Wood Materials

Top tree and shrub species in the UK to use for greenwood carving


Greenwood carving, especially for kitchen or food utensils (known asаtreen), tends to use hardwood rather than softwoods. With their high resin content softwoods may taint food. For similar reasons oak is not used for treen, because of the high tannic acid content. This high acid content is the reason why metal in contact with oak tends to rust quickly and the oak wood stains very easily. The species below are ones I’ve worked with, rather than a comprehensive review of wood types.а


Alder

A nitrogen-fixing tree commonly found alongside rivers and streams alder is a common tree species. Living in such a damp environment it is little wonder that alder wood has a very high moisture content. Carving it in the green is therefore a very pleasura
ble affair as the soft creamy coloured wood is very yielding and forgiving. The cut surface of alder wood oxidises very rapidly on contact with the air, turning a rich orange colour. This characteristic process continues during the carving process, producing a cream coloured wood with attractive orange lines and streaks through the wood.а

Its very softness means that alder does not easily allow for crisp detail in the carving, but is an excellent wood to start with and has the potential to produce artefacts of grace and beauty.


Apple

This is one of my favourite woods to carve inа
the green. It has an almost soapy carving characteristic. It is also possible to get interesting colour differences between the darker heartwood and lighter sapwood. In the lighter wood there is still an attractive figure which shows through. Apple wood can be stored for many months under water and although there is some surface discolouring this does not seem to penetrate into the wood.а

Garden apple tree prunings can provide fascinating shaped branch wood to carve. Side branch knots can be a problem, particularly early side branches that have died back or have been pruned many years earlier and have been grown over. There can also be small shakes in the wood which appear for no apparent reason. Carving into apple wood is always an adventure!


Ash

Even as a green wood ash is quite dry typically having a moisture content of less than 50%, which makes it good firewood. It is also robust which makes it a good choice for tool handles. However these characteristics also work against it as a green whittling wood. It is not a forgiving wood and would not be a good choice to begin with for novice green wood carvers. It is a blond wood but with clearly identifiable growth rings. Indeed it is possible to see the open ends of larger xylem vessels in some cut surfaces. It is known as a ring-porous wood, because the large water carrying vessels are not distributed evenly through the summer growth ring. Ash can be sanded to a high quality durable surface. It would be a good choice for a wooden implement destined for a hard life such as a spatula.

Ash doesn’t respond too well to storage under water, with the surface undergoing a rather unattractive greying which penetrates the surface. This is problematic in terms of storing ash blanks because ash wood which has been allowed to dry is quite difficult to carve with hand-held whittling techniques because of its toughness.


Beech

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Spoon carved in beech with OU motto carved into it. Note the distinctive rays in the bowl and the concentric circles of grain that indicate this was carved bark up


Like ash beech is another tough wood. Beech is a popular choice for kitchen utensils because of its hard wearing nature. Beech wood can spalt easily if left damp.


Birch

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Spalted birch logа

The species of choice of Scandinavian wood carvers, birch has an attractive figure, is easily obtainable and carves well. As a pioneer tree species with light wind blown seed birch trees will be one of the first species to grow as an area of land converts to woodland. The bark has a myriad of uses as well as the wood. Slow growing birch trees in the cold harsh windy climate of the Scandinavian north have very twisty growth ring patterns and is known as curly birch. It is used for making knife handles. In a woodland setting fallen birch wood will rot quickly (sometimes all that is left is a tube of bark) and so it is unsurprising that it spalts easily to produce interesting patterns. However it is a not a strong wood and spalting can easily rob it of its physical integrity. Birch greenwood may typically have a moisture content of 75%

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Spalted birch spoon treated with walnut oil which has given it a more orange hue.а


Blackthorn

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Spoon carved from blackthorn and treated with linseed oil

I've recently had an opportunity to carve blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) when the Combe Mill team cleared a blackthorn thicket in Mill Wood, with some bushes having substantial stems. Blackthorn has traditionally been used to make walking sticks, characterised by the dark and spiky bark. Leaving the root ball on the stem produces the Irish shillelagh or club, a rather ferocious weapon.

In contrast to the bark, the wood of blackthorn is paler and, as could be expected from a member of the Prunus genus, has many similar characteristics to other fruit woods. It is dense in character and takes fine detailed carving. I find it has a tendency to dry quicky and split, so when carving a spoon blank it’s important to remove the bulk of wood to reduce internal tensions that can develop in the wood.

