Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | June 2, 2010

Carving Green Wood

Carving Green Wood

There are times when you might wish to work with green wood.  A good example is when carving spoons or bowls, etc.  Green wood cuts easily.  In order to reduce the possibility of checking and ruining a nice piece of work, one needs to promptly remove most, if not all, of the heartwood (the center of a branch, usually darker wood), thin out the remaining wood to its 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.

If you have a choice as to when to harvest green wood, you would be best served to do so in late fall, when the tree has become dormant and the sap and water has settled.  And, you will have the entire winter to do your carving.  The curing process of wood will occur much slower in the winter with less sun and heat and more humidity.

A close look at the carving work of early North Coast aboriginal carvers shows they understood their medium very well.  Most North Coast work is hollowed such as with bowls, masks, rattles, canoes, and even the backs of totem poles.  The hollowing allowed for uniform thickness resulting in even and un-stressful drying.  In some cases, carvings were pierced and relieved – in what would otherwise be a heavier area hard to carve – without checks developing.  These relieved areas were incorporated into the carving to enhance the design.

To prevent checking when carving solid work, one must hollow as much as possible and drill up into hard-to-reach areas.  Again, it is always advisable to cut out or drill out the heart of any piece of green wood.

A Northwest wood found on the west side and often considered to be trash simply due to its weed like growth habits is red alder.  It carves easily while wet and it is quite attractive.  There are many, many examples of North Coast Aboriginal art in alder.  Yet, dry, it is a tough carve without power tools.

When working green wood, for a relatively short period of time, one can keep it in a plastic bag between work sessions.  However doing so with hardwoods for more than about a week may introduce mold or mildew.  This is less likely to occur with softwoods.  One can also keep it in a barrel or bucket of water but be cautious as the minerals in the water or the container may well discolor the wood.

When I took down a cherry tree for a local resident, I saved wood for carving.  I found that the cherry remained easy to carve for about 4 months.  At about the 5th month it got a little dried out to easily carve with pure hand tools… and it was showing the first stages of checking.  Keep in mind that you do not need green wood to carve spoons but if carving by hand, green wood will make carving much easier.

A local wood turner, likes to turn bowls from green or wet wood until the walls of the bowl are quite thin.  When the bowl dries, it contorts to unusual and artistic shapes – adding to its beauty.

Old growth western red cedar is one exception to the rule regarding placing 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 red cedar wet while carving is a big help to both heavy 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 the next time you pick it up.  The qualities of cedar also prevent mildew and keep bugs at bay.  Western red cedar can also be stored in damp saw dust or wood chips, keeping it ready to carve.  If you were to acquire a piece of damp or wet old growth western red cedar, it would be wise to keep it damp as rapid drying could cause it to split and, as I mentioned, damp or wet western red cedar is much easier to carve.

Working with green wood or wet wood is always an adventure and one needs to simply  experiment.  But, don’t be afraid to use green wood.  Using green wood often produces nice work and you may end up becoming an expert with green wood.

Curing Green Wood

Found wood offers a much greater stage for creativity over a sawn piece of timber.  If the found wood is green, you may want to cure it prior to carving it.

Please see my earlier post on curing wood but I would like to add something here that I did not know when I wrote my earlier post.  I had suggested that one can apply oil to green wood once it is carved to help ensure that it will not check or crack.  Since I do not sand my carvings, it had not occurred to me that oil wood will not sand well as it rapidly clogs your sand paper.  Rather than use oil, an old wood crafter’s note that I recently read suggests that one rub a boiled potato into the wood.  Once it is completely dry, it can simply be washed off, dried and you are ready for sanding.  That is a pretty slick trick.

Remember to be carveful and keep sharp.  Happy Carving!


Responses

  1. hi i was reading your article on green wood you say to add the oil
    to stop the wood from cracking but will this not trap the water still in the
    wood and cause rot.
    thanks
    k.b

    • You ask a good question Kev. What you suggest makes sense and I really can not explain it but I have never experienced such a thing. I believe the oil somehow displaces the moisture. If you are working with a large piece, I am told that keeping the log buried in damp sawdust or wood chips also works.

      • Hi, I work with green wood sometimes, the answer is, the olive oil acts like a wick, and draws out moisture, even water works as a wick, driftwood is the dryest wood one could work with found in salt AND freshwater, and has been in water most of its existence since it broke off…. Hope this helps… God bless.

      • Thanks for the comment TL. Good to know. Caution with driftwood however as it all most always has sand imbedded in it.

  2. Another person suggested rubbing a mixture of Linseed oil and turpentine on the carving between sessions. I’ve not tried it, have you hear of this?
    Another question I have it this: How do you let a green price dry without it checking or warping? Do you need to seal it and make sure it’s very hollow?
    I did some caving in Alaska with some very experienced native carvers and we just used cedar and alder. We put them both in bags and let them sit outside were the weather was always cool and moist. The only time I got mildew was on a carving I brought inside and left in the bag. I now live in Northern California where it’s hot and dry in the summers and cool and moist in the winter. We’ve go some western red cedar and bay laurel that I’m interesting in harvesting and using to carve.
    Thanks,
    Brian

    • Hi Brian:

      While I have not heard of or tried the linseed oil and turpentine mix idea, it makes good sense. We need to keep the piece from drying too quickly and that seems like it would work well. Thanks for passing that on and I will be trying it. Of course, if the subject piece is a bowl or anything where toxicity is an issue. neither linseed oil or turpentine is a good idea. In those cases, I have simply slathered on cheap olive oil during the carving process.

      On the subject of checking and warping… it is that very issue that we are speaking of. In addition to the above, in the case of Western Red Cedar, try to get the most center of the heart wood cut out. Doing so will relive a lot of stress. On warping, we need to make sure that the preservative we use (including just water) while carving covers the entire carving… we can’t simply apply it to on side or part of the project.

      Cool and moist is the goal. If the carving has been thinned out enough, is small enough, and you are going to be away from it for a few days, place it in a plastic bag and then in the freezer. You do not want to place thick or WET wood in the freezer.

      Every wood and every circumstance acts differently and there is not one “absolute” answer to curing. A lot of it is trial and error.

      Hope this helps. Good luck. If you try the linseed oil turpentine idea, please let me know how it works.

      Best,

      Michael

  3. hi michael.
    i’ve only done a limited amount of green wood (alder)and a little vine maple.
    with a alder mask after it’s at the finishing point try wraping, inside and out with several layers of news paper and in the freezer. remove and rerap with dry paper. repeet several times. vine maple, as it would not be around food etc. i just put it in bucket of antifreeze (etholine glycol) with a weight on top for several days. that was severalyears ago and it hasn’t chesked yet.
    happy holidays. glen
    ps what have you got on designe and carving a halibut (green alder) bowl???

    • Hi Glen:

      Thanks you for sharing your experiences. I will remember them and give them a try. Regrettably, I do not have anything on carving a halibut bowl. There are many photos around but I have not seen any scale drawings or instructions. Good Luck in finding something.

      Best Regards!

  4. Hi, i have just started carving and have been carving spoons from willow, but i am just carving a green willow bowl. Will i have to let it fully dry and season before i finish and oil it?

    Any help will be greatfully received

    Anita

    • In my experience, one can thin it out to a finished thickness and slather it with a non-toxic oil and all should be well.

      Good luck!

      • Thank you i shall crack on and try it out

        Anita


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