Monday, 9 April 2012

Elephant No. 190: Tree Fungus

Earlier today, when I was out for a walk, I happened to see a piece of dried fungus lying on the ground in a city park. I've never tried carving such a thing before—actually, I've hardly carved much of anything before—but it seemed worth a try. I was a bit disappointed that it was broken, but I figured it was worth seeing what I could do with it anyway.

Most people seem to use tree fungi, called "conks", as a surface for a sort of scratched-in design, or for woodburning. That didn't seem like the right thing to do with this particular piece, as it's not soft enough to scratch in any kind of design, and it's not clean or light enough to use it for woodburning.

Shallow carving and woodburning on tree fungus.

In fact, this piece of fungus was incredibly hard. I tentatively poked at it with an awl and took a small swipe at it with a knife, but it was a bit like digging into limestone. I couldn't find anything online to tell me how to cut this stuff, so I figured I'd just start doing something to it with a whittling knife and perhaps a rotary tool, if a knife didn't work.

I also couldn't find many photographs of carved fungus online, which made me think this was perhaps a bad idea. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And what else would I do with a cracked piece of fungus anyway?

Carved tree fungus.

This is the piece of tree fungus I picked up. The flat part measures about 12.5 by 7.5 cm (5 x 3 inches), and is really hard. It's also quite black, although it's a light cream colour inside.

I decided to break off a small piece, which measured a little under 2.5 cm by 2.5 cm (1 x 1 inch).

I began with the whittling knife I used for my whittling activity a few weeks back.

At first, I couldn't find a way to cut into the crust of this with my knife, and I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I wasn't terribly keen on attacking it with a rotary tool because I wasn't sure what kinds of spores I might end up releasing into my house. Then I discovered that the white insides are a bit like a smooth, dense wood with no grain, and that it's pretty easy to shave, although not to hack.

I started by giving it a general shape, accidentally breaking off what I had meant to be the trunk, towards the upper left in the photograph below. Although tree fungus has no discernible grain, I discovered that it can snap if shaved too thin.

I changed my conceived design to give the elephant a downward trunk instead, but otherwise continued shaving bits away. The photograph below shows what it looked like about halfway through.

It's not all that easy to dig into the outer "crust", which is like a thick resin coating and resists anything but brute force—well, brute scratching, anyway. I also didn't like the black spot in the head area, because it wasn't where I wanted the eye to be.

A few tips if you decide to try this (not that I followed all of these myself):

1. Scrape off the resin crust first, unless you want to use it as a design element.

2. Use a very sharp whittling knife, but don't bother with an awl or other pointy implement. The inside of the fungus doesn't really lend itself to scratching without shredding. To create fine lines, it's better to cut thin V's with a knife.

3. Shaving works much better than direct cutting. There's a dense sponginess to fungus that doesn't really lend itself to square cuts.

4. Although there's no discernible grain in fungus, it definitely has direction. You'll have to experiment with which direction is easier to shave, and this may have an impact on your design.

And that's about it. It was an interesting material to work with, and I kept the bits I didn't use to carve some other time. The inner material looks a little like dense rubber, and has the texture of softwood, so it's not hard to deal with once you get past the outer resinous crust.

This took me about an hour and a half from the time I started, mostly because I really don't know how to carve things. I like the final piece well enough, although I still needs a bit of sanding to deal with some of the rougher cuts. I was surprised to discover that fungus was so dense, but I'm not averse to trying to carve this stuff again when I have more time.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Over the past few years, much has been made of elephants' newly-discovered problem-solving abilities. Recent studies show elephants recognizing themselves in mirrors, using cubes to get at treats, and using tools. As far back as 1954, however, elephants were already demonstrating their resourcefulness.

On August 14, 1954, the Times of India reported on a herd of elephants that were devouring a crop of sugarcane in Terai, just south of the Himalayan foothills. In order to drive the elephants away, villagers set fire to a hedge between the sugarcane and the elephants.

The elephants' solution? In response to the impromptu firewall, the elephants sucked up water from a nearby stream, put out the fire, and returned to their feast.

Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP

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