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A Tale of Two Kitties - Carving Cats from Logs

As musician, retired teacher and author, I am now discovering the joys of getting down and dirty with power tools, hand tools and sandpaper.

Sitting at my Workbench Carving a Wooden Cat

Here I am, kitted out in my work clothes, getting to grips with some wooden cats.

Here I am, kitted out in my work clothes, getting to grips with some wooden cats.

It is never too late to learn a craft

I belong to the not quite equal generation. Our mothers had few career opportunities, ours had just opened up but we were never quite equal when it came to learning practical skills or even in the job market. My education was a liberal Grammar School one; very academic, intended to produce academically able students for University and wise women for work and homemaking.

Crafting opportunities were the standard - art for all, but otherwise very structured - cooking and needlework for girls, metalwork, technical drawing and woodwork for boys. As it was a girls' school up until 1973, that meant we never had a sniff of a power tool unless you count sewing machines. My teachers soon learned I was Death to sewing machines as I was too thick to thread them up properly. I was promoted to learning Latin as I was a danger to myself and others. I managed to stab myself with one of Dad's sharp wood chisels in the garage and that also put the fear of God into me when it came to sharp objects. Of course, I had nobody to teach me how to use these things properly.

Carving must have been in the genes however because when I retired I invested in a Dremel, brought my Grandfather's stone masonry tools out of retirement and started to make stone cats. Later, Colin gave me some wood chisels and I started to make wooden cats too. This article is a tale of two such cats, as yet unfinished but progressing well I think.

Two Cats Await the Dremel

On the left, a green ash Persian, on the right, a spalted cherry moggy. They seem to be discussing their options while I consider mine.

On the left, a green ash Persian, on the right, a spalted cherry moggy. They seem to be discussing their options while I consider mine.

One of my Wood Piles

To the left, is some spalted cherry blossom from my garden, to the right, hawthorn from the Ridge.

To the left, is some spalted cherry blossom from my garden, to the right, hawthorn from the Ridge.

Using Rotting or Spalted Timber for Carving - First Load the "Meecrowarvay"

All timber contains fungus spores, fungi have a symbiotic relationship with the wood and only present a problem after the tree dies. Then you might see more fungus growth or evidence of rot. The dark lines in spalted timber are created when fungal colonies meet up and do battle. When I was a kid, I would see rotten wood and go "Eeek!". I have since learned that craftsmen of the 17th century used spalted wood in furniture that is worth many thousands now. I had thought the wood used in marquetry was dyed, but no, it was rotted, the rot stopped, then it was used to make beautiful things. Spalting moves minerals around in the wood and can create some beautiful colours. This is a process modern wood turners use to make unique and stunning bowls, Some woodworkers even deliberately spalt logs. In view of this, I rescued some rotting logs to make cats. The markings would be splendid. But how to stop the process? The modern answer - use a microwave oven to dry the wood, kill any wood boring insects and destroy the fungus.

My own preferred method is to rough out the shape, wrap the wood in clingfilm, and nuke it on the defrost setting in multiple two minute doses, up to ten to fifteen minutes, allowing time for it to cool between blasts. The danger of using a higher setting or not allowing it to cool between blasts is that you can actually set the wood on fire if you are not careful and it burns from the inside out!

Why the clingfilm? It's fun to watch it puff out as the wood heats also it returns some escaping moisture to the outside of the piece and hopefully this also minimises warping and cracks. Your microwave may well smell of mildew or mushrooms, at best it will smell of wet wood, but the clingfilm keeps some of that smell in. Afterwards, unless you are rich enough and have space enough for two microwaves, you can clean it out by boiling water and pure lemon juice together in a microwave safe bowl and then wipe it all down with kitchen towels or a cloth.

Safety Considerations

It is vital when working with any timber to use a facemask to filter out dust and any potentially harmful spores. I also work outside as I have a tendency towards allergic asthma and don't want too much dust in the house. Oddly enough, when I am out carving I don't get hay fever to the same extent as I used to. The mask obviously filters out more than wood or stone dust. Before the pandemic, I used FFP3 masks. They are now much too expensive for me and I use FFP2. Surgical masks are not up to the job. I do have a respirator and some FFP3 filters in my cupboard, but the facemask is large on me and makes it hard to wear eye protection. In the picture, I am using reading glasses but I do have some prescription safety goggles which are great when using an angle grinder on stone, or circular saw blades with the Dremel.

I also wear work gloves. Most of the Dremel stuff won't damage you much if you get in it's way, but my experience as a child with a wood chisel has taught me to be cautious, especially with sharp and high speed rotating tools. Also, sanding can be rough on the complexion. The fishing hat is good protection against the sun.

A Home Made Jig for Holding Logs Safely

This is a jig I made for holding logs safely in the work bench. It stops them falling through the jaws and works better than the metal vices I have.

This is a jig I made for holding logs safely in the work bench. It stops them falling through the jaws and works better than the metal vices I have.

Jig inserted in the bench, it just fits snugly.

Jig inserted in the bench, it just fits snugly.

Two log cats sitting in the jig.

Two log cats sitting in the jig.

Why I Made a Jig for Holding Logs

It became apparent quite early on that the workmate wasn't up to holding logs while I attacked them with mallet and chisel. The vice I had was unforgiving and brutal and did not support the logs any better so I used some scrap timber to construct a sort of adjustable cradle. It copes with uneven logs, can be tightened up and pads are used during more critical stages so the work is not damaged by hard metal jaws.

My Wood Chisels - I use these with a Beech Mallet for Rough Shaping

These wood chisels have been used for many years and were donated to me by an artist who no longer needs them. They are great for roughing out the sculpture.

These wood chisels have been used for many years and were donated to me by an artist who no longer needs them. They are great for roughing out the sculpture.

Working Fallen Timber

You could carve kiln dried timber, pine is soft for instance and it smells lovely but the drawback is that quarter sawn beams have uneven grain and that can lead to problems with cracking and ribbing when you sand. I found that out when I carved Fencepost Feral, an abstract feline literally carved from a piece of square fencepost. An alternative is to use wood from old furniture which will be well seasoned at room temperature. Musical instruments are often made from old furniture. In theory the wood has stopped moving and therefore should not warp or crack. For an amateur carver or woodturner, logs have interesting grain patterns and no "weak side" so are fun to work with. You can use knots or existing cracks in the work and the microwave approach to curing is well known to woodturners who will often rough turn green wood, then cook it before finishing. Really, it has been an eye opener researching these things. The internet is an amazing resource where amateurs like me can find out information from skilled craftsmen and women. It is all an adventure and experience is the best teacher.

These two cats both have delightful grain patterns, whether green ash or spalted cherry, and I really look forward to polishing them up in a week or two, weather permitting.

Dremel is My Workhorse for Fine Carving

© 2021 Lisa Marie Gabriel

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 02, 2021:

Your cat carvings already look great. It will be fun the see the finished product. It was also interesting to know how you treat the logs to halt the progress of fungus.

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