Carver hunts diamond willow in the rough

Posted: Sunday, November 14, 2004

 

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  Working under a blower, Roy Baldwin uses a small grinder to fashion a ladle from a spruce burl. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Roy Baldwin picks through burled logs stored in a room next to his workshop in Sterling. He travels the state looking for wood.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Stepping into Sterling resident Roy Baldwin's shop can be overwhelming to the olfactory senses. The sweet smell of wood hangs thick in the air like the smell of fresh bread in a bakery.

It's warm inside, as there is plenty of fuel for the barrel stove Baldwin has strategically placed in the middle of the room away from his crafts and the raw materials that will be used to make more like them.

Spruce and willow make up the bulk of the raw matter for Baldwin's work, and the room is filled with sections of wood in all shapes and sizes.

Back in the corner is Baldwin. He's a big man, who looks like he was even bigger back in his heyday. His hat's on backward, and tiny wood shavings hang in his white beard and accumulate on the sleeves of his jacket, the lap of his faded blue jeans and even the tips of his boots.

They've been flung there, the by-products of the powerful hand grinder that's whining away as Baldwin sculpts out a deep depression in what will one day be a large wooden bowl.

He sits hunched over his project, a tough position to maintain for hours on end, but Baldwin's used to it. After all, he's no stranger to pain, having broken his back more than 30 years ago.

If any pain still lingers from the old injury, it doesn't show. Either that, or it's being channeled into the task at hand, which, like all Baldwin's projects, is painstakingly created.

Baldwin takes his work seriously, but would you expect anything less from a guy with a license plate on his truck that reads "WLOPKR." For those who don't understand the abbreviation, his ball cap makes it clearer. It reads "#1 Willow Picker."

"Yeah, I started a long time ago," Baldwin said.

He thought it was around 1953, give or a take a year or two. He isn't entirely sure when his interest began, but he is sure about where, and it is a beginning shared by many Alaska stories.

"It began in a bar," Baldwin said.

"The owner had a 6- to 8-foot diamond willow curl in the bar, but the guy wouldn't sell it and he wouldn't say where he got it," he said, referring to the ornately shaped piece of wood.

Diamond willow, for those not in the know, is a willow with one or more diamond-shaped depressions or trunk markings caused by a fungal infection.

 

Baldwin uses a variety of tools from peelers and grinders to pressure washers and microwaves to fashion objects from the wood he finds.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The fungus attacks the joints between the branches and trunk and causes a noticeable difference between the cream-colored sapwood (the thin layer beneath the bark), and the reddish-brown heartwood of the diamond-shaped depression.

Baldwin, not to be dissuaded by the barkeep's lack of cooperation, set out to find some diamond willow of his own. His interest grew from there.

"I never thought it would turn into this," Baldwin said.

He mainly makes decorative canes out of the diamond willow and may craft as many as 100 a year. He also makes flower holders, children's sling shots and decorative furnishings on occasion. Larger pieces can be used for staircase banisters or even support posts to make porches and entryways more decorative.

"I look for wood with twists, curls, oddball shapes or anything ornamental, and as far as diamonds go, the more diamonds the better," Baldwin said.

Diamond willow isn't the sole medium for his artistic talent. Baldwin also makes bowls, cups and other items out of spruce burls.

A burl is usually defined as an abnormal growth or enlarged bump growing on a tree, but it is unclear what causes burls to grow.

Some authorities are convinced they are completely genetic in origin. Some believe geography and environmental conditions such as harsh weather or poor soil conditions cause stress in the trees which may instigate burl growth.

 

Roy Baldwin said he enjoys walking through the woods looking for wood as much as he does working with it later.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Some authorities believe burls are caused by pathogens that may have been introduced at a time of injury in the tree. One researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks even believes there is enough similarities between burls in trees and the occurrence of some cancer in humans that the two could be different manifestations of the same phenomenon.

"It could even be a combinations of factors," Baldwin said.

He can't get bogged down in theorizing about the causes of burls, though. He's got too much work to do. Winter is a busy time for Baldwin because that's when the actual wood "picking" gets done.

"Winter's the best time to look for it and I may spend four months a year out in the woods. I like winter because you can see better, since the trees have dropped their leaves. Also, there's no bears, no mosquitoes and no people to bother me," Baldwin said.

Not that he's antisocial. Far from it, in fact. But he has had the business end of double-barrel shotgun thrust into his stomach by territorial gold prospectors while picking wood during the more temperate times of year.

"I'll pick all over Circle Hot Springs, Manley, Fairbanks and along the Yukon River. I'll use a four wheeler or snow machine and get 25 to 30 miles off the roads," he said.

 

Working under a blower, Roy Baldwin uses a small grinder to fashion a ladle from a spruce burl.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

He's always sure to get all the associated Forest Service, Native land and other permits he needs before he goes.

Baldwin covers a lot of ground while picking, but he has to since he's so specific in what he looks for.

"There's about 35 kinds of willow, but I'm only interested in about two of them, and once I find them, for every 400 I look at I'll cut one stick," he said.

"Good wood is hard to find, and I look for the best damn wood I can find."

In any given year, Baldwin may cut 200 sticks, and he speculates he's probably cut more than 60,000 in his lifetime.

But that's not to say that every stick he cuts will eventually be made into something. Once Baldwin gets the wood back to Sterling, he dries it and tests each piece for quality.

He often does this by swinging the sticks like a baseball bat, smacking them against the ground in what he calls "whopping."

The results of whopping are that pieces with hidden rot or of inferior quality will quickly reveal themselves as they break under the force of the swing. Strong, healthy pieces will remain resilient and unaffected.

"Sometimes as much as 20 percent of what I've cut will have to be thrown away," Baldwin said.

As enjoyable as he finds his winter wood collecting chores, Baldwin also looks forward to his warm-weather work, if you can call it that.

"I've got to get ready for the tourists and other people. So many people will come in during summer that I can't get anything done," he said.

He frequently invites school groups to his shop to teach them about his wood craft.

"This past summer I had 95 Boy Scouts up from Texas," he said.

Baldwin also supplies wood for others to make crafts, a business that has been steadily picking up for him over the last 10 years.

"When I first started, I would get about $3 a foot for a stick of willow. Now I get around $15 a stick. I could sell it for more, but I don't want to," he said.

 

Burled wood fills lines the walls and fills the floor of Baldwin's garage.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

He sells wood all over the United States and even beyond and has taken up a hobby of trading canes with people from all over the world.

Baldwin also likes sharing what he's learned about his craft over the years. He's not secretive about any aspect of it.

"I really like teaching. I'd rather sell someone some diamond willow for $12 and teach them how to make a cane, than watch them pay $70 to buy one somewhere," he said.

 

Baldwin displays a birch burl bowl he made in his Sterling workshop.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Baldwin even tells people where to get there own sticks if they want, and he knows exactly where to find them, since he has kept detailed maps and records of all the sticks he's cut.

"I'll tell anyone anytime they want to go, or I'll take people, too. Most people only want 10 or 12 sticks, not thousands like me. Also, just because I tell people where to find them, doesn't mean they'll be able to get there. They would have to able to take of themselves in the woods and not get lost," he said.

Baldwin said he like to chew the fat, so he's always up for talking to anyone who thinks they're interested in diamond willow or spruce burls.

"I like talking to people, too. I still have a lot to learn about wood, how it grows and what you can do with it.

"Talking to people is a good exchange. A lot of this is trial and error and you can learn a lot of different things from talking to different people," he said.



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