Friday, February 15, 2008

Wood - Woodcarving Article

Welcome back to Novice Nibblings the column that is guaranteed to help you lose weight, grow hair, look good and smell better. Maybe not but I hope it will help you keep taking steps towards improving as a woodcarver. Today, we’ll talk about our friend, wood.

“The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seeds according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.”
Genesis 1:12

It was definitely a good day, especially if you like to carve wood. While every tree serves a purpose and are all good some of them are better than others when it comes to carving. Today I want to talk about wood and what makes some of them more loved than others.

Is it poplar?

I always thought poplar was popular but poplars not as popular as popular notions would lead you to believe. While there are exceptions to the following (aren’t there always?) these characteristics are usually looked for in a good carving wood. These are not hard and fast rules. Also, more advanced carvers are better at working with more difficult woods. However, the beginner should look for wood with the following:

  • Grain - A wood with a good straight grain is easier to carve than a wood with an unpredictable grain.

  • Details – The wood hold details well. This may not matter if you are carving a totem pole but if you are carving the hairs on a gnat's back you’ll want other to be able to admire your work.

  • Appearance/Painting – If the product is going to be left natural or stained does the wood have an attractive appearance? If it is to be painted does the wood prime and take paint well?

  • Stability – Does the wood split easily? You want a wood that won’t split and ruin your latest masterpiece.

  • Allergens – Some woods can cause allergic reactions or even be toxic. You want to research any wood new species before you carve it. This is especially true if you are power carving as the dust could get into your lungs and cause major problems.

  • Availability – Is it readily available? If you spend more time hunting it than carving it then you won’t enjoy yourself very much.

  • Cost – Can you afford it? Some woods can be very expensive. Look for woods with the other listed attributes that are also affordable.

The ‘perfect’ wood

I can hear all of you out there, “Please tell us about the perfect wood.” I’m sorry to say it’s not out there. There is not a perfect wood but there is a wood that is the defacto standard for many carving projects. It fits the above characteristics and is great for beginners in general. That wood is basswood.

Basswood is a hardwood but is on the lighter end of the spectrum. It weighs approximately 26 pounds per cubic foot when dry. This is a standard way to weigh wood. Compare this to some other ‘harder’ hardwoods which can weigh over 45 pounds per cubic foot. The natural softness of basswood makes it easier to carve with a wide variety of tools.

Basswood has a nice, tight grain that allows it to hold details very well. It can be power carved but is mostly worked with hand tools. It is also very stable and will not split easily. Basswood does not have a very attractive grain for natural finishes but does take paint very well. It is also very easy to find and is affordable. Basswood is generally not an allergen.

Basswood - North vs. South

When it comes to basswood the south will definitely not rise again. You see, there are basswood trees up north and basswood trees here in the motherland. However, the northern wood is more desirable. I don’t know exactly why that is but I understand that the slower growing season up north allows those trees to be ‘tighter’. This lends to a more consistent wood and thus better carving.

Basswood - How do I pick it?

Knowing the species of wood you want to carve isn’t the final answer. Individual pieces can vary and basswood is no exception. When I am looking at basswood I like to pick up pieces and thump them with my finger like a watermelon. I listen for an even sound….ok, that’s not true. Don’t thump the wood, it hurts.

Actually, I like to find wood that is listed as northern basswood. If you have a dealer that knows what they are talking about they will know where their wood comes from. I also have found that basswood that is a creamy color is more desirable. I have carved some that is brownish but I like the creamy white better.

Also, make sure your wood is dry. There was an article in a past issue by Joe Dillet discussing moisture in wood. Read it and try to find wood that fits within his parameters. If you aren’t sure about the moisture content then ask your dealer to supply a piece that is sufficiently dry.

Good carving starts with good wood. Find yourself a nice piece of basswood and you’ll be happier and thinner, and hairier……

Don't forget butternut if you are looking for something different. Butternut makes a great carving wood for unpainted projects.

The 'Getting Started Series' encompasses six articles:

This article originally appeared in Carving Magazine.