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Notes From the 'Net

By Mike Bloomquist, with Doug Evans and Loren Woodard
Email Mike at m.bloomquistATverizonDOTnet or visit his web, Wooden Dreams Woodcarving


This issue we have some discussions on sign carving , lumber harvesting concerns, building doors, and cryogenics.  So let's get to it...

What Wood and Finish Do I Use for an Exterior Sign?

Maura asked:

Hi all  I am doing an interesting little plaque.  A bunch of guys I know all go fishing up to a remote part Canada for a week a year.  A few months ago one of the group was on vacation in Arubu, laying on the beach, when a palm tree broke in two and killed him on the spot. Really!
They are commissioning a wooden sign to honor their friend and will take it with them and attach it to a tree where they fish.  I think its a nice thing and want to make them a real nice sign. It will be somewhere around 14" long by approx 8-10 inches wide, maybe 1.5" thick. possible shaped like a fish with incised wording. I understand cedar to be the wood of choice with pine being next for outdoor signs.  I have no experience carving cedar.  If anyone can advise me as to where to look for this size piece of cedar or if anyone has any other suggestions please share this info with me as this must be completed in early spring.  Thanking you in advance
Maura carvin' in nyc

To which Joe Dilett responded:

Hi Maura,

Mahogany would be my first choice of wood for that sign. It carves nice and holds up outdoors well. My second choice would be redwood and maybe third would be white oak. In fourth place mignt be cedar because of the coarse grain and not carving very well. Use exterior paints and varnishes for finishing.

Joe Dillett
The Carving Shop
645 E. LaSalle St. Suite 3
Somonauk, IL. 60552

Which prompted another question...

 Mahogany will hold up well in the wilds of Alaska?  that would be great as I probably have the right size pc of mahogany.  I have never heard that it is good for outdoors.  What would you finish it with.  I was thinking oil paint with 5 or 6 coats of a spar varnish.  Good enough?  This probably will never be resealed again and I'd like it to look as good as it can for as well as it can.  Thanks
Maura carvin' in nyc

Joe replied:

Yes Maura, mahogany is wonderful for holding up in wheather, even in the wilds of Alaska. I just had our Library repainted as a Eagle Scout project and the mahogany sign I made for it about 25 years ago was also in need of refinishing but the wood was solid and in exceptional shape. Just a little sanding, paint and exterior grade polyurethane varnish took a few hours and should be good for another 25 years.

The spar varnish should work out well for your outdoor sign. I don't know if you need 5 or 6 coats. I'm thinking 3 should be perfect.

Joe Dillett
The Carving Shop

A recommendation was made for Bill Judt's finishing technique for relief carvings.  Bill set the record straight:

The finish I use for my relief carvings in NOT an exterior finish. Not by a country mile!!!  Better to use a clear oil finish developed for exterior use... like the Sikens product line.  The product must be penetrating, shed water, have UV protection and be mold and mildew resistant.

Above all, TEST the product on a scrap of wood, preferably a scrap of CARVED wood.

Hope this helps,

W.F. Judt,
Email: bjudt@sasktel.net
Website: http://www.wwwoodcarver.com


( Bill's finish still is very much worth looking into for interior projects though. See it at http://wwwoodcarver.com/TipsTechniques/SSWFinishMethod.pdf  - Mike B.)

Ron Ramsey placed a vote for western red cedar and raised a concern:

Western red cedar is a great sign carving wood.  It weathers much better than redwood and if you find a tight grain board it carves very well.  Redwood is hard to find in tight grain anymore and I try to stay away from old growth redwood anyway. I don't want to contribute to the logging of the last bit of old growth redwood. Second growth works fine for router work but is terrible for incising and detail.  White oak is not a good choice.  It does not hold up well in exterior applications.  I agree with Joe that genuine mahogany, also called Honduras mahogany, is a good sign carving wood but that brings up the question of using tropical hardwoods.  I have used mahogany extensively in the past but have stopped using it unless it's Smart Wood certified.  As I have become educated about some of the logging practices in tropical countries, I have become much more selective in the wood I use.

Ron Ramsey

Joe offered another wood option and echoed Ron's concern:

White oak is good for outdoors. It's the other oaks like red oak that don't hold up to weather. I've used white oak for exterior doors with extremely good weathering qualities. They use white oak for boat building.

I agree that logging practices by some companies are very harmful. My wood supplier has even gone to see first hand that they are doing what they say, but he says there is still no gurantee they're harvesting all their logs that way. I think we should be mindfull of trying to screen out the ones that are hurting our environment.

