Snoíodóireacht Darach Duibhe ag An Driochead le Eamon Maguire
Bog Oak Carving at An Droichead with Eamon Maguire
An introductory guide to bog oak carving
This is intended as an initial guide to ‘how it is done’ but more detailed advice is available at the class from the tutor, Eamon Maguire. In addition, other classmates are always willing to express their opinion or make a suggestion (particularly but not exclusively when you ask!).
Getting your wood
While the term ‘bog oak’ is commonly used for the class, other bog woods, mentioned below, are also available and ‘bog wood’ would be a more generic term. Class members sometimes also work with modern woods.
Bog wood is ancient timber which has been preserved through being in wet, anaerobic conditions so it is most easily found where a farmer has been draining wet land or in cutaway bog. For the farmer, bog wood can be a nuisance and may simply be piled up at the side of the field. You do, of course, need to ask permission to remove bog wood and farmers are increasingly aware of the value of bog oak as a resource – so you may get it for nothing or you might have to part with a few pounds for the privilege. Unfortunately, once bog wood is exposed to the open air it starts to degrade so wood which has been left in the open for some years may be too rotten to bother about – this can be the case with bog wood found in old cutaway bog.
In terms of location, the best place for those coming from Belfast and the north-east is the area around Lough Neagh, Lough Beg, Derrymacash and Derrytrasna (note the ‘derry’ in the last two names from ‘doire’ meaning ‘oak wood’). You may need to develop local contacts. If you holiday or visit other parts of the country you can look out in likely places there. Some pieces are literally tree trunks so you may need a chainsaw or at least an axe for smaller pieces. If you cannot get your own bog wood then the class can provide you with some.
There are four main bog woods, fir and oak being the commonest;
Bog oak; Typically looks a dirty grey-brown when found, try chipping a bit of the outer layer off and if it’s jet black inside it’s probably bog oak. Most work done in the class is with bog oak.
Bog fir/pine; Can be bleached white outside but is more like an orangey red inside, more orangey than a modern ‘antique pine’. It is more difficult to get fine detail working bog fir because it can split with the grain compared to bog oak.
Bog yew; Less common, black on outside, a purplish shade on inside.
Bog birch; Black but has a different grain to oak.
Your wood may need to be air dried for 6 – 8 months. If there is a load of clay or muck on it you may wish to hose it down first – it may be home to a wide variety of insects and worms (!). Keep the wood covered in an airy place.
Different class members use different tools according to the kind of woodwork they do and their personal preferences. The basic tools are;
- A woodworking mallet, preferably wooden
- A gouge, a small u shaped chisel
- A flat chisel, perhaps 1 inch/2.5 cms
- A V tool, a small v shaped chisel useful for cutting lines and indentations.
Other tools which class members would use include various kinds of rasps for cleaning up wood (a plastic handled one is available very inexpensively), scrapers, a spokeshave (like a two handled small plane), files of various kinds or shaped riffler files and so on. If you start with the basics you can often try out someone else’s tools to see what you might use. You can buy tools in a variety of sources but a good specialist tool shop is McMaster’s in Church Street, Belfast.
For finishing off, you can use sandpaper (and a block if you like), power tool sanders (this may or may not be possible depending on the shape of your piece), and fine wire wool, as well as teak oil or linseed oil and turpentine (half and half). A wood polish would usually be the last thing to be applied; depending on its position (e.g. outside), or the amount of care you expect it to receive, you could use a varnish but most protective varnishes will yellow and are not a great idea. You can however experiment with water based varnish, especially on bog pine – but you have to apply it carefully because if it dries in an accumulation it will dry white rather than clear which will make your piece look strange.
You need to strip off all the dirt, rotten and dodgy bits which will never last to the finished piece, using rasps, chisels, scrapers and what you will. However, until you have decided what your piece will be you’re probably wiser leaving sound ‘miscellaneous bits’ in place – they may just turn out to be a crucial part of your final design; unwanted pieces can be cut off when your design is finalised.
Now for the design bit….
What do you do with your wood? There are 3 main approaches, which can overlap, and you can use one or any combination of them;
1) Copy an existing item. This could be a sculpture, an item from a painting, a household item, anything. The most famous example of this in the class is probably the intricately wrought black boot fashioned by Paul Burns.
