Oak burl bowl

Eight or ten years ago I was at a friend’s ranch to collect some wood from a fallen tree. While he was showing me around the property (about 300 acres), he asked me what those “big warts” were on his oak trees. I explained what burls are and how they form. He wanted to see what they looked like inside. We found a tree that was pretty clearly almost dead, and he went to work with his chainsaw. I ended up with two burls. I carved a bowl from the smaller one and gave it to Todd and his wife as a “Thank you.” I kept the larger one.

That piece of wood was about two feet long, 16 inches wide at its widest point, and five inches deep.

I drilled a bunch of holes in the top with the intention of letting the wood sit in the garage and dry for a while. Then I turned it over and removed the bark with the angle grinder. I also ground down a semi-flat spot for the base and finished it with the belt sander.

Then I got impatient. Why wait for the wood to dry? Why not rough carve it first, I thought, and then put it up in the rafters? A bowl with 1″ thick sides will dry a whole lot faster than a big ol’ oak burl.

So that’s what I did. It took me a couple hours of swinging that angle grinder to get the general shape of the bowl. I went over the whole thing with a 36 grit sanding disc, and then put it up in the rafters to dry for a while. That was June of 2016.

Four years later I was rearranging stuff up there in the rafters and I ran across the unfinished bowl. It was well dried by then. Happily, I had left the sides thick enough that it didn’t warp or twist horribly. I spent an hour or so touching it up with the big angle grinder and re-flattening the bottom (it warped a little bit), detailed it with the smaller (2″) Foredom angle grinder, and started hand sanding.

The hand sanding took several days. One thing I discovered is that when sanding oak burl or any other highly figured wood can be incredibly frustrating. It’s often very difficult to tell the difference between a tool mark and a natural feature of the wood. Up close, a whorl can look an awful lot like a tool mark. Or vice-versa. This becomes increasingly frustrating as sanding continues at the higher grits and the surface becomes smoother. I can’t remember how many times I was sanding at 600 grit, for example, and had to step back down to 60 or 100 to sand out a tool mark and then feather around it to smooth the depression. Fortunately, by the time I got to 800 grit I’d found and fixed all the tool marks.

I eventually sanded the entire bowl to 2000 grit, and the wood shone like nothing I’d ever made before. It was beautiful.

The slightly darker areas there are moisture. From 600 grit to 2000 grit, I sanded it wet. The dark spots are where the wood hadn’t yet shed the moisture. What astonished me about this was how smooth and shiny the wood was without any kind of finish on it.

I decided that I didn’t want to put any kind of polyurethane or varnish on the bowl, but I wanted something to preserve the wood and prevent it from drying out completely and crumbling. I’d had good luck with mineral oil in the past, so that’s what I used. It took two weeks and something more than a quart of mineral oil. I’d apply a coat of oil, let it soak in for a day, and apply another coat. I kept that up until the wood just wouldn’t absorb any more.

The bowl now sits on the living room coffee table (an oak stump that I shaped and finished). It is, I think, my personal favorite of all the things I’ve carved. I suspect I could be convinced, over time as I age, to part with most of my other carvings. But this bowl will likely be in my possession until the day I die.

Ask an AI: whittling or wood carving?

A friend of mine asked a generative AI (Nova: Powered by ChatGPT & GPT 3.5 Turbo) about the difference between whittling and wood carving. This is the response she got:

Wood carving and whittling have been practised for thousands of years, dating back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and Greeks. The early humans used wood carving to make various objects like weapons, tools, utensils, and figurines.

It is believed that the practice of carving wood began as an extension of the use of stone tools, as people realized that wood was a more versatile material than stone. Over time, wood carving became a widely practiced art form, with artisans developing diverse styles and techniques.

Whittling, on the other hand, is a type of wood carving that involves using a knife to remove a small amount of wood from a larger piece. It is believed to have originated in Europe during the Middle Ages, where it was primarily used to make simple household objects like wooden spoons, bowls, and cups.

Whittling gained popularity in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it became a popular hobby for colonists and pioneers. Today, wood carving and whittling remain popular artistic expressions, and practitioners continue to develop new styles, techniques, and forms.

