How I Select the Best Timber for a Sculpture

One of my social media followers recently asked me how I choose the best timber for a sculpture. It’s a really good question, and one I couldn’t answer quickly in comment – so it became a blog!
Choosing the right timber is key for a sculpture’s longevity. It doesn’t matter how good a sculpture is if it rots or cracks within months! If you’re interested in how I select the best timber for a sculpture, read on…

front loading tractor carrying a large timber log
Photo Credit: Joey Edwards, Filmage Films

SUSTAINABILITY

The first thing I should say is that I don’t actually choose the wood for a good proportion of my work! Very often people contact me because they have a stump that’s been cut down, or a tree that has been felled. Most of my most popular sculptures are ones where I created a sculpture to fit within a given tree rather than the other way around.

That said, there are commissions where I need to source the timber. When that happens, the first thing I consider is sustainability. Ecology and the environment are very important to me and I don’t believe in cutting down trees for sculptures. So, an underlying principle that influences the wood I use is that it comes from a tree that is being felled because it is dead, diseased, or dangerous.

Dragon of Bethesda by Simon O'Rourke. it is carved into a piece of oak that fell during a storm
The Dragon of Bethesda was carved into a piece of oak that fell during a storm.

PLAN THE SCULPTURE

It’s probably pretty obvious, but before I can choose the best timber for a sculpture, I need to know how big it needs to be. This means before I begin sourcing wood, I need to plan the sculpture. The maximum width of the finished piece determines the diameter of the log I need. That said, sometimes I can’t find the ideal size. In that case, I may find an otherwise-suitable piece of wood and adjust the design. I can also think about adding on pieces – find out more about how I do that HERE.

Simon O'Rourke standing at an easel with sketches of a dragon sculpture in front of him. Planning a sculpture and knowing the size is key in finding the best timber for a sculpture.
Planning a sculpture is the first step to selecting the best timber for a sculpture.
Photo credit: Joey Edwards

CHOOSE LASTING TIMBER

The next important step in choosing the best timber for a sculpture is life-span of the wood. Not all wood rots at the same rate, and some are much longer-lasting than others. Unfortunately, how long a piece of wood will last is not an exact science, and for that reason I can’t guarantee the lifespan of a sculpture. However, even though there are no guarantees, to give clients the longest-lasting sculpture possible, I use wood from long-lasting species.

I try to keep a stock of timber in long-lasting species such as oak, cedar, redwood, and sweet chestnut (NOT horse chestnut – that rots quickly!). If I’m selecting the timber for a sculpture, I’ll look in my stock first. If I don’t have something suitable on-hand, I go through my extensive list of tree surgeons and ask around for something suitable.

It goes without saying that for longevity reasons, I don’t use anything with rot!

Pile of oak logs. Oak is an example of the best timber for  a sculpture.
Oak makes great, long-lasting sculptures

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAIL

So that’s the size and type of wood sorted. If only they were the only things to think about! However, there’s more to the process of selecting the best timber for a sculpture. The next step is to examine the grain…

Depending on the design, I’m looking for straight grain where the main features will be – for example, faces, hands. I also need to avoid the possibility of a branch knot or burl ending up in the face as it throws the eye off the carved detail. I learned this the hard way!
I once carved a fairy up in Soctland and was feeling really happy with it…until I stepped back! There was a HUGE knot in the face that looked like a large bruise! Not the story I was aiming to tell!

photo of billy houliston on left, wood sculpture of billy houliston on right to illustrate the way the grain works with his features - part of selecting the best timber for a sculpture
Where the grain appears can really alter the appearance of a face

PERFECT POSITIONING

As well as size, species and grain, I also need to make sure I can carve something so that the centre of the timber is well away from important features. I’ve spoken about this in more detail in my blog about positioning sculptures.

I’ll touch on it again here though, as it is one of the keys to choosing the best timber for a sculpture. Ideally, I want to use a larger log and place a human form over to one side of it with the centre of the log running up the back of the figure. This will eliminate most of the stresses in the wood and ensure the main features are less likely to split.

My solider in Workington is a good example of this:

STARTING OVER!

FInally, it’s worth saying that even though I’ve been doing this a long time, I still get surprises. Sometimes there’s just no way of knowing what’s going on with a piece of wood until you get inside. If it happens that you do discover a nasty surprise, you’ll need to decide if you can make it work (like a knot could become a feature) or if you need to start over (a large crack or rot). It’s frustrating, but it’s really all there is for it.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve found this helpful. Fellow carvers, would you add anything else? Drop a comment and let me know!


If you’d like to learn more about my work and processes, please consider sowing into “Sculpting Tranquility”, the crowdfunder for a documentary film about me and my work. Find out more at www.treecarving.co.uk/film-project