The Elder cannibal fork – creating memories

As the Edgcumbe cannibal fork was made in a particular way for a particular purpose, I wanted to carve an altogether different fork; partly to experiment with a different effect in the wood, partly for the practice using a different tool-set.   The task ended up doing a good deal more for me than that.

I have a few good-sized and remarkably straight pieces of what seems to be elder in the woodstore (this is the trouble with being given wood by people who don’t actually know what they’ve got – the bark looks like elder, but maybe…).   Whatever it is, the wood works nicely.   It is firm, easy to cut when green but toughening up as it dries out.   The thick, dark brown core of the heartwood, full of tannin, contrasts with the pale, creamy-coloured sapwood.

The Fijian cannibal forks are on the whole carved in a dark wood capable of taking a high polish, like the black tree fern.    The effect is sleek, rich and mysterious.   I wanted to see what I could do, to create a parti-coloured object which has a different appearance depending how it is viewed and held.

The Elder cannibal fork* is carved from a half-log.   The heartwood is either hidden from view, or is a dark streak running the length of the object.   As the wood dries out, the colour in the fibres and cells changes – it softens in some places, stands out in others.   The sapwood/heartwood interface is more pronounced, making the transition even more dramatic.   Darker flecks in the heartwood catch the eye.  Interesting patterns made by the growth rings throughout the fork can be followed under close inspection, making the deceptively yealding-looking sapwood appear more sinewy and robust.

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Most of the work on the Edgcumbe cannibal fork was completed on the pole lathe.   This was a deliberate and specific choice – part of the suggestion that the object was a modern, European, creation and not an historic, native object from Fiji.   I did all the work on the Elder cannibal fork in hand, using an axe, drawknife and knife.   I wanted to leave a seemingly unrefined look, with all the marks left on the surface of the wood.   But I also wanted to test my skills by carving five prongs.

Fijian cannibal forks have any number of prongs, but usually from two to four.   Five is a beautiful but awkward number to work with.

It was agony.   A slow, laborious, painful process.   Cutting out five prongs left much less space to work the knife-blade; the centre section, all of which must be removed, tenaciously held in place and would only come out in a mess of broken fibres and gristly splinters; the narrowing edges of the triangular prong sections felt ever sharper as they dug more insistently into my fingers; the long prongs became bars that kept knocking the blade and my hands back as I tried to finish the surfaces; the finished points are like needles.   This fork came of out the wood unwillingly.

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I carefully placed the cuts so that one prong would consist entirely of heartwood whilst the other four were all sapwood.    The contrasting colours are a surprise.   As the tensions in the log are released and the drying cells start to contract, the fork is moving.   The heartwood prong has escaped the confines of the billet of wood and appears to have stepped back, so that the fork stands proud.   It is a handsome fork, full of spirit and character.

In the short space of time that I have known it, the fork has become a talisman.   It cut me, yet I can hardly put it down.   The fork is glossy and substantial but also made interesting to the touch by the toolmarks on the surface, yet it still bites back if I don’t take care; those sharp-edged prongs and stiletto points.   I remember every movement, from first cleaving the log to the last knife cut, that went to claim it from the wood.

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Elder: witches’ tree; lucky and unlucky; home of the goddess; Sambucus nigra; timber of the true cross; our lane guardian, lookout-post and familiar friend.

* I don’t know if the wood is elder.   But it has given me the name for this fork.

[For an entertaining read about Britain’s trees, including a nice vignette of Sambucus nigra, try Out of the Woods by Will Cohu, published by Short Books in 2007.]