Spalted woods. Which wood to spalt?

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

Which wood to spalt?

Spalted Beech bowl

Oops, nearly went too far!! Spalted Beech bowl. The brown patch in the middle is the only place where the wood hasn’t been affected by the fungi. Also note the blue colour, sometimes completely surrounded by a black line.

Beech is by far the easiest wood to spalt well. It almost always ends up with black line and distinctly different colours. This bowl shows only one area left with the wood in its natural state. All the rest has been affected by fungi. I don’t know how many different ones. It was at the very limit of having enough structural integrity to work. Even with the gauge straight off the grinder it was difficult not to get tear out on the end grain. This wood had been left outside in all weathers for a year and a few months. It was a large tree and most of the rest of this plank was perfectly spalted (though sadly I didn’t take any photos and the bowls have gone!). However, it would have been better if I’d worked it a bit sooner. I also put some under shavings outside. I turned one piece after a few  months and it had hardly started spalting. Now, it is a bit over done!

Spalted sycamore bowl

Spalted sycamore bowl

Spalted oak bowl

Spalted oak bowl

Ash will spalt with the beautiful black lines but it isn’t as consistant as beech. Oak can get darker which is beautiful, but eventually there are white specks and soft pockets. Sycamore tends to go grey but can be a soft and beautiful colour.



thinly turned walnut bowl

thinly turned walnut bowl. Turned fresh/green

Natural edge walnut bowl. Spalted wood

This is the same Walnut having been left in the weather for six months or so.

I was given a Walnut tree. The only walnut I’d turned before was black walnut. Imagine my disapointment when I turned this bowl, so pale, the colour so insignificant. I am afraid I just left the rest of the tree lying in the yard, only for six months. Honest. And when I turned more this was what I got. Isn’t it lovely?

I had a similar experience with horse chestnut. Very plain grained when it was green but leave it out to weather for a few months and it was like a pale marble. Beautiful.


Burr Elm bowl. Half spalted. Sometimes it works out wonderfully!

Elm is probably one of the most disappointing woods to spalt as it just tends to lose its colour, integrity and vibrancy. But if it has only just started it might be ok or even enhance a bowl by the contrast. But certainly not worth deliberately doing.

This tree was hollow and rotten in the middle which is why there is such a clear contrast between the spalted and the good wood. I am sure if this had spalted after felling it wouldn’t have been so nice.

Spalted Wood. How wood spalts.

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017
Natural edge Grisilinia bowl. Spalted wood

This was felled as it had honey tree fungus killing it. The light patches are where the fungus hadn’t yet got into the living wood.

Spalted wood.

Spalted wood is where fungus or more usually several different fungi have been introduced to the wood. This is most commonly after the tree has been felled but sometimes it is a fungus which has killed the tree so the timber has already been spalted. Spalted wood can be created deliberately or can occur by accident as I have found out several times over the years!

Spalted wood can be created as easily as:- Leaving the freshly sawn wood out in the weather, popping it into a plastic bag or burying the wood in wood shavings.

However, knowing when the wood will be spalted enough to work but not too spalted is as tricky as :- Knowing when to take a cake out of the oven without a temperature gauge or knowing when to put fuel in a car without a fuel gauge.

But it is so very exciting to see if you have got it right. And when it is right it feels like hitting the jackpot. Since I have become old and boring it is about as exciting as I wish life to be.

Spalted beech bowl. Spalted wood

Spalted Beech

The ease with which I can glibly say the above is because over the years I have unintentionally spalted much wood. All the wood I use is local and fell naturally or had to be felled or coppiced for some other reason and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to buy the wood. So if for example I’ve had a short piece of wood which I knew would crack if left out I’ve wrapped it in plastic intending to turn it within a couple of weeks only to forget it or get distracted and not get round to it for months and then wonder of wonders, it was beautifully spalted. Other wood has waited months outside in the rain until I plank the tree trunk. So, no fuss and worry seems to work well. There has been wood tightly wrapped in plastic excluding all air, loosely wrapped allowing air, left in a damp environment without cover. They all work. The biggest hit and miss is deciding when to use the timber thereby stopping the spalting process.


