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The Art of Trees

November 20, 2020

By Iona Whatford, Garden Interpreter, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Have you ever wondered what happens to fallen trees at RBG? Some become works of art which you may have seen for sale in our gift shop. These beautiful wood bowls are made by local artisan Ken Black. Read on to hear from Ken Black, and Jon Peter, RBG’s Curator and Manager of Plant Records about how these pieces are made.

Jon Peter, Curator and Manager of Plant Records

What are some of the reasons trees have to come down at RBG?

Obviously, death of a tree due to age, storm damage, disease or unknown reasons will warrant a specimen to be removed. Sometimes we remove trees that are a hazard to other more valuable specimens (e.g. a dying Black Cherry removed from above lilac specimens) or are a hazard to structures or people. Lastly, we have proactively removed some trees which have the potential to become invasive.

This Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in Lilac Dell was deemed a hazard to the surrounding Lilac Collection and visitors. Image by Jon Peter.
This Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in Lilac Dell was deemed a hazard to the surrounding Lilac Collection and visitors. Image by Jon Peter.
Storm damaged this crabapple tree at Rock Garden. The tree lives on, minus the large branch which was broken during high winds. Image by Jon Peter.
Storm damaged this crabapple tree at Rock Garden. The tree lives on, minus the large branch which was broken during high winds. Image by Jon Peter.

What does the process for removing trees look like?

The process varies based on the garden and the tree. We work with contracted arborists for much of our tree climbing and larger scale tree work including removals. Sometimes in tight spaces, we bring in a crane truck to minimize harm to the gardens/plants below. In open areas, we can drop the entire tree. As the trees are removed, we determine whether there is any quality or interesting wood that could be used in the production of upcycled products like Ken’s beautiful bowls. We try to make cuts in the wood/trunks which will maximize the useable wood and set those pieces aside.

Arborists sometimes use a crane truck to remove trees to protect gardens below. Image by Jon Peter.
Arborists sometimes use a crane truck to remove trees to protect gardens below. Image by Jon Peter.

What’s are the numbers on the bottom of the bowls?

Plants in botanic gardens are assigned accession numbers to track them. An 8-digit accession number is assigned to each new addition to our collections. The first four digits indicate the year the specimen was acquired (first two digits for 1930–1999) and the last four are assigned in sequence of acquisition. For example, the fifth plant acquired in 2019 was assigned the accession number 20190005. This number stays with the plant for the rest of time, even if the plant changes locations or names, and is kept in documentation after its death. We also keep the accession number of removed wood to provide the historical connection to the bowls produced from them.

We engrave common name, scientific name, and accession number on the bottom of completed pieces providing a connection to the trees they were made from. Image by Jon Peter.
We engrave common name, scientific name, and accession number on the bottom of completed pieces providing a connection to the trees they were made from. Image by Jon Peter.

Ken Black, local artisan

What does the wood look like when it reaches you?

Most of the wood I turn comes in sections of the tree trunk with the bark still intact. Usually, the tree has been recently felled, and is heavy with moisture. The sections are usually 20–40 cm in diameter and less than 60 cm long. Sometimes all that is available is wood with a mix of sound material, decay, and cracks. Occasionally Jon Peter gives me smaller pieces, like yew, honeysuckle, and tree lilac, to see if I’d like to try turning something out of them. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day I’m turning pieces from tree roots.

Here, Ken Black is sizing up downed wood in the Arboretum. Image by Jon Peter.
Here, Ken Black is sizing up downed wood in the Arboretum. Image by Jon Peter.
Yew, honeysuckle, and tree lilac pieces. Image by Ken Black.
Yew, honeysuckle, and tree lilac pieces. Image by Ken Black.

When you receive wood how do you decide what to make?

Not everyone coming into the gift shop wants a large bowl. We try to offer a wide selection of items to satisfy everyone’s taste and pocketbook. The size of a turning is of course determined by the diameter of the wood. If a piece has crotch wood (the junction where a trunk or branch forks), it creates a feathery flame pattern. I’m inclined to highlight this in a platter or large shallow bowl. If the wood has cracks, holes, or other interesting defects, I will turn it into tubes, and dry flower vases.

Black cherry dry flower vases. Image by Ken Black.
Black cherry dry flower vases. Image by Ken Black.

What is the process and how long do the pieces take you to craft?

For safety’s sake, I inspect the wood for nails or metal. Then I use a sealant to paint the ends to prevent cracking. The wood is then stored for future use. The turning process is done in two steps.

The first step is to rough turn the piece to oversized dimensions. The rule of thumb is a bowls wall size should be 10% of the bowls diameter. A 10-inch bowl would have 1-inch-thick walls at this stage. The time at the lathe for this step is 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on the size. The bowl is sealed and bagged in wood shavings for a few weeks to prevent it from drying too quickly. The bowl will air dry for 3 to 12 months with frequent moisture content readings (MC). During this time, the bowls will distort and sometimes crack. When the MC is 8% or less, it’s time for the second step.

The second step involves finish turning the distorted bowl. They often warp into an oval shape. Once I have turned the bowl to the desired profile and wall thickness, I sand it to remove tool marks and blemishes, then apply a finish. I prefer a satin sheen to a gloss. The time it takes to finish turn, sand, and put a finish on depends on the size of the piece. It varies from 1.5 to 3 or more hours. When the bowl is finished, I take it to Jon Peter who engraves the bottoms with RBG’s logo and details before it goes to the Shop at the Gardens.

Ken Black rough turning bowls. Images by Jon Peter.
Ken Black rough turning bowls. Images by Jon Peter.
Rough turned bowls in shavings. Image by Ken Black.
Rough turned bowls in shavings. Image by Ken Black.

Which has been your favourite piece to create?

I consider each bowl practice for the next. Each piece helps hone my turning skills and gives me ideas for future pieces. I turned this Black Cherry bowl around November 2019 for RBG’s Members Appreciation Sale. I was pleased with all the pieces in the sale, but this one held my attention a little more than the rest.

Like most cherry, it’s turning a deep reddish brown, which highlights the light feathery crotch wood pattern. The profile makes this a very comfortable bowl to hold. The simple lines and close wavy grain of this piece please the hand and eye.

Favourite piece. Image by Ken Black.
Favourite piece. Image by Ken Black.

Ken Black’s unique pieces are occasionally available at the Shop at the Gardens. Each comes with information on where the tree was at RBG, why it came down, its species and accession number (which is also engraved on the bottom of the bowl), and care instructions. These pieces allow you to bring a piece of RBG into your home, while supporting the Environmental Sustainability Program that keeps projects like this going.

Thank you to Ken Black and Jon Peter for their responses and images that bring this post to life.

Finished bowls ready for purchase in the gift shop. Image by Jon Peter.
Finished bowls ready for purchase in the gift shop. Image by Jon Peter.