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Blackthorn in flower in April, petals before leaves


Cherry

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An ornamental cherry аtree in splendid flower

Because it is a species that suckers from its roots cherry can be quite a common tree and its wood easily accessible. Cherry is easily worked in the green and releases a beautiful smell as it is cut. The wood surface rapidly oxidises in contact with the air to a pleasant light orange colour. It is a clean wood with a pleasant figure. It takes surface decoration well.


Elm
With the curse of dutch elm disease it is very difficult to obtain elm wood these days, but if you do find some it is well worthwhile working with. It is quite hard wood to carve but has a beautiful, even figure. Traditionally elm wood has been used in wet environments such as waterwheels or village water pumps, because of its ability to resist rot. Elm trees sucker from the roots and so can still be found in hedgerows as small trees. However, when the bole becomes big enough to allow bark beetles to burrow into the wood, dutch elm disease can return and kill the sapling.


Elm wood dries to a very hard material and it is very challenging to sand out imperfections of carving in the final material.


Field Maple (Acer campestre)

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The subtle figure of field maple

As the UK’s only true native mamber of the maple family field maple has a special resonance for me. It’s as much a hedgerow shrub as a tree but here and there some larger specimens are allowed to get away to form fine trees. As a close relative of sycamore the wood of field maple has many of the same characteristics, being blond and with a delicate figure. To my eye, though there is a subtle warmth to field maple wood that is missing from sycamore. I enjoy carving thisаspecies.а

Hawthorn (Crateagus monogyna)

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A hawthorn ladle blank being shaped with a Hans Karlson adze

More a shrub than a tree, hawthorn is the quintessential hedgerow inhabitant and if it has ever been layered in traditional hedgerow management may have the most amazingly twisted branches and stem. Because of its growth patterns hawthorn does not have many commercial uses as a hardwood and so can be interesting to carve with. It has a medium brown colour with flecks of lighter colour and clear growth ring patterning. Knots and dead wood can be a problem with a shrubby growth form, as can embedded dead wood through past hedge trimming but the rewards in terms of creating a highly individual piece can be great. The image shos


Holly
Holly wood is a very blond wood with indistinct figure, but is striking non-the-less and is dense grained and hard wearing. Freshly cut holly hasn’t the most pleasant smell and wood which has been stored in water for some time has the aroma of stale cigarette smoke! This does fade as the wood dries. Given its growth pattern hidden knots are a risk with holly, especially leaving dead wood where a side branch has died after heavy shading from the canopy of the growing tree.а

Holly wood can be successfully stored under water for many months if the bark has been removed. Wet wood exposed to the air oxidises to a very dark colour, but if not left too long this is only a millimetre or so thick and can be easily carved away. In fact, this process could be used to creative design effect!


Plum

Plum is another very good fruit wood for carving. It has all the carving qualities of apple wood but is a much darker, mahogany-like colour, which can be shined up to a wonderful lustre. Keep an eye out for prunings in orchards or gardens.


Quince (Cydonia oblonga)

This is not a wood you are likely to come across too often, although if a friend or neighbour is pruning a large shrub it may be worth checking out any prunings. Quince wood is very similar to apple wood, which is unsuprising since they are closely related members of the Rosacaea family of plants, alongside а pear


Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)

The material of choice of Welsh lovespoon carvers, sycamore is a blond wood without much figure, but which can produce clean, well defined articles and is well suited to decoration. It is a good starter species for greenwood carving, partly because of its high moisture content, perhaps greater than 100%. Sycamore wood is easy to carve in the green and as a non-native species in the UK is considered a ‘weed’ tree by nature conservationists. It is fast growing and fairly easy to get hold of. Sycamore spalts easily to provide more interesting figure from fungal invasion of the wood.


Willow


It's fast growing and has a high moisture content. There are many species, but the most common ones you'll come across in the UK are goat willow (Salix caprea) and crack willow (
Salix fragilis)аwhich is often found near river banks and is pollarded. White willow (Salix alba)аis used to make cricket bats and the charcoal from this species has been usedby artists and also to make gunpowder.

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Spoon carved in willow with аAnglo-Saxon runes

So what is willow like as a wood to carve? Well, the high mosture content means that willow is very soft, pliable and easy to carve in the green. This has the potential downside of not holding a crisp line or face when dry compared to ther woods such as ash, birch or cherry. The wood can tear to leave indistinct carving lines. It is also a very plain, blond wood with a little figure or grain. This is partly because willow is what is known as diffuse porous wood. This means that the water carrying xylem vessels in the summer growth are evenly distributed across the growth ring, as compared to the ring-porous growth pattern of ash, where you can just about see the large xylem vessels laid down in early summer with the naked eye.


david@spooncarving.org.uk ай David Knight 2017