Crash helmets fastened securely under your chin, body armour in place, knuckles wrapped, force field operational and a damn sharp axe in your hand.
Yup, we’re off to carve some spoons from Australian trees.
We have trees on this island, lots of them, about 5500 native species. To put this in perspective, the U.K. for example has somewhere between 50 – 70 native species (nobody can seem to agree on the number). Now this is not a we-got-more-than-you thing, far from it. When compared with other parts of the world there can be a quality Vs quantity thing going on with some lucky places blessed with divinely carvable timbers that allow a sloyd knife to do some crazy things in the right hands.
And then there’s Australia. And it’s trunk-load of trees. It’s trunk-load of twisted, gnarly, tougher than steel trees.
What’s a carver to do?
Well the thing is, some of this is a perception thing. Maybe somewhere a long time ago, someone sat on a log with a blunted butter knife and attempted carving a spoon from a petrified hunk of woolybutt (our trees at least have the best names, that you cannot deny), and decided to write off all 5500 tree species as ‘bloody impossible’. Yep, ok, you’ll not find an Alder-like experience in a gum tree, but lace up your finest adventure boots and come foraging with me in the bush and let’s see what we can find…
Also known as gum trees, a eucalyptus tree is an incredibly beautiful and varied thing. With somewhere approaching 800 varieties in Australia, this tree dominates our forests and is deeply tied with an Aussie sense of identity. It can also be bloody hard stuff that laughs in the face of an axe, but work these following species when green, young and tender, and you’ll be rewarded with something hardy and beautiful and surprisingly pleasant to carve.
Silvertop ash: a very common tree on the east coast (caveat – I’m based on the south east coast, so most of the species mentioned in this guide will be from this neck of the woods). Splits easily off the axe and carves well. Colour can be white, subtle pink or brown. Carves well. Expect quite a few sap pockets, often dry, that add colour and character. Sap pockets, veins and inclusions are a common thing in eucalypts, which technically are a weakness, but the overall strength and hardiness of the wood means you’ll still end up with a keeper.
Stringybarks: stringy by name and nature. This family of trees don’t look great when you first split the log or branch in two. The grain can be wild and messy, but the wood itself is silky and creamy to carve. Work on small diameter sections to make things more workable and the grain will soon be tamed. Colour is often ivory to brown. A favourite of mine.
Peppermint: often assigned to the firewood pile by the construction industry and furniture makers, this gum tree is lovely to work when green. It’s fairly soft, has some great defined growth rings and colour variation, and it ages really well. One downside, be sure to carve a uniform thickness and to dry it super slow and the wood can be very prone to cracking. Still worth the risk.
Alpine ash: just lovely. Splits well and carves with a firm but clean texture. Nice defined heartwood making for an attractive spoon if carved into the bark side of a blank.
Snow gum: as wild as the mountains it comes from! Probably my favourite carving experience. Expect twists, cracks that appear before your eyes, grain and colour that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting, and, surprisingly, a clean and fairly easy wood to carve. Grows mostly in protected areas so don’t head off to the mountains with your axe!
Bloodwood: carve it young and it’s nice and soft. The colour when young is white, and the wood, unlike all the other gums above, doesn’t have such a dense grain, making it a little tricky to get a clean finish with a knife. Has wild sap pockets full of liquid blood coloured sap which is a freak out when it spills onto your hands! If your hands are covered in something that looks like blood, first count all your fingers and if they’re all still there then chances are you’ve hit a sap pocket!
Also known as wattle trees, if you thought there were a lot of gum tree varieties then this family of mostly primary colonisers has about a thousand varieties in Australia! These are the guys that move in whenever there’s a gap in the forest canopy. They hang around for a bit and then fall on their swords to make way for the gums. Well most do anyway; there are some who have aspirations of being as big and strong as the eucalyptus trees, which leads up to our first acacia…
Blackwood: the king of acacias, although it does have a challenger (see below). This is the wood that will often make spoon carvers and furniture makers drop to their knees when they split open a straight grained log. The colour is just stunning; rich brown or close to black and after a coat of oil that colour will stay. It’s a funny one to carve. Straight grained and with no knots it can be a pleasure, but the moment you get a drying and twisted log with knots it becomes a beast and knife blunter like no other! The strong fibres in blackwood make it a favourite for Windsor chair makers who want to steam bend back hoops, but these strong fibres present spoon carvers with a challenge when attempting to carve heavily concave surfaces. If someone offers you log of this stuff then snap it up for sure.
Hickory wattle: if blackwood is the alpha acacia, then hickory is the challenger waiting in the wings. This stuff is just as beautiful as blackwood, with colours being a chocolate brown with a hint of pink, but its fibres are far more forgiving and allow for easier shaping of more complex spoon handles. It’s far from soft, but still very carvable with a firm hand. I’ve only just started carving with this stuff, but so far it’s up there with the best.
Black wattle: not to be confused with blackwood, I’ve carved some nice spoons from this, but it is a challenge. The sapwood is stringy and the heartwood (a lovely rich brown colour) is fairly splintery. Worth a go if it’s all you have, but there are better acacias to try.
Bower wattle: now this is special stuff. Imagine splitting blackwood in half, getting a similar colour only with a very slight iridescence to it. Carves well too. Grows in rainforest areas, so if you see one down and you’re allowed to take it, then it’s definitely worth a few leaches!
