
At some point, I will probably write an article on processing dry wood. It is an interesting topic that is worth a separate article. For now, just understand that recently-cut wood has a high moisture content. As the wood dries, it can crack and carvers spend a fair amount of time preparing wood to dry in a way that reduces the likelihood of such problems. Care must be taken to prevent cracking during the drying process. I have touched on some of these issues in my article on baking wood but I will revisit the subject in more depth later this year.
Recycling Wood: Using Wood That’s Been Used Before
Some wood carvers mine their raw materials from old or broken furniture or other wood items. Just a few decades ago, furniture was routinely made with solid wood. Chairs, cabinets, dressers, nightstands — all were made with cherry, oak, mahogany, maple, beech, acacia, elm… the list is quite long. People throw things away when they no longer need them and, for a wood carver, their discarded furniture can be a gold mine.
Carvers searching for oak might focus on finding old tables and chairs. Those who prefer to carve beech often look for baby cribs and high chairs. Most of these woods are suitable for recycling into utensils and have become quite valuable to carvers and other makers.
There are many reasons to use recycled woods. These woods are stable. They’re already dried so they’re less likely to crack during the carving process. However, they have continued to air-dry throughout their lives as furniture and many recycled woods can be as hard as stone. With a little patience and care, however, they can still be carved into new vibrant creations.
Many buyers appreciate the idea of items carved from recycled woods and actively search for such pieces. They like the idea that the carver took the time to salvage usable wood rather than kill a growing tree. They like the fact that recycling reduces the amount of trash being dumped in landfills which, in turn, reduces the amount of land devoted to storing trash. And many like the fact that the wood already has a history. The stories appeal to them.
More advanced wood carvers often select pieces with knots or other interesting aspects. These woods can create completed pieces with beautiful accents but they’re usually harder or trickier to carve and often require special care, techniques, and tools. Knots are very hard while the surrounding wood is usually significantly softer. The deformation of the fibers around knots increases the probability of cracks and additional deformations in the finished product.
Inexperienced carvers can develop their skills using straight-grained woods that can be carved successfully with few unfortunate surprises. These carvers can graduate to the more interesting woods after they’ve developed the appropriate skills and have acquired tools that facilitate carving more difficult woods.
For smaller carvings, wood carvers often select tree branches as a source of wood. It’s a good idea to select branches that are at least a few inches thick. The thinner the branch, the more its wood is exposed to cracking during the drying process. Wood dries at different rates and it’s so frustrating to spend hours on a spoon, only to find that it has cracked right down the center sometime during the night.
A Comment About Responsible Wood Harvesting
In closing this article, I want to focus carvers on a basic principle that I hope will guide them in their search for raw materials: be reasonable when you are collecting wood. Some carvers tend to bring home every scrap of wood they find and rationalize that they’ll be able to use each piece for something, sometime. I urge carvers to reject this thinking.
Carvers who ‘collect’ wood find that the pile of wood will sit there a long time, taking up space. It can become a point of contention with others in the household. A lot of it will never be used and, at some point, the carver will throw it away, give it away, or leave it to the family to decide what to do with it.
I urge carvers to take only the wood they can use in the next few weeks. Don’t worry about whether you’ll be able to find more wood later on. There is always a way to find more wood as you need it. Branches continue to fall off trees and people throw wood items away every day. When the time comes to collect more wood, it will be there.
Careful selection of raw materials enhances the likelihood that the carver will successfully complete a project, particularly if the wood has to go through a significant drying process. As carvers acquire more skills and tools, their wood choices can incorporate greater risk because they’re more able to handle the problems that unique woods present. Regardless of skill level, however, carvers should strive to collect their woods responsibly, each doing a small part to limit the human impact on the Earth. Protecting the resources today ensures a continued supply of wood for future carvers.
Good luck and be reasonable!