Even with our landscape's dense redwood groves, inland oak woodlands and riparian forests, we often forget that each bough we find fallen across our paths and every water-worn burl lodged in beach sand has potential just waiting to be released with chisel, rasp, gouge and plane.
By spending a little time searching trails and roadsides after a good strong windstorm, the trained eye can easily identify diverse local species of wood all well suited for carving.
Willows (Salix species) grow along nearly every creek on the North Coast and, being soft woods, are ideal for beginner woodworkers and whittlers. Non-natives, such as black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and osage orange (Maclura pomifera), were once planted as hedgerows and can often be found along old boundaries of fallow farm fields. These species yield strong yellow- to coffee-colored wood, making them ideally suited for carving into tool handles, kitchenware and longbows. Other species such as American elm (Ulmus americana), black walnut (Juglans nigra), California bay (Umbellularia californica), big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) and buckeye (Aesculus species) can also be incorporated into projects ranging from homemade bowls to electric guitars.
So how does one get started selecting, cutting, seasoning and finally carving local wood? If you're lucky enough to own a sizeable plot of land, just poke around outside and you'll likely find some species worth carving. If however, you are like the rest of us, try searching after road-widening work and even check with local tree surgeons. Most arborists are delighted to see good wood go to a creative cause rather than the chipper. Stopping to chat with a few arborists one recent morning scored me a nice log of honey locust wood. Just wait until those cutting overhead have paused before you distract their spotter on the ground — better yet, come back during lunch. If you are inclined to select and cut on your own, permits for wood cutting and collecting (up to a cord) in designated National Forest areas are available for a very small fee from the U.S. Forest Service.
Do a little homework and search for images of a few species of local trees that yield desirable wood to help with field identification, keeping in mind the environments in which they grow. Memorize features such as leaf shape, bark texture and color, and shape of fruit or seed pods, too.
Selecting the proper piece
Once you've got your target species, take care selecting the proper piece. If you're interested in carving a madrone spoon, for instance, a short piece of a branch would suffice. However, you need to decide if you want sapwood, heartwood or both for your spoon. More heartwood in the final product requires a thicker branch with more annual growth rings as a blank. For projects requiring a longer blank, you'll need to read features of the tree's bark for wood with a straight grain that will resist warping as it dries. The bark of a tree closely follows its internal grain, so by tracing a line up a channel in the bark you can see if the wood will split straight or twist. If the furrows or channels in the bark seem to run straight up and down, the wood should split relatively straight and cure with little or no warping. This straight grain is especially important for projects such as axe handles and longbows.
Consider, too, whether or not to include knots in a project. On the one hand, knots add character. But knots are weak points in the wood that absorb moisture, making them prone to cracking, so items that frequently come in contact with water, such as spatulas, ladles and bowls, should be carved with fewer knots than jewelry racks or boxes. Finally, the carver must consider whether a little rotten wood can be tolerated in the blank. For a tool handle, no. However, if selecting a tree trunk or branch for making a drum, a blank of strong sapwood that's been naturally hollowed through rot will make carving the drum body that much faster.
Once you've found and harvested suitable wood, it's time to decide whether to carve green wood or seasoned and dried wood. Green wood is easier to carve but more likely to warp and crack as it dries. Seasoned wood is more difficult to carve but less likely to warp or crack. Drying wood so it will respond to your tools just like lumber from a hardware store requires controlled conditions and a little preparation. Proper curing or drying of wood is referred to as seasoning. To season wood, coat all exposed wood with fat or glue and set the blanks in a dry, shaded space for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the wood's thickness and species. I get strange looks when I suggest using fat for seasoning wood, but this is how it was often done in the past (though with bear or bison fat instead of shortening), and it tends to season the wood faster than the wood-glue method. If you completely coat freshly exposed wood — the ends where the branch was cut and anywhere smaller branches were lopped off), it should season with no problem. However, if the newly exposed wood is left uncoated, the wood will dry from the outside-in, resulting in deep cracks known as "checks" that render it basically useless except for firewood.
Once you have found, cut and seasoned a few local wood blanks, the creative adventure begins. If you're new to woodworking, be sure to consult experienced woodworkers, watch instructional videos and read about safe tool practices. A razor-sharp chisel or ax is not an item to take lightly.
You can purchase a new set of woodworking hand tools, but it's twice a fun to rescue old and neglected tools in need of a little TLC from antique stores and flea markets. Once you have a safe workspace and have refurbished a set of old carving tools, let the wood-shavings fly. Simple woodworking projects are fun for all ages as well, too — supervise children at all times, but by all means, get them started early.