I was walking across a clear-cut and I stumbled upon a burl. A burl is a formation on a tree (looks like a big round growth) where there is deformity, and the grain grows in different directions. I was really excited to find such a treasure on the ground because usually they are attached to mature trees.
Unsure of what to do with my burl, I hoisted the branch with burl over my shoulder (picture your classic hobo caricature, with a handkerchief of belongings, on a stick) and continued on my way. I came across a knowledgeable tree planter who suggested I make a bowl out of it. I immediately pictured hacking at this thing with rudimentary tools back at camp, and then I pictured bandages and blood. After raising these concerns, she said I could make a bowl using a coal out of the fire, and lucky for me, mine was dried after spending a couple of seasons in the sunand ready to burn.
And so began the creation of my first burl bowl. I brought it into town on a day off and had a kind gentleman saw the branch away from it using a chop-saw. He sawed across the top and bottom of the burl so that when he was done, I had a round object with a flat surface on which to sit, and a flat surface on which to place a coal. I brought it back to camp and built a fire. We placed a hot coal from a bonfire on top and blew air underneath of the coal. Gradually (very slowly in the beginning) the coal would start the bowl on fire (only in one little area) and the wood burned away. The burl became a communal project, since many evenings in a planting camp are spent relaxing around a fire. Each time we placed a new coal into the hollow from the night before, people would pass the burl around the fire, taking turns blowing under the coal, and the coal would leave emptiness in its wake. Eventually we could place two coals inside the hollow that was forming, and the process quickened. After a few nights of passing the burl around, a significant void developed, large enough for a man to stick his fist inside. It was done.
The last part of the process was to remove the burnt layer of coal that lined the new bowl. For that I simply stuck a stick inside, held it tightly, and moved it around in a circular motion (like a witch stirring her cauldron). This removed the inside crusty black stuff from the inner walls and left a dark, rough interior. Last came some sand paper for a smoother finish. I probably only spent half an hour sanding it.
This bowl isn’t one I would eat out of, it’s more of a catch-all, to throw your keys or spare change in. Applying a lacquer might make it more food-safe, if that was your aim. I like mine because it still has dark spots, evidence of the process it underwent, and it still smells burnt which makes me nostalgic for the folks around the fire who blew life into it.
- Find a burl, you might need to let it dry depending on how fresh it is. Mine had a little sap running from the middle, but mostly, the wood was dry (this is important so it burns).
- Saw a portion off the top and the bottom so it can have a base, and a place to put your first coal.
- Have a nice fire with friends! Pull a coal out of the fire and place it on whichever surface you decide will be the top of your bowl.
- Gently blow air under the coal (this feeds a tiny fire between the coal and the surface).
- Keep blowing until you have achieved the bowl you desire. We had a divot the size of a teaspoon the first night, and then the process went progressively faster as the bowl took form.
You may need to roll the coal around to different areas of your hollow to even out the bowl shape.
At some point, you might find that blowing into the bowl causes ashes to blow back and could land in your eyes. This is why it is helpful to use a straw or some equivalent to direct the air under the coal, and to keep your face a safe distance away from the action. Using a straw (or pen with ink cartridge removed) maintains air where it needs to go and doesn’t waste your breath, it can make you lightheaded similar to blowing up a child’s inflatable pool toy.
I have heard of someone using an air compressor on a large burl (he was making a coffee table). Having had a couple close calls with a coal during this project, I would be wary of this technique.