I am headed toward the bowl carving stage of my giant kitchen tool making project, and decided I needed a really good carving mallet. There, in my log pile, were four logs of hop hornbeam, from a tree that died on our property. It’s one of the hardest, strongest, and heaviest domestic hardwoods, and the price was right. I rounded off a blank with a broad hatchet, and commenced to turning one.
I got the following info from https://www.wood-database.com. I’ll quote: “Overall, a difficult wood to work. Hophornbeam has high cutting resistance, (which also means that the finished wood product has good wear resistance).” The strength is off the charts as well: “Modulus of Rupture: 14,100 lbf/in2 (97.2 MPa).” That’s a tough cookie, perfect for whacking away at carving tools.
It took awhile to make on my foot-powered lathe, but I used a simple carnauba wax finish to shine it up some; compare these two finishes.
The bottom two pieces of wood are from the same log. The gouge handle is coated with linseed oil, and turned that light brown. The mallet just has a wax finish. Now it’s time to get back to work.
The giant Alabama based corporation Melanie Jane works for has rusticated her indefinitely, and possibly permanently. Then they tell her last week they have ordered her yet more computer equipment. Time for a new desk and some extra space. It’s not exactly Virginia Woolf’s a room of her own, but it is pretty nice.
I have one of the finest scrap wood piles in history, this having been salvaged from it. The Black Cherry wood is over fifty years old. How do I know that? Because the tree this wood came from fell on me. Hereby hangs a tale, as the Bard of Avon might have said.
The new corporate office above is overseen by a framed program featuring none other than actor Cleavon Little, who played the sharecropper Nate Shaw at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, in the play All God’s Dangers. Unlike Bob Marley’s song, Nate shot the Deputy, but he did not shoot the Sheriff. But it was in self defense.
At any rate, back to the story. My grandfather was one of the finest loggers for the brand new Tennessee Vally Authority, as they were building the giant chain of lakes on the Tennessee River in Alabama, which would be Wilson, Wheeler, and Guntersville. He would tell tales about trees so large that they had to weld two two man crosscut saws together, just to cut them down. So old growth forests were replaced by water, and the valley could have cheap electricity, and the world’s finest fishing for smallmouth bass. Everything is a trade off.
We had this beautiful tall Black Cherry tree by our house, when I was a small child. It produced massive quantities of black cherries, which were inedible for anything other than birds. The birds would eat them in mass quantities, and then crap black cherry colored crap all over the clothes on our clothesline. Note: no one we knew owned a clothes dryer back then.
My mother pronounced a death sentence for the tree. My father was dispatched as the executioner, and he grabbed his double bitted axe, and drove his old Plymouth down for me to sit, on, and witness his skill as a lumberjack. I was instructed to sit on the hood, and watch the remarkable display of skill.
Remarkable, it was. He managed to make the tree fall in exactly the opposite direction than he intended, and I was transfixed as the tree headed straight for my head. Only the limbs hit me, but the Plymouth took a strong blow to the roof.
I forgot about the entire incident, and soon enough went off to college for ten years. My father went on to join the choir invisible during that time, and so his sheds full of goodies remained untouched. I returned home for the summer before I started my first professorial job, and there they were–a double bitted axe, and a giant pile of cherry lumber, that had been drying for over twenty years. As a victim, I claimed all of it.
I was looking in my outdoor tool closet the other day, and found the axe. I had put a new handle in it, and I am about to grind it sharp, so I can also cut down trees in the wrong direction.
This reminded me of the great poem by Gary Snyder, “Axe Handles.” Here it is (copyrighted by Gary, btw).
One afternoon the last week in April Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet One-half turn and it sticks in a stump. He recalls the hatchet-head Without a handle, in the shop And go gets it, and wants it for his own. A broken-off axe handle behind the door Is long enough for a hatchet, We cut it to length and take it With the hatchet head And working hatchet, to the wood block. There I begin to shape the old handle With the hatchet, and the phrase First learned from Ezra Pound Rings in my ears! “When making an axe handle the pattern is not far off.” And I say this to Kai “Look: We’ll shape the handle By checking the handle Of the axe we cut with—” And he sees. And I hear it again: It’s in Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, fourth century A.D. “Essay on Literature”-—in the Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe By cutting wood with an axe The model is indeed near at hand.” My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen Translated that and taught it years ago And I see: Pound was an axe, Chen was an axe, I am an axe And my son a handle, soon To be shaping again, model And tool, craft of culture, How we go on.
