Wood for carving

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Wood for carving

Postby Chris » 20 Jul 2008, 20:36

<blockquote>In a previous topic someone was enquiring about wood suitable for carving. I dug out some notes that I made when I used to carve rather than model. These are not particularly up to date - being probably forty years old! They may be of some use:

Choose wood of uniform and even grain. Avoid knots.
Easy working woods generally do not have great strength and durability.

All wood used for carving should be properly seasoned. Seasoning means the drying out of a proportion of the moisture in the wood. It takes many years to season naturally but modern methods reduce seasoning process to weeks. Artificially seasoned wood is quite satisfactory. Unseasoned wood will crack and warp.

To season wood Eric Bramall's method was to cut it into suitable lengths, put under the workbench, and leave for several years. It needs to be in a dry place, and preferably warm.

Even seasoned wood can crack due to changes of temperature. With heads if you hollow them out it not only reduces weight but also reduces strain and minimizes the risk of cracking or warping.

If a crack develops whilst carving fill it with beeswax. This protects the edges from splintering whilst cutting.

Oak: One of the best woods for carving. Carves easily if tools are very sharp, holds detail, and is very strong. Good for marionette feet and hands which need weight, but heavy for heads. These would need to be hollowed out. Sharp chisels are essential, plus the ability to keep them sharp as they blunt quite quickly.

Walnut: several kinds, but most are even grained and suitable for carving.

Satin walnut: not a true walnut. Easy to work and useful for early exercises.

Pine: a soft wood. Suitable for practice but dull tools will crush and tear it.

Mahogany: many kinds - most are suitable for carving, qualities similar to walnut.

Sycamore, lime, pear: all close grained and good for puppet work as they can hold delicate detail. Most fruit woods good.

Birch: medium hard but pleasant to work. Not very durable.

Teak: not unlike oak - blunts tools easily.

Ebony and lignum vitae: Extremely hard and though they can be carved they are best avoided. Also lignum vitae is very heavy - the heaviest known wood.</blockquote>
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Postby CvdC » 21 Jul 2008, 00:43

Well after 40 years the wood would be well seasoned by now.
However in that time you could update the information by suggesting the microwave oven to dry out the wood. I know nothing about it other than it certainly can be done. You can find instructions on wood carving websites. Given that your average puppet head is of a size that will fit into a domestic microwave it ought to be a possible proposition.

The good thing about a Punch and Judy head is that there really isn't much detail in the carving. It is mostly just rounding off the basic shape. Where you may have detail is in the eyes and mouth. These areas are carved into the wood and are protected from the battering the puppet may get. It is the nose, chin and cheeks that get the most contact with stick and stage.

On Chris's advice many years ago I hollowed out the heads of my heavier puppets. So if the chosen wood proves too heavy, which will certainly effect your performance, the head can be hollowed after the puppet has been carved.

The way I have been doing this is to slice the top off the top of the head just at the level of the forehead and putting the "cap" to one side. I then use a spade bit to drill holes around the head leaving a reasonable thickness around the perimeter. I then use a gouge to remove as much wood as I can. It seems to me that you should not hollow out below the top of the finger hole as you need to have something for your finger to press against while performing. But most of the weight is taken from the top of the head. I then glue the "cap" back on and finish off the puppet.

The problem with grainy wood is that it may well split at any stage during carving or later during a show. My theory is that if you can see the grain as stripes in the wood it is not suitable.
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Postby Punchman » 21 Jul 2008, 02:27

What about Basswood?
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Postby Tony James » 21 Jul 2008, 12:08

The other common timber I thought might have been in Chris (S) list is ash. Close grained but heavy. Strong. Steams well into shape and was and is used for carriage shafts.

I found Chris (vdc) comment interesting:

"Where you may have detail is in the eyes and mouth. These areas are carved into the wood................."

He's correct of course and yet, at the same time it's open to interpretation.

Some eyes and mouths are clearly cut into the wood. Almost gouged. Yet other carvers appear to have carved away the timber to reveal the eyes and mouth. The face undulates and has a soft roundness to it and the eyes and mouth whereas the others are more angular and flattish.
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Postby Chris » 21 Jul 2008, 20:54

Punchman: Well - what about Basswood? If you know something, tell us.
Basswood is simply an alternative name for American whitewood - (which is actually yellow if I remember) - not particularly good for carving.
Tony James: Ash is a very coarse wood, considered unsuitable for carving. It is used for tool handles.
Chris vdC: Yes, I know there are ways of artificially seasoning wood. I said so. I didn't give details because I have had no personal experience and the information is readily available to anyone who intends to have a go.

But the list wasn't meant to be comprehensive - it was simply notes I made when I was keen on carving.
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Postby CvdC » 21 Jul 2008, 23:19

I mentioned the microwave because from previous discussion on this subject I gather some people like to recycle trees that have recently been cut down.
So if someone cuts down a pear tree there may well be a branch thick enough to carve a puppet from.
The only detailed carving on a Punch are the lips and the eye lids. Both of which can be simplified and painted in. Soft wood does not keep its sharp edges, which are easily sanded off. Because the detailed areas are protected from the battering a well performed puppet should get this makes soft wood like jelutong suitable. Bass wood may also be suitable but it is very soft. Balsa is definitely not suitable unless it were hardened by a coat of epoxy resin. Lime is slightly heavier than jelutong but would hold its edge better. This basically means you can carve teeth and eyelids and achieve a good definition. But as I mentioned above these are painted in anyway.
But whatever wood you choose it is weight that you need to consider foremost. If you make small puppets like some of Tickner's the weight of the wood is less of a problem. Hollowing out, carving away much of the wood around the mouth and keeping the depth of the puppet less than would be anatomically correct helps keep the weight down.
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