October 14, 2021

Carving Lilac Wood | A Smart Guy’s Guide

I have been looking for a good way of carving lilac wood since my grandpa passed away several years ago. I have always been fascinated by wood and the process of carving. The first time I tried to carve lilac wood I was confident that I had cut the first slice. 

I had chiseled away at the grain of the wood until I had enough to make the long, fine incision that I believed was the beginning of the shape. I then took a small nibbler to that incision, to open it out a little bit. My heart sank as I saw the grain of the wood had been completely destroyed. I tried again, making the first incision, but this time it didn’t seem to go anywhere. I tried again, and again, but the nibbler was the only tool that would work. 

This post will help you avoid some of my mistakes. Here is what I have learned along the way.

What does lilac wood look like

Lilacs are shrubs in parks and gardens. Their scientific name is syringa vulgaris. They come in several hybrids and grow in well-drained soils. They flower on old wood, and more flowers if unpruned. If pruned, the plant produces fast.

Lilac wood is close-grained and diffuse-porous. It belongs to the hardwood family. The sapwood is cream in color, and the heartwood has numerous shades of brown and purple. 

Dominik MatusCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When drying, the wooden curves as a twisted material, and splits into sticks. Availability makes lilac wood a convenient wood type. New branches feed into older branches, making them thicker. Lilac wood is hardwood for carving and making musical instruments.

The color of Lilac wood changes depending on the species harvested.  The most popular sapwood samples are pale, and the heartwood comes in colors ranging from reddish to brownish. At times it features a reddish to lavender color  Multiple colors are a sign of variability of Lilac wood. 

Lilac wood grain is in smaller trees, shrubs, and vines. It has a fine texture and a natural luster resulting from natural oils in the wood. The end grain of Lilac wood is small to medium in terms of pore size.

Since the wood comes from short bushes, it is too small to make cabinetry and furniture. That makes it ideal for carved items such as bowls and decorative products. It compromises the natural state of products which results in twisted sticks of lilac, during drying.  Lilac has a distinctive floral scent when being worked. That makes you feel comfortable around the wood.

Lilac pieces make turned items such as pens or small bowls, as well as for carved items. These include knife handles due to the hardness and density of the wood. Although Lilac wood makes musical instruments, it is not clear what type of instruments they are. 

There are multiple, handmade wooden spoons carved from a carefully selected piece of lilac wood. Lilac makes kitchenware. The hardwood comes with tight growth rings and has colors that range from ivory white to deep purple. 

These qualities also make it smooth and give a silky finish. The subtle grain pattern makes it beautiful. There are interesting shapes on spoons made from Lilac wood. Lilacs do not contain poisonous chemicals that will poison animals or humans. That marks it as safe wood. 

What to be mindful of when carving lilac

Lilac is not toxic, but when burnt, it produces toxic sap. Make sure after using the wood, wash your hands.

Dominik MatusCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Avoid using Lilac wood for food smoking. Lilac produces a mild and sweet smoke preferred for cooking poultry and lamb. However, Lilac becomes harmful to your health. It contains a lot of sap. Smoke from sapwood leaves a  weird taste in the food.

Mind the length and width of the wood you are working on since it is short.

Using the right blade

Make use of a precision knife, craft knife, or carving knife. It has to stay well-shaped so that there will not be any compromise to quality. Carving knives come in different sizes and shapes, depending on their use. 

The shape of the blade determines its’ purpose, and the size determines how fine the details will be. A bench knife іѕ is an excellent tool to have with ease of handling. A carving knife has a short blade, such as a scalpel іѕ for getting a bit more up close and personal with a piece of wood.

Sanding it down

Sanding is the starting point before applying any sealer. Use a clear shellac sanding sealer as a base coat and apply a clear lacquer finish over it. These do not yellow with age as they keep the purple wood alive for years. Shellac is UV resistant and prevents dulling for the sun rays. Sand between coats for better adhesion.

Putting a finish on it

Using the wrong number of finishes results in failure to cover the whole wood surface. When using a water-based stain, be sure to use a pre-stain wood conditioner, regardless of wood species.

Walnut oil is a light oil that you would need to make the grain pop. You are allowed to use a CA finish over the oil. Give the surface weeks after oiling before applying the CA.

A natural finish is appealing from the lilac wood. If you want to subdue the open pores, fill them up using a filler of your choice. Using paste filler leaves you with a natural finish. Uncolored filler allows you to tint it as required. 

Tinting it to the lightest color of the wood after you have stained it is a better idea. You can also use universal tinting colors (UTC’s), japan colors, or artist oil colors. The UTC’s tend to lack disadvantages whereas the japan’s fade in strong light. The artist’s oil color gives you a good lightfast color.

Put a small amount of filler and thinner in separate containers and mix a strong amount of the artist’s color into it when mixing filler colors.  As you mix well, leave it with toothpaste consistency of the color so that it breaks down and becomes liquid. That is how you did up with color concentrates. 

Mix raw sienna into the filler and check it regularly on a paper plate for color. Add small amounts of burnt umber to turn the light of the yellow down a little as needed. You are allowed to use the filler untinted. After all, it is all about personal taste. Test your filler on scraps.

Sand and clean or stain if you like. Wash the coat with shellac to seal the color in a ratio of 1:2. That is one part shellac, two parts denatured alcohol. Apply and remove filler as required. Allow it to cure for three days. You can choose to make shellac a final finish or varnish.

Another option is to use a thin varnish-like Minwax antique oil or watco. Apply a generous amount to the surface and wet sand it in. The oil fills the pores and does not forget to wipe it down repeatedly. Prepare to wipe since the oil weeps out of the pores for some time. Seal with shellac, sand, and you are allowed to use a gel stain over the top. The pores get darker over time with the oil and sanding.

David D. Hughes
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