Wood for carving


Woods, like so many materials we use, are subject to fashion. For instance, pitch pine and mahogany suffered an eclipse at the close of the nineteenth century but now they are again gaining favor. Fresh treatments and new designs make us see these woods in a different light. Those who can look back far enough remember the pitch pine school desks, still surviving in the 1920's. They were usually ink-stained and scarred and for me associated with being 'kept in' on sunny afternoons. Now less pitch pine is imported but the strong resin-filled grain with its striking pattern would lend itself to modern treatment. A wood craftsman I met recently talked sadly of the time when he burned quantities of pitch pine veneer because at that time it was out of fashion and unsalable. Of course, some woods are more pleasant to carve than others. Some will carve in almost any direction, others are stubborn with difficult grain, and some blunt the tools.

In this chapter I describe some thirty-five woods which are suitable for carving. The carver should be ready to try any variety of wood that comes his way, provided it is seasoned and little expense is involved. Woods new to this country are continually being imported and exciting discoveries can be made. A few minutes' work will show the carving qualities of a new wood. The amateur, carving just for his own pleasure, can afford time to experiment on small pieces while the professional carver tends to use woods already proved. When you go to a lumber or timber yard do not be put off by the look of the outside of a stack of timber. Sometimes it is stacked in the open under a roof but not closed in, a method also used in air seasoning. At first glance the wood may look a uniform grey but its true color will not be revealed until the wood is cut or carved. Wood as a material is invariably of great interest to those who work with it and in a timber yard you might possibly find men who have been in the trade for years. You will find them knowledgeable and very ready to tell you all they know. Wood that works easily in their machines is likely to carve well also.

In the following descriptions the weight in parentheses is the approximate weight per cubic foot of air-seasoned timber.

White Afara (3

Red Alder (28 lb.). Red alder is easy to work and finishes well. It is durable even in damp climates.

Crab Apple (46 lb.). The color is pinkish grey to light brown and the wood is suitable for fine carving. It is hard and heavy. Unfortunately the tree does not grow to more than 12 in. in diameter as a general rule. The wood takes a fine natural polish with handling. It is used for mallet heads, drawing instruments, saw handles and other purposes where a fine-grained, reliable timber is required.

Ash (45 lb.). Color white to light brown. Ash is a rather tough wood to carve but not excessively so. The grain is broad in character and strongly marked. Other uses: furniture, axe- and hammer-shafts, hoops and rims.

Basswood (26 lb.). Easily workable and soft enough that you may dispense with your mallet, this wood tends to brittleness and is susceptible to decay. Especially useful for woodenware, it takes stain well and can be finished to a fine luster.

Beech (45-50 lb.). Beech varies in color from greyish pink to warm light red. It is plentiful in America and used widely in the furniture trade. It is a reliable all-purpose hardwood, with an even texture that can be worked in all directions. It carves and polishes well and will readily take stain.

Boxwood (60 lb.). Boxwood is remarkable for its uniform yellow color. It is almost like ivory in that it will take very small carved detail without breaking. Boxwood was used extensively in the seventeenth century for small figure carving. Unfortunately, owing to the bush-like nature of the tree, the sizes are small.

It is commonly used for chessmen, modelling tools, rulers, pulley blocks, bowls and wood engraving.

San Domingo Boxwood (58 lb.). This wood is sometimes used as a substitute for true boxwood. The heartwood has a yellow tinge, the sapwood is white to pale yellow. The texture is uniform and fine. It is very durable and has a straight but wavy grain. It carves well and takes a very high polish.

Butternut (27 lb.). The wood of the butternut, a member of the walnut family, is much in use for cabinetwork, inlay, and veneer as well as for carving. Unlike the walnut, however, this wood is soft and rather weak and may be carved entirely by hand. You should, in fact, avoid exerting too great an effort when working with this wood since, due to the weakness of its texture, you may easily make a larger cut than you had intended and thus ruin your project. A light grey-brown in color, butternut will take both paint and polish effectively.

Wild Cherry (40 lb.). Like other American fruit woods, wild cherry is a very good carving wood. It needs slow seasoning and tends to split if dried quickly. The sapwood is light and the heart-wood a reddish brown. The texture is fine and even and it takes a smooth polish. It is used also in cabinet work, frames and other decorative work.

Sweet Chestnut (42 lb.). This wood can be mistaken for oak but it is about twenty-five per cent lighter when seasoned. The silver grain present in oak is absent, however. It is easy to work and has been widely used for timber work in churches.

Ebony (63 lb.). Ebony, not easily obtained, is black with a fine grain. The tools tend to blunt because of the rather gritty nature of the wood. It will take fine detail and a high polish.

Elm (36-37 lb.). Elm, like ash, is a wood familiar in everyday life. We see it in wheelbarrows, furniture and garden seats, and— like ash—it is tough and strong and suitable for large wood carvings.

Douglas Fir (31 lb.). This is a very strong wood and quite hard. It does, however, have a great tendency to check, split, shrink, and swell.

Holly (36 lb.). This wood, fine grained and heavy, is pure white in color. As the holly is of shrub-like proportions, its wood can be used, like boxwood, only for small objects and carvings, musical instruments, and inlay. Holly is fairly easy to work and will take detail without breaking or splitting.

Curly Jarrah (55 lb.). This wood is rich red in color and is probably the most important tree found in Western Australia. It can grow to as much as six feet in diameter. Jarrah carves well and takes a very high natural polish. It is extremely durable. The grain is straight but with a wavy or rippling character.

Iroko. This is the West African carver's favorite wood. Exposure to air turns the wood from straw color to red and the surface hardens. Finally, however, it becomes hard all through and it is resistant to termites.

Kingwood (70 lb.). This timber, not easily obtained, is found in Brazil and is similar to Indian Rosewood. Sizes are small, the maximum being 18 in. in diameter. The color of the wood is remarkable, almost violet with narrow, regular black stripes interspersed with wide, lighter bands. The grain is uniform and the wood will burnish to a fine natural polish.

Lignum Vitae (80-90 lb.). This is one of the heaviest of all woods and is therefore widely used for mallets and tools where weight and toughness is required. The heartwood is dark green­ish brown and the sapwood a contrasting yellow. The fibres of the wood are interlocked and it is impossible to split, though it can be carved with sharp tools.

lime (33 lb.). This is a favorite wood for sculpture. It is firm and pleasant to carve. The color is whitish to yellowish pink. Lime takes stain or bleach readily, the latter turning the timber pure white. It is moderately hard and takes a very good polish. Lime is also used for drawing boards, hat blocks and cabinetwork.

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