Here’s to the overlooked. Like the next guy, I appreciate the smooth curves of a well-made hook knife or the rich brown tones of a piece of walnut. But last week I devoted some attention to a hook and tree that often go unnoticed.
It all started on a walk by the beaver pond. One busy fellow decided he liked the taste of sumac and I harvested a piece of his leftovers. Other than a minor exception, I had never carved sumac. But I thought there might be a small bird bowl in this curving crook of the sumac trunk, and curiosity won the day.
Actually, sumac, in this case — staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a fascinating tree. Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes, and the berry clusters are still used by some to make a pink-lemonade drink full of vitamins. Many mammals and birds eat the fruit, leaves, and bark. Colonists reamed out the wide soft pith from branches to make spiles for gathering maple sap. Its uses extend to dying and beekeeping. Folks have even smoked it!
I was just looking to carve it. As far as sumacs go, this one that the beaver liked (if you click on the photo above, you can see his teeth marks) was relatively large — about 8 inches in diameter. I split along the open pith. The beaver had already eaten the outer bark, but I still wanted to remove the thin layer of sapwood to get down to the brilliantly (garishly?) green heartwood. I used a drawknife that I reserve for rough work like cutting through bark, knots, and initial shaping. The edge has some small nicks, and I just leave them.
No fancy layout on a piece like this; I just go with the flow and sketch a rough idea onto the roundness of the top. For small things like this, I often roughly shape the outside before hollowing to make things easier to hold by hand.
This hollow is too small to mess around much with the adze, so I start the hollowing with a gouge and mallet. This fresh sumac wasn’t too hard, so I used some paring cuts as well. But the gouge, even a spoon-bent, will only reach so far, so I grabbed my ugly, clunky and effective Frost’s #162 hook knife.
I do have a Nic Westermann twca cam, and it is a beautifully designed tool that works sweetly. I mentioned using it a while back in this post. It may come in handy for some of the final stages, but I love to rough with the #162 — especially small things like kuksas, ladles, and small deep bowls like this. The tool has a deep, agressive U-shaped curve and an exaggerated offset that helps to reach in deeply to undercut areas like the belly of this bird that widens below the opening of the hollow.
I also appreciate the fact that it is sharpened on both edges. When roughing, I can quickly switch directions with the tool and work with the grain to full advantage. Here’s a few photos to illustrate that idea:
Although one could use the #162 right down to the final cuts, I usually prefer to switch to a hook knife with a dynamic curve (changing from relatively flat to a more rounded toe) and a rounded back edge for the final cuts after drying. Roughing with the #162 saves the edge of my finishing hook as well. Although relatively inexpensive, the #162 does benefit greatly from some initial sharpening, so be prepared to invest a little time and skill in honing. I suppose there are lot’s of places to find these, but here is the page at Ragweed Forge. You’ll see it when you scroll far down, along with some books and other things, including the popular Frosts #106. Ragnar has a slew of knives, helpful information, etc. on his other pages as well.
Even in just a few days of drying, the green of the sumac has begun to mellow. Meanwhile, I’ve got lots of other projects underway, some nearly finished: maple bowls, spoons, and even the distaff from Maine that I return to from time to time. Then I’ll return to my sumac birdy, and we’ll see how it turns out.