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WOODS Which and Where
"STOUT as oak," "solid to the core," "wooden ships and iron mean," "black as ebony"—all everyday phrases, all based on that universal material—wood. So common it is, in fact, that we fail to realize how necessary it is to our daily lives. Few of us realize its potentialities, fewer still its infinite variety. But the whittler and the woodcarver must realize both, lest they work in vain, for wrong wood, poor or improper in structure or appearance, can ruin more carving than lack of skill.
Selection of the proper wood for carving involves no problem for the beginner. White pine among softwoods, basswood, black walnut and mahogany among hardwoods, are commonly available in good widths at reasonable prices. They cut easily, are straight-grained, are free from knots, and finish well. At a lumberyard, ask for "northern white pine," which is a better, less resinous, slower growing wood than southern pine.
The advanced carver must consider these factors: type of design, woods available, place and character of use, "style" of design.
Is the piece or design simple or complicated? Does it require "figure" (grain pattern) to decorate flat surfaces? Is it a delicate, intricate piece, or is it large, bold, and rugged? A simple and large piece calls for a fairly open-grained wood such as walnut, oak, mahogany, chestnut, or basswood. None of these is likely to split along a sharp-cut edge, and all accentuate ruggedness. A delicate piece with complicated parts requires a close-grained wood that supports detail better, such as ebony, box, lime, or apple. For figure, walnut, chestnut, quarter-sawed oak, or one of the rare woods available as lumber is required. ("Quarter-sawed" or "comb-grained" is used to describe hardwoods sawed so the annual rings run at 45 degrees or more with the wide faces. In softwoods, the terms are "edge-grained" or "rift-sawed." Usually lumber is "flat grain" or "plain-sawed.")
If your selection of woods is limited by your location or your pocketbook, the second factor becomes important. In ancient Egypt you would have used sycamore or cedar, in Hindustan sandalwood, in Switzerland satinwood, because in those countries those woods were most readily available. If you have a rare-wood or woodcarver's supply company near by, or the address of a reliable one (national popular mechanical, scientific, and homecraft magazines carry their advertising), you are fortunate, for then the factor of availability enters only in whether or not the wood you prefer to use is available in the sizes you require.
Place and character of use introduce these questions: Is the carving to be handled or used, or is it purely decorative? If it is to be handled, must it be flexed or bent? Is it indoors or outdoors, and how is it to be finished? The table at the end of this chapter will give you many of the answers offhand. Oak is the standard material to withstand weathering and decay, but many other woods will stand up also with proper protection—check the Durability column in the table. If the piece is to be flexed or bent, you must consider the data in the column on Elasticity. Hard-ness is an important element of wear resistance; another major element is finish. If the piece is to be painted, wear resistance is not so important.
"Style" of design I use for want of a better term. This fact enters if you are planning a woodcarving to suit a particular period of design, or if you are copying an old master. The Greeks and Romans used cedar; almost all Gothic carving was in oak; Renaissance in walnut; and Duncan Phyfe, Chippendale, Sheraton, and Heppelwhite in mahogany. Grinling Gibbons used lime or pear. If your copy is to be authentic, it should be of an equivalent wood.
In any case, select sound wood, free of knots (unless you want a burl or figure), straight-grained, close-textured, proper in color, dry, well-seasoned, and as durable and easy to cut as possible under the circumstances. Many of these things the wood seller will watch for you, if you explain that the wood is for carving. Straightness of grain is indicated by long, parallel grain lines running the length of the piece and parallel with its edges, or you can take a shaving off a corner of the piece and see how the wood splits. Close texture shows up in a smooth, unpitted appearance. Sound wood will be true and clear in color, resist penetration by a knife blade; and small pieces should ring or snap sharply when struck. Beware of a dull thud. Usually stocks of selected and rare woods are carefully chosen pieces, so the woods should be in proper condition.
Color should be clear and even over the wood surface except at the edges of wide boards, which usually include sapwood. Avoid board ends and attendant splitting and checking. If you want a figure in oak and chestnut, get the quarter-sawed variety, which in addition is not so likely to check or split.
Order wood planed on all sides (unless for in-the-round carving) but not sanded. A sanded piece will inevitably retain some silica dust, which takes the edge off a cutting tool just as quickly as would any other stone. Order the piece slightly oversize—you can always cut away an edge later, but it is hard to add wood to a board that is too small. Cypress, basswood, cottonwood, and yellow poplar are all available in wide, knot-free boards.
This all assumes that you are buying the wood. If you are getting your own, I recommend careful study of the table, comparison of available varieties, and some drying and storage place. My grandfather always had several lengths of hickory seasoning out in the barn so one would be in proper condition when an ax was to be helved. I keep several boxes filled with odd bits of wood from which to make a selection to fit a particular job. The main points are dry storage, thoroughly seasoned wood, straight grain, and freedom from knots. If you hunt for your wood, do not fear down trees. Unless decayed or checked, their wood is as sound as that of a standing tree.
