How to Best Position a Sculpture Within a Log

How to Best Position a Sculpture Within a Log 450 600 Simon O'Rourke

People often ask how to prevent cracking in the wood used for sculptures. The simple answer is you can’t! However, Simon has learned a lot over the years about working with and around the natural behaviours of wood. There are ways to minimise the impact of cracking on your sculpture to ensure it lasts as long as possible. The biggest of those is positioning, and so in this blog, we share how to best position a sculpture within a log.

How best to position a sculpture within a log: ensure cracking enhances the sculpture. This photo shows a close up of an oak face sculpture. It has vertical cracks along the cheek.

Cracks are an unavoidable part of wood sculptures

 

Understand We Can’t Eliminate Cracks

Simon’s first tip as to how to best position a sculpture within a log is actually nothing to do with positioning or carving! The first tip is to understand that it’s impossible to eliminate cracking when working with wood. Cracks and changes in the colour are all part of the ageing and drying process, as Simon shares in this blog about how long a sculpture will last. It’s a natural material and therefore can be unpredictable. Understanding that and being OK with ‘imperfections’ are important as it means that rather than worrying about cracking, you can focus your energy on the best ways of working with it.

 

Side by side photo of a woman's face carved in redwood by simon o'rourke to show the aging process of wood. The left is far more yellow and warm. The right has deeper shadows and cracks and grey hues.

Cracks and changing colour give a chainsaw carved sculpture more character

 

Find the Centre of the Timber

Once we understand we can’t control cracking, we can focus on working with and around it. The first step towards that is finding the centre of the timber. This is important because it impacts the direction and amount of cracking, Wood shrinks faster circumferentially than radially. This means cracks start at the centre and move out, so the further from the centre, the more stable the wood. You will sometimes see cracks coming from the centre like wheel spokes. Usually, the centre is the middle of the log, but not always, so spend some time looking at the log and pay attention to where the cracks begin. This is your centre.

 

Photo shows a tractor with a fork lift attachment carrying a large tree trunk. Finding the centre of the trunk is essential in learning how to best position a sculpture within a log.

Finding the centre of a log like this means you can make the most of the solidity and stability of the timber.

 

Identify the Most Important Features of Your Design.

The next key in how to best position a sculpture within the log is to identify the most important features of your design. These are the parts that you most want to preserve. When sculpting human form, Simon finds it is most often the face. An example of this is the fairy sculpture below. Although there is a lot to see, the face is the part Simon wants people drawn to, so he will position the sculpture so her face is the least impacted by the cracks already appearing.
However, if your sculpture is more abstract, this may not be the case.
Where do you want the focus to be?
What details do you want to preserve?
Once you know this, you can work out the positioning.

 

Photo shows a chainsaw carving workshop with a sculpture in progress in the middle. The shape of a female sitting on a swing is blocked out in a large piece of oak, but no features are visible

The face of this fairy sculpture is the part Simon most wants to preserve from cracking

 

chainsaw carving sculpture of a 5' elf sitting on a swing

Simon carved this so the cracks are part of the shoulder. In this way the details of the face will be preserved.

Tactically Position the Sculpture

Now you know which parts are most important, you can work out whereabouts you position the sculpture in the log. If the face or front is most important, start carving so the centre of the log is at the back of the sculpture. That way as the sculpture ages and dries, the cracks will start at the back.

For this WWI soldier, Simon was able to cut the log and create the sculpture using the front part. If he had carved it in the centre of the timber (which is often instinctual), the cracks would be in the middle of the soldier, and potentially split him in half!!!
By moving the sculpture to the front half, it means the centre of the log becomes the soldier’s back. In this way, the cracks will appear in his back. This will not only preserve the facial details but also means the sculpture is much more stable.

 

photo of a tree carving sculpture in progress. the sculpture is a wwi soldier in oak. there is a field and scaffolding behind him. the base of the sculpture shows the shape of the original tree trunk. the sculpture in in the front two thirds, and serves as an example of how to best position a sculpture within a log to avoid cracks that appear as it dries

The base of the sculpture shows hows Simon positioned the sculpture in front of the centre of the log.

 

Have a Positioning Plan B!

Obviously positioning cracks so they are hidden at the back isn’t always going to be possible. Sometimes we just don’t have a log big enough. If that happens, use plan b in how to best position a log within a sculpture… Position it so there are lots of small cracks across a feature.

It’s better to have lots of small cracks that one big central crack. This way as they swell and shrink with the different weather changes, the impact on the sculpture is less.

An example of this from Simon’s work is his recent horse bench. He positioned the sculpture so the centre was to the far side of the horse. The cracks are all across the mane. In this way, they become part of the texture and there’s no risk of the mane looking like it’s been divided in half! More importantly, it also means the sculpture is the most stable and solid that it can be.

 

Tree carving workshop with a sculpture in progress. The sculpture is a bench, and one end is a horse with flame like mane

Simon used one half of the log for the horse head, and position it so the centre is on the far side of the horse.

 

Horse bench by chainsaw carving artist simon o'rourke

The centre of the log is now this side of the horse to ensure minimal cracking and most stability.

 

Know When to Say No!

Simon’s last tip as to how to best position a sculpture within a log is to recognise when a piece of timber simply isn’t suitable. Sometimes there is just too much rot. We actually have a blog about types of rot to help you with that. Sometimes when you cut into the log you find a crack that is already large and would impact the design. If this is the case, there is often little you can do. At this point, you need to either accept that this sculpture will have a short life, or start again.

This happened with the lion Simon made before Christmas. You’ll be able to see in the photo how the crack is already moving up into the lion’s body. In addition, the rot meant the wood was too soft to carve and would have begun rotting away much quicker. As this was for a commission, Simon wasn’t prepared to compromise on quality, and had to start over on a fresh log. This timber can still be used, but for a much smaller sculpture that wouldn’t incorporate the wood or crack.

At the end of the day, wood is a natural material and is unpredictable. It’s part of its beauty, and working with that and allowing it to enhance the sculpture is part of the challenge Simon enjoys. If you are choosing wood sculpture over something like bronze or marble, hopefully it’s something you like too! But occasionally it really does mean starting over!

 

How best to position a sculpture within a log... photo shows the start of a tree carving sculpture. The shape is blocked out but there is a large crack and split at the centre making it an usuitable log for sculpture.

Sometimes you just have to abandon a piece of timber!

 

Over to You!

Learning to work with cracking is something that will come with experience. If you are very concerned about a crack, it is possible to fill them, and Simon will do this very occasionally. However, he does recommend the tips he has shared here.

To the other chainsaw artists out there, what are some of your tips and tricks for working with cracks?

If you enjoyed this article, there is a  10 minute video below where Simon expands on these points. Please excuse the wind in one of the sections – the Welsh weather doesn’t always co-operate with plans for outdoor filming!

And, as always, if you are interested in commissioning a tree carving sculpture from Simon, contact us via the form on www.treecarving.co.uk/contact/