Slippery Elm Bowls


There’s no better way to understand the working properties of a wood species than to carve a chunk of it.  Its character is revealed through experience with it,  including subtle nuances that are difficult to communicate.  Different trees within the same species also have their individual personalities.

A couple months ago, I was offered a log from a slippery elm tree (Ulmus rubra), also known as red elm.  A little research explains a few things about the tree, its lumber, and its medicinal qualities, but I had to give carving it a whirl to really know the wood.

I carved two bowls from it.  The fact that it is ring-porous makes it a less than ideal choice for liquid-holding bowls, but isn’t an issue for most uses.  It can be a challenge to get good finishing cuts due to the strong contrast between the dense latewood and the porous earlywood.  I like the rich, reddish-brown color.

Designing with the character of the wood in mind, the first bowl I carved from it highlights the prominent growth ring pattern that was very even and concentric in this log.  I carved a bowl that brings a double bird to mind, with sweeping undercut wing forms.  14 inches long, 9 3/4 inches wide and 5 inches high.


I carved a large round bowl as well.  The elm moved quite a bit as it dried, leaving a flowing roller-coaster rim with the high portions at the end grain.


The open grain of this wood was also a golden opportunity to try the shou sugi ban technique of charring wood.  My friend Eric Goodson had written an intriguing and instructive blog post (that’s a link) about it early this year.  I followed Eric’s recommended procedure and it worked great.


Not only did the outside become a rich black, but the grain patterns were enhanced as the earlywood burned away easily, leaving the latewood raised.  The outside had been left subtly faceted by the drawknife before torching.  You can still feel them a bit, but without exact edges between the broad facets.


I decided to carve a vigorous loose texture on the inside of this one.


Now back to cherry…

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13 Responses to Slippery Elm Bowls

  1. Wait just a minute! I want to know about that burning technique when it didn’t come in a can! (And, yes, they are “Just gorgeous.”)


    • Dave Fisher says:

      Yeah, I thought about that too, Paula. I saw some techniques for treating siding this way where planks are made into a chimney of sorts and placed over a fire. Flames shoot up through, deeply charring one surface of the planks. Next time I may be bold enough to try it with a bowl!


  2. Martin W. Loring says:

    Dear Mr. Fisher:
    I am a new subscriber to your blog. Your work and blog fill me with equal parts of inspiration and awe. Imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, I am sure that I will be unable to resist trying my hand at some of your designs and techniques. However, I do promise to always attribute the design and not sell anything I carve that you inspired. Currently, I give my carvings to friends and family. Starting in a year, or so, I also plan to give some work to my church for an annual raffle in support of their Commission on Poverty and Homelessness) I hope that is OK with you. Thank you very much for sharing your gifts.


    • Dave Fisher says:

      That’s all more than OK with me, Martin. I appreciate your concern, but I don’t think about that much. We’re all influenced consciously or unconsciously by many sources, myself included, and originality can be a pretty fuzzy concept. There’s a line somewhere I guess, but it sounds like you’re in no danger of crossing it. I’m just flattered that you’re inspired by the designs and very happy that you’re carving and even helping others by doing so. Keep up the good work.


  3. Your ‘vigorous loose texture’ is my ‘patient and careful’!

    I’ve never used slippery/red elm but my experience of our native (and nearly extinct) elm is of a lot of movement. I made a long bench from a big chunk of air dried (for four years) timber a couple of years ago and haven’t been able to keep all four legs on the ground. It’s become known as the tap dancing bench.

    Stunning work as always.


  4. Richard McCarty says:

    Dave, as a relatively new subscriber, I am now going back to earlier posts and finding all sorts applicable tidbits of shared knowledge and Information…. As always, thank you…! Each and every piece shown is exquisite…! What caught my eye here was the use of Elm… I recently got a couple of pieces of Hackberry which I read is similar to Elm and Ash… Any experience with Hackberry?
    Many, many thanks…. Richard


  5. Dave Fisher says:

    Hi Richard. I’ve not come across Hackberry around here, but I did make a couple bowls from it close to 20 years ago. We were on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg and the grounds crew was cutting up a hackberry that had come down in a storm. I asked for, and they let me have, a couple chunks that came back to Pennsylvania with me. From what I remember it worked well. Sort of a mottled cream and grayish color. Fine for a bowl it seems to me. I don’t remember it being quite as open-grained as Elm and Ash, but it has been awhile. One of those bowls is at my brother-in-laws, so I’ll have to take a look next time I’m there.


  6. Scott Ward says:

    I’m having a blast reading lots of your past blog posts for all sorts of insightful info and technique. Just curious Dave if you’ve had any experience with carving oak, willow, or Chinese photinia and if you could offer some insight on these woods. These are some woods I have access to recently. I know willow to be soft and light and have heard oak is a bear. Photinia I’ve read is really hard. I just can’t seem to come across Walnut which I think is probably your most preferred. Then there’s the question of cedar, hemlock and fir – which is every other tree here in Washington. Ultimately what are your feeling with trying evergreen?

    I love the shou sugi ban too! Really cool technique and wood preserving.


    • Dave Fisher says:

      I have no experience with Chinese photinia, but I have carved bowls from oak and willow, Scott. Willow is light and soft, but it does have a pretty tight grain. You could certainly carve some nice bowls from it. The willows around me tend to be pretty gnarly and twisted though. Oak is hard of course, but is still quite carveable, and not too difficult to hog away with sharp tools when it’s green. Here’s a video in which I’m hollowing a large oak bowl with an adze:
      I’ve carved bowls from pine, and it works well — at least eastern white pine does. Again, relatively soft, so won’t hold up as well. The northwest coast tribes often used alder for their bowls, so there’s something to consider too.
      Have fun with your explorations.


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