Spalting Wood.

The best and easiest way to create spalted wood is to use green wood as this is the most natural way the fungi would be going  into wood to start the decay process. Over time and with experience it might be possible to try to regulate it by noting how long it had been left in different environments. However, in my experience there is a massive difference between different wood species and even different trees of the same species. All it needs is for one tree to be felled in the winter and another when maximum sap is rising and the difference in the wood is enormous. So there will always be an element of surprise.

I have never tried spalting a dried/seasoned piece of wood. Air dried wood would be slightly easier than kiln dried as it has a slightly higher moisure content and the cells themselves won’t have collapsed so much. To spalt dried wood I would make sure it had enough fungal spore by introducing them rather than my happy go lucky way of leaving wood around or just popping it in a bag. Pick up a few handfuls of rotted leaves or a rotten piece of wood if you can to put in the plastic bag and the wetter they are the better as you would have to re-introduce moisture too. Even more important with kiln dried wood. But it is always more difficult to reintroduce moisture to wood. Firstly it is the area around the cells which lose moisture. But after you get down to about 30% moisture it will be the moisture within the cells themselves that is coming out and the cells collapse. So creating a suitable environment for fungi to do their work on well seasoned wood is much harder.

Natural edge Gorse bowl. Spalted wood.

Natural edge Gorse bowl. The colour near the pith occured while the bush was growing. The dark areas around the bark were caused by my leaving the wood outside for a few months.

I prefer to work the spalted wood as soon as possible after planking it or taking it out from the plastic. I find that the structure of the wood through its alteration by the fungi means that it is more likely to crack than either green wood or seasoned wood. The moisture within the wood is water not sap as it is the sugars in the wood which the fungi have been eating. So it will dry quickly on exposure to a drier atmosphere.

Spalted wood and what causes it and when and how is a little understood and much misunderstood subject. But it is just nature trying to do her thing. And the results are so beautiful, aren’t they?


Turned Miniature Eisteddfod Chair

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Having had the honour to be commissioned again to make a miniature chair for Cymdeithas Ceredigion‘s 2016 Eisteddfod I decided to put my all into making a turned miniature chair. Since turning is my main medium for working with wood it made sense to explore this method to make the chair. I’ve made chairs for Cymdeithas Ceredigion before, both a full size chair and two miniature chairs, however I used more traditional methods for these chairs. (The 2015 miniature chair, described here and here, was made out of Laburnum and the 2014 was made of Elm.)

I had a prototype turned chair floating around the workshop which I’d made a couple of years ago. I wasn’t happy with it but felt it did have possibilities. However, translating that into something I would be willing to allow to be presented as a prize was quite another matter. My projects almost always have the natural shape or figuring of the wood as the starting point. Even when asked to make something to exact criteria usually the specific wood plays a big part (apart from replicas for antiques which obviously need to fulfil a different brief). It is the beauty of the particular wood that I want to enhance by turning it from a lump of wood into a shape that is useful and hopefully pleasing to the eye. All my other chairs had been made in this way. The full size chair, made of Ash, used the natural shape the wood had grown and been planked, the miniature Elm chair used wood deliberately chosen and sawn to create an idea of arms using the way burrs grow out of wood and the idea behind the miniature Laburnum chair (and here) was keeping all the outer edge of the chair in the sapwood whilst the rest of the chair was heartwood. All three of these chairs also used as few pieces of wood as possible again to keep the emphasis on the wood rather than the manufacture.

turned miniature eisteddfod chairThe starting point of this miniature chair was different. It was the method of manufacture that was the starting point and so it had to be based on a circular form, since I don’t do multi axis and off-centre work. Then there was how to hold it on the lathe. And finally, since I haven’t made this sort of thing before, getting the design pleasing to the eye, the proportions appropriate and balanced from all angles whilst keeping it possible for me to physically make on the lathe. I am not good at sitting down with pen and paper anyway, but I really didn’t see ay point in doing that with this project as it wouldn’t make any difference how nice it looked if I couldn’t make it. So I resigned myself to making one, studying it, making another, putting them together, living with them, viewing them from every angle, putting them away for a while to let my sub-conscious have a chance to have an input. So I now have a line of miniature chairs on a high shelf in the workshop, gathering dust.

