Overlooked Hooks and Crooks

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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.

SAM_2587It 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.

 

The fine hairs on the branches remind one of deer antlers in velvet and give the staghorn sumac its common name.

The fine hairs on the branches remind one of deer antlers in velvet and give the staghorn sumac its common name.

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!

The berry clusters of sumac stand out in late summer and long after the leaves have dropped. A friend of mind found dozens of old sumac spiles in an old collapsed sugar shack. The one on the left is one of those; the one on the right is one I made a few years ago as an experiment. The pith is wide and soft, allowing for a natural tube and trough. On the far right is the roughed out sumac bowl, drying and waiting for the final carving stages.

The berry clusters of sumac stand out in late summer and long after the leaves have dropped. A friend of mine once found dozens of old sumac spiles in a collapsed sugar shack in the woods. The one on the left is one of those; the one on the right is one I made a few years ago as an experiment. The pith is wide and soft, allowing for a natural tube/trough. On the far right is the roughed out sumac bowl, drying and waiting for the final carving stages.

IMG_6267IMG_6268I 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.

IMG_6269IMG_6270No 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.

 

 

IMG_6277This 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:

Here I am pulling the tool from the top of the grain toward the side, eventually hollowing under the rim.

Here I am pulling the tool from the top of the grain toward the side, eventually hollowing under the rim.

By simply rotating the wrist, the opposite edge can now be pushed along the grain on the opposite side.

By simply rotating the wrist, the opposite edge can now be pushed along the grain on the opposite side.

When roughing spoons, I can remove wood by pulling across or down the grain.

When roughing spoons, I can remove wood by pulling across or down the grain.

And, when appropriate, switch grips, levering against the opposite thumb to push the blade through the wood.

And, when appropriate, switch grips, levering against the opposite thumb to push the blade through the wood.

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.

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Roughed sumac bird bowl, beginning to dry.

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.

 

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7 Responses to Overlooked Hooks and Crooks

  1. Jim D. says:

    I’ve never completed a project in sumac, but . . . if you look in Bruce Hoadley’s Understanding Wood, you’ll see a semi-abstract nude figure he carved from it. He also mentions that sumac is one of the few woods that fluoresces under black light! Something I’d love to try sometime.

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    • Jim D. says:

      I should add that I enjoyed reading your holistic, naturalist/ethnobotanical/woodworking account, which fills up and rounds out Hoadley’s dendrological treatment. (like a beautifully carved bowl!)

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      • Dave Fisher says:

        Thanks, Jim. I’ll have to get a black light and check out the fluorescence. If I can get it show up in a photo, I’ll share it.

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      • I agree with Jim. I fell in love with trees long before woodworking (actually, it’s how I got into the craft). I was aware of sumac’s use as “pink lemonade”, but didn’t know about the maple spiles. Fascinating, and makes perfect sense. I also want to say that this is one of the trees that Native Americans hollowed out for tobacco pipe stems? A quick Google search seems to confirm…

        Lovely bird, too, by the way 🙂

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      • Dave Fisher says:

        Thanks. By the way, congratulations on the birth of your son, a very worthy non-woodsy announcement on your blog this week.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Girlfriend in Maine, David? We’ll keep our eyes open for you.

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    • Dave Fisher says:

      🙂 No, no need for my wife to worry; the women in Maine like manly men like the guys that work for Lie-Nielsen. But I and my knife do revisit the distaff carving that I began in Maine with Jogge Sundquist.

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