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A Chain from a Branch

By far the best part of our place in Bellevue is the trees. Along with the ubiquitous firs and alders, we’ve got beautiful cottonwoods, (self-seeding) cedars and absolutely enormous maples.  This time of year, the wind and rain bury the yard in huge drifts of leaves, and inevitably a few big branches come down. I don’t have all of my woodshop toys here, but I do have this awesome carving set — so I went out foraging for a nice piece of maple branch for a whittling project. Our mission: carve a wooden chain.

This is a pretty classic whittling project, and there are tons of “how to” videos and blogs out there to start from. Most of them start strong and finish weak:

  1. Cut the blank into a cross shape. OK!
  2. Mark and cut the outsides of the links. Got it!
  3. Finish the chain. Wait, is this a British Baking Show technical challenge?

Let’s go through the process with a little more focus on color commentary, shall we?

First and foremost — you’re almost certainly going to cut yourself at some point. BE REALLY CAREFUL — fingers and hands have a lot of important internals. Keep your knives sharp — I use a fine stone at the beginning of a project, and a strop at least every half hour while I work. A sharp knife requires less force to cut, is much less likely to slip, and will at least cut clean when things go wrong. It’s also just way more satisfying to carve with. The set I mentioned above (here’s the link again) comes with a pair of cut-resistant gloves; I always use one on my left hand at least (I’m a righty). They won’t stop a serious cut (I poked the knife point right into the fleshy part of my palm during this project, ouch) … but they do provide glancing protection and that’s well worth it.

Next, it’s easier to carve wood that is green rather than dry; moisture in the wood makes for cleaner cuts with less “tear out” along the grain. That said, green wood will shrink and thicker parts can be vulnerable to cracking as it dries. If you are working a piece over multiple days, it can help to store it in a plastic bag between sessions to help hold the moisture content stable. Rubbing a finished piece with mineral (or tung or whatever) oil will protect it as it dries.

OK, let’s get started. A branch about 2” in diameter is good, and 6” in length will make three nice-sized links. Most tutorials on the web start with a square milled blank — this is fine, but I prefer using something off of the ground and a branch works perfectly as long as it’s straight. The only trick is to pay attention to the pith at the very center of the branch — it can be super-soft, more like packed brown sugar than wood. Since the center of the branch will make up structural parts of each link, this can be problematic. I keep a bottle of thin CA glue (regular Krazy glue works fine too, it’s just a bit thicker) on hand and whenever I expose a new bit of pith I soak it with the glue and let it dry before digging in. This will fix the material in place but still carve pretty easily.

Each of the steps below has one or more corresponding images in the gallery at the bottom — usually the picture is a better description that my text, so be sure to look at them carefully before making cuts!

(1) Draw a tic-tac-toe style cross on the end of the branch, with the middle square being about a half inch or a bit more per side. Use a ruler to extend the ends down the length of the branch, and then draw a matching cross on the other end. The two crosses should be oriented together as closely as possible.

(2) Cut away the lengths of branch along the corners of the crosses, leaving you with a long X-shaped piece. You can do this with your knife, but I recommend you save a boatload of time and just use a saw for this part. Unfortunately all I had at hand was a crosscut saw which had to work pretty hard making these long rip cuts in the green wood. I had to stop and clean the teeth constantly, but eventually made it through.

(3) Now the actual whittling starts. These first cuts are pretty easy since they’re all on the outside, but are hard to explain with words — be sure to refer to the gallery images! Measure the length in four equal parts. (a) At the halfway mark, cut a notch on one arm of the X and then in the same place on the opposite arm. (b) At each of the quarter marks, cut opposing notches on the other arms of the X. (c) Remove the material from the notch to the end of the blank on the arms notched in step b. (c) Make four half-notches at the ends of the arms in step a. When you’re done, you’ll be able to see the outlines of the three links in your chain.

(4) Hollow out the fully-exposed center parts of the two end links. These internal cuts start to get more difficult. Make stop cuts all along the outside of the shape you’re trying to remove, and keep reinforcing them as you go deeper — they will prevent cuts from tearing out material beyond the center. Take your time and don’t try to remove too much material at once. I tend to make the stop cuts, and then use long “V” cuts along the grain to pull out little toothpick-sized bits, alternating each side of the piece until I’m able to break through.

(5) Finish hollowing out the less-exposed centers of the two end links. Use the same technique as in the previous step, being sure to keep strong stop cuts all along the outside. At this point the piece will start becoming pretty fragile, so be very aware of where you are applying force with your gripping hand and as you press in with the knife point. When you’ve finished this step, the end links are clearly visible and almost complete.

(6) Hollow out the exposed center parts of the inside link. These are about the same narrow width as the hollows in step 5, but they are longer and feel more awkward. Don’t get impatient — keep strong stop cuts in place and take out small bits of material at a time, working on either side until the cuts meet. I found it easier to make deeper cuts towards the center of the piece, so concentrated there until the cuts met, at which point there was more room to work the blade and clear the rest of the material.

(7) This is the most exciting part! In this step you free the links from each other; in the gallery you’ll see green arrows pointing to the three areas to cut (and red X’s to avoid!). At this point the piece is very delicate, so you’ll want to just make tiny “nibbling” cuts with the tip of the knife, being very careful to not put too much force on the piece with your gripping hand especially. Each of the three areas you need to clear will have four sides; work around each side in turn cutting out more and more until you break through. Resist the temptation to try to “snap” the remaining material when it gets thin, it takes very little torque to accidentally break the link itself.

(8) This is just cleanup and finishing. Where you’ve separated the links, there will extra material to remove, and you’ll want to profile the links into a more regular / rounded form. This is far less awkward and risky than step 7, because you can move the links around to create access to any part you need to work on. Sand the links if you like, and apply a bit of mineral oil to protect the wood.

Woo hoo! We made it, and the finished product is pretty awesome. Nothing super-complex, but it requires basic competency with all of the core whittling cuts (push, pull, stop and V). Most importantly, the work requires patience and focus, both of which I can always use more of. And I do love working with materials that come from where we live. Fun stuff!

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