This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 11, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
A few days ago, I received a belated birthday present, — a T-shirt depicting a couple of wood-carving knives with the caption: “THE BEST WAY TO CARVE WOOD IS WHITTLE BY WHITTLE.” It’s a perfect gift for me, as I have argued many times, “I am not a wood sculptor, I am a whittler.” When folks ask me about my wood art, I tell them, “I don’t sculpt, I whittle.” In fact, when I began doing wood art some years ago, because of my love of the beauty of wood, I bought an expensive set of blades, chisels, scoops, etc., but after a few months, tossed them aside and started using my 19th Century pocket knife (from my father-in-law’s father). They don’t make knives like that anymore!
Just as many women I know love fine China, dainty porcelain, and arty ceramics, a lot of men I’m acquainted with have a passion for working with wood, making everything from chicken roosts to step ladders out of planks of white pine or whatever their favorite wood happens to be. And the old-timers like my father and grandfather just loved to whittle with their pocket knife, making useful items like wooden spoons and paddles. Some even liked to do arty things, but each one had his favorite wood. My daddy’s favorite wood was cedar.
Maybe that’s why my favorite wood to work with is also cedar. When you slice off a piece of cedar and sand it, the grain is splendid-looking, almost an object of art in itself. But then I grew up with cedar, there being many cedar brakes in the woods around Dime Box. My grandfather used cedar trunks as fence posts, convinced they didn’t rot as easily as other woods and sure of their insect repellent properties. In those days, every young woman had a cedar chest made by their father or an uncle, an excellent moth-free “hope chest.” At our church in Dime Box, a parishioner hand-made the baptismal font out of some beautiful cedar wood. Someone (probably my father) made a jewelry box for my mother, with hand-cut metal decorations on it. In Lee County in the good old days, cedar wood was highly regarded even though it was plentiful.
There is a centuries-old Sumerian myth that speaks of the “wood of the gods,” which, of course, was cedar, the legend telling about how the demigods fought a great battle with humans over the cedar groves in Mesopotamia. I’m not sure who won, but I’m guessing it was the demigods.
What was/is so great about cedar? In much of ancient history it was the most valued of all woods, — the Cedars of Lebanon are famous and are mentioned in the Bible. Egyptians used cedar for ship-building, and the Ottoman Empire did major construction projects with it, desiring it above all others. Solomon used the cedars of Lebanon to build his Temple, the only wood suitable for God’s House. If it were the only wood good enough for the Temple, then it was surely a Godly wood. Maybe the parishioner who built our baptismal font with cedar in Dime Box had that in mind.
As far as whittling is concerned, I don’t find cedar difficult to whittle on, and can shape it easily. I actually prefer it to driftwood, though driftwood rivals its beauty, because most driftwood is very hard to carve, and requires a really sharp knife. I tend to use cedar for flat art and driftwood for 3-dimensional designs. The two woods don’t look good together. But driftwood created by the ocean and the sun from different kinds of wood has many different colorations and textures, often quite spectacular when sanded and shellacked. These different colored and textured woods look good together.
You can buy slices from a cedar log, with beautiful grain variations showing, and these slices can be used very effectively in creating one-dimensional art, — it’s kind of like painting a picture with cedar wood, and is by far my favorite method of creating wood art. Some cedar slices have much more beautiful wood grains than others, and part of the artist’s job is to find the most exquisitely beautiful ones, which are certainly fitting for religious art. As September and our church auction grow closer, I hope to create some wood art out of this “Godly wood.”
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of It Must Be the Noodles.