This reminds me of something a not-very-bright fourth grader would turn in after consulting the encyclopedia and visiting the local branch library. Bad paraphrasing of randomly selected factual (or maybe not) statements strung together into paragraphs that are tenuously cohesive and sometimes self-contradictory. With a little fluff thrown in to show that it really was the student’s work. The student would receive a “C” for such work if the teacher were especially kind and impressed with the diligent research, good spelling (although there’s that curious use of “practised” rather than “practiced”), and penmanship.

That said, the article does answer the question: whittling is a type of wood carving. The rest of the article is mostly gibberish, sprinkled as it is with unsupported factual statements, uninformed speculation, and known falsehoods. But whittling really is a type of wood carving.

Exactly what constitutes whittling is an open question. Merriam-Webster defines “whittle” as a transitive verb:

1a. to pare or cut off chips from the surface of (wood) with a knife
1b. to shape or form by so paring or cutting
2.  to reduce, remove, or destroy gradually as if by cutting off bits with a knife

By that definition, whittling is wood carving done with a knife. If you are carving wood with a knife, you are whittling. According to the dictionary. But that definition is not universally accepted. If you ask five wood carvers the difference, you’re going to get at least five answers. In my experience, most of those answers are of the “I know it when I see it” variety. Some say that it has to do with the level of planning involved. But everybody’s line is set differently. To some, anything more complex than a sharpened stick is “carving.” To others, anything carved from a stick found on the ground is “whittling.” Some put a time limit on it. Others base their judgement on the quality or purpose of the final product. My primitive carved knives and forks might be “whittling,” for example, but my friend’s beautifully carved and decorated (all using just a knife) replica dagger is a “carving.”

I like the dictionary definition. All the other definitions implicitly and sometimes not so implicitly make value judgements that amount to “whittling is just passing time, whereas carving is creating something of value.”

In any case, I’d be interested to know if anybody would find the AI-generated response to be anything other than gibberish. Elementary and secondary educators should be exposing students to this type of answer and pointing out the obvious flaws (unsupported and contradictory statements, wandering paragraphs, etc.) so that students can learn to spot them. It’ll be a while (decades, at least) before these generative AIs can write a freshman term paper that would get past an instructor who’s paying attention. It’s probably a good idea to be able to spot AI-generated content so you don’t make the mistake of depending on it.

Unloading

Upon return from the sawmill I was faced with the daunting task of unloading those big pieces of wood from the trailer. The smaller piece, of course, was no problem. At less that 200 pounds, getting it off the trailer and onto the garden cart was trivial. I was a little intimidated by the larger pieces, though, and decided to wait ’til the weekend when I could get a few friends to help. But then I saw the weather forecast and realized that I wouldn’t be able to get the truck and trailer into the back yard if I waited. Rain always turns the back yard into a very soggy mess.

I thought about it overnight and decided that if I could load the big log all by myself, then I should be able to unload the two smaller pieces by myself, as well. The next morning I backed the trailer up to the slab behind the garage and started working. My idea for the smaller piece (approximate weight 800 lbs.) was to lever it up and get some rollers under it. Roll it off the trailer and onto the slab, and then use the same technique to position it on the slab. I enlisted Debra’s assistance in moving the rollers.

Trailer positioned for unloading
I drove a wedge under the log to simplify getting a lever under it.

Unloading the smaller piece went almost exactly according to plan. I just had to get the bottom of the log high enough off the trailer deck to put a couple of rollers under it. The rollers are 1-1/4″ plywood dowels that were formally jousting lances at Sherwood Forest Faire. When they break they’re thrown into a big pile. We go by periodically to scavenge a few to keep for various projects. Truth to tell, rollers wasn’t a use I had envisioned when I gathered them.

Rollers in place

With two rollers under it and the 2×4 supports removed, a medium-hard push at the back was all it took to start moving. Every foot or so, Debra would put another roller under the front and I’d remove one from the back. There was no worry about the trailer tipping because the larger log (1,200 lbs.) was forward of the wheels. We quickly got to the end of the trailer.

Preparing to come off the trailer

The idea here was to roll the piece off the trailer onto the first log, then forward onto the second and transition back down to the dowels. I didn’t plan this well. I made two errors. You can see in the first below picture that the first log rolled forward, as expected, but it’s still forward of the piece’s center. There’s no support at the back. When I rolled it forward a little bit more, off the trailer, two things happened. First, the log tilted back. It also pushed the trailer forward because I had forgotten to chock the wheels.