Turned Miniature Eisteddfod ChairI chose Ash for this chair. I deliberately chose a plain wood so it was the shape that was important. It is turned from a whole branch which means the top of the back and the arms have perfect concentric growth rings.

I never like leaving things to the last minute so I have been living with this chair for a while now before it goes. I critically examine it, wonder what it would be like with different legs, a lower back or more splayed, in a different wood and so on. In fact now I’ve started turning chairs I’d love to make more.

I have posted a video on Youtube here ac yng Nghymraeg yma.

A Priceless Gift

Friday, March 4th, 2016

I received a priceless gift a few years ago in a tale with many twists and turns. I was commissioned to make a chair to be given as a prize at a local Eisteddfod. Cymdeithas Ceredigion had been bequeathed money and the Cadair Goffa Pat Neill (Pat Neill memorial chair) was to be given for a poem in “cynghanedd” which is strict metre. (I’m afraid my knowledge of the complexities of poetry in any language is beyond me. The basics of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is the limit of my knowledge.)

Working with wood, however, is another matter. And what an honour to be commissioned to make this chair. I immediately knew what I would like to make if the committee was willing and drew up a sketch based on local Ash wood I had seasoned and was ready to be worked. The committee passed my plans so all I had to do was put it into practice. Hmm, easier said than done…

Eisteddfod chair

I don’t like having work hanging over me and don’t work well under stress so last minute deadlines are not my cup of tea. The chair design was totally dependant on the specific wood I had so if I messed up or if the design didn’t work out it was right back to square one. I therefore wanted plenty of time before the Eisteddfod which was the following March so I made the chair in the autumn. I was very pleased I did as I had an extremely difficult time over the winter and would not have been able to make the chair. During this time I was supported by a friend without whom I’m not sure how I would have coped.

Article in the local paper with Philippa and the chairImagine my surprise and delight when it was this friend, Philippa, who won the chair. I hadn’t even known she was competing. I don’t think I even knew at that time that she wrote poetry at all, in Welsh, in strict metre…

The title of the poem was “Rhodd” which means Gift. The subject Philippa wrote about was adoption and the wonderful gift of a baby  for a childless couple. My sister is a foster carer who has looked after many babies before they have been adopted so this was yet another coincidence within this tale.

Philippa said she was very pleased with the chair and found it comfortable. As the photo in this local monthly newspaper shows it is used at her table as her everyday chair. And it was indeed a priceless gift she gave me, both of the pleasure in the chair and of her support when needed.


Eisteddfod Chair

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

Miniature Eisteddfod chairFor several years now I have had the honour to be commissioned to make a chair for a local Eisteddfod. This is the first of the miniature chairs I made and the wood chosen was Elm.

An eisteddfod is a cultural festival, a celebration of the arts and with competitions in all sorts of arts from poetry, literature, music, dance, performance… The original eisteddfod happened in 1176 in Cardigan only a few miles from me. It was held by Lord Rhys of Deheubarth at his castle. Major work has been happening there for a few years now, both archaeological and restorative, since Cardigan castle came into public ownership. (There is also a shop there which includes a selection of my work on display.)

