Years ago, as luck would have it, a fellow walked into the hardwood lumberyard where I worked and offered to sell me two 8/4 slabs of Cuban mahogany from a tree downed in southern Florida during Hurricane Andrew (1992). I didn’t ask how those slabs traveled from south Florida to Seattle, but it looked like the guy was down on his luck. He sold them to me for what I had in my pocket that day, which amounted to $40 each. After 24 years, they have seasoned nicely. I won’t live forever, and the creamy textured wood whispers to me every time I walk past it in my wood-storage shed. The Cuban mahogany will be hard on my carving gouges, but I’m going to sit and whisper back to it, laying out the patterns for the cuts, to see if these beauties will work for this project. If not, I have some dense Honduran mahogany purchased from Irion that may work better.
After making the prototype and deciding on the type of wood for the finished box, I decided it would be foolhardy to begin making it without a clear idea of how I want to lay out the carvings. I can’t see it clearly in my mind, and I don’t want to waste a board-foot inch of the treasured Cuban mahogany. After watching a dozen videos and consulting with someone experienced in clay modeling, I bought 50 lbs. of non-firing red clay. When it dries, it will look more like mahogany than would clay that is grey in color.
First, I built a poplar substructure upon which to model the carvings and reinforced the sides with oak supports affixed cross-grain with stainless steel screws (they won’t rust) in order to limit any cupping or warping from the wet clay. If the wood cracks from being restrained, it won’t matter; I simply need to play with the carving designs. For the top, I used a scrap of marine plywood that was hanging around in the shed. Before applying any clay, I sealed the wood well with shellac in order to minimize moisture transfer.
Next, I worked the clay and used it to cover the top, front, and sides about 1/4″ deep. An old planer blade came in handy for flattening the surface.
Then it was time to start adding on the areas that will be carved and building up the design.
Guess I’d better head out to the shop and keep working.