Joe Dillett


Tom Horton cast a vote for mahogany along with personal observation:

A couple of years ago, I saw homes in NC with mahogany weatherboarding. I had never seen it used for weatherboarding before, but was assured by the builder that it had the qualities that would hold up as siding on houses better than most other kinds of wood. From that, I would assume it would be good for carving plaque,etc.

Thomas W. Horton
Glen Mills, PA


Barney Elking commented on the logging practices issue:

I'm glad to see you saying that logging practices by "some" companies are bad.  Contrary to the hype that the anti-anything group is trying to brand the forest products industry with, there are some extremely responsible members of that industry that are suffering badly from the adverse publicity.  Redwood is a good example.  There are extensive groves of old growth redwood preserved in State and National forests that will never be logged.  As far as private land is concerned, the primary premise that the landowner should be following is to maintain the productivity of the land. Trees have a life cycle that can be related to growth per acre.  When the mortality of the acre is exceeding that acre's growth, the trees should be harvested and replaced with thrifty, growing stock.  That principle should be followed by all responsible forest land owners and, of course, the harvest should be conducted with minimum damage to the basic land resource.

I am a retired former member of the Forest Products Industry and a wood carver.

Barney Elking
Fortuna, CA

Vic Hamburg offered a first hand account of sign carving with mahogany:

Joe and Maura,

I carved a pineapple sign for the front of our house nearly 30 years ago.  I used Patterm-makers grade mahogany, which is a very dense, tight grained reddish wood that carves beautifully.  Acrylic paint on the pineapple, and 3 coats of spar varnish on the entire piece, including the bare wood background, and it lasted for nearly 20 years before I had to sand and re-varnish it.  It sits outside most winters with a northwest exposure, so it gets plenty of New England weather.  I agree with Joe, 3 coats is enough for the sign, and make sure you use a tight grained mahogany, there are several hundred specie of wood from around the world that can be called mahogany, including stuff I wouldn't burn in my woodstove.

Vic H

I usually avoid threads with specific product reccommendations, but this following was strong and backed up with first hand experience so... Bill Smith wrote:

The amount of coats should be no less then 5 or 6 as when it's outside it needs more then if it is going to be inside and that is the amount I use and stands up better then a small amount of coats..


To which Jan Oegema replied:

BUT if you use ++THE best of THE best (SIKKENS) you only put TWO coats on and will last for years to come

Woodbutcher Jan

John Lukens backed Jan up:

I must agree with Jan.....I have a Lindal home with CANADIAN cedar exterior, vertical siding.....18 years old....we used SIKKENS (two coats) and have only repainted TWICE....SIKKENS is the best for any exterior finishes
John aka Mr Chips


...And Vic wrapped it up with his personal experience:

Well guys,  Like I said, I have 3 coats of Minwax Spar Poly on the carving, and it hangs outside for years on end without any degradation, so 5-6 coats seems to be overkill when you use a top of the line spar varnish.

On the other hand, I have half a can of natural Sikkens left from when my place in Maine was built, so next outdoor sign I do will get that treatment instead. The 10 yr old siding on the house looks as good as new so that speaks well for the Sikkens.  Thanks Jan!!

    Vic H




Door making 101

Gary Crosby wrote:

Hi all,
Has anyone out there built and carved a panel door before? I am looking for a book or information on their construction and design. I have a master plan, but I would like to confirm it before I starting. Thanks for your help.

My plan is to make two doors out of cherry. The thickness is 1 ½, with 4 carved panels on the bottom and one on the top with two stained glass panels. The door theme will be -The Year Of The Veteran” with carving of Vimy Ridge, Korea, WW II, WW I. The first set of doors will go to the Officers and SNCO s Mess in Meaford. The second set of doors will go to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

The problem I am considering is the weight of a solid Cherry door 35 ½ inch by 55 ½ inch  and the construction of the of the door.

Gary (Bing)

Joe Dillet replied:

Yes I have built doors. There is a white oak exterior 6" thick door with a floating panel can maybe view on my site (link below). Click on the Architecture link at the bottom of my home page and its the third photo down on the Architecture page. click to enlarge it.
To create the panel I took 1 X 6 plain sawn white oak and glued them in the 1-inch direction so I would have the lower expansion of quarter sawn lunber and the finer quarter sawn grain to carve in. Before I glued the panel up I laid the boards out and numbered them. Than I drew out the scene and marked the depths so I could bandsaw each board before gluing. When I glued up the panel the carving was already roughed out with the bandsaw so all I needed to do was the finishing work.

The door weighed about 300 lbs so I needed the frame built with laminated 2 X 6's and used 3 Jaco ball bearing hinges lagged into the frame to support the weight.


I suggest you do like I do with most of my doors. I have the builder get a good quality exterior grade door and I will attach the carving to it.