The National Eisteddfod is a very important cultural event for many people. There are fields and fields of caravans and acres and acres of tents of people staying for the week. All the local bus companies organise buses for the important days such as the Crowning and the Chairing ceremonies. The Maes (literally field), which is where the main pavilion is situated, also has representatives of all the major organisations in Wales, major businesses, charities, individual shops, organisations, anyone really who can afford it and wants to show a presence has a stall so it amounts to hundreds. The main pavilion is a very large marquee but there are smaller marquees for various other activities such as arts and crafts, the Welsh learners’ tent, technology, drama, one where the people compose poetry all week long. There is more than one “maes” too. There is one that appeals more to younger people which has bands and musicians. In the evenings there are plays and concerts. The main pavilion is where the main competing happens and include reciting, singing, playing instruments, dancing, choirs, short story as well as the various poetry competitions in free verse and “cynghanedd” which is strict metre. There is plenty of other competing going on elsewhere on the “maes”, especially writing poetry and verse. This cultural week moves each year between the North and the South of the country. It is the largest cultural festival in Europe and I think the largest in the world that moves from year to year. There are many who go who never go into the main pavilion and many who spend most of their time there. It is a chance to meet up with friends one only sees once a year. People will remember the year according to where the Eisteddfod was held or the particular Eisteddfod according to the weather.  It is many things to many people. There are people who come from all over the world. There are thousands of competitors and 150,000 or more visitors over the week. All the competitions are in Welsh and the main language heard throughout the National Eisteddfod is Welsh though obviously many non-welsh speakers also come and are very welcomed.

The giving of an Eisteddfod chair to a poet or bard is a tradition going back a long way. Lord Rhys gave a chair at the Lord’s table at his Eisteddfod. The ‘Chairing of the Bard’ at the National Eisteddfod is the highlight of the Eisteddfod and the literary highlight of the year within the Welsh language culture.

There are smaller Eisteddfodau (plural) held all over the country, for example in schools, chapels, villages and many societies, and indeed in other countries where there is a large Welsh presence such as USA, Australia and Patagonia in Argentina.”

The wikipedia entries for eisteddfodau are well worth reading for more information about these wonderful cultural events.

Marketing Woodturning

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

Roni Roberts at workI have been woodturning for ten years now. In fact I even did a little before that, about fifteen years ago. However, most of this time I have also been a carer so not only was my time limited but also I never knew if I would have to drop everything else for a while if the person I was looking after needed more help. I therefore deliberately kept a low profile with the woodturning. I put my work into local shops and galleries and left them to sell on my behalf. I am grateful for this service. I do not begrudge shops their commission, I am a firm believer in the value of our high streets and independant shops and am as happy to provide them with my work as I am to shop there.

However, selling through other people meant that I lost out on the personal contact with my customers. Also, as I am passionate about trees, wood and woodworking I also felt the loss of a chance to explain to people that a particular bowl came from a tree that  grew a few miles away. I knew the exact spot, I knew why it had fallen or been felled, I had planked it up myself at home, delighted in it, stored it, dried it and worked it.

I am no longer a carer. This means that I can (and need to) dedicate myself more to the woodturning. However, marketing woodturning is a very different matter. I live in a very rural area therefore there aren’t that many shops/galleries around to display my work or population to buy. I need to go further afield to a certain extent. And I would like to share my enthusiasm for the wonders of local wood, woodturning and wood craft in general.

About eighteen months ago I finally got the internet for myself. I had always loved the idea of blogging about the wood as this would be a chance to tell the customers everything I’d never been able to in the shops. However, doing the writing has been a different matter. I feel self-concious, I don’t know how to express myself clearly, etc.

Then there has been all the technical problems – still ongoing. After all, I am not going to be able to learn all about the world of www overnight, am I? But I have taken a great leap forward. I made my first video and uploaded it to Youtube. Apologies about the quality – I still have lots to learn. But as my mother once said “We live on a learning planet.”

