Last spring and early summer I recorded a photo journal on my facebook page of what goes in to creating one of my larger wall triptychs. This is a compilation of that journal. I invite you to follow and "like" my facebook page - Jay McDougall - Wood Sculptor.
I'm fast-forwarding to cutting sequenced slabs from a Cottonwood log. About one out of ten logs that I look at in the field are deemed interesting enough to bring into my log yard near the studio. Hauling in a 1 or 2 ton log is far from a casual endeavor, yet until I make the initial cut the mystery remains as to whether any given log is worthy of the time I will be putting into a sculpture. In this case it's evident that I've chosen wisely. I have my large saw (122 cc/8.5hp) fitted with a 54" bar in an Alaskan mill. I will cut 3 sequenced slabs about 6" thick.
Prior to the slabs being brought in to the bench I square them with a chain saw and mark the orientation and relative sequencing. At this time the slabs are still wet/green and weigh close to 200# each.
My initial carving establishes the curvature of the Siren's back.
Once the curve is carved I strike some very rough lines to guide me in the carving of the figure.
The rough carving is complete on the front of one panel.
I have flipped the panel over in preparation to carve out the back side. Remember, the panel is still wet at this stage. In order for it to dry with minimal cracking or "curing checks" I must remove some thickness. As wood dries it shrinks. If a slab is too thick the inside can't keep up with the outer layer in drying/shrinking, which results in cracking.
Repeat three times and the rough carving is complete!
This is what approximately 250#s of carving chips looks like. The panels themselves still weigh in at about 120# a piece.
Into the dehumidification chamber for drying. The green tarp is dropped over the front; the heat from the dehumidifier's condenser along with a circulating fan will draw the moister out of the panels. I'm very aggressive on the drying in an effort to force any potential cracks out "on my watch". Moisture content on the panels is initially about 50%.
The panels are now dry enough to proceed to the final shaping and sanding. Anything below about 12% moisture content is deemed "cured".
Applying the first coat of oil is one of the most satisfying steps of the entire process. My penetrating finish is a combination of oils and resin. The oils penetrate the wood which enhances the grain and color; the resin locks the oil into the wood so it won't dry out and require any additional coats of oil in the future.
The Sirens are getting their final hand-buffing prior to wax.
Now that the panels are carved, dried, and finished it's time to move on to the steel backs.
I have my friends over at West Tool & Design in Fergus Falls do the brake work and welding of the 18ga mild steel pans for the panel backs.
The first step is to grind and clean up the corner welds.
I'm preparing the 1/2" MDF backing boards that will be let into, and reinforce the steel backs.
The opening in the MDF fill-board has been traced on to the steel pan and I am now cutting out the corresponding opening in the steel.
I have sanded and cleaned the front side of the steel backs in preparation for the application of a dark patina.
Two of the three backs with patina applied. Sorry, the actual technique for applying my patina will remain a secret.
To protect the backs from rust I burn in a traditional blacksmith's wax. It's a combination of beeswax, boiled linseed oil, and turpentine.
Prior to inserting the MDF filler boards into the steel back I give them a couple coats of matte black paint.
A spray adhesive has been applied to the steel pans and backer boards.
The backs are all set for the panels to be attached.
The final step. Attaching the carved and finished panels to the steel backs.
The completed Cottonwood Sirens!
It's been a pretty hectic year of travel but now I'm back decompressing at Wildwood and in the studio until January. This has been a gorgeous autumn weekend in Otter Tail County and no better time or place to carve a ball. I've been wanting to carve a large ball for a long time. The objectives were simple: freehand carve a ball as large as a given log will allow without the aid of any measuring tools or templates. Just my eyes and hands.
What began as a 950 pound American Elm log ended up a solid 475 pound wooden ball. I remained true to my goals and was pleased that the ball at least approximates a sphere and has a diameter of a mere 2" less than that of its source log. But as with so many things the true value of this activity was the lessons that were reinforced in the process.
Lesson #1 -
The removal of a very small amount of material can have a huge impact on the overall shape. Choose wisely prior to removing or altering a form, it can't be put back.
Lesson #2 -
Know when to stop. It's critical to determine what is "perfect enough". This is a judgement call which becomes easier the more you do it. The alternative is to keep striving for "absolute perfection" and ending up with nothing.
And the final lesson:
Simple is hard.
Achieving simplicity can be a very arduous journey.
I just finished carving a major wall piece. Here's a photo journal of the process that I think you may enjoy.
The process begins with sourcing some logs from a downed tree. In this case it is a cottonwood that was taken down for a road improvement project about 3/4 of a mile North of my studio.
I was able to cut quite a few slabs from these trees. There are many times that I'm not nearly as fortunate. Often there are only a couple of pieces that meet my requirements out of any given tree. Now it's a matter of deciding just what will become of them.
After selecting three blanks for carving they must remain covered with plastic sheeting to prevent them from shrinking/cracking before they are carved. In this present "wet" state each slab weighs about 150#.
The blanks are now trimmed, squared, and sequenced.
The orientation and proposed forms have been marked onto the slabs. The pieces are ready for carving.
This is what about 300# of wet wood chips looks like. I have carved away nearly 100# of material per slab to reveal the desired form and relieve the backs.
The panels are now carved and about to get closed into my dehumidification chamber for drying. Nothing to do now but wait, kind of like watching paint dry or waiting for water to boil.
After drying I refine the carving, sand, oil, and wax the panels. At this point they are ready to be mounted on their steel backs.
The mild steel backs are cleaned and prepared for the application of a patina which will yield a dark mottled appearance that brings some great visual contrast to the triptych.
Here you are able to see the patina that I have applied to the steel backs. I am now burning in a blacksmith's wax to protect the backs from oxidation and the elements.
I find myself in many conversations involving the use of exotic woods. At times it seems as though I'm in a "Who can Stump the Wood Guy" competition. Having worked with wood for my entire career and holding a degree involving wood technology I guess I should be aware of more exotic woods than most. However there are in fact many, many more wood species that I am not familiar with nor ever will be. And that's OK with me. Exotic woods by definition are "...of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad..." The truth be told I have never been the least bit interested in using materials that are not native to where I live and work. Having said that, I must remind you that all the beautiful woods I gather locally are indeed considered "Exotic" everywhere else in the world, so I suppose when viewed from a global perspective I do indeed work with exotics. I'd like to introduce you to three of my favorite Otter Tail County Exotics:
This is one of the few woods I use that also has value as a furniture wood or for commercial lumber. I like the strength of the grain pattern. It's strong but not overpowering. Of particular interest is the fine wavy pattern in the summer growth (space between the rings). This herringbone pattern makes this specie shimmer.
The broad, uniform canopy has made the American Elm a favorite urban tree valued for its shade in yards and parks.
The American Elm has been a favorite for lining boulevards. These Elm tree-lined streets are fast becoming a thing of the past as Dutch Elm Disease (named for where the disease was first located not the specie) continues to decimate the Elm population.
Cottonwood has very little commercial value due to its low strength, density, and tensile attributes. It's often used for low value items such as pallets and lath. It is one of my favorites. The flame grain that I find in the cottonwood takes my breath away.
An incredibly graceful tree, I have measured local specimens with 6' diameters. The slightest breeze will produce a beautiful rustling sound as the thin, flat-stemmed leaves flutter.
Boxelder is a real show stopper. The vibrant dashes of red overlaid on the satiny grain of the Maple is striking indeed. In the rare cases where I carve a piece with no red present the result is almost as though it was made of ivory.
The red in the boxelder is present as the tree grows. This is a picture of a freshly cut boxelder log. What causes the red will be the topic of a future blog. Hint: Boxelder beetles are non-boring beetles.
I have to say that I prefer knowing where my material comes from. Best wishes - Jay
from the very Exotic Otter Tail County
Boxelder and Sugar Maple (left rear). 5" - 8" tall; $100 - $115/vase
I started carving vases a few years ago as a means of getting some more color into my display at shows and exhibitions. Fresh flowers bring a lot to the party and are a fabulous compliment to my natural forms. It was a perfect solution to carve vases to serve this display need and an equally great solution to find a use for some of the beautiful wood cut-offs that were really too beautiful to throw away. Since then I have begun to use the process of creating these small pieces of sculpture as a warm-up exercise for my larger pieces. Much like sketching this is a means of exploring line and form while getting my head in the place it needs to be for carving my larger scale work. So here's a peek at some things from my latest sketch book.
Sugar Maple and Black Willow logs - ready to carve!
And now that I'm in the groove it's time to move on to the big dogs.
Here's a photo journal of some steps involved in the creation of a wooden vessel. I will use few words and many pictures.
The first step is acquiring a log from a locally fallen tree. In this instance it's a Boxelder log that I located at the Fergus Falls' landfill's wood pile (more on that later).
Rip the log down the middle.
Trim the edges.
Begin carving the vessel's containment area.
Top side/containment area complete.
Remove excess mass from underside and mark feet locations.
_Fast forward through drying; final sanding and shaping; dying of the underside; applying oil; waxing; and...Ta Da, finished piece!
All done. I got the steel backs finished and applied a great patina. The patina is relatively unpredictable so it's a great thing when it comes out as nice as this did. The set is waxed, wrapped and packed. Tuesday morning they're off to Florida with me.
I've been wanting to carve another "Cottonwood Movements" triptych since I joyfully parted with my last set in Memphis last October. Cottonwood is one of my favorite woods to carve for several reasons: it is native to my region, it grows quite large, and it has terrific color and grain characteristics. I usually have easy access to cottonwood but this year it's been pretty tough for me to come by. So, it was great news when I heard from my friend Doc Bob that he had the remnants of a cottonwood that fell last summer for me to inspect. On a cold and breezy day a couple of weeks ago I loaded my saw and headed for rural Battle Lake. After a meandering tour of his farm we eventually arrived at the object of my interest. It really wasn't much to look at but there was enough to hold my attention.
With some help from Doc Bob I managed to get a couple of sections crosscut and readied for ripping. Take note of the choppers and stocking cap Bob's wearing....they are mine. The temp was in the single digits fahrenheit so not too cold there however the wind was blowing out of the NW at about 25mph so it was a bit nippy.
I was moving pretty quickly to stay warm. Not long before I had my blanks field dressed and ready to go.
I've already carved the set and they are in my drying chamber. I was fortunate to get three sound blanks out of this trip as there was already a lot of dry rot and fungal activity taking its toll. Stay tuned, it shouldn't be much longer before I have a finished "Cottonwood Movements" to share with you.
I'm a contemporary wood sculptor living and working in rural Minnesota. I gather my logs locally and travel the country selling what I make from them.