I said all that to say “Now for something completely different”. No, I’m not going to repeat my last article. I’m actually going to talk about something completely different. I’m sure that most of you think of wood when you think about carving. Today I want to introduce you to cottonwood bark.
Where does it come from, where does it go
Cottonwood bark comes from the cottonwood tree. The cottonwood is part of the willow family. They are very fond of river bottoms and do very well in flood zones. The tree can absorb a lot of water and it is my understanding that it is very fibrous. It can be used for pallets and pulp but does not have many other uses.
The bark is the part we are most interested in. On young trees the bark is yellowish-green and smooth. As the trees age the bark gets very thick with deep furrows. When the trees die the bark will loosen from the wood and will fall off or can be peeled off. The bark is broken into pieces of suitable size for carving.
Cottonwood bark has some very unique characteristics. The outer bark is usually some shade of gray and is very rough. The inner bark is a very pleasing brown and will carve to a nice smooth finish.
One thing that makes cottonwood bark interesting to carve is how it is formed. It is made up of hundreds and hundreds of newspaper thin layers. This makes carving it very easy compared to hardwood but also makes the bark easier to break off. Care must be taken.
Why is it so popular (not poplar)?
Cottonwood bark offers many advantages to a carver. The overall impression of a well done cottonwood bark piece is very nice. The roughness and color of the outer bark contrasts nicely with the smooth, rich brown color of the inner bark. Cottonwood bark can be carved easily by hand. For carvers who have issues with harder woods this can be a lifesaver.
Another great thing about cottonwood bark is that it forces you outside the realm of patterns. Each piece is so different that it’s hard to do anything the same way twice. If you want to start breaking out into something new in your carvings cottonwood bark provides an easy way to do it.
The most popular uses of cottonwood bark are for woodspirits and other faces in relief. The contrast and finish of the bark really makes faces shine. Other uses are usually some kind of relief. You have probably seen some of these types of carvings in Carving Magazine.
I’m not saying that there is no one carving in the round out of cottonwood bark. There is usually at least one person doing everything out there somewhere. I am saying that bark does not lend itself well to in the round carving because it is not as stable as hardwood.
Carving and Finishing
My favorite book on carving cottonwood bark is 'Carving Found Wood' by Vic Hood. It features a nice cottonwood bark project and also contains other types of found wood besides cottonwood bark. Let your imagination roll!
You can carve cottonwood bark with your regular carving tools. In fact you’ll find it quite easy and enjoyable. I have carved it with power in the roughing stage but I find that it doesn’t respond well to power beyond that.
One point of caution, since the bark is constantly exposed to the elements the outer layers will be full of grit. In the south we like grits but up north you will want to get rid of it. You can scrub away at it with a brush to get the grit off but you will not get all of it out. When you start roughing out your carving you will be dulling your tools on this grit. This is no big deal as long as you remember to keep your tools sharp. Strop often!
To finish I take a pretty simple approach. I will spray on a couple of coats of Deft (blue can). After this had dried very well I will apply a coat or two of Watco Wax in either the neutral, dark, or 50/50 mix of the two. Once this is dried and I’m satisfied I will buff to a shine with a horse hair brush. I have also heard of carvers who finish with shoe cream. I’m sure there are many options out there.
Cottonwood bark is an attractive medium and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in woodspirits and other types of relief carving. It carves well and easily. It can be brittle so care has to be taken while you are carving. Also, since the grit in the outer bark cannot be avoided. Sharpen your tools often.
This article originally appeared in Carving Magazine