If there is one thing that is plentiful in this world its bits and pieces of deadwood. It is a great source of material for art that is cheap and relatively easy to find. My primary source is driftwood, but there are many more.
I often talk about the the later phases of building deadwood sculptures, but I don't often talk about preparation. Preparation is the most time consuming part of deadwood sculpting. The steps are numerous depending on the type of wood and the desiccation of that wood.
In the example above, the wood was aged Juniper. My estimates were that it was perhaps 30-40 years old so the aging process was very advanced and there was a lot of decay to the wood.
The cleaning process begins with lightly washing the wood. You do not want to apply too much pressure as you may lose vital portions of the wood. But you need to apply enough pressure to wash away mud, dirt and debris. Once washed the wood has to sit for at least 2-4 days and dry completely. I usually put mine out in the sun for quicker drying.
CHECKING FOR HOLLOW AREAS
Once dry the process of cleaning begins in earnest. I use a metal dental pick first. Tapping the wood gently over the whole surface and feeling for hollow spots in the wood. You can sometimes hear the difference in a solid tap as opposed to the hollow tap. I more often go by feel though. I can feel the hollowness through the pick. A great alternative to a dental pick can be the end of a knitting needle. Whatever you use make sure its not heavy as you can and will tap holes in the wood. All you need is something gentle to feel out the hollow spots.
Now you can begin the cleaning. I use a wire brush, a toothbrush, tweezers and a regular screw driver, not a phillips end. Cleaning involves removing wood that is too desiccated to last. Don't get the wrong impression. You don't want to strip the wood completely. Instead you want to remove the most fragile bits carefully but leave as much of the original pattern as you can. Once you know where the hollow spots are you will eventually get good enough at it that you can accurately guess which parts are too far gone to last through the building and painting phases.
Don't rush this. Take as much time as you need to work away the debris slowly. Use the tweezers and the screw driver to help dislodge pieces that may get stuck but which you know really need to be removed.
You will want to occasionally use a blow dryer to blow away the loose sawdust and small particles and keep a clear view of the piece of wood. This will also help to gently blow out particles that get lodged in the cracks and crevices of the wood.
Always keep in mind that what makes deadwood such a great art form is the patterns of the wood. Every single piece is different and carries a unique erosion pattern that cannot be duplicated. With this in mind, saving as much of the wood as possible is crucial.
Pay close attention to crevices. Use the screwdriver to probe gently and remove debris. This will also help to remove any egg sacks that bugs may leave behind in the wood. Don't be surprised if things crawl out. It happens. If you've washed the wood first, this should help eliminate bugs. Later steps will also help or will kill anything that may be in there still.
Remember, the cleaning process IS part of the art. Let the wood speak to you about the form it wants to take. Often new forms will reveal themselves as you work slowly at each piece. You should also use this time to begin brainstorming what the sculpture will eventually look like. You should watch for the angles of the wood and which directions lend to the best presentation.
Use your fingers while you work. Press lightly and if you feel a give in the wood, investigate closer. If needed recheck the wood using your pick and test it to see if its hollow.
THE FINAL BLOW
Once you are feeling confident that the wood is clean you should use your hair dryer to do a careful blow of the whole piece of wood. This includes paying special attention to blowing out anything left in the crevices.
EPOXY & BLACK BASING
Before beginning this step you should clean off your work table of all particles. You want to start this step with a clean surface so that nothing gets on the wood that may flake off later.
If you want to keep the natural color of the wood and are going to stain it only then you should skip this step.
You will need two specific items. A can of black spray paint and a can of black Appliance Epoxy. Both are available for just a couple dollars at any local hardware store.
This step is called Black Basing. If the wood is solid and has no fragile parts then you will want to use only the black spray paint. If the wood is still fragile then appliance epoxy is used first. We use this because it will seal and solidify the wood without destroying the pattern. You must spray the entire surface close to the wood and paying particular attention to all cracks and crevices. If the wood is solid then the same thing applies to the spray paint. The goal is to solidify the wood and get the spray paint in every crevice. This will not only make painting easier later because you have a uniform black surface to work with, but it will inevitably kill any remaining small creatures that might still inhabit the wood.
You should use either the epoxy or the spray paint at least twice, letting each coat dry completely. The end result should be a solid piece of wood which should not break apart when you get to the building and painting phases. If there are still parts that are fragile after spraying then you will have to determine whether the fragile portion still needs to be removed of more epoxy applied. I will also use Loktite GO2 glue to fill in any areas where there may be an imminent break. Let the GO2 glue dry and then reapply the epoxy over it.
Remember, the closer you get the spray can to the wood, the more of the epoxy will spread on the wood. If you are too far back then the color may be there but not the sealant needed to keep everything solid.
Once the piece is dry then you should go back through it with your pick and test it gently for any remaining weak spots.
If there are none then your ready to move on to the actual creation of the sculpture.
I will write a sequel to this soon to continue with the actual sculptural elements. I hope you find it helpful!