Thursday, 10 November 2011

Working with wood

As trees finally release their leaves and the sap rests underground, the time comes when we can think about working more closely with them. Making your own energetic or meditative tools is perhaps one of the most relaxing tasks to carry out over the winter period. The article below first appeared in the Fall edition of Circle Magazine back in 2007.

Working with Wood : A Beginner’s Guide to Wand and Staff Making.

I dropped into woodworking by accident. I am not a practical person, preferring to leave anything like that to the various men around me, but I have always loved wood. When I began following the Pagan path, it became evident that if I wanted any “tools for my trade”, I would have to make them. What I discovered was, creating my own wands and staves was not an arduous task, but one which brought great peace and joy. In this article I should like to share with you what I have learned so you can begin your own way of communicating with those trees and bushes you find around you.

My first wand was a short piece of “Glastonbury thorn” –a tree which flowers and fruits at the same time, collected from a pile of prunings in Glastonbury Abbey in 1996. The same year, I began making ogham sticks, or fews, from the 20 sacred woods of the Druids, using Glennie Kindred’s book, “Tree Ogham”.

Later, I became interested in larger “sticks” and started to sandpaper them to see what difference it made. I found the more you sandpaper, the smoother the wood becomes until it has a wonderful silky feel when you touch it. This can best be achieved by beginning with coarse-grained sandpaper and finishing with a fine grained one. If you then coat the sanded wood with sunflower oil, this polishes the wood and gives it an even better finish.

This polishing technique came about quite by chance when I found a jar of home made calendula salve (double infused oil thickened with beeswax) nearby when I was sanding. I rubbed some salve into the wood to see what would happen. You would not believe how it changes the colour of the finished wand!

Gorse is a wonderful wood to work with, the dead wood turns from light brown to honey-coloured and the live wood, if you’ve sanded it with the bark on goes gorgeous shades of green, white and brown which resemble snake skin. Birch wands rubbed with salve after sanding with the bark present glows with a red tinge.

Each wood has a different spiritual property and a different affinity for the time of year. I love yew, not only for it’s soft orange colour, but because it is the gateway between this world and the spirit world. As a healer and counsellor, I often work with people who are dying or bereaved, so yew is a very special wood for me.

When my friend lost his parents, I made him two fews (ogham sticks), one of live gorse for hope and one of yew finished with comfrey oil, so he could sit and stroke the wood, finding comfort in their touch. Recently, I sent him an elder few, because elder helps with change and moving on. I made myself a necklace of elder beads finished with rosemary infused oil for aiding “life rites”. It is adorned with kestrel feathers to help with farseeing. I wear it during rituals or when I want a focus for meditation or visualisation.

It is best to gather wood from living trees when they are asleep during the winter months or being pruned. You should always discuss your wish to gather wood with the tree itself. Sometimes there will be a dead twig or branch which can be removed without harm or maybe you will find just what you are looking for under the canopy. It may have blown off during a strong wind or storm or left there after animal damage.

Some wood can be gathered and worked fresh (holly and gorse are good for this) but most are better left to dry for at least five weeks before you try scraping or sanding them. The tools I use for woodworking are a pair of secuteurs, a small knife, various grades of sandpaper and vegetable oil or salve of some description. I make a wide variety of infused herbal oils so I always have a wide variety of enhancing energetic properties to choose from. A woodworking apron to protect clothes can also be useful.

You can make wands with both green and dry wood, depending on what you’ve got to hand and whether you want to work with it with the bark on or off. It’s easier to remove the bark when the wood is green rather than when it’s dry. Willow will remain wet for over a year because if you drive a stick into the ground, it will grow. I have a flourishing willow hedge in my herb garden which is made from pollarded branches cut down in November 2005 and left on the ground during the winter. My father trellised the fence for me in April 2006 and they sprouted almost immediately.

A wand can be used to direct energy as in circle casting, or to aid concentration or meditation. If I am making wands in public places, I often refer to them as meditation sticks and show people how to use the property of the wood to help them relax or focus on particular concepts such as ash for connecting with the natural world or holly for experiencing universal love.

The length of a wand is historically the distance from your elbow to your longest finger, but it can be much shorter. Cut your wand roughly to size from a longer branch or twig using secuteurs or pruning shears when you start working on it. A wand does not have to be straight nor from a single branch, it can curve and twist and have Ts or Ys at the end depending on what the piece of wood tells you to do. I use my penknife when I’m working on knots in the wood, or to shape the tip or handpiece. You can also use inexpensive metal files to make whirls or spirals in the wood if this is what you feel called to do.

Sanding does take time and it can be quite hard work. Start with the coarsest grain of sandpaper and work up to the finest sandpaper you have. It’s using more than one grade which really makes the wood smooth. Once you are satisfied with the smoothness, take some plain sunflower oil or herbal infused oil or salve if you have some and smooth it on until the wood stops soaking it up. Put a little on your fingertips and keep rubbing.

When finished, you can decorate your wand however you wish, but I prefer to use fairly natural materials such as seashells, ribbons, crystals, hagstones or other small objects such as acorn cups.

Staff making is a similar process, but slightly different. Your staff should be a thickness which is comfortable to hold in the palm of your hand and a length you feel happy with. It can be shoulder or head height or taller depending on your planned use.

I have a large hazel staff with runes inscribed on it for rituals, a much shorter blackthorn staff with a monkjack deer antler on the top which I use occasionally for stick dancing in Tai Chi and a lighter willow staff which I use most of the time when we are working with sticks. Do remember staves were originally weapons and could seriously injure someone if handled carelessly.

When you have chosen your piece of wood, leave it to dry for several months, then sand it down with the bark still on it. It doesn’t need to be as smooth as a wand, just until you feel happy with the smoothness. Some people prefer to remove all the bark, but I knew someone who did this and then had great trouble identifying the wood afterwards.

If you want to decorate your staff with carving or runes, do this now. Rune carving is much more difficult than you think – take care not to cut yourself. The runes can then be coloured in with a red dye of some description. If you can make a natural dye out of madder or dyers woodruff – both of which yield a bright red colour - all the better.

Once you have decorated your staff to your satisfaction, it then needs to be sealed in some way