The Green Wood Guide
Above: Small axes are great for foraging wood and carving. Look for young trees, growing in competition with established trees. Take only what you need and always get permission.
Green wood and green woodworking
Words and photos: Jeff Donne
‘Green woodworking’ is an ancient method of fresh wood manipulation that remained nameless until Baltimore chairmaker, Jennie Alexander, coined the term in the 1970s.
Jennie, who passed away recently, was also fond of other words like ‘caddywompus’, which according to her good friend and green woodworking stalwart, Peter Follansbee, was used to describe something that just wasn’t right.
And for those of you who have dabbled in green woodworking using Australian trees you may have uttered through gritted teeth something akin to ‘this bloody log is caddywompus’! Because there’s no denying it, Australian wood is hard, sometimes really hard, but so much of this confuses the workability of green wood with the dried and seasoned end product that’s as tough as a shady crim found bench pressing in a prison yard.
Scoops, keepsake box and teaspoon, all made from native cherry.
The sheer variety of tree species in Australia (currently estimated at around 5,500) means that opportunity and discovery, and challenges of course, are never far away; all you need do is explore. So buckle a hatchet onto your belt and join me as we go bush in search of raw material for treecraft*.
But first: get permission and be safe. Invading a neighbour’s bush block in the still of night with a hand knitted balaclava over your head and an iPhone lighting your way will get you hopelessly lost, pitchforked, bitten by something poisonous and squashed under the tree you just felled. Ask around, there’s nearly always someone pruning or removing a tree.
Working eucalypts when green
Our iconic tree. Eucalypts can be tough and ill mannered, even when green, and they’re not shy of cracking as they dry, so why on earth would we carve them? Because like many tough and ill mannered folk, if you spend some time getting to know them, their resilience can be nurtured, and their beautiful hearts allowed to shine.
Tough woods equal tough goods. That’s one key advantage of working eucalypts. I can carve crisp lines and push spoon bowls to dimensions similar to those found in their stainless steel counterparts.
And then there is the colour. With about 800 varieties to choose from, splitting open a gum log can yield everything from brilliant whites, to deep reds and something utterly psychedelic.
But what if that log won’t split? What if that small, unassuming chunk of stringybark sends axes, wedges and block splitters bouncing off when trying to get at its fresh, green core? You can do two things here: one is to keep going until the damn thing parts its interlocking grain and then design your creation by exploiting the amazing resilience of its fibres. Draw at angles that travel slightly across the grain, so when it comes to knife work you will be faced with fewer instances of catching and tearing at the fibres.
The other thing you can do is set aside the troublesome log for a day when you’re feeling stronger, and work on a smaller and younger part of the tree. Most of the time this will give you a much easier ride.
Eucalypts suitable for treecraft
Silvertop ash (Eucalyptus sieberi) is so far the best treecraft species I have come across. The sapwood and heartwood both yield well when slicing along the grain. Splits very cleanly off the axe. Can crack if carving into the tangential face, so try if you can to carve radially. The bark is strong and easily peeled, making it suitable for basket or seat weaving. Its strong fibres make it suitable for steam bending and chairmaking.
Silvertop ash frame stool. This wood is good for steambending and chairmaking and the bark weaves well.
Yellow stringybark (Eucalyptus muellerana) take a look at the bark: if you can see a twist running in opposite directions, then chances are there’s a lot of twisting and interlocking going on inside. Look for bark that runs in a straight line up the trunk. Splits messy as hell off the axe, but don’t be put off, the wood carves beautifully. The inner bark is incredibly strong and flexible, making it great for all kinds of weaving, and the outer bark is good for rope making and coil baskets.
Stringybark spoon and showing how this species’ bark can run in two directions. Don’t be put off
by the messy looking grain inside, stringybark can be lovely to carve.
River peppermint (Eucalyptus elata) this gum tree is fairly soft, and it has some nice defined growth rings too. Can be prone to cracking during the drying process, so carve into a radial face where shrinkage is at a minimum. Smooth bark that is fairly strong, so also suitable for treecraft weaving projects.
Alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) the clean and dense grain allows a smooth finish straight off the knife, and the defined growth rings make for beautiful bowls and spoons when carving in from the bark side. Work with branches, avoiding the deeply twisted trunk sections. There is little straight wood in these trees, so look for bent branches and forks to make beautiful ladles and spoons.