Cankered Ash

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Cankered Ash is a beautiful wood. Ash is so often beautiful anyway but Cankered Ash is wonderful. It has all the sorts of things I really enjoy with wood. It is unpredictable and moves after it has been turned – even if it is turned quite dry but especially if it is turned fresh. There must be a lot of stresses in it. It often has a particularly good colour and sheen to it, rich and deep. And, of course, it also has holes in it! Quite why they are appealing I don’t know but it isn’t only me. It seems that the more holes there are in a piece of wood the quicker it sells.

The most expensive bowl I have sold was a Cankered Ash bowl. It was £150. It was a very large bowl and had to be this price but it still seems like a lot of money to me, though I see plenty of wooden turned bowls on the internet for more. Anyway, I put it in a local gallery and went into the gallery about a week later. I couldn’t see the bowl and wondered what they’d done with it. I thought maybe due to its size it had to be moved. It just never occured to me that it had been snatched up within days but that was the case.

Cankered Ash bowlI have recently been turning some more Cankered Ash. When I came to photograph the bowl I just didn’t seem able to do it justice so I took a video. As soon as I’d started doing that I realised I could also show people who didn’t know what Cankered Ash looked like as I have an Ash tree in the garden which has Canker. So I have a video on Youtube about my latest Cankered Ash bowl.

Turning Mushrooms

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Phil came to stay last weekend. Having taken to wood turning like a duck to water when he first tried, naturally he wanted to have a go again. (I, of course, expect everyone who tries their hand at turning to love it but suprisingly not everyone does.) When I asked Phil what he’d like to turn he said “mushrooms and earrings”. I was delighted at this. Something a bit different – where he could choose the design as they weren’t something I’d been making for ten years unlike the bowls. Years ago I’d made mushroom shaped nightlights and boxes where the top was the cap of the mushroom but I’d never made ornamental mushrooms or any type of jewellery.

Turned wooden mushroomsBoth Phil and I did a bit of research and he decided to go for mushrooms with a wide base to keep them stable – with a natural edge to the cap there is no guarantee they will be evenly balanced enough for a narrow stem so they would end up having to be put into another base.

In very little time Phil had turned 5 mushrooms of varying woods and slightly different designs – each having its own character. He then turned a larger one to go in the garden.

Time was now running short so Phil turned his hand to the earrings. This meant introducing him to different tools and different techniques. I pointed out that the greatest difficulty with turning a pair of earrings was the word “pair”. So we also looked at ways to help make a pair such as templates and callipers – also keeping in mind that handmade should allow for a slight variation. I chose Laburnam for Phil to turn as it is a close grained wood that is pretty and will take a high polish. Phil turned a pair of drop earrings with a simple but elegant shape. I would have been proud to wear them. Unfortunately we didn’t have the “findings”(what strange jargon! – meaning all the bits and bobs that would turn them into a pair of earrings) so I haven’t as yet seen them complete.

Turning Mushrooms, Phil’s View

The last time I visited Roni I turned a few bowls.  I loved it, although a source of heat in the workshop would be nice.  Anyway I was keen to do some more turning.  The question was what should I try to make?  I would like to turn some more bowls but I also wanted to extend my understanding of working on a lathe.  The answer was to try something entirely different, so I came to making jewellery and turning mushrooms.  My reasoning was simple, I like jewellery and have contemplated making it the past.  I had thought about making  steam punk items, there is something about the look that draws me to it.  The other thing that came to me was turning mushrooms.  They look good, are varied in their shapes and sizes and each one would be different.  Perfect.

Roni was supportive, as usual.  She also did say that jewellery would not be easy. The items are small, need to be balanced and well finished.  I should have listened to her.  I did make a pair of nice drops, but the frustration!  She started me off by practicing on a small piece of wood making some fine and delicate cuts and curves.  Me, being me, just wanted to get on with it!  If you ever want to start wood turning jewellery take my advice, practice and practice. Once you have mastered the techniques of creating good, precise curves and shapes then start making jewellery.

Getting the drops to be balanced took time, but it was worth it.  At one point I thought that I would just give up.  However, Roni made a cup of coffee and I had a cigarette.  I went back to it and under her guidance I finished them!