Coming off the trailer
Oops! The log fell back, off the rollers.

This was just a minor problem. It took a few minutes for me to lever the back end up and get another log under it. Then we rolled it forward onto the smaller log and back onto the dowels. After that it was a simple matter of pushing and moving rollers. This goes a lot faster with two people: one to remove rollers from the back and another to replace them at the front.

Back on the dowels
In place, sitting on bricks.

My original plan for the larger piece was to tip it sideways and roll it off the trailer onto the slab, then wrap a chain around it and pull it up on end with the truck. I have no idea why I thought that would be a good idea, but by the time we got the smaller piece in place I realized that I could use the rollers with the larger one, as well.

We used the same technique to get rollers under the big piece: a wedge to make a space for the lever, then put it on blocks, slipped the rollers under it, and removed the blocks. It rolled with surprisingly little effort.

Moving on the rollers

I could have planned this one a little better. I knew that the trailer would tilt when the log moved rear of the wheels, and the log would roll off the end. In fact I was counting on it because I didn’t want to deal with trying to step it down off the back of the trailer. But I should have placed some blocks at the back to provide a primitive ramp. In retrospect, I’m lucky that the thing didn’t have enough momentum to tip over.

This didn’t really pose a problem. The lever is a wonderful invention. I lifted the front with a lever, which allowed the back to roll almost completely off the trailer.

After that it was pretty easy to put a block under the back and a roller under the front to get it going again.

At this point it was just replacing rollers again as we moved forward. Something to note if we ever do this again: be careful with alignment of the rollers. We had a little trouble with it rolling in the wrong direction because we had placed the rollers at weird angles. They don’t have to be exactly parallel with each other, but should be within 10 or 15 degrees of perpendicular with the intended direction of travel.

These two will sit here on the slab until I’m ready to work on them. I’m not going to wait for them to dry, as that would take too long. Air drying time is approximately one year for every inch of radius. I’m not going to wait 15 or 20 years before carving. Not that I could: powder post beetles would have them falling apart long before that.

I’ll of course have to move these again when it’s time to work on them, but that doesn’t worry me. We got them off the trailer with little effort. Moving them on a flat slab shouldn’t pose a problem.

Again, don’t underestimate the power of simple machines. Debra and I unloaded these two pieces (approximately 800 lbs. and 1,200 lbs.) by ourselves using a wedge, a lever, and some rollers. And without expending a lot of physical effort. Had it not been hot and humid, I probably wouldn’t have broke a sweat. It really was that easy. Took a little brain power to figure out how to do things, but we didn’t have to exert ourselves.

Sawmill Day

Unloading the ash trunk

The nice thing about the sawmill is that they have tools to handle these big logs. Bill’s truck with the boom on it easily picked the Ash trunk off my trailer. We also used it to move the log into the sawpit, and to load the larger piece onto the trailer when finished.

The first task was getting a smooth cut on the bottom. We laid the log on its side and Bill got out his trusty little 72″ chainsaw. The thing’s a monster but it made quick work of sawing through the bottom of the log.

Making the first cut with the 72″ chainsaw

Then we picked it up and put it in the sawpit to make two cuts: one at the top to give a flat surface for the coffee table, and then one about 18″ from the top to separate the coffee table base from the rest of the log.

We ran into a couple of problems. I thought I’d gotten all of the screws out of the log, but I missed two of them. The first one destroyed the sawblade. While digging out the first one we discovered another. I’ll do a better job of checking for metal in the log next time.

The second problem was an oversight. When we placed the log for the second cut, we didn’t see that a bulge in the log would impede the blade. Well, not actually the blade but rather the mechanism that the blade rides on. We got about 3/4 through the log and couldn’t go any further. So we lifted the thing out of the pit and Bill finished the cut with that monster chainsaw.

In addition to the big log, I brought a smaller piece of Ash that I’d collected during the Great Icepocalypse of 2021. Ha! When I collected that piece, I thought it was large and heavy. It’s about 4 feet long, two feet wide, and a little over a foot thick. I just had Bill make two cuts to flatten the top and bottom. It’ll be a coffee table when I’m done with it.

And there’s my three pieces, nicely strapped down on the trailer, waiting for me to unload them. That should be an interesting job.