Snow gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora) as wild as the mountains it comes from! Expect twists, cracks that appear before your eyes, psychedelic colour, and surprisingly, a fairly easy wood to carve. You really feel the tree is in charge here, so expect something very different. The smooth grey and green bark of snow gums is stunning and easy to peel, but don’t expect long and straight strips. A perfect material for wild weaving projects that reflect on natural landscapes.
Bloodwood (Eucalyptus gummifera) young bloodwoods are nice and soft. The bark hasn’t much use, but the wood is easy carving for beginners. Watch out for big, blood coloured sap pockets.
Acacias suitable for treecraft projects
Acacias tend to suffer less from interlocking grain than eucalypts, although with about a thousand acacia varieties in Australia, it’s easy to generalise. They can vary in hardness, from some of the soft coastal wattles here in the east, to the ridiculously tough arid zone wattles, gidgee and dead finish.
Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) Blackwood’s deep chocolate and gold colour is stunning. It carves beautifully when straight grained and has a number of uses when it comes to treecraft. Its long fibres make it a strong and attractive option for furniture construction, suitable for legs, rungs, Windsor chair seats and steambent components. It makes a stunning spoon, and perhaps most of all I love to pick up a tiny offcut containing contrasting sapwood and heartwood, pop it on the foot powered lathe and make an instant penguin!
The bark, while not suitable for weaving, is packed with tannins, so it can be used in all sorts of staining projects, from leather tanning, to wood ebonising and fabric dyeing.
Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), amazing colour when freshly split and lovely to carve when green.
Hickory wattle (Acacia falciformis) very similar to blackwood, but the fibres are not as strong, making it a wonderful option for carving items with flowing curves. Couple this with its deep brown and occasional hints of pink, and you have yourself a great carving wood.
Late black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) not to be confused with blackwood, this tree is known as a bad boy outside of Australia, being one of the world’s worst invasive species. It’s something of a bad boy in woodcraft also, with a reputation for being tough and splintery. That said, with careful drying you can exploit the lovely dark heartwood for numerous uses as the tree will often grow tall and straight in clumps. The bark is incredibly useful both for its tannin and as a weaving and rope making material.
Other useful tree craft species
A Pinocchio doll carved by the author from black sheoak, using the branch conjunction as the nose.
Black sheoak (Casuarina littorallis) Makes beautiful spoons because of the prominent medullary rays, the young trees are easy to carve and the branch and trunk conjunctions are perfect for coat hooks, animal figurines and Pinocchio dolls!
Broad leafed paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia) the smaller sections and branches are soft, and the flexible inner bark can be used for weaving. Often planted as a street tree, so city dwellers keep an ear open for the pruning gangs!
Casuarina coat hook and flour scoops
Native cherry (Exocarpos cupressiformis) I’ve not come across a native Australian wood that is better to carve than native cherry. It’s soft, hardy and the colour, white, pink and purple, is beautiful. Its trunk can be used for many general green woodworking projects, and an abundance of branches means ladles and coat hooks galore. It also commonly has burls suitable for carving small bowls.
Above: Hickory wattle spatulas, on the right Norfolk Island pine bilby bowl
Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) Splits well off the axe, it’s really easy to carve and so great for bowls and larger projects. No pine smell. Very useful bark that can be bent without ripping.
There are many, many more Australian trees suitable for carving, green woodworking and treecraft in general. I could fill every page of this edition, but the point of this guide is to get you started and to grow the green woodworking and treecraft community here in Australia.
There’s no need to ‘accidentally’ reverse your truck into that perfect birch or apple tree on your neighbour’s nature strip, and certainly with a bit of exploration we can discover that Aussie wood really isn’t all that caddywompus!
Note: Native Trees and Shrubs of South-Eastern Australia by Leon Costermans is a highly recommended resource. See also the Atlas of Living Australia at https://www.ala.org.au/ This is a fantastic citizen science project where anyone can submit and search
for Australian flora and fauna, including trees.
Jeff Donne is a professional spoon carver and treecraft teacher from the far south coast of NSW. In October 2019 he will host his annual Spoon Jam just outside of Canberra. For information see: www.spoonsmith.com.au