I was gifted some hard-to-find pieces of boxwood by my friend Einar and want to do something fantastic with them.  I had wanted to make a comb for Pent 2015, but it was not to be.  Boxwood is a very slow-growing shrub, and though it was used heavily in the middle ages (where they had a lot of old-growth European boxwood to work with), it is very difficult to find large pieces now.  Boxwood is pretty unique in that it is an *extremely* hard and dense wood, it has a very light colour, it has a very fine, tight grain, and it is not noticeably fibrous.  There is a difference between European and North American boxwood, especially in colour, but given how difficult it is to find, I can’t (and wouldn’t) be picky.

Most of the type of things I wanted to make were made of either ivory or boxwood in medieval times, and so with ivory off the table as a material (being illegal), the next logical choice is boxwood (provided one can get it).  It’s actually interesting that the use of ivory and rise of boxwood waxed and waned with the availability of ivory in Europe.  Between the 14th and 15th centuries, the trade routes dried up and ivory became scarce, leading to boxwood’s increased use.  It is postulated that part of the reason for this is that boxwood is very similar to ivory to carve.  The pieces I was able to get are a tad small in width for one of my purposes, but close enough that with minor design changes they will work.  There are a few flaws, but I’ll have to work around them.

With rough-sawn wood, my first step is smoothing it out.  For this, I picked up my husband’s block plane and a few handy scrapers from Lee Valley.  I started with the plane, and made some progress on one end of one side, but the plane kept binding, so I ran it cross-grain a little bit.  Even then, it wasn’t quite enough.  The scrapers were nice to clean off a lot of the very large, raised cut lines, so after using them for a while, I began to plane cross-grain again.  The awkwardness of the piece of wood I’m using is that one end is thicker on one side of the board and the other end is thicker on the other side of the board.  In order to produce a clean, even thickness, I need to remove more material from opposite ends of opposite sides.  I didn’t feel comfortable taking the next steps until the wood was equal thickness on the straight grain.

The next steps:

  1. I can see that the original item has a turned opening in it (visible concentric circles), but given the thickness of my wood, turning it is not going to be possible. Einar offered to turn another piece and then cut it for me, but I wanted to make sure it would be reasonable for a wood carver to hire a turner in period, and we didn’t get that figured out in time for the next event.  I think at this point I’ll be carving the round opening out by hand.
  2. The likely original material is unsafe to use.  Alternatives are bronze or silver, but these are far too expensive for what I need.   My next choice would be tin, but it’s not entirely safe to work with, and less available in the shapes I need, so I’m looking for a couple of pieces of 3 1/2″ diameter aluminum wire, in slices about 1/4″ thick.  Aluminum is a far cry from silver or bronze, but shouldn’t be so far off in working, for the type of working I want to do, and should be able to produce an appropriate surface.  Right now the cost of materials is not bad ($12 or so), but the shipping is a killer, at $35-60.  I’m still looking for a source that won’t cost me an arm and a leg, but there don’t seem to be many sources out there.

I’ll update when I get further along with the wood clean-up.