Loading the Ash trunk

I’ve been trying to obtain a very large piece of wood for a project. It turns out that getting a piece of wood that’s 36 inches in diameter and three or four feet long isn’t all that easy if you don’t know an arborist. I got a call from a friend of a friend, somebody who had cut a tree down for a customer and wondered if I was interested in it.

I arranged to go get the trailer that the trunk was on and bring it home to dump the log on my driveway. This is Ash, about 4-1/2 feet long and between 36 and 40 inches in diameter. I estimated the weight at 2,000 lbs. I unloaded it by wrapping a chain around the log and then pulling the trailer out from under it.

My plan for the log is a big carved chair, and the base for a large coffee table. But the first thing was to get it cut into two pieces. My chainsaw is only 16″, so there’s no way I can get even close to a reasonable cut. So I had to get the log onto my trailer and up to the sawmill. Trouble is, I don’t have anything that can lift that kind of weight.

But I do have some simple machines and a little ingenuity.

I positioned my hydraulic jack under the front of the log and jacked it up in small increments, bracing it as I went along.

The trailer is 18″ off the ground. Only 14″ to go!
Gettin’ there.

When I got it high enough, I replaced the hydraulic jack with a farm jack. That solved most of the lifting problem, but I had to be careful to brace the back so the log didn’t roll to one side or the other. It wasn’t difficult to get the log up to the required height and braced securely.

The next morning I hand-positioned the trailer under the log and stated loading. The idea here was to wrap a chain around it and pull it onto the trailer with a hand winch (what we call a “come along”). The only twist was that I didn’t have enough chain. Turns out that a 38-inch diameter log is just short of 10 feet in circumference. I had a 12-foot chain and the cable on the come along isn’t long enough to reach from the front of the trailer to the back. So I had to re-purpose my bicycle lock cable. Plenty strong enough: braided steel cable 3/8″ in diameter.

The 2×12 planks serve as sleds. Friction between the log and the sled is higher than between the sled and the trailer deck, so the boards slide on the deck.
The log under the back rolls as the trunk is pulled over it.

I made a few mistakes here that I will correct if I ever have to do something like this again. In particular, I should have put jack stands under the back of the trailer. I did eventually, but before I did the weight of the log put a lot of stress on the trailer hitch ball and receiver up front. Had that failed, the back of the trailer would have come down, potentially crushing my foot or anything else that was under it.

After getting the trunk onto the sleds, it was easier than expected to winch it up onto the trailer. I had to disconnect and re-position the winch at one point, and jack up the back so I could get another sled in position, but there weren’t any real surprises.

Putting a sled under the back.
On the trailer. Time to reposition the winch.
Loaded!

At this point all I had to do was tie it down for the trip to the sawmill. I suppose I could have done a better job of centering the log over the wheels. The log weighs 2,000 lbs., and the trailer is only rated at 3,500. But it towed okay.

All told, loading this log onto my trailer took about four hours of work, most of which was spent figuring out what to do next. Having never done anything like this, I was extra careful about making sure everything was secure. I didn’t want a ton of wood to come crashing down on me.

Don’t underestimate the power of simple machines. The most complicated piece of equipment I used here was that hydraulic jack, and I could have done without it, substituting a lever and fulcrum. Replacing the farm jack would have been more difficult, but again possible with levers. Nothing I did required a lot of physical effort. The most taxing part of the whole thing was operating the winch. Even so, somebody half my size likely could have done it.

Carving Whimsical Houses, Day 3

Today was the third and final day of the class taught by Rick Jensen.  You might want to view Day 1 and Day 2 before continuing here.

I said yesterday that I had a lot of work left to complete this carving, and that I probably wouldn’t be able to finish it before the end of today.  It was a lot of work and I had very little time today for taking pictures; I was too busy carving.  I’m happy to report, though, that the hard work paid off.  I completed the carving late this afternoon.

I spent the first part of the morning shaping the limbs of the tree.  Although I’d done a lot of work on them yesterday, they were still lacking interesting shape.  I pulled out my trusty knife and slowly whittled them into shape, giving them a much more organic look.  A more experienced carver could have done it much faster, but I was being very careful not to take too much off.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the carving before I started detailing the limbs.

