Monday, 5 March 2012

Elephant No. 155: Whittling

I've never whittled a thing before in my life, other than once making a pointy stick. Somehow, I don't think that counts. I don't feel much like painting or assembling anything today, however, so whittling seemed like an interesting thing to dry.

Whittling involves producing shapes from wood or bone with a knife. Most often, this is done with a simple pocket knife, although there are also specialized whittling knives with thicker, more ergonomic handles.

Whittling differs from carving in that carving usually requires additional equipment such as chisels, gouges and mallets, whereas whittling requires only a knife. In whittling, the knife strokes are usually obvious, and the piece has a more rough-hewn look than carving.

Traditional whittled figure of a sea captain.

I have a tiny whittled elephant that I bought several years ago, mostly for the story behind it. This particular elephant was made by a blind man who sits outside a temple in India, carving sandalwood elephants as a form of devotion. If a blind man can produce an elephant like this, I thought that perhaps my meagre skills would allow me to produce something that looked at least vaguely like an elephant.

Shockingly—or perhaps not so shockingly, if you read this blog regularly—I actually have a whittling knife, which I think I must have inherited from my father. So I decided to start with this.

Because of my lack of skill, I wanted to make something small. I have a few trees in my backyard, so I went outside and cut a piece of branch off a Manitoba maple tree (Acer negundo)—also known by various other names such as box elder, black ash, ash maple, and American maple. I cut a piece measuring about 7.5 cm (3 inches) in length, and about 2.5 cm (1 inch) in diameter.

I think it's a hardwood, which made it rather nice to work with. Because the grain is so fine, and the wood quite hard, it's relatively easy to shave off thin strips and achieve fine detail. Not that I was adept enough to get the kind of detail this wood allows. The texture of the wood and the quality of my whittling knife, however, made this a surprisingly pleasant experience. I expected to hate whittling, but I actually enjoyed it.

I started by stripping away some of the bark, and carving a trunk at the pointy end of the piece I'd cut. At this stage, I didn't really know what the final piece was going to look like. My original idea had been to make a whole elephant, but once I had the trunk in place, a simple elephant head began to seem more likely.

Next, I stripped away more bark, as a way of "sketching" the general outline of my elephant head.

After this, I more or less just kept whittling away at the overall piece until I arrived at the rough shape below.

To shape this a bit more, I shaved various parts. To finish it, I made a couple of eyes by pressing in the tip of the knife and rotating the blade, then cut some thin slices to make veins in the ears.

I really enjoyed whittling this little elephant. It's a peaceful and somewhat meditative activity, and I can definitely see its appeal. Although the final piece is nothing special—to me, it looks a bit like a teapot—I have to say that I'm pretty proud of this as my first whittling beyond a pointy stick. I will certainly try this again—perhaps to produce a more detailed head for an elephant doll or puppet.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Anyone who rides horses knows that they can be bizarrely skittish. I've had a number of hair-raising rides on scaredy-horses spooked by everything from baskets of flowers, to children in a baby stroller, to a flapping piece of plastic. And don't get me started on what happens when the sprinklers go off. So the following story definitely resonated with me.

One evening in the late 1840s, Sir James Tennent—Colonial Secretary of Ceylon at the time—was riding his horse in the forest around Kandy. His horse suddenly stopped and began dancing around anxiously, having heard a noise on the road up ahead.

Tennent and his horse soon came face to face with a logging elephant. The elephant was carrying a heavy beam of timber, balanced across his tusks and, although there was no mahout in sight, the elephant seemed to know where he was going. Because the path was narrow, the elephant was making irritated sounds as he tried to turn his head enough to allow the log to pass sideways along the narrow path. These were the sounds that had unnerved Tennent's horse.

Seeing Tennent on the path before him, the elephant stopped. Raising his head, the elephant appeared to size up the situation, then suddenly flung his timber to the ground and edged back into the forest, apparently waiting for Tennent and his horse to pass. As Tennent's horse continued to hesitate, the elephant made more dissatisfied noises, and edged farther into the forest, as if encouraging the horse to move along.

The horse remained anxious and ready to bolt, but Tennent decided to let the two creatures come to an understanding, rather than trying to urge his horse forward. The elephant moved farther still into the trees, and waited impatiently for horse and rider to pass him.

The horse finally picked its way past the elephant. When they were a short way down the path, Tennent turned and saw the elephant emerge from the bush. The elephant tossed his head and snorted a bit, as though to say, "Silly horse." He then picked up the log, balanced it on his tusks again, and resumed his journey.

Demonstration in Chiang Mai, Thailand of logging: an activity
now banned in that country.

Elephant's World (Thailand)

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