Now to specialized data on woods: Wood is commercially classified as hardwood or softwood, not necessarily based on relative hardness (see the table). Commercial American hardwoods are oak, sycamore, willow, ash, elm, gum, chestnut, alder, aspen, basswood, beech, birch, buckeye, butternut, cherry, hackberry, locust, magnolia, hickory, maple, and poplar; commercial softwoods are the pines, junipers, cypress, redwood, tamarack, yew, hemlocks, spruces, larch, the firs, and the cedars. Any wood has heartwood and sapwood. The first is from the core of the tree, is usually darker in color than the sapwood (the outer part), more resistant to decay, and usually heavier. Hence heartwood is preferable for whittling and woodcarving.
Suitable soft woods (now meaning relative hardness) generally available include white pine (called "yellow pine" in England) and basswood (or "bee tree," kindred to lime and linden in Europe). Yellow pine, 30 per cent of our annual lumber production, is knotty, resinous, and splinters easily, hence is very, very hard on tools and unsuited for carving. Basswood is soft and easy to cut with sharp tools, is not brittle, and is fairly durable. It is almost white (light tan or yellow tinge), close-grained, and smooth. White pine is similar but slightly harder, contains more resin, and shows tints of pink and yellow. Most early American architectural woodcarving was done in white pine.
Cypress and butternut are likewise soft and easy to carve, but are not very resistant to wear. Red cedar has an agreeable odor and attractive wine-red color but can be bought only in more or less knotty, narrow pieces. It cuts cleanly, thus is particularly good for chip carving. Sweet gum or American satinwood, brownish in color, is more durable and uniform in texture. Redwood (sequoia) is very soft and has an attractive dull-red color.
Beech, holly, and sycamore are all slightly harder woods, light in color, and good for shallow cutting.
Among hard woods (again based on hardness) the standard architectural wood is oak. Almost all early English carving was done in English oak, a hard, close-grained white wood that ages to a beautiful dull yellow. It ranges in hardness between American red and white oaks and is very durable. Austrian oak is also used in Europe, and is somewhat coarser in texture than English.
American oaks fall in two great classes, the reds and the whites, the former softer, darker, and with a greater tendency to splinter. Seasoned white oak is very durable but so hard that it offers much difficulty in carving, even with sharpest tools. It is light tan in color. All oaks resist wear, hence are good for exterior carvings and also for much-used furniture, particularly if massive and rugged in design.
Mahogany, either red or brown in color, close and even in grain, fairly hard and very easy to work, is the great indoor carving material. Most period furniture is of mahogany. It is imported wood, coming from the West Indies; Mexico, Central America, Spain, and Africa. Best types are Honduras (now almost unavailable, except from mission buildings, etc.), Cuban (hardest and best in color), and Spanish (close-grained, from Santo Domingo, and difficult to get now). The Honduras variety cuts much like walnut. Mexican mahogany is usually poor, and the so-called "Philippine mahogany" still poorer, coarse in grain, and off-color.
Mahogany is so rich in color that it must be handled carefully, although many great period-furniture makers used it in very large pieces. Raleigh took it to England in 1597 as repair timbers in one of his ships, but it was not available commercially for another 150 years.
Walnut is the other great furniture material. It is dark brown (sapwood is light yellow), with a more pronounced grain or figure than mahogany. It is also harder and closer in grain. The American black walnut was once so common that it was used in buildings, the so-called "Lincoln Courthouse" in Henry Ford's Greenfield Village being made entirely of it. Such use has made it scarce and difficult to get in wide boards. (I have gotten most of mine from old cabinet and drawer fronts). Its firm grain, even texture, and ability to take a high polish have made it highly suitable for furniture and interior decoration.
English walnut usually has too much "figure" for carving. Italian has a fine, even texture and close grain and cuts about like English oak. Very little of it is available in America, and that must be picked carefully to avoid wide-grained or sapwood pieces. Burl walnut, with a very elaborate figure, is used for inlay.
Chestnut, light brown in color, fairly soft, and coarse-grained, with an attractive figure, has a tendency to warp, splits easily, and has alternate layers of hard and soft wood—so watch it! If your chisel or knife sticks in a hard layer (the summer wood), a part of the hard layer may lift or split away from the softer spring wood beneath. Try to select pieces with the figure most prominent in flat uncarved sections and less prominent where you carve. Use it preferably for large, undetailed work.
Maple is another great furniture wood, partly because it was so readily available throughout the Middle West. It is hard, fairly long-wearing, has an attractive figure and is generally available. Bird's-eye maple and curly maple have more prominent figures, hence make beautiful flat surfaces, but be very careful in working them—I ruined one of my best boyhood penknives on bird's-eye!
Cherry, light creamy or pinkish in color, is also a favorite. It wears well, takes sharp cuts, but is hard to work and available only in small pieces. It has often been used to imitate mahogany, for when well stained and finished only an expert can distinguish it. Apple and pear (favorites with German carvers) also work out well but are available only in small pieces. All woods from fruit and flowering trees are liable to have rot and worms.