The picture on the left shows the house after about two hours’ work.  The major changes are the shaping and texturing of the limbs (incomplete), and detailing the roof.  The right side (in this picture) of the roof is very steep and has a concavity that would have made shingles impossible.  Since I had a lot of thickness to work with, Rick suggested using a gouge to add some shadow, and then some shallow lines give it something of a thatch texture.

I took a short break and somebody else grabbed the power carver I was using, so I went to work on the windows and siding.  Here you can see that I’ve relieved the right-hand window frame by outlining with a V-tool and then carving around it.  The left side windows are due for a bit of redesign since the original design would have made the interior frame rather awkward and would have left an odd blank spot below the center window.

You might also notice that I’ve punched another hole through between the house and the tree limb on the right side, just below the roof line.  I started to do that yesterday, but got sidetracked on something else.  This morning I was cleaning up some cuts over there, saw daylight, and took a few minutes to clean up that spot.

After completing the windows and cleaning up a few more cuts, it was time to add the vertical siding.  This was a real surprise to me.  Below are the before and after shots.

On the left you see the house after I finished relieving the window frames.  On the right is after adding the siding.  All I did was take about two minutes to add some vertical and horizontal lines with a very small V-tool.  I found the difference quite striking.  Those few lines add a completeness to the house without drawing too much attention away from the other features.  I suppose it’s something like a woman’s makeup, properly applied:  highlighting features without drawing undue attention.

The gable texture is applied by continually punching very small holes with a triangular bit.  The bit (it looks very much like a finish nail that’s been carefully smoothed at the tip) is inserted into a hand-held reciprocating carver of some sort.  It makes one heck of a racket, but it works very well and very quickly.  Rick has lots of little tricks like this.  Another reciprocating carver is used with a rounded bit to burnish rocks in the carving.

A lot of the value of taking this class is learning such tricks and being able to practice them.  Rick also told us how we could do the same thing at home, without the power carver.  It would take a lot longer to do it by hand, but I could carefully shape a finish nail and punch each of those thousands of holes by hand.

Another good trick is adding color to the hollowed spots in the limbs.  We actually set fire to the wood using a small torch.  After letting it burn for a few seconds, blow it out and use a large toothbrush (a denture brush worked really well) to get rid of the excess soot.  If you do this, do not just blow out the fire and think it’s done.  The cottonwood bark burns quite readily and it’s likely that an ember will continue smoldering.  I looked away for a few seconds while working on one of these spots, and looked back to find that it burned through the limb.  Fortunately, the unplanned fire actually made things look better.

I spent a lot of time wondering how I was going to complete the carving before the end of the class.  I was especially concerned about the roots of the tree because I had already discovered that doing the work with edge tools was quite difficult and time consuming, and my skill with the power carver was limited, at best.  After discussing it with Rick a bit, he set me up with a much less aggressive cutting bit, gave me a few tips on how to use it, and left me to work it out.  I think I managed to do an adequate job although I think the base with the roots and rocks is the least attractive part of the carving.

The finish is, of all things, Meltonian neutral shoe cream, applied with a large paint brush, left to dry for a while, and then buffed off.  As a finish, the shoe cream has a lot to recommend it.  It’s relatively easy to obtain (try a local shoe repair shop), less messy than a lot of finishes, darkens the carving slightly, and adds a nice smooth look.  It’s also easy to re-apply after a few years or if you find yourself having to fix the carving (if somebody drops it, for example).  It does, however, have a few drawbacks, though.  To apply it, you have to rub quite a lot with the brush to work it into the wood.  It doesn’t just flow on like a lot of oil and wax mixtures.  It also smells like shoe polish, although I suppose that’s better than the smell of boiled linseed oil or other traditional wood finishes.  I sure wish there was a better way to apply it, though.

I thoroughly enjoyed my three-day class with Rick Jensen.  I started the class with a glued-up piece of cottonwood bark, relatively little carving experience, and inadequate tools.  Even so, I finished a carving that has more life and detail than anything I’d done previously.  Rick was an excellent instructor.  He explained each step by demonstrating on a carving (either one of his many demo pieces or one of the students’ carvings), then sent us back to work and was available to help out one-on-one as we encountered problems.  Most importantly to me, he encouraged me to try some things that were a little “out there,” rather than trying to dissuade me because I might goof it up.  He’d caution me about the potential pitfalls, let me make my own decision, and then give some advice about how to do it.

