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What Can I Do With That Wood? Part 2

Developing skill with a chain saw and having a large bandsaw at my disposal has allowed me to make use of a wide variety of woods. Commercial lumbering favors wood that can be sawn into boards and that has qualities favored by carpenters and cabinet makers for construction. For this reason there are many non-commercial species in the US which are overlooked by the commercial interests. Many, I think, are just as spectacular or quietly beautiful as any imported exotic wood species.

In a sense I am a wood recycler. Trees are always falling in storms, dying of old age, or having to be removed because of proximity to a house, pool, etc. The wood then becomes a liability to the home or farm owner (unless they have a hobby like mine).

One of the most unwanted tree here in Vermont where I am living is the box elder. It is a poor cousin to the sugar maple. Yet unlike its cousin its wood is not hard, does not make good fire wood and it grows like a weed, especially in wet areas. In short it is considered a trash tree.

Yet it take a good finish and it has one interesting feature. When injured the wood produces a pink or red color which contrasts sharply with the creamy white wood of the rest of the tree. My research suggest that this pigment is a non-specific reaction to injury. You see it where a branch has broken off or where there was disease in the center of the trunk.

The color varies from light pink to scarlet red. Unfortunately the color is not fast and fades into a light brown over time. No one knows how to prevent this color fading. Yet while it lasts, it can be very attractive. It is the nature of all wood to fade or darken with the passage of time. You may have noticed that furniture under a sunny window changes color.

If you have ever seen a 17th century antique you will note that it is black. Wood as it deteriorates reverts to elemental carbon which is black. You may have noticed that you have faded a bit with advancing years yourself. So don’t be too hard on the box elder because the color is not permanent. If the design of the object made from it is good then it will be enjoyable in spite of the changes just as you consider yourself to still have value in spite of the changes in your physiology induced by aging.

red box elder hollow form

This is a box elder that is about as red as I have ever seen. It almost shouts at you. It was from a tree that fell over in a storm in the town of Williston, Vermont where I live. It was kindly given to me by the owner who was happy for me to remove some of the wood on his lawn. I, in turn, was very happy to get this unique log and was happy to share a hollow turning from this log to the donor of the wood.

box elder wooden hollow form

This is a hollow vessel from the same log. You can see that some of the color has changed into a lovely light brown with differing intensities. So I feel that Nature has hidden some great beauty in a lowly short lived brittle tree of relatively soft wood which grows like a weed.

Butternut is another of my favorite woods to turn. It takes patience as the wood is softer than its cousin black walnut and tends to leave a fuzzy surface. It takes extra sanding to produce a good surface but the extra work may be well worth it.

butternut hollow form

Notice how the soft curves of the grain are reflected in the soft contours of the bowl. Notice how the soft shades of brown of the heart wood blend into each other. This is the subtle beauty of Nature at its finest, in my opinion.

butternut hollow form

Yet we are losing our butternut stands to a fungal disease known as butternut canker. This hollow vessel shows two black streaks where the fungus has invaded the tree. In time it will kill the entire tree. This tree had died and was given to me by the homeowner.

Even in disease we can see beauty in Nature. Those black defects can be considered artistic accents to an otherwise plain design.

Butternut Vase

Here is another example of the softness of colors in the butternut. The creamy sapwood blends gradually into the soft warm browns and tans of the heartwood. The simplicity of the design does not detract from the subtle color variations created by Nature. In my opinion, Nature is the real artist and my job is to show the beauty nature has already created.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Bob Iorio June 9, 2014, 8:34 am

    Good morning,
    Ironically I used to live in Williston (Lamplight Acres) but didnt begin carving until much later in life. I, too, started with spoons since they seemed to have a purpose and displayed the natural beauty of what initially appeared to be best suited for the woodstove. I am currently living in Wisconsin where we have many of the woods about which you write. Having read your blog I am inspired to try buckthorn which we have in abundance. Do you dry it before you carve or can it be carved green?
    I also am fortunated enough to have a decent stash of butternut. I enjoy carving bowls and spoons fro this wood but am frustrated by its fuzziness . I have read that it is one of the few woods NOT to scrape. I have also read that sanding with any grit below 150 only aggravates this tendency to fuzz. I would appreciate any insight you can provide me.
    I am delighted to discover your blog.there are very few spoon and bowl carvers out here.

    • Edwards Smith February 13, 2017, 9:04 am

      Dear Former Willistonian:

      Thanks for your note. I apologize for being three years late answering your question. My web site was not functioning properly and I did not know it. Now it is fixed.

      Buckthorn tends to check badly. For making spoons and spatulas I cut it into small planks, sticker it and dry thoroughly to let it do all the checking it is going to do. Better to find out before you make the object than after.

      Butternut does fuzz. It looks awful when you first take it off the lathe. However I sand with progressively finer grits all the way to 600 grit and am amazed what a fine completely smooth finish the wood gives. So keep sanding and you will love the results.

      Sometimes advice is given by people who just want to do everything by machine and the machined surface of butternut is not good. But it becomes beautiful with careful sanding. Don’t skip grades of sandpaper but systematically progress with finer and finer grits. You will find what works for you.

      Edwards Smith

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