Lignum vitae (African favorite), ebony (favorite in Japan), lancewood, sandalwood, briar, pear, and box (Swiss and German favorite) are all extremely hard, hence should be avoided ordinarily, although they do produce beautiful small, special pieces. Teak, brown with darker streaks, is fine wood, but expensive. It resembles coarse mahogany. Indian teak is more dense than the African. Ironwood is a common substitute for it.
Some varieties of wood have such elaborate figure that they can be used in combination to make a portrait or landscape in colors. I've seen them thus used in inlaid trays, drawer fronts, and medallions. Many of them are available only as 1/28 to 1/16 in. veneer; others can be gotten as lumber.
Avodire, straw to light yellow in color, is an African wood with a decided figure. Its texture is fine and its grain close. A quarter-striped piece looks like moire silk. It is used for inlay, sometimes with zebrawood or rosewood. Zebrawood, also African, gets its name from its prominent brown stripes on a yellow or gold background. It is close-textured and used for overlays, diamond inlays, borders, etc. (see Chap. XXII). Lacewood, an Australian flesh pink or reddish-brown wood, is often called "silky oak." When quarter-sawed, its figure is small with highlighted satiny spots close together. It is used for overlays with walnut and mahogany.
Rosewood, "the aristocrat of woods," ranges in color from light red to deep purple with streaks of yellow and black. It is close-grained, very hard, and beautifully figured. That coming from Brazil is more uniform in color and darker, but East Indian is more commonly used because of its deep browns, purples, blacks, and yellows. It is used in borders and inlays with avodire, maple, primavera, and satinwood. It is also used for marquetry.
Satinwood is golden yellow, close-grained, and can be purchased straight-grained, striped, or mottled. The East Indian wood is wider and has a more pronounced figure than the Brazilian. It can be had as lumber or veneer. For inlays and overlays, the "fire" or lively figure of the mottled makes it preferable. For banding and borders, use the striped. On large surfaces, straight-grained is better and may be relieved with ebony.
Ebony comes from Africa, India, Ceylon, and the Dutch East Indies. The Gaboon or Gabun variety, from Africa, is a dead black; Macassar (Dutch East Indies) and Calamander (Ceylon) are brown with a black stripe, the former coffee-colored and the latter hazel brown. Sapwood in all varieties is white. The black is usually used as lumber with other woods, the brown for borders and aprons on tables.
Holly, native Southern wood, is chalky white, close-grained and even-textured. It is used with oak for inlays, marquetry, and borders, and with ebony for small overlays, etc.
Harewood, or English sycamore, is a veneer with plenty of cross-fire figure in a fiddle pattern. The wood itself is really white, but silver-gray dye brings out its figure. It is available as veneer and in thicknesses up to ½ in., and can be used for delicate furniture trimmed with ebony.
Tamo, or Japanese ash, is cream or straw colored with overlapping curly figures. Grain is open, but the high figure makes it very suitable for overlays on commoner domestic woods.
Many common woods have very elaborate figures in their burls or crotches, so these are usually available commercially. Cypress crotch is light cream in color and highly figured. Madrone burl is deep pinkish and figured with an overlapping knot. Thuya burl, native to North Africa, is a rich red brown, very hard, has a tendency to be brittle, but finishes very well. Myrtle burl is pale gold in color, very curly, and used in inlays and overlays. English ash burls are dark greenish yellow with a lively brown figure. They are hard, resemble olivewood, and take a beautiful polish.
Any of these woods can be used with native woods such as mahogany, walnut, maple, birch, and gum.
Now for a few notes, before we examine the table. First as to hardness. Dense woods are usually harder than more open woods. Wide rings in oak and narrow ones in pine indicate great hardness. Heartwood is harder than sapwood, and dry wood generally harder than green. Frost increases hardness. Very soft woods are balsa, basswood, white pine, sugar pine, redwood, and willow. Soft woods include chestnut, tulip tree, sweet gum, Douglas fir, yellow pine, larch, horse chestnut, hemlock, cottonwood, and spruce. Medium woods are ash, oak, elm, beech, cherry, mulberry, birch, sour gum, and longleaf pine. Hard woods are hickory, dogwood, sugar maple, sycamore, locust, hornbeam, and persimmon. One scale of hardness frequently used is: hickory (shellbark) 100, pignut hickory 96, white oak 84, white ash 77, dogwood 75, scrub oak 73, white hazel 72, apple 70, red oak 69, white beech 65, black walnut 65, black birch 62, yellow oak 60, hard maple 56, white elm 58, red cedar 56, wild cherry 55, yellow pine 54, chestnut 52, yellow poplar 51, butternut 43, white birch 43, white pine 30.
Excerpted from Whittling and Woodcarving by E. J. Tangerman. Copyright © 1936 E. J. Tangerman. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted March 30, 2010
Tangerman's Whittling and Woodcarving is the first book I read on the subject.A friend gave it to me. It covers "Everything you wanted to know" about woodcarving. While more modern books often have step-by-step instructions on how to carve a particular work, Tangerman goes into every possible type of carving. Guidance is offered on how to carve or whittle many projects. For a person looking for a historical overview of woodcarving as well as some project ideas, Tangerman's book is the best I have come across.
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