Playing With Fire
By Dan Blair
(Editor’s Note — A version of this article originally appeared on the FC2 List.)
Ever since man’s first beginning, he has been totally dependent on fire. He has died without it and, when careless, has died with or because of it. He loves it and fears it almost in equal proportions. If you have ever sat in a star-studded and moon-filled night in the woods staring into a cheering campfire, you know why. If you have ever witnessed the wrath of a forest fire, you also know why. Fire can be your best friend. Or it can be your worst enemy. We don’t always get to choose which one it will be. But in spite of that, I still like to play with fire.
The first time I got caught playing with fire was when I was about 5 or 6 years old. My over-active imagination had me playing cowboys (or mountain men) and Indians. I had my little plastic and lead figures gathered around the log cabin and corrals I had made with twigs and sticks. Indians had attacked and the cabin was on fire. Grandma smelled my smoke. The resulting reprimand taught me never to play with fire ever.…especially there in the shade beneath the two 50 gallon fuel oil barrels that kept our furnace fired up. You would think I should have learned my lesson, but.…. Well? What can I say? I guess I’m just a slow learner.
As a professional outdoorsman with a life-long connection to wilderness and wild things, I have always considered fire to be one of my most welcomed partners. Off and on, I’ve been a guide/outfitter, a game warden, hunt club owner/operator, a sometime mining camp cook. I’ve been a dedicated hunter and fisherman for all of the adult years of my life and most of the years of my youth. Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of fire. I’ve kept it close at hand at most times and can readily recall times when I was most grateful for its availability. I can still remember shivering through wet and sleepless nights in the outdoors without it. I know firsthand what hypothermia feels like and how important fire is to make it go away. I guess you could say that Fire and I are just naturally on a first name basis. And in some respects, I guess you could even say we have been playmates.
I am a carver. I have been for 47+ years. A lot of wood has found its way to my work bench. Surprisingly, very little of that wood ever found its way to my fire. On the other hand, fire has often found its way to my wood. Let me explain.
I truly love the smell of wood smoke. Especially when I’m cooking up fresh fish for shore lunch. Even more when I have finished a hard day of hunting or fishing. Supper is over and done, and the quiet time around the campfire has put everyone in a place of pondering. Remembering earlier hunting or fishing trips Earlier camps. Earlier campfires. But I have lived among civilization and wood-burning stoves and fireplaces were not common in my homes or work shops. I made up for that absence by always having a campfire. Camping wasn’t complete without the light and fragrant incense provided by a campfire.
Somewhere along the way of studying the Indians and mountain men and fur trappers of our American West, I learned and was often reminded of the value of fire. I knew the trappers could not have guns and traps and knives without fire to harden the metal to just the right temper. What surprised and impressed me as much was that the Indians also used fire to temper the wood of their arrows, bows, and lances and other important wooden tools and equipment.
I don’t recall just when it was when I first brought fire to my work bench and applied it to the variety of wildlife carvings I was creating. It was probably somewhere as long ago as the 60’s. I remember one bass carving that was darkened only with fire since I had no wood stain on hand. It worked. I remember too, a decoy I had carved to replicate an antique pintail duck. I took it in to a local sport shop that kept and sold a large number of collectible waterfowl decoys. When the owner saw me carrying my deke into the shop, he said to his customers something to the effect of “Wow! There’s an old one!” as he turned to me and added, “How old is that one?” I unintentionally put a dent in his integrity as a decoy collector by looking at my watch and replied, “Oh, a couple of hours or so.
Fire had been a great tool in the production of that faux fowl. It distressed the wood, making it appear worn away in places where it really wasn’t. It distressed the paint job as well and made it look like time had taken it away rather than heat or a steel-wool pad and a wire brush. And I can’t even count the number of fake shorebird decoys I replicated for decorators that became instant antiques using fire to distress the wood and to heat the ice-picks I used to poke fake birdshot holes into the wooden bodies. (I referred to them as collectibles with a head start on antiquity!)
Somewhere along the way, I found that I could use fire on Douglas Fir to emphasize the differences in the hard and soft grain of the wood. The soft wood would burn and brush away a lot quicker and easier than the hard wood that was the growth rings of the wood. I could distress the wood with fire like that to create the impression of waves on water, or the wind-blown or water washed look of drifted sand. With wooden bases, I could burn the edges before taking a wire wheel to them before staining the edges with dark stain, giving the edge the appearance and texture of black walnut shells.
Many times I’ve had to agree with some carvers who complain that certain woods are not compatible with power carving tools because the bits and burrs and drum sanders tend to leave the wood “fuzzy”. I never found that to be a problem because a few quick passes with my propane torch took care of the fuzzies as quickly as Grandma singed away the hair or down off chickens, ducks, and more than a few of my pheasants over the flames from a burner on her cook stove. (My wood fires always smelled better than Grandma’s feathers!)
Last year, as one of the art judges for the Alaska State Fair, I saw two pieces of absolutely beautiful wood turnings.…bowls that gave one the impression of coming from old Japan. What impressed me more than anything about the bowls was the handles on their lids. I had never seen anything quite like it. BOTH handles had been burned, obviously with a torch because the area of the burn had been very limited and carefully controlled. The wood was clearly charred and cracked. What happened next is what impressed me. The charred portion of the wood had been repeatedly saturated with superglue to the point that the charcoal was now plasticized and completely stabilized. Totally! (I can’t wait to apply that technique to a project of my own. My imagination keeps that thought on the back burner for future reference.)
One thing I noticed with some woods was that the heat of the flame expanded resins in the wood or forced them to the surface. A clear-coating highlighted the miniscule beads of resin and in so doing, made them look like tiny beads of light glowing from within the wood. On certain projects, that affect can be truly spectacular.
It goes without saying that I still like to play with fire to this day. Like I said, fire is more than a tool, or a playmate. It’s a partner. When used properly and safely, it has a very important role in my efforts as a professional woodcarver. I don’t play with it under the fuel barrels, so I think even Grandma would approve of what I do with it now. I wish I could show her. I think she would be proud!
Give fire a chance. It works for me. I think you may be totally surprised by what can happen when you are “Playing With Fire!”
Good luck and good carvin’.…
Dan Blair ~ FishCarving2 founder/modera