The Black Ash tree has a ring-porous quality that allows it to be pounded into splints for use in basketry. Once you have identified a stand of black ash trees you will have to select one for use. The best time to cut a tree is in the Spring when the sap is rising, but cutting can take place at other times in the year. The tree should be processed into splint quickly, but it can be kept for a period of time if it is submerged in water.
You should not go out into the woods alone to cut a tree, so round up a few friends and make an event of it. Dress appropriately, including boots, because the tree normally grows in swampy areas. You must be certain to have the proper permission before cutting any tree. The tree you choose should be a healthy, straight grained, blemish free tree with few or preferably no branches that would interfere in the processing of the woodsplint. Ideally the trunk should be 10-12 feet long above the swelling of the root and below the first branches. Use an increment borer to remove a core sample to determine the quality of the growth layers. There is no point in taking down a tree whose annual growth rings are too thin to process. If the core sample indicates that the growth rings are too thin, let the tree stand to propagate new trees and select another tree for cutting.
Once you have determined the tree you will harvest, cut it above the root swell at the base of the trunk to fell it. Once the tree is down, cut again just below the first branches. Cut the top of the trunk into small enough sections to be used as firewood to be taken with you. Cut the remaining top growth up well enough so that the wood returns to the soil as quickly as possible. Leave the area where you have harvested your tree clean. Now it is time to bring home your new prize.
Set up an area where you will pound your log. You will want to devise a way to stabilize the log and possibly lift it off ground level. The area you choose should be close enough to your storage area to be practical. If you are not lucky enough to have a pond or a stream you can make do by fashioning a plastic lined trough filled with water to keep your log submerged.
Use a bark spud to remove the outer and inner bark from the log. Once all the bark is removed, the log is systematically pounded to delaminate the growth rings from one another. You can use a fairly heavy wooden mallet or the back of an axe which has had the edges rounded over. Use a fairly heavy impact in an overlapping pattern, systematically along the log for its full length. This is a process which takes a great deal of patience and no small amount of stamina. Give yourself plenty of time and get into a rhythm. Allow your hand to relax the grip of the tool immediately before impact so that the shock does not travel up your hand and arm. This is important because you can do serious injury to your body if you absorb the full impact of each blow.
Use a knife to score the splint along the grain the full length of the log. It is important to cut the splint with the grain from the start because every subsequent step of the material processing depends upon the splint being true to the grain of the tree. The pounding you have been doing crushes the porous growth between each growth ring of the tree and allows the dense summer wood portion of the growth ring to separate from the log. As you pound and remove each layer, the pounding you have done previously assists the pounding of the layers deeper in the tree. This is something I assure you will be appreciated by yourself or anyone else you have been successful in roping into helping you. Be careful not to be over zealous by pounding too hard which may fracture the splint itself, making it unusable.
As each strip of splint is pounded off the log , roll it up into a loose coil and tie the coil for storage. You should pound the log as soon as you are able, but once the splint is removed from the log and allowed to dry, it can be stored indefinitely and resoaked for use as needed.
If you selected a tree that has any small branches or healed wounds, the grain will be irregular in that area. This type of area will require more pounding and patience to get the splint to separate from the log.
The outer layers of the tree will be a lighter color because they are in the sapwood. As you go deeper into the tree you will come to the darker sections of heartwood. This natural color variation can be used to afford color variation in your finished baskets. As you get deeper into the log you will also notice that the branches of the tree that fell off and healed over when the tree was young, will begin to cause the grain to become irregular. Continue pounding your log until these irregularities become too troublesome to work with.
Alternatively to pounding the log layer by layer around the entire log it is possible to rive the log into pie shaped segments which are then split and squared off with a draw knife at a shavehorse into billets which are then pounded individually into splint.
Soak the splint thoroughly before cleaning and subdividing. Each splint will require scraping to remove the porous growth from each side of the splint. Clean up the outside edges of the splint before you scrape or subdivide. This will serve to minimize mistakes that can be caused by a ragged edge. Use a straight bladed knife to scrape this rough surface from the splint. In a seated position, protect your knee with a piece of heavy leather. Position the splint on the knee and draw it under the stationary blade of the knife. Keep the blade angled slightly. Remember to keep the knife still and pull the splint under the blade, not the other way around. This step will shave off the rough porous surface of the raw splint. Continue until the surface is smooth and clean. The heartwood side of the splint will generally not clean up as well as the bark side. The splint will have a natural curve or cupping to its surface. The side of the splint which grew closer to the bark will retain its original curve and always seems to clean up more readily.
Heavy splint can be subdivided or split into halves revealing a satiny smooth inner surface which is the most recognizable feature of this material. Lay the splint on your work surface and score across the splint a few inches from the end. Use a sharp knife and cut half way through the thickness of the woodsplint. Bend the tab that is created back to open up the cut. The splint will begin to split along its midpoint. Grasp the ends of the splint and gently ease the splint apart into two equal pieces. The splint must be supported with the fingers and eased apart with a rolling motion. Your goal is to get the splint to subdivide into two pieces of even thickness. If the splint begins to "run out" or get unequal, place additional pressure on the thicker side to restore the split to the midline. A splint shoot or splitting frame can be used instead of only using your hands.
Some growth rings are hefty enough to subdivide into four equal pieces or eight in rare instances. If this is the case, you are able to obtain the most prized result, double satin splints. These splints are the pieces split from the interior of the growth ring and feature the satin smooth surface on both sides of the splint. This is a process which requires patience and practice, but once mastered, can be a very gratifying experience.
Once the splint has been cleaned and subdivided it will be necessary to cut it into lengths. The technique you choose to cut the splint into lengths will vary according to how heavy it is. Heavier weight splint can be resoaked and cut by hand with sharp scissors. Light weight splint can be cut using a roller cutter, a splint gauge, or a rug strip cutter. Establish a clean cut on one edge that is true to the grain so that you can cut subsequent strips.
Throughout the entire preparation process the splint should be graded and sorted according to weight, quality and color. There will be considerable waste at each step of the way, but the finished material is well worth the effort put forth. Reserve even the shorter pieces because they can be used for miniature baskets. The use that each finished splint is put to is conditional on its finished heft. You must select material which is suited to the project you are working on. Black Ash is marvelously adaptable in that it can be used in its rough state in heavier weight to make humble work baskets for use in the fields, or it can be processed to satiny smooth, near paper thinness for use in very finely woven miniature baskets or a myriad of variations anywhere between the two. Even when the splint is processed to a very thin state it remains flexible and remarkably strong because the splint is composed of continuous plant fiber.
I believe you will find the effort necessary to process Black Ash woodsplint worth it in the end. It is a process that will teach you patience, the same patience that Black Elk sought to teach the Anishnabe people in the Legend of the Black Ash Basket - Cocobanaggan.
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There is no way in this brief article to cover the subject of Black Ash woodsplint as a basketry material, the baskets or the artists who weave them. This is a subject that you can be sure we will revisit often. If you know of material regarding black ash basketry not mentioned here, post your comment to the board.
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