I have no qualms about recommending the class to anybody who’s interested in carving whimsical houses.  If you’re interested in attending a class or if you’d like to schedule one for your carving club, you can contact Carvings by Jensen, jrjensen@gvtel.com.  If you do email, be sure that the Subject line of your email is relevant (i.e. mentions a carving class).  Otherwise, it’s likely that your mail will end up in the spam bucket.

Take the class.  You’ll undoubtedly learn a lot, and I think you’ll enjoy it.  I certainly did.

View my complete Facebook photo album, Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.

Carving Whimsical Houses, Day 2

You might want to check out Day 1 if you missed it.

Today was exciting and frustrating in approximately equal amounts.  I’m excited because I can see my house taking shape, but frustrated because my carving skill is not up to the task of realizing my vision.  This is especially true when it comes to adding detail.

Today’s first task was to split the carving so that I could hollow out the inside of the house to let light in.  Splitting the carving was not at all difficult.  The two pieces of bark had been glued on each side of a thin piece of cardboard using trusty old Elmer’s school glue.  A large putty knife and a rubber mallet easily separated the carving into two pieces.

Hollowing out the house turned out to be a much bigger job than I had imagined.  The house is about six inches wide, and I have windows on the extreme ends.  As a result, I had to carve through about two and a half inches of wood on each side.  It took me most of an hour to hollow out one side with my small hand tools, being very careful not to go too far and punch through the bark.  When it came time to do the other side I used the power carver and had it done in about 10 minutes.  I’m not a purist.  As Rick (the instructor) said, “If I could control dynamite to remove waste wood, that’s what I’d be using.”  Some people insist that “hand carved” means that no power was used on the carving.  The way I look at it, if a person controlled the tool by hand (i.e. rather than an automatic duplicator or computer-controlled device of some kind), then it’s hand carved.

I mentioned yesterday that the way I designed my carving made it difficult to separate the limbs underneath the house.  After splitting the piece, I took a few minutes to separate those limbs.  That’s what the holes below the house are.  Those will be enlarged after gluing the piece back together.  I just didn’t want to be in there carving blind and inadvertently punch through something important.

Gluing the pieces back together sounds difficult but is actually incredibly simple.  First, we drill two small holes (3/32 inch, if I recall) in one of the pieces–one near the bottom and one near the top.  A small BB (from a BB gun) is inserted into each hole so that it’s protruding a little bit.  Then, the pieces are lined up and pressed together so that the BBs make indentions on the other piece.  We then remove the BBs, drill deeper holes and insert 1/8″ diameter dowels to keep the pieces from sliding, apply some good wood glue (I think we used Titebond, but any carpenter’s glue will work) to one side, and clamp the pieces together.

That took us almost to lunch time.  I cleaned up my station a bit and enjoyed some good BBQ while the glue was setting.

After lunch, Rick pulled out the power carver to demonstrate some techniques for adding roots and shaping the limbs of the tree.  My carving is one that he selected for demonstration purposes (he eventually did personal demonstrations for most of us, on our carvings), so I got the benefit of some professional quality work.  A power carver wielded by somebody who knows what he’s doing is quite impressive.   With it, one can add a lot of detail very quickly and do some things that are nearly impossible to accomplish with edge tools (knives and gouges) alone.

In the picture at right, you can see the final tree shape beginning to emerge.  He added some roots around the base, and showed how to put rocks between and under the roots.  He also added a few large knot holes in the tree limbs, removed more wood between the limbs to make it look like the house is sitting in the crotch of the tree, and began the shaping of one limb.  He then gave me back the carving and I set to work with my hand tools for a while.  Note that the house itself didn’t get any attention at this point.

I spent the rest of the afternoon shaping the tree and cleaning up the house–mostly with edge tools.  I’m sure that adding roots and rocks is possible with a knife, gouge, and V-tool, but I’m finding it exceedingly difficult.  I got some time and a bit more instruction on the power carver, but the results are less than satisfactory.  I have a feeling that I’ll be spending many an hour on the tree’s base long after this three-day class is over.  A large part of the problem is that I don’t really know what I want it to look like, but mostly I just don’t yet have the skill.  But I do have patience.