The mushrooms.  Well, I loved making them.  I am still in awe of what Roni does.  She sees the bowl in the wood and draws it out.  I began to understand how she feels when she looks at a piece of wood, not that I am claiming any of her talent, quite the reverse actually.  I just had a slight feeling of what it is that she does.  She gave me a branch and said “what does the mushroom in that look like?”  I looked and began to see the mushroom.  She said fine, then do it.

By the end of my stay I was planning where I could set up my own workshop in the garage!  I was also checking what excess equipment Roni has that I might be able to “borrow”.  I am sure that, after the workshop is set up, the first time I have piece of wood set up will be nerve racking.  What will be most nerve racking is not having Roni stood there to say that I can do it, make a calming cup of coffee and say something encouraging.

Thank you Roni.  Now, the next time I come down what I want to make is………………………


My Big Lathe

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

E. G. Wilson metal spinning lathe now adapted as a wood turning latheThis is my favourite lathe and was in fact the first lathe that I bought though I didn’t use it straight away. I can turn up to 24″ diameter on this lathe.

I love the history associated with this lathe. It started life as a metal spinning lathe – something I’d never even heard of when I first had the lathe. It was in a poor state and I had to derust then paint it. There was no tool rest and when I was asking Huw to make one for me I really didn’t know what I needed. This tool rest can be moved at a couple of different points wich is very useful. The middle section being something that Huw had (in case it came in handy at some point, I should think!) and adapted for this.

Roni Roberts turning a column on the EG Wilson lathe

it is obviously winter – I’m wearing plenty of layers!

This is a solid and heavy cast iron lathe. However, it is also firmly bolted to the concrete floor for turning Burr and otherwise out of balance big bowls. In many ways it is not as practical as could be. There is no hole in the head stock so I can’t put a centre in it. When I’m turning between centres I use the chuck shown with a centre bit in it. It is also rather short between centres for table legs (especially including the chuck and thread adapter). I am also thinking of getting rid of the front part of the bed. I had originally been reluctant to do this as it took some of the history away from it but now I feel the practicalities are more important. I would also like to make it variable speed. At the moment the lowest speed is 300rpm then it goes up to 850rpm which is such a big leap for a large out of balance bowl. So hopefully over the next few months there will be changes to this old E. G. Wilson.

Viceroy Short-bed Lathe

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Viceroy short bed latheThis Viceroy short bed lathe is a wonderful lathe. I can turn up to 16″ over the bed and if I wanted and needed I could also turn larger pieces on the outside. However since I have another, larger lathe I’ve never set this up for outboard turning.

This lathe has been converted to variable speed running from zero to about 1400 rpm. This is great as the belts for the different speeds are harder to change on this lathe than my little Scheppach. So I have an inverter mounted on the wall and a three phase motor. There was a three phase originally on the lathe but unfortunately not the right one for the job. Strange to my simple, unelectrical mind that three phase was needed when it runs off single phase!

The lathe was in the ceramics department of a college and they decided they didn’t need it and were just getting rid of it. A friend of mine who worked in the department wondered if the lathe would be of any use to me and carefully protected it against the weather and offered it to me which I was delighted about. I, with the help of my friend who had rescued it, had to get it into the back of the van I was using the day I visited. Needless to say it was very difficult but I was determined to succeed, especially as I had a suitable vehicle and was far from home making picking it up another day extremely difficult.

tailstock for ViceroyThere was no tail stock with the lathe. Huw contacted Viceroy and an elderly gentleman sent the plans for the tail stock for Huw to use to make one. I contacted Viceroy a few months later to send him a bowl turned on the lathe but was told he’d retired and no-one seemed to have an address for him. I was very sorry I hadn’t managed to thank him properly for his kindness. Just goes to show how important it is to reply promptly especially to thank someone! The wheel on the back Huw rescued from an ancient combination machine, the only part of which I bought was the planer-thicknesser which will plane 24″.