Finding good Black Walnut wood can get really expensive. Eighteen trees once sold for $80,000.01, and a single tree sold for $17,000. That’s some pricey wood.
Then my niece inherited her grandmother’s house, and the reno required the removal of one Walnut tree. My brother-in-law offered me a deal on it. Anything involving Walnut is an offer you can’t refuse.
It’s a barter deal: I get the wood, but have to make goodies for my niece’s upcoming wedding, a minimum of ten spoons from Walnut, and three Walnut bowls. Since I have until June, I began with a couple of other projects.
This rolling pin is for my sister-in-law, as a down payment for that pile of logs. It was made on my quite primitive foot powered reciprocating lathe. My tool rest is an old broken axe handle. My workshop is also our laundry room.
This scoop is for us, for our half gallon mason jar full of Louisiana rice. It’s only roughed out at this point, but it was made mostly with just those three tools. A true expert will recognize the hook knife as one made by Hans Karlsson, the great Swedish smith. The wood carving knife is Flexcut, made in the US. The broad hatchet is a flea market find. Good tools make life easier, so just buy the best you can afford.
Now it’s time to make my way back down to the spoon mines. Wood shavings will fly, and and all I have to do, is remove everything that doesn’t look like a spoon.
Cook some paint! Or not, as this really doesn’t have to be cooked. Cooking changes the consistency of the starch used, so do some chemistry experiments, or just throw the ingredients into a jar and shake.
Flour (Rye or Wheat)
Red Iron Oxide
I left off proportions, because everyone wants a different consistency with paint. Rye is the traditional choice for flour, but wheat is less expensive. Cook those with the water, then add the pigment–there are tons of natural pigments to choose from, and a very little goes a long ways. My advice is to stick with the mineral ones, as they are fade proof. I use food grade linseed oil for interior paint, and nasty boiled linseed oil for exterior paint. It just dries faster.
Once you get into the natural paint deal, you may never buy prepared paint again. To steal a comparison from Wendell Berry, it’s like the difference between real food and industrial food, industrial food being like industrial sex.
This is really the far south of Sweden, as the design is Swedish, but the maple came out of my yard here in Alabama. I decorated the handle with some homemade red stain made of iron oxide and food grade linseed oil–very Swedish. It actually gets used more as a jam and preserves spreader than as a butter knife.
The Jar knife is the answer for everyone who has tried to scrap the last bit of goodness out of a jar of anything. By design, it reaches into the corner of any rounded jar, so that nothing is wasted. This one was made from green Maple wood from my property, which makes it easier to turn on a lathe, and carve, and then the jar knife was air dried. The finish is nothing, which is free, and available everywhere.
Treen is essentially a word passed down from Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and proto-Germanic, which just means “wooden.” The modern interpretation of the word is “wooden utensil” meant for household use. Before cheap metal and cheap plastic, that meant just about everything in the house, or hut, or shanty, or hollow tree (that last being a reference to one of the founders of Marlinton, West Virginia, who got so mad at his business partner, that he went to live in a hollow tree, instead of dealing with the guy. I doubt he had a Cuisinart in there).
One of my too many hobbies is making treen, using only hand tools and traditional methods. The picture on the top left is a spoon I made that was part of a traveling museum exhibition, chronicled in the book A Gathering of Spoons, compiled and written by the Emeritus University of Connecticut Libraries Director Norman D. Stevens. The rest are all of local woods, including Maple, Dogwood, Black Walnut, and Sparkleberry. I’ll show those individually later, and tell what they all are made for. Cheap metal and cheap plastic are banned from this house, as my wife cringes every time she sees some TV chef scratch up a really nice pan with a crappy imported utensil.