This section is from the book "Spons' Mechanics' Own Book: A Manual For Handicraftsmen And Amateurs", by Edward Spon. Also available from Amazon: Spons' Mechanics' Own Book.
This extremely hard wood is well adapted to the carver, although it has almost gone out of use. The sap-wood is white, the heart-wood of a bright orange, the grain is fine and close, the cut being particularly "clean."
To procure good wood for carving, the trees should be felled at a proper time and age, and the wood thoroughly seasoned. The proper time to fell oaks and most other trees is when they fail to increase in size more than 2 ft. per annum. If cut down before that period of their existence, the heart will not be fully developed, and will not be as hard as the other part. When oaks are about 30 years old their growth is most rapid. Autumn is generally considered the best time to fell.
If wood be used in an unseasoned state it is sure to warp and twist; and when it is so used for panels fitted into loose grooves, it shrinks away from the edge which happens to be the most slightly held; but when restrained by nails, mortices, or other unyielding attachments, which do not allow them the power of contraction, they split with irresistible force, and the material and the workmanship are thus brought to no useful service. It is therefore very necessary that the natural juices of the tree be got rid of by seasoning it before use. After a tree is lopped, barked, and roughly squared, it is left some time exposed to the weather, and may be soaked in fresh running water with advantage, and boiled or steamed. Any of these processes tends to dilute and wash out the juices, and the water readily evaporates from the wood at a subsequent period. Thin planks, if properly exposed to the air, will be seasoned in about a year, but the thicker the wood the longer the time it will take.
All woods, to carve properly, should be perfectly dry - but not too old - in this latter case they become brittle and nerveless. If possible, the wood should come from the upper portions of the trunk, as these are less subject to knots. As a rule, the branches should be rejected, as their wood has not sufficient body. The sap-wood should always be refused, as it is too soft, blackens easily, and is sure to sutler from the attacks of worms.
It is often useful to be able to stain the wood after the carving is complete. This is done, either to give an appearance of age, or to imitate some other wood. The ageing is generally performed as follows, though the ready-made oak-stains may be used with equal success. Boil 5 oz. of dry powdered walnut "shucks" in 1 qt. of water. Filter oft' the clear liquor, and apply cold to the work with a brush. Or, take 2 oz. Cassel earth and 2 oz. American red potash, boil in 1 qt. of water, and apply as above. This latter colour imitates well the tints of old oak, and if applied to oak itself darkens it considerably. With pear-wood, it is usual to use a decoction of gamboge and saffron, to bring up the yellow tone. Lime may be stained of various colours in the following modes. Solutions of tin salts and turmeric applied consecutively give a good orange. Brush over with madder, allowing to dry, and then applying acetate of lead, gives brown with darker veins. Walnut takes a fine mahogany tint if washed with a strong decoction of Brazil or Campeachy wood.
All sculptured woods may be dyed of a full black, by being washed over with a solution composed of 1 1/8 oz. powdered extract of logwood, 2 qt. of water, to which is added after boiling 1/8 oz. potash chromate.
In general terms, oak is the best wood for large surfaces, and ebony or boxwood for small, minute work; but walnut, lime, chestnut (both horse and Spanish), mahogany and plane, are all suited to the purpose, while sandal-wood, apple, pear, holly, cypress, fig, and lemon tree, being hard and fine-grained, may all be used with good effect, according to the style and size of the carving, and other circumstances. Sycamore, lime, holly, and woods of a like nature, being white or cream-coloured, are only suited to that special style of carving whose beauty depends on great purity of colouring - such, for instance, as the minute basso relievo after a picture, models of figures in imitation of ivory, groups of birds or delicate foliage; but all these woods, unless protected by glass, soon lose their extreme whiteness, and with it their chief beauty. Therefore, they are little used, excepting for the trifling purposes just mentioned. The woods of the apple and pear tree are, from the hard texture and fine grain, exceedingly pleasant to work, but the fruiting value of the trees renders the wood rare, and occasional deep-coloured veinings sometimes interfere with the design. Boxwood is equally hard and fine-grained, and is far superior in uniformity of colour, which is a rich yellow.
Fig-tree wood is also much prized for small carvings, being of a very beautiful warm red colour; but even in Italy it is rare, owing to the value of the living tree, and extremely difficult to procure in England. The great bar to the free use of all these hard woods is the difficulty of procuring them in pieces of any sizes, for, as their texture indicates, they are mostly bushes of slow growth, rarely attaining to more than 10 in. to 12 in. in diameter, added to which, as regards boxwood especially, it is largely used for other purposes besides carving, which necessarily increases the demand, and makes it more expensive.
When any very delicate designs have to be executed, and the most minute finish is required, boxwood, ebony, or any other equally hard and close-grained woods are decidedly the best to choose.
Woods with ornamental grain, as bird's-eye maple, satinwood, yew, and laburnum, are not desirable for carving purposes; the grain and colour often interfere with the effect which it is an object to produce.