The problem with making a door yourself is keeping the door flat and allow for expansion and contraction. If you are using quarter sawn white oak, gluing vertical planks all the way across, your 42-inch door could be changing .15 inch per foot for a total of 1/2 inch. If you use plainsawn white oak it could change .31 per foot for a total of 1-inch. That is why panel construction is used to minimize the total change to .15 inch and allow the panel to move inside the frame without effecting the size of the door.

Commercially bought pre-hung doors minimize the liability in the locking system, mounting and the overall integrity of the door. I suggest strongly that you purchase a good quality door and mount your carving to it.

then added...

Cherry is not a very good wood to withstand weather. White oak or Mahogany might be better choices for a nice hardwood that holds carving detail.

You'll need 3 hinges but I don't think that they need to be ball bearing hinges. The door jam and locking system will need to allow for a total of about 1/2-inch expansion and contraction. On what side of that 1/2-inch you want to be when you install it depends on the moisture of the door. Most of the time you've got kiln dried and its around 7% MC climbing to 13%. If that's the case you'll need to allow for the door to be able to expand 1/2-inch and still operate smoothly. Your deadbolt and latch need about 1 1/8 inch travel to remain engaged when the door is at its smallest and still retract when the door is at its largest. Your jam on the locking side will be 3/4-inch thick minimum.

I recommend you lay the planks out, draw the design, rough out the design all before you glue it. Stock removal will cup the boards. Joint the edges and glue it up after 90% of the stock is removed. Don't go deeper than about 40% of the total thickness.

I still think you'll be better off going with a commerically available door (with the stain glass openings) and mount your carving to it. It will save your customer lots of money and it will save you lots of headaches.

Joe Dillett
The Carving Shop
645 E. LaSalle St. Suite 3
Somonauk, IL. 60552

Ron Ramsey defended Gary's choice of wood, but with a condition:

Hi Gary,

Cherry or walnut are fine as long as the door is in a protected location.  I.E.  a covered entryway where rain splash and sun is minimal.  If it is to be fully exposed to the weather,  I wouldn't recommend putting the time into a carved door of any kind of wood unless there are people who will maintain it religiously and then mahogany is the only kind of wood I would use.

When you glue up the panels,  glue two layers of wood with opposing grain.  I glue up the layers on the narrower boards first. Then joint and glue them as you would a full thickness board.  I also use this method with the stiles and rails.  The two layers adds greatly to the stability.  Assemble the door prior to any carving.  Use a tongue and groove technique with enough room for expansion as opposed to mounting the panels with moulding.  Don't carve into the panel any more than necessary.  Add on the areas of greater depth.  By carving as little as possible into the door and stabilizing the panel prior to carving,  you will have fewer problems with the panel.

I always use four ball bearing hinges.  Light weight hinges on a heavy solid wood door will sag over time. I also like the smooth feel of  ball bearing hinges on a high quality door.  I also recommend that the framing adjacent to the hinge side of the jamb be secured with metal framing brackets and extra long hinge screws screwed all of the way through the jamb into the framing.  The constant opening and closing of the door over time will cause movement in the jamb and framing if it's not properly secured.

I didn't  know this when I built my house and all of my heavy exterior doors are sagging on their hinges.  When I get around to it, I will replace them but you know what they say about a cobbler's children going without shoes.

Ron Ramsey

I have a book reccommendation that didn't occur to me when this thread was going on.  It's Doormaking Patterns and Ideas by John Birchard and published by Sterling Publishing Co. (ISBN 0-8068-6996-2)


And finally, the "deep freeze" and woodcarving...

Will Cryogenics Help my Carving Tools?

Jim O'Dea asks:

A company in Omaha, NE is offering a service to perform  cryogenics (freezing at 300deg below zero) on carving tools. 
<>Has anyone tried this? Is there any metallurgists out there that could comment on the effect on our tools?</> <>  I lived in Omaha for 4 years and well remember 4 weeks of -27 below zero weather - that didn't help my carving tools any!!</>
You can check out a general description on cryogenics  at http://cvip.csufresno.edu/~rlk16/cryo.html
Jim O'Dea

Tom Pierce offered some second hand experience and a claim in favor of it:

He was at the last meeting of the Mid America Wood Carvers and offered to do one knife free for each member.  Some who have had theirs done were very pleased with it.

It make the sharpness last about 20 times longer, so it stays nice and sharp without much stropping.
Tom "Old Age Is Not For Sissies" Pierce
Bellevue, Nebraska
My Web Page http://www.carvertools.com/tpierce

Maura discovered this...

check this full report out Jim    
Information Bridge: DOE Scientific and Technical Information
Maura carvin' in nyc

(An extremely dry report, but worth the read. -Mike B.)

