How to Carve Oak and Other Hardwood Tree Trunks Into Beautiful and Useful Wood Art
The Beauty of Recycled Firewood
Carving Wood Can Be a 'Green' Activity Too
Years ago, I had the bright idea to carve art figures from large chunks of wood that my neighbors would leave by the street after they had cut old-growth trees from their yards. The idea seemed simple enough, hardwood was expensive to buy, and utilizing the fallen trees of my neighbors would provide me with vast quantities of free hardwood (or so I thought).
Since that time, I have learned that hardwood is expensive for a reason. The lumber companies have invested a great deal of time and resources in removing most of the moisture content from the wood. This process is very slow, and if it isn't done correctly, the quality of the wood will suffer and sometimes make the wood impossible to sell.
Why you need to be concerned with the moisture content of your wood:
The hardwood that your neighbor has in his yard after he cuts a tree down is saturated with the moisture content that one would expect in a living tree. As wood carvers, this moisture content is both a blessing and a curse, but it is imperative that you understand how and when to work with this moisture instead of trying to fight the forces of nature. Many fine wood carvings have been destroyed by the separation of wood grain when the water content begins to leave the fibre of the hardwood.
So what's the blessing of high-moisture content in your hardwood? Well the high-water content will make the wood easier to carve. If you are starting with a cut section of a large tree trunk, the best time to start cutting it into shape is immediately after it is cut. Don't cut it all the way down to the finished size, that would be sure disaster. Instead cut the tree trunk into a rectangular shape that will have the proper dimensions for your planned carving. Once the block of wood is cut, place a generous portion of wax (any kind really) on both ends of the wooden block (the ends that would have been the top and bottom of the tree trunk). Do not place the wax on the sides of the wood block. The reason that this is done is to prevent the tree's moisture from leaving to quickly. The top and bottom of the wood block is the section of the tree where the wood's natural grain will release most of the escaping water content. You may have noticed this phenomenon on chopped firewood that you have stored in an outside bin. It splits at the end right? The same thing will happen to your carving wood if you do not seal the grain ends, as instructed above.
Patience Grasshopper, Patience,...
After sealing your wood, let it sit for a while. I recommend that you wait at least a week or two (I never said this was a quick process) to allow some of the water to escape slowly from the side of the wood. After this drying period, go ahead and carve your piece down again. This time, go almost to the final cut, but leave an inch or two of thickness above your final cut line. Once again, seal the top and bottom grain lines. Set the work aside in a dry location for several weeks or longer. Again, this waiting period is crucial in letting the wood adjust and release water weight. Keep an eye on it as it dries out. If you see a split developing in an area that will hurt your piece, smother it in wax, forcing the water to move elsewhere to escape.
The actual carving process of the hardwood is an art that will take you some time to master. I started out carving faces, one of the most difficult things to carve. But it was what I loved, so I did it. When you first rough cut your wood, you will need to use a chainsaw. If you have no experience with a chainsaw, get some time in with someone that can teach you. This tool is probably the most dangerous tool that an artist can use. It will buckle, kickback, and surprise you at any time. Nonetheless, if you want to carve wild hardwood, you must master the chainsaw.
Once you have rough cut your shape with the chainsaw, there are other carving tools that will allow you to get the deep curves and cuts that a scupture will require. Your primary and most basic tool will be the simple hammer and chisel. I have completed entire carvings using just a hammer and chisel after block cutting. It will take forever, but it can be done. For more modern carving tools, visit your local woodcarving or furniture craft store. There will probably be a large variety of carving-wheel accessories that you can use with a simple four-inch grinder. These things work great. Some are very aggressive cutters, while others don't bite the wood with quite so much force.
Once you have carved your piece to completion, apply whatever stain you desire and then seal it with finishing wax as soon as possible. It is very important that you check the piece frequently during the first year and maintain a sealed finish. If you don't, you will likely find that your work of art will develop a wood crack down the middle, even months after finishing it. That kind of surprise really hurts an artist deep after he or she has put in many long hours of carving to finish a piece.
From my personal experience, the longer you can season the wood during the carving process, the better. I usually leave a small section (about the size of a silver dollar) unfinished at the bottom base of my work. This acts as a small drain for any residual moisture still in the piece. I cannot guarantee that this will work for you, but I have had good results with the technique.
Isn't your wood carving worth the extra effort?
In summary, carving green hardwood is mainly about managing the release of moisture from your wood. Is it tough to do? Absolutely, but as you can see from the photos that I have attached, the rewards of carving hardwood are found in the beauty of your finished piece. Many woodworkers like to work with cottonwood, or other types of soft wood, and that is fine. But for this carver, cottonwood is just not a challenge. A carving from cottonwood may be intricate in detail, but the grain and finish of any softwood will never challenge the beauty of a carved piece of oak or pecan.
Good luck with your carvings, and please remember to keep safety first when working with any power tool. A dollar spent on safety is the best investment any artist or craftsman can make .
Use Subtle Curves for Realistic Figure Carvings
Products to Get Started With
A great tool for taking off wood stock quickly.