I like how the tree limbs are shaping up, though.  I was able to separate them from the house in places, which I think looks much better than having the limbs hugging the house completely.  The top limb has to be attached to the top of the house, though, in order to provide support.  Were I to lift that limb from the peak of the roof, it would become very brittle and likely would break off.

I still have a whole lot of detail to add to the tree and to the house.  The tree limbs need final shaping, and the base needs a bunch of work.  I have to make some sense of all the roots I tried to add.  The house needs window and door frames, siding, and shingles on the roof.  One part of the roof has a very steep concavity that will make it impossible to add shingles.  I need to smooth that and figure out what kind of texture I’ll place there.  There’s also a visible glue line at the peak of the roof–the result of my designing the house with the peak right in the center.  Other than the bottom where it doesn’t matter, that peak is the only place on the entire piece where you can tell that it was glued together.  I’ll have to figure out how I’m going to hide that glue line.

It was a very busy day of carving, and I expect tomorrow to be just as busy.  I doubt very much that I’ll have the carving finished before the class is over tomorrow, but I will have been exposed to techniques for finishing it, and I will have at least done a little bit of everything.  It will be up to me to complete the carving on my own time in the coming weeks.

More tomorrow, after day three is complete.  Updated photos are in my Facebook photo album, Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.

View Day 3.

Gnome home

I carved this gnome home, or whimsical house, back in March from a piece of cottonwood bark that I “won” in a club raffle.  I found some brief instructions online and set to work with only a vague idea of what I was doing.  It was an interesting project and although I made quite a few mistakes it has a certain charm.

This house lacks detail:  siding on the walls and shingles on the roof.  I was pressed for time to finish the carving, and I had no idea how to add those features.  I finished it with Howard Feed ‘N Wax, which brought out the grain quite nicely and gave it a more “natural” look.

The piece is a wall hanging about 12 inches tall.  I carved it for Debra to raffle off at her African Violet club’s Spring show and sale.

Carving Whimsical Houses, Day 1

My carving club, the Central Texas Woodcarvers Association, invited Rick Jensen to come teach a couple of classes locally.  After carving my first whimsical house back in March, I jumped at the chance to take a class from one of the best cottonwood bark carvers around.  Today was the first day of a three-day class.

The class title is something like Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.  You’ve probably seen these things (if you haven’t, try here or check out Rick’s books) and wondered what kind of wood they’re made from.  Typically, it’s cottonwood bark.  That’s right, bark from the cottonwood tree.  The bark is exceptionally thick, and carves very much like a soft wood although it has a character unlike any other wood I’ve ever carved.

The class schedule is 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM (with a break for lunch) for three days in a row.  I thought this would be like other classes I’ve taken and there would be lots of down time.  Boy, was I wrong!  I was busy all day and I expect that’ll be the case for the next two days.

One of the things I find most interesting about carving these whimsical houses is that there’s no set pattern.  Most types of carving classes start with a bandsawn blank and everybody carves the same thing in the same pose.  Some classes let you pick from a small handful of blanks (an elephant, for example, in one of three different poses), but in the end every piece looks very much like the others.  You can see the common starting point.

 Carving whimsical houses is much different.  Each person starts with a blank that is just two pieces of cottonwood bark glued together with a thin piece of cardboard separating them.  I didn’t get to see the blank being made, but I assume it involves cutting and planing the pieces flat before sticking them together.  The glue used is simple Elmer’s white glue.

It’s done this way because we’ll want to take the piece apart to hollow it out after setting the basic shape of the house and drilling holes for the windows.  The final product will be a house “in the round,” with windows that actually let in light.  More advanced carvers even carve features inside the house.  I doubt that this class will involve that level of detail.

The blank I started with is shown on the left.  It’s 12″ tall, almost 9″ wide, and at a little more than four inches thick.

This probably wasn’t the best blank for a beginner to select, but I saw a display house that I wanted to use as inspiration, and this blank looked like it could be molded into shape.

Something else about cottonwood bark:  it’s not consistent.  With most woods, if you pick up a piece that’s 12″ x 9″ x 4″, you can be confident that it will be of consistent texture, hardness, etc. throughout.  Bark is much different.  There are soft spots, rotted sections, cracks in odd places, and irregularities throughout.  As a result, it’s nearly impossible to duplicate in bark another carving of any size.  Much of a bark carving’s design is a result of the material:  working around those irregularities.

