There is a legend of the wood spirit,
as told by Rick Jensen, of Minnesota.
Etched in the history of the Old Country is the legend of the wood spirit, which is based on ancient shepherd tales from a time when all the land was owned by Kings and Noblemen.
Shepherd peasants had few possessions and were not permitted to own land. For firewood they were allowed only to pick up fallen, dead wood on the ground. Soon their sources became scarce.
They petitioned the King to issue a decree allowing them to pull the dead branches within their reach from the trees. The wise peasants soon learned to use their shepherds? crooks which were formed with a hook on the end, to reach higher into the trees in order to pull down more branches. Thus came the saying, ?By hook or by crook?.
The shepherd peasants, being somewhat superstitious, believed that a spirit dwelled deep within each tree. By carving a face into the pieces of wood, the spirit would be released and good luck would be bestowed upon them.
* Carving spirit houses is also known as whimsical or elf house carving.
This art was then extended into carving whimsical shapes, doors, windows steps, and stairways into the pieces of bark or wood. Supposedly this also served to allow the elves, spirits or munchkins as I call them, to be released from the tree they came from.
I ORIGINALLY STARTED CARVING BIRDS AND ANIMALS EARLY IN 2007. During a discussion with another carver I met in Arizona this past winter, I was told why the carver had made a switch to carving spirit houses. He said with animals or birds, the whole world will find fault with your shapes, eyes, heads, legs, etc. However, the more irregular your spirit house carving, the more interesting it is. Each carving is different and unique, and best of all ? no critics!!!!
The favourite material for carving spirit houses is Cottonwood bark, and there are three basic types: Eastern Cottonwood, Plains Cottonwood and Black Cottonwood. The Eastern Cottonwood can be found in Quebec, westward to North Dakota, northwest to Manitoba, south to central Texas, and east to northern Florida and Georgia.
The Plains Cottonwood can be found in southern Alberta, central Saskatchewan, southwest Manitoba, south throughout the great Plains into North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Kansas and western Oklahoma. It can also found in north central Texas and northeastern New Mexico.
The Black Cottonwood extends from western Wyoming to western Montana, Idaho, northern Utah, Nevada, northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon and the coast of Alaska.
The bark of the Cottonwood does not slough off as the tree grows, but the layers build up and are compressed. This is what makes the wood so desirable for carving, and when finished the grain will result in rich yellow and reddish tones.
I have carved all three types, and I guess I prefer the Plains and Black varieties. I just recently had some friends bring me a whole bunch of Black Cottonwood, which they had harvested in the interior of BC.
During our visit to Quartszite in Arizona, I was able to purchase the majority of the tools I needed, and had some great chats with a carver who had set up shop there. I was also able to buy a lot of pieces of Plains Cottonwood, the majority which came from Montana, and the pieces were very cheap?most were just $1 or $2 each.
Before I put any one of my razor sharp tools into the wood, I study the natural shape of the bark, any crevices, knots or irregular forms. It seems that the piece of bark actually talks to you, and you see shapes, areas where you want to carve roofs with irregular shaped shakes, windows, doors, steps and maybe even a chimney. Maybe sometimes one can even visualize yourself as the spirit of the original tree and then devise ways for that spirit to be set free. I found that my wife has a good eye for finding shapes and areas which I then rough in with a black felt pen.
The tools for carving come in many different shapes and sizes, and of course they are razor sharp and must be kept sharp to ensure your carving has clean sharp lines where the material is removed. I have been lucky so far, no major cuts, thank goodness.
The removal of the bark material is of course messy, so I always carve outside, but I have talked to carvers who have carved inside their RVs, or in the clubhouse, etc. When you are carving you will attract the attention of lots of people as they walk by and ask what you are making.
When I am finished a carving, I polish the wood with a small buffing brush, and then apply three coats of clear lacquer. The final finish is several coats of clear or neutral shoe polish and then buffing with a soft horsehair brush. This brings out the natural rich tones of the wood, and also provides a deep luxury finish, which complements the lovely colours in the compressed bark layers.
Right now most of my carving pieces have gone to family and friends as gifts. I plan on building up a supply for the trip south this winter. Hopefully I will be able to sell some at the craft sales in the various parks we are in, and this should offset the high costs of fuel we know we will be faced with.
After carving for approximately six months, I consider myself to be just a novice. However I do love the craft, have a lot of fun at it, and I have had many compliments on the various pieces I have done. When we came home in April this year, I showed my daughter-in-law four different pieces and told her to pick one. She complimented me when she said she absolutely fell in love with two, and just had to have both of them. They are now proudly displayed in their home.
(Even our RVT publisher, Sheila, has one for her new home in Sooke, too, and loves it, she says!)