2) Carve what you want. In this case you do need a piece of wood which will allow you to achieve your masterpiece. In this approach the wood is simply a ‘blank canvas’ for you.
3) Go with what the wood suggests. Leaving a piece of wood in your home and staring at it (not all the time!) for a week or two can yield results if you can’t immediately decide, e.g. it’s a boat riding on the waves. You can be surprised what your mind can see in a piece if you let it. If the wood is already an interesting shape, you may not need to do much more than clean it up and polish it to have a beautiful piece, possibly adding a figure or two or a small design.
If you are stuck with what to do, Eamon as course tutor is always willing to make suggestions and lend a helping hand.
Most people will use chalk to mark out the initial design, and indeed further details as the work progresses.
Further on and finishing off
A good question is when you start to oil your piece – the general rule of thumb would be to do it when it has taken shape but before you do finishing details. It can help by putting life into a piece and make you more aware of what the finished colour will be. You can use teak oil – available in Pound Shops – or linseed oil and turpentine (or turpentine substitute as the latter can be unavailable). You may do one oiling and then one or two more when finishing completely. It can take a couple of days to soak in properly. If working with bog pine and you want to keep it light coloured, do not oil the piece but move straight to finishing with wax or a water-based varnish (you can test an underneath, hidden part with different finishes to see what works).
‘The shakes’ in bog wood carving is when a piece is not as robust as it might be and may have a weak or rotten spot or lines which affect your working. Apart from taking any such aspects of the wood into account in your initial design, it is possible to strengthen a piece by using wood glue (if necessary clamping the piece to hold it together until it has set) or even using wood glue and sawdust (of the same wood) to fill a spot or glue an essential part which has broken. Wood glue initially makes the sawdust look lighter than the wood because it is white but it dries clear.
The extent to which you get a highly polished finish is dependent partly on the amount of polishing work you do, and that is a product of both what you want for the finished product and the amount of elbow grease you apply! If you want a high polish you need to do a lot of smoothing with sandpaper and wire wool before waxing.
For finishing off, one readily available wood wax is Briwax; you would use Jacobean Dark Oak colour for bog oak and Pine or Clear wax for lighter woods.
As with any activity, things can seem a bit daunting initially. But we are certain you will be thrilled by the results of your labours…with a bit of work it is likely friends and family will be delighted to see the results of your craftpersonship. If you’re not already an ‘artist’ or ‘craftworker’ then that can be added to your CV or portfolio!
An Droichead holds at least one annual exhibition of class work where you and your family and friends can admire the collective achievement. Other exhibitions are held elsewhere, sometimes in conjunction with festivals, to which class members are free to exhibit. On occasions class members, e.g. Phil Goss, have had their own exhibitions of work. Some craft centres around the country have bog wood sculptures for sale which are worth looking out for, even if you’re not buying.
Bog wood is very ancient and its availability in Ireland means that we are leaders in the world in dendrochronology (tree ring dating of bog oak – to which the jokey response might be that you did not know tree rings got involved in dating!). Different woods flourished at different times. Bog oak would be typically four thousand or a thousand years old, bog fir could be up to seven thousand years old and all bog wood feels special for reason of its age. Bog oak has gone black because the iron in the water interacts with the tannins in the wood to create an ebony colour. Once Ireland had been denuded of forests, bog wood was often the only wood to which peasants regularly had access – and it was used for almost everything (roofing tiles, light tapers, ropes, as well as furniture and structural wood).
You can find out lots on the web about bogs and bog wood. As with any web search, you may wish to refine your terminology to reach what you want but terms such as ‘bog oak’, ‘bog oak carving’, ‘bog wood Ireland’ ‘Irish bogs’ and ‘dendrochronology’ will deliver much reading. There are photos of finished pieces of bog wood carving – and sometimes the sky high prices that they are selling for! Or look out for bog wood magic wands…
There are literally hundreds of sites of interest but a few sites to look out for include;
Bogs and bog formation; www.ipcc.ie (Irish Peatland Conservation Council) and www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/geography/bogs.html (on formation of bogs)
Dendrochronology at Queen’s University Belfast; www.qub.ac.uk/schools/gap/Research/EnvironmentalChangeEC/Dendrochronology/