Last week I worked a few days in the shop of a furniture maker and restoration expert over in Stowe- he was an inspiring craftsman to get to know and when I went on my way he gave me a big chunk of maple burl he had squirreled away in an unused corner of his shop. I was pretty excited with the unexpected gift and thought that it might make some good Christmas presents, so I turned it into a few different blanks. For readers unfamiliar with the term, burls are those big lumpy growths you see on the outside of tree trunks- they have exceptionally erratic grain patterns that are both lovely to behold and terribly difficult to work. The made object is therefore often considered more valuable than a corresponding piece of similar form, though many craftspeople will refuse to work them because of the difficulty it entails.
Having never taken a stab at working burls, I figured what the heck, let's give it a go.
What followed first was a lot of laborious sawing- my trustworthy axe that usually bears the task of reducing larger chunks into knife-sized pieces was basically of no use since there was no predictable grain to split away. After saws I moved to my bowl gouges, which also made much rougher work of the wood than they would on ordinary stock- tearing out chunks where they would ordinarily leave nice glassy tracks behind. Lastly I turned to my trusty knives, still unsure if I would be able to make something pleasing from the ugly ducklings of a work in progress that sat in front of me. It required much more patience to read the grain and direct my cuts for success, as well as a whole boatload of sharpening sessions, but I ended up with a few pieces I was fairly happy with- one tray and two spoons to be exact.
So was it worth it? Plenty of feedback from other people seemed to suggest yes- and while the grain was certainly entrancing, I found myself only in halfhearted agreement. As the maker I felt I couldn't really take credit for the patterning of the objects, only the form that disclosed it. Taking on the increased challenge of the material was like taking several steps back in my carving fluency- the form was not quite where I wanted it to be and perhaps most importantly- the process held less enjoyment.
But here is the positive spin: I gained something from the struggle. My knives felt dull for days after until I finally progressed with my sharpening enough to get them back to where they had been. Sharpening is such a crucial skill to have for any woodworker, and a dull edge is a serious obstacle to overcome- worth it.
Going back to cherry was a relief for my hands and blades, and the "ordinary" grain of the wood holds plenty of beauty in my eyes. I've still got a few more blanks from the burlwood, which I'm sure I'll return to before too long- but for now I'm sticking to things I can axe!