If you have a choice of when you are going to harvest your wood, I suggest late fall or early winter right after the sap has fallen and hopefully before the snow has fallen. That way, the moisture in the wood will be reduced making the curing time shorter and helping reduce the risk of checks or splits. And, the coming winter will be a good environment to begin the curing process.
If you are going to harvest a stick for a walking stick or a cane and you have your eye on a young sapling, you might consider using a pick axe or a mattock and uprooting the tree. Chances are that the root system will have some character to it, lending itself to a clever carving project. Be sure to cut all the root tentacles longer than you may need as they will check.
Generally, when one buys wood, it is cured and ready to carve. However, when we get free wood it is often green and depending upon our goals, we may need to wait for it to cure (dry). Curing time varies with each wood. Generally speaking, the softer the wood, the quicker it will check or split. Harder woods are slower to check but take longer to cure.
Assuming you do not have access to a commercial wood dryer, here are a few suggestions to curing wood:
1. Seal the ends of branches or logs. A commercial sealer is best but even a simple latex paint will work in a pinch. One commercial sealer that I have found works well is Bailey’s Log and Lumber Sealer (www.baileysonline.com);
2. Keep the wood out of excess heat and out of exposure to the Sun. This can be a challenge in the Chelan area and other dry climates;
3. Keep drying wood off the ground in a dry location and away from insect populations;
4. When cutting and curing wood for walking sticks and canes, cut the wood longer than what you need as the ends make check. If you will be stacking your sticks, turn them periodically to help prevent warping. I prefer to leave the bark on as it helps prevent sticks from splitting. However, dried bark is difficult to remove if that is your final intention. Personally, I like the look of most bark.
5. Curing time varies with the wood and its dimension. A walking stick blank will probably take about 3-4 months and a log can take 1-2 years.
Working with Green or Wet Wood
Sometimes, we want to work with green wood. A good example is when carving spoons, bowls, or masks. In order to reduce the possibility of checking and ruining a nice piece of work, one needs to promptly remove most or all of the heartwood (the center of a log), thin out the remaining wood to it desired thickness, and get a generous coating of oil on the wood. In the case of spoons and bowls, you must use a non-toxic mineral oil, olive oil, etc.
Many people make the mistake of keeping green hardwood in a plastic bag. This may work for a short time but a lengthy stay in plastic will cause hardwoods and some softwoods to mildew. A good option is placing unfinished green wood in the freezer.
Old growth western red cedar is one exception to the rule about not putting wet wood in plastic. Old growth red cedar is quite popular with carvers creating North Coast Indian art pieces. It is a softer wood and becomes difficult to carve when dry. Keeping it wet while carving is a big help to both hogging wood and detail carving. Once finished carving for the day, carvers place their project in plastic with a little water or a wet towel. Doing so makes it easy to work in the morning. The qualities of cedar prevent mildew and keep bugs at bay.
A Perfect Walking Stick
Two years ago, my brother-in-law and I were deep in the woods near Colville, Washington on a logging road when a cinnamon bear jumped in front of my truck before running into deep underbrush. We got out of the truck and not 12 inches in front of my tires, laying across the path was a perfect walking stick blank. It was long dead and completely cured with absolutely no rot. Although it was fir it carved very well. It was clearly a case of divine intervention. At first, I thought the bear sighting was the treat but the real treat was, in fact, finding the perfect stick. So, get out in the woods and keep your eyes open!
Keep sharp and be carveful!