The first thing to do when carving a whimsical house is rough out the trunk and leave some space to add features like roots and rocks around the roots.  Then we lay out the branches that surround the house and place the house in the tree.  It sounds easy, but it’s a lot of work.  Especially if you don’t have the proper tools.  The class notes recommended buying some large gouges, but I figured I could do most of the work with a knife.  How wrong I was!  It’s very difficult to take off those large chunks of wood with a knife of any size.  A large (1″ or larger) shallow gouge, on the other hand, works wonders, as does a power carver.

The picture on the left is after about three hours of drawing and erasing lines on the bark to lay out the branches, carving away wood for the trunk, and beginning to define the branches.  I took about half of the trunk wood away with a knife.  The rest went quickly with a power carver and an aggressive bit.  Another option for carving away the large chunk of trunk wood is a bandsaw, which is probably what I’ll use if I buy one of these blanks to bring home after I’m through with the class.

It’s probably hard to believe that what you see here is the product of about three hours’ work.  Understand, I’m new at this.  Also, I spent a whole lot of time trying to figure out how to make what I saw in my mind appear on the wood.  You can’t see it yet, but there are branches wrapping around both sides of the house and curving over the top.

After another few hours’ work, you can definitely see the branches on the sides.  I’ve defined the basic house shape and the roof line, and placed the house on a platform supported by two shorter limbs.

In the picture on the left, you can see that one side of the roof line is pretty strange.  There was some rotton wood there that I had to carve away, and I got a little too close to the join line in the process.  I’ll have to wait until after splitting and re-join before I clean up that part of the roof.  That’s okay, by the way.  The whole idea behind these whimsical houses is that they’re supposed to be irregular and even a little bit wacky.  After all, gnomes live in them.  Gnomes like to be comfortable.  They’re not terribly worried about silly things like straight lines, even floors and perfect symmetry.  To be honest, I think the gnomes who live in these houses revel in their wackiness.

You can see that I’ve also removed more wood from between the limbs near the trunk.  I’ll do more of that tomorrow after hollowing out the piece and putting it back together.  That process involves clamping the piece, and I don’t want the clamps to mar up my nicely finished carving.  So it’s best to leave as much detail work as possible until after the re-joining.

Finally, here’s the house at the end of the first day.  I’ve further defined the shape of the house and the roof line, set it into the branches, and have further defined the branches.  I’ve also drawn in doors and windows, drilled holes, and roughed out the openings. 

We drill holes and rough out the openings so that when we break the piece apart we know how deeply to hollow it.

I’m a little bit disappointed in how I’ve laid out the part with the door.  I have the door there, and one long narrow vertical window, but that side of the house looks a little bare.  Perhaps I’ll try adding a small window or two above the door.

I’m going to have some difficulty separating the two shorter limbs under the house.  That was poor planning on my part.  Although I probably could (and probably should, too) do it before splitting the house apart, Rick said that he’d like to try helping me do it once we’ve split the piece.  The potential pitfall is that I might booger up the nice flat edge and have to re-plane it before gluing the pieces back together.  That’ll cause me to lose a frraction of an inch, but there isn’t any detail there, so it’s worth the risk.

This last picture shows one side of the house where I decided to put two limbs rather close together.  The piece of bark strongly suggested this configuration, but it’s been difficult to work with and I’ll likely need some help before it’s done.  There is very little space between the two limbs, and I need to round them quite a bit more.  Of course, rounding them will remove material, which will give me more space to work.  This is the primary reason I’m having difficuly separating the two shorter limbs under the house; there’s no straight line path to get a tool under there because these two limbs are in the way.  Removing either one would make things much easier.  But then, the piece wouldn’t look near as cool as it’s turning out.

All told, I’m very happy with the way this project is shaping up.  I do need to get some more appropriate tools, though, if I’m going to do more of these houses.  A large shallow gouge is a must, and I need a few V-tools, as well, for outlining and for removing wood in narrow places.  Using one side of a V-tool like a chisel is surprisingly effective.

You can see more pictures of the work in progress on my Facebook photo album: Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.  And, of course, I’ll update here after tomorrow’s class.

View Day 2.