The Wood Carver

What is wood? A collection of cellulose fibers in the trunks of trees that transfers water and nutrients to the leaves. Seems pretty simple. Not if you are a wood carver. In that case, wood has a story to tell, a magnetism that attracts you, a texture that promises to turn into a piece of art. AIM magazine met with Kono Tzoref from moshav Matan in central Israel to learn about the craft of wood carving.

Wood carving is an unusual job, isn’t it?

Wood carving is an art and artistry is in my genes. My family name ‘Tzoref’ means ‘silversmith’. As often happens, our name came about because in Iraq, my family were silversmiths. I began my career by carving banisters and entrance ways for mansions. When people began to cut back, I found myself at home looking after my two daughters while my wife worked. Here, I had a chance to notice things we take for granted. Like bread. I decided that by carving beautiful bread bins, I could show my appreciation for simple things. I wanted my creations to be useful as well as beautiful, so the top of my bread bins slides off and can be used as a bread board.

What else do you make?

Coat stands, shelves, trays and kitchen utensil holders. I particularly like making things that connect people to the past. Like shoe shine stands. No one has time to polish their shoes properly today! Shoe shine stands evoke nostalgia and remind people of a past that was more tranquil. My post boxes are also very popular. Americans in particular like to have a hand-carved post box for their mail. One tourist loved the post boxes so much that he ordered one even though he didn’t need it for outside his house. He put it in his hall and the family uses it to leave messages for each other. My most popular item is challah boards. My work can be passed down through generations, so it gives a feeing of continuity. It won’t need to be replaced after a few months at worst and a few years at best.

Which type of wood do you use?

I like to use wood that is indigenous to Israel. I have worked with mahogany and Scandinavian pine, but they don’t have the same feel as the olive wood, pine, eucalyptus and carob of Israel. Different woods create different impressions. Olive wood is light and attractive. It exudes a feeling of softness. Pine is delicate and gives a sense of security. I like working with it because the pieces are straight and smell so fresh. Eucalyptus has a red-pink shine. It is a very hard, strong wood which makes it difficult to work with. I use it for coat stands.

From where do you get the wood?

I usually travel to the moshavs in the north of Israel to buy wood. Most people in Israel are unaware of the value of good wood. I sometimes find tree trunks that are as old as a hundred years being sold for firewood. These are trees that were transplanted but didn’t thrive and died. When I was in Abu Gosh, an Israeli Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, I picked up beautiful olive and carob wood that was being sold as firewood. Sometimes the most beautiful wood is used as scaffolding for buildings. It’s such a pity that so much good wood is lost in these ways. However, over the thirteen years that I have been buying from such suppliers, they have become more aware of the value of the wood.

That is great for art, but bad for your pocket! How do you turn a tree trunk into something functional?

The first thing is to take it to a carpentry where it is sawed into pieces according to my instructions. Depending on what I see in the wood, I ask the carpenter to cut the wood into circles or planks. Olive wood is more complicated to cut because old trees have often rotted in the centre and then renewed themselves, leaving large holes in the wood. After cutting, I dry the wood in my workshop for at least a year. I stack it while making sure that there is plenty of room for air circulation. Sometimes, a piece of wood can remain in my workshop for five or six years until I get the right idea for it.

Which kind of tools do you use?

I use more traditional techniques, which means that I hardly use electric tools. I don’t use nails to join parts, but dowel. Doweling involves drilling holes and inserting wooden pins. If I am carving a pattern, I use carving knives, chisels, which have a flat cutting edge, and gouges which have a rounded cutting edge. I sharpen my knives on a whetstone.

I’ve heard that some woods are soft, while others are hard. Is that true?

Yes, wood can be roughly divided into hard and soft woods. Softwoods are the conifers like most pines and fir. Their wood is made up of water conducting cells. The native Hawaiian coral tree called wiliwili has very soft, light wood. It is used for outriggers (a long, thin bar attached to the outside of the canoe to stabilize it), surfboards and fishnet floats. Hardwoods are usually flowering trees like oak. Their cells are made up of water conducting cells plus tightly packed fiber cells. The density of the cells, the amount of lignin (a chemical compound that strengthens the cell walls) in the cells and the percentage of air spaces within the walls decide how hard the wood is. If I am making wooden plates, then I use hardwood like eucalyptus so that the plates won’t get marked with cuts.

Everyone has heard stories of sailors surviving a ship wreck by holding onto a piece of floating wood. Does wood always float?

Not always. Some hardwoods, usually found in tropical regions, are called ironwoods. This wood is so dense that it sinks. It is so hard that one species of ironwood tree in South America is called ‘quebracho’, which means ‘axe breaker’. The wood is used for Venetian blind rollers and propeller shaft bearings of submarines.

Do you have an interesting story to share with us?

I like to think that my art has a higher value than simply being art. Once, an elderly lady and a younger woman who appeared to be her daughter were admiring an olivewood tray, but didn’t seem able to come to any decision. I asked them if I could help them. The daughter said that her mother loved the tray, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for it. I immediately wrapped the tray up and told them that they could send me a check. The mother was very touched that I trusted she would pay for it later. I believe that art achieves its purpose when it inspires people to act in noble ways.

In other words, beauty should inspire us to move beyond ourselves. Do you give tours of your workshop?

Sure. Sometimes groups of school children come in with their teachers.

So when can we come for a tour?

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