Gene bremmer read the report and wrote:


Thanks for the link on this report, I think that pretty well answers the question. Or at least appears to.  There has been some people in my area that have had that done to a few of their tools but never followed up on having any more of them done.  So, I think that also answered the question.

Thanks again


Without realizing it, Joe Dillet echoed the article:

Hi Jim,

I checked this Cryogenics freezing for carving tools. The process greatly helps improve a metal's ability to hold an edge only if it has been air quenched in the heat treat process and not all the carbon atoms have (forgot the technical term) stablized. It does very little or no improvement to metals that have been quenched in oil or water during the heat-treat process. Our top quality carving tools have seen the oil or water quench so I'm lead to believe Cryogenics freezing will not improve there ability to hold an edge.

Sorry, I forgot all the technical terms the fellow, who does the process, used when I questioned him for one of my Ask Joe features for Carving Magazine. But he felt it his process would not improve the quality of our tools so I answered the individual who asked the question and didn't write an article on it because he felt it didn't apply to us carvers.

Joe Dillett
The Carving Shop
645 E. LaSalle St. Suite 3
Somonauk, IL. 60552


And Mike Allen had a very relevent (and facinating) piece of history and supplied some terms that Joe had forgotten:

A good example of cryogenic treatment is the Liberty ships in WW1.  As high-carbon steel is quenched, the high temperature phase, called austenite, transforms into a low (room temperature) phase called martensite, which is very hard and brittle.  If you temper martensite, you reduce the hardness slightly, but increase the toughness or ductility (decrease the brittleness). It's common for some of the austenite to not transform during cooling/quenching, because the final temperature was not low enough.  Later, in use, if the steel is cooled to a very low temperature, the retained austenite will transform to martensite, creating very hard and brittle areas.  The Victory ships broke up in the North Atlantic because the freezing water temperature was cold enough to cause this transformation.  This lead metallurgists to study the phenomenon, which we now know as the ductile/brittle transformation temperature.  For some steels, you have to go very low, cryogenic, to force this transformation.  Remember though, the new martensite isn't tempered and will be very brittle.  It would be better to force this complete transformation when the knife is first heat treated,  then tempering  would restore the toughness you need for a good edge tool.

A vote in favor of by Vic Hamburg:


I have a plane blade from Hock (replacement blade) that is treated this way.  In a big Stanley #7 plane, 2 3/8" wide and 22" long, this blade allows me to smoothly slice off a shaving that ranges from very thin to fairly thick, depending on my blade setting.  I don't use the plane a lot, but the blade edge is holding up well.

Lie-Neilson, Hock and perhaps some other high end tool manufacturers are now using the cryogenics process to make tougher blades that hold their edge better.

I don't believe the process makes the blade brittle in any way, but restructures the steel in some way to make it stay sharp longer.  See the article in FAQ #4 here:  http://www.lie-nielsen.com/faq.php

This links you to a pdf file that discusses cyrogenics in detail.  Hope this helps.

    Vic H

Ivan Whillock weighed in with:

When I visited the carving tool manufacturers in Austria, they said that hardness alone does not make a good tool.  Many ultra-hard tools are too brittle and chip when they go through a knot, etc.  They used a tempering process that created a "tough" tool, one that would hold its edge through turns and stresses.
Before I sent my tools to be cryrogenically frozen, I'd want to make sure that the process didn't make them brittle.

and later added...

My concern for "toughness" in cryogenically treated steel is reflected in this quote  (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryogenic_tempering ) and others I've read about the process:

"Cryogenic hardening is a heat treatment in which the material is cooled to cryogenic temperatures, usually using liquid nitrogen. It can have a profound effect on the mechanical properties of certain steels, provided their composition and prior heat treatment are such that they retain some austenite at room temperature. It is designed to increase the amount of martensite in the steel's crystal structure, increasing its strength and hardness, sometimes at the cost of toughness."

I have no personal experience with the treatment, but based on some things I've read,  I would be cautious about sending my carving tools to be treated without knowing whether they would retain their toughness.

Ivan Whillock Studio
122 NE 1st Avenue
Faribault, MN  55021
Visit my website at
Visit my Picture Trail album at

BRRRRRRR!!  If I wasn't ready for Spring, I sure am now!


OK, Gang, until next issue, keep them edges keen, the chips piled high, and be careful of the ice as you leave the cryo chamber.

Keep on Carvin'
-Mike Bloomquist->

Please take some time and check out the wood carving lists on the Internet. There is a lot of knowledge free for the asking on all of the list serves.

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