Black she oak: this is what I mostly carve with on my spoon carving workshops. It dries super hard, but when green it is quite easy to carve. Has some lovely colours from pale cream through to pink flushed, and it will oxidise over time to go a chocolate brown. Splits very well off the axe too. The prominent medullary rays that extend from the pith to the outer edge of the log give a lovely streaked design to your spoon bowls. Best carved from small diameter trees or branches.
River she oak: don’t go there. Like stone!
Melaleucas: also known as paperbarks. I’ve found a lot of these to be quite hard but with a lovely pink to purple colour, however the broad leaf paperbark and some of the other paperbarks with a very thick layer of birch-like bark do in fact carve a little like birch! Often grown as a street tree, keep an eye out of the trimming gang and grab yourself some nice soft wood to carve.
Banksia and silky oak: I’m bundling these together because the wood is very similar. It’s crazy stuff, and near impossible to see what the grain is doing because of its sponge-like appearance, but they generally carve really well. They have some lovely colour too, from pink to purple and an earthy red. They tend to dry out fairly quickly and knots will often fall out. Not the strongest woods in the world either but for sheer beauty they really are hard to beat.
Native cherry: the best! I’ve not come across a native Australian wood that is better to carve than native cherry. It’s soft, can even be carved when dry, hardy and the colour, white, pink and purple, is beautiful. It’s even texture makes it great for carving spoons, bowls and kuksas too. Also known as cherry ballart.
Norfolk Island Pine: this one is a ripper! Splits perfectly off the axe, it’s soft and easy on the hands too. Great for bowls and larger projects. Not a true pine so it doesn’t have that overpowering smell. A nice straw colour and stripy grain. Keep an eye on it as it dries as it can go mouldy during the process.
Huon pine: a near mythical tree. Incredibly slow growing and long lived. DON’T chop one down! My advice is to buy off cuts from sawmills licensed to harvest trees from lake and river beds. This wood never fully dries out due to the oils present. The oils are also what is responsible for that lovely Huon pine smell. It’s a dream to carve when you get a straight bit with no knots, but put away the knife if you get any birdseye as it will be too hard. It splits terribly off the axe, so a lot of people start with a plank, saw out a blank and carve the rest.
King Billy Pine: so so soft and beautiful to carve. An earthy pink colour and splits well off an axe. Can be carved when dry.
Celery top pine: firm and dense, but makes a lovely straw coloured spoon.
Tasmanian blackwood: actually the same species as the blackwood listed above.
Myrtle: an absolute joy to carve. Very pretty deep pink and purple colours too.
Sassafras: black heart sassafras looks lovely with its dark contrasting streaks. I’ve actually never carved any, but I hear it’s fairly firm. If anyone has any experience of carving this lovely wood then I’d love to hear from you.
Weeds, exotics & fruit woods
Apple wood: just wow! It carves so well. A perfect mix of soft and firm, leaving a clean carved edge, and a beautiful finish, particularly with a coat of oil. A warm creamy colour.
Pear wood: very similar to apple.
Cherry wood: so pretty with its pinks and orange colours and a very nice wood to carve.
Nectarine wood: not quite as nice as apple, but still very good to carve and the wood can be lots of different colours! Can be a bit knotty and the bugs like moving in!
Pittosporum: if you can get past the horrible sticky sap, the wood underneath is really nice to carve. A slightly off white colour. Technically not a weed but it loves springing up in places where it shouldn’t!
Sycamore: a fantastic wood to carve. Leaves a lovely clean edge. Again a good mix between soft and firm. Very white wood…carve with clean hands!
Birch: there are lots of birch varieties, but generally they are wonderful buttery woods to carve. The most traditional of all woods used in the spoon carving world.
Oak: hard stuff packed full of steel munching tannins, but a beauty nonetheless. Definitely worth the effort, just be sure to clean your tools afterwards.
Box elder: a weed with some lovely wood to carve. Fairly plain but a great beginners wood.
Chinese elm: really hard!
And the poisonous ones!
Don’t carve spoons from these woods.
Oleander: every part of this shrub is fatally toxic. You can’t even burn the stuff because of the fumes!
Yew: medieval urban legend has it that devious folk would once carve cups from yew, fill it up and pass to their enemy.
I’ve heard that turpentine wood is poisonous too.
It’s hard to find information on poisonous woods. There’s lots of information online that refers to toxic woods but this often talks about inhalation of sawdust. There is a CSIRO book, Australia’s Poisonous Plants, which I understand has a section on trees. It’s $195 though, phew! Maybe ask your local library if they can get it in.
And finally a little disclaimer from me: I’m no botanist, the information above is a guide only and refers to the experiences I’ve had over the years carving Australian woods. Wood can be a fickle thing; you can work it from one section of a tree and get the most beautifully well behaved piece of wood and then the same tree can yield a true beast of a blank. Wood, as just discussed, can also be poisonous or you may have an alergy to a certain species, so explorations into carving things and then putting them in your mouth are always done at your own risk!
And don’t take this as permission to don your hand crocheted balaclava and conduct midnight raids on forests that don’t belong to you. Granted, it can be a heap of fun, but if you end up with a tree on your head, pitchforked by an angry landowner, a king brown snake attached to your neck, or partially devoured by bull ants, then none of this is my fault!
Oh and this is far from a completed list. I’ll add more to it as I experience new woods, and please feel free to leave a comment on any Australian timbers you’ve carved in the comments section below. Let’s build a flippin’ giant Aussie carving wood database!
Have fun, get out there and carve, and don’t be afraid of these beautiful Australian timbers.
Peace & whittles,