It never occured to me while I was trying to chisel a bowl out of a spruce burl I had procured, that there might be an easier way to make a bowl. I had looked at photos on bushcraft forums and watched a few videos, and said to myself, "I can do that". So I got up my courage and began to think the process through. I knew it couldn't be that difficult.
I wondered why anyone would use coals to burn a bowl and found that people were trying to imitate an archaic way to make a basic container. It really didn't come to mind that burning would be the way to go, but how many options did native people have in finding a way to make a container? I know that here in Maine it is documented that white birch bark can be used to make a container that you can boil water in. I've never tried that, but it is still in the back of my mind and will eventually become a project. I'm sure birch bark was used to make containers of all kinds. Can you imagine a time when a wooden bowl to eat from would be a luxury?
I went digging in my stash of wood blanks to see what I could use to make a bowl. I came across a thick slab of cedar I found on the burn pile at the transfer station. It was about 16 inches long, 10 inches wide and about three inches thick. I took it out to my workshop, the back lawn, and sat down in a lawn chair to look at the wood and think a bit. I remembered a thick spruce slab I had, a few burls (white spruce) I had stashed in a room upstairs under the bed and figured those would be good. And for good measure: I'd grab a peice of flat split-in-half slab of wood out of my firewood pile (that was about 20 inches long, 8 inches wide and very thick).
I went hunting and put these things all on my work bench, the picnic table. The next step was easy. I needed a fire. I built one, using some old hardwood firewood that I have left over from when I actually used firewood, knowing that it would make a good bed of coals when it burned down. I lit the fire, and then used anything I could find close by to prop up my blanks and get them ready for burning. I did do a little "prep" on the burls by using the chain saw to flatten them out on one side.
A fire always affords a few fun things. I brought out one of my blackened cast iron pots and cooked myself a few fiddleheads, a hot dog and toast for a bun while I waited for the fire to burn down; benefits to go with a fun day of crafting.
My tools were a worn out garden shovel, a fireplace coal shovel, and a hoe handle with the hook but no hoe on it with the handle cut about 17 inches long...all these from the metal pile at the local transfer station. I'm always bragging about my high tech tools. If your shop is the back lawn, it is certain that your tools will be out in the weather, why pay alot of money for stuff that's going to get rusty and rotten?
I placed coals on each of my projects, shaping a circle on the top with the little coal shovel and sweeping away the stray cinders and coals with my hand (in a leather faced work glove). I'd let them burn until I couldn't feel any more heat coming off them and then I scraped a while with the pointy end of the my little garden shovel. After the second round of coals, the crevice really began to go into the wood. In the burl especially, the coals seem to follow the contour of the wood. On most, I burned and scraped about 4 or 5 times. I left some coals too long and they burned right down through the cedar slab and into the lawn. Tricky.
I've tried coal burning about four times as of this writing and I do have a few bowls to show for it. I also have a few failed projects. One of my observations is that the heat of the coals causes the pitch and the moisture left in the wood to pop and crack, cracking the blank in various ways that you may be able to smooth out by scraping and sanding. Sometimes you just can't sand out the cracks. I've tried two spruce slabs and the wide grain in the wood (obviously a fast growing tree of low density), split right through the blank each time. The burls are tough and crack on the inside around little pin knots that are in them, but smooth out O.K. The chunk of firewood didn't work, as no matter how long I left the coals they didn't seem to burn down into the wood.
I also chiseled a little dip in the burls to give the coals a start into the wood and this works very well. I think it would make it so that I could get them (the coals) to burn down into the block of firewood enough to start scraping and really getting into the deep part of the wood but I have no had the opportunity to try that yet.
If this looks like fun to you, you really should try it. I've had a blast and have a few nice bowls to show for it. It makes for a laid back afternoon if you have some time on your hands for crafting and I only have a warning or two. You are literally playing with fire. Keep a bucket of water around to put out any stray flames that may pop up if there is dry vegetation around and mind you don't get coals or ash on any bare skin. Though I'm sure you are tough...as you are looking at this blog...but you are not fireproof. Be careful for goodness sake. Have fun. These bowls are fun to use, give as super unique presents and as with anything, can be sold (not for a profit if you count your time).
Bernard Ten Bears
That's all for this week, folks. Tune in Monday.
Pax Domini Sit Semper Vobiscum,
Mike, Oscar, Hotel.....out.