Welcome back to Novice Nibblings, the column that is guaranteed to help you lose weight, grow hair, look good, and smell better. Well, 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 is good, some are better than others when it comes to carving. Today I want to talk about wood and what makes some woods more loved than others.
1$ it popular?
I always thought poplar was popular but poplar's not as popular as popular notions would lead you to believe. While there are exceptions (aren't there always?), the fol- lowing 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 dif- ficult woods. However, the beginner should look for wood with the following:
1. Grain - A wood with a good straight grain is easier to carve than a wood with an unpredictable grain.
2. Details - The wood should 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 others to be able to admire your work.
3. Appearance/Painting - Does the wood have an attractive appearance if the product is going to be left natural or stained? If it is to be painted, does the wood prime and take paint well?
4. Stability - Does the wood split easily? You want a wood that won't split and ruin your latest masterpiece.
5. Allergens - Some woods can cause allergic reactions or may even be toxic. Research any new wood species before carving it. This is especially true if you are power carving, as the dust could get into your lungs and cause major problems.
6. Availability - Is it readily available? If you spend more time hunting for it than carving it, you probably won't enjoy yourself very much.
7. 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 one wood is pretty much the 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 it 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 more than 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 as well as 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 it does take paint very well. It is also very easy to find and is affordable. Basswood is generally not an allergen.
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 South. 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 leads to a more consistent wood and, thus, better carving.
How do I piek 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 who knows what he/she is talking about, he/she will know where the wood comes from. I also have found that basswood with a creamy color is more desirable. I have carved some that is brownish, but I prefer the creamy white.
Also, make sure your wood is dry. If you aren't sure about the moisture content, 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...
About the author
John Call has lived in Ellijay, GA, his entire life. His love of small town life and living “in the woods” are still as strong today as they were when he was a kid. Woodcarving has provided a way to combine his interests in the culture of the Appalachians and its art.
For John, woodcarving is more than a hobby; it is an expression of life in the mountains. He enjoys carving many different subjects, especially realistic fish.
Besides woodcarving, John also enjoys fly fishing and tying, hiking the nearby Appalachian Trail, and playing bluegrass on his banjo