Woodworking in the winter is a hit or miss hobby, but it always feels good to complete a winter project. December was unseasonably warm, so I was able to make a set of bookends to give to a friend for Christmas. My idea was to make something out of an interesting piece of wood. My first thought was to make a cutting board. I hope he doesn’t read this and think “Hmm, I would have liked a cutting board…” but I had to work with the wood that was available. I was attracted to this piece of cherry burl; not a good choice for a cutting board. However, I think you would agree, there are bookends hiding in there, they just needed to be cut free.
For the non-woodworkers, a burl is an outgrowth on a tree. The grain is a tangled mess and there are often more than a few knots. Burls are sometimes sliced into veneer but often find their way into projects that highlight their curious details. I’ve worked with burl veneers, but I had never worked with the raw stock.
Burls are harvested all over the world. To protect them during transit, they are covered in wax. I asked the guy at the store how to get the wax off. He gave me that “I know you know what I mean” look and told me to use a scraper. Once a guy is given that look, there are no more questions.
Again, for non-woodworkers: a scraper is one of the most basic woodworking tools. A flat piece of steel with a sharp burr on the edge. Mastering the use of a scraper is one of the skills woodworkers routinely pray for. If you want a sense of what it’s like to use a scraper, the next time there is frost on your windshield, clean it off with the edge of your driver’s license.
Scraping worked well on the flat surfaces, but the bark was covered in wax too. A lot of wax. So much wax. Searching on: “remove wax from bark” led me to three techniques:
1) Pick it out with small scrapers. Um, that would be like picking grits out of scrambled eggs. The result would be many broken pieces of bark.
2) Boil it. Lots of people mentioned this method, but there was little agreement as to whether or not the wood would absorb the water. If the bark absorbed water, the bookends would have become an Easter gift.
If I were single, or if I wanted to be single again, I would have tried the “boil it” method. The instructions said to get a very rapid boil going in a large pot. Then, using tongs, dunk the bark in the water. Use a towel to wick away the wax that rises to the surface. Keep dunking until no more wax emerges.
If my wife walked in on that scene in her kitchen, I’m pretty sure she would just kill me. I doubt that a jury of her peers would convict her.
3) Use a heat gun. A heat gun is like a hair drier, the way a flame thrower is like a butane lighter. The blast of hot air melts and eventually burns the wax away. The process takes a long time and creates a lot of smoke. I modified this method using compressed air to blow the liquid wax away, leaving only a thin layer that had to be burned off. I managed to set a few lose pieces of bark on fire, but anybody in my family will tell you that I considered that an added bonus. My wife was concerned. I don’t think she saw the flames, but she saw the smoke:
“Something is burning!”
“Yeah, yeah, mumble wax, mumble mumble…”
Cut, dewaxified and sanded, the only task that remained was to cut a shallow groove on half the bottom of each bookend for a small sheet of brass. That, and to cut the small sheets of brass. Most woodworking how-to sources will tell you that:
“Brass is a soft metal. It’s easily cut with traditional woodworking tools.”
I’ve read that many times. What those sources don’t tell you is that the “sawdust” created as you cut brass is actually tiny flying pieces of hot metal. I sandwiched the brass inside two slices of plywood and then ran the sandwich through my saw. I used a “small part hold-down” gizmo that my wife bought me after I ran my finger through the saw along with a small part. It’s OK, I can still count to 10.
The bookends were completed during the warm parts of a couple of weekend days. I’m happy with how they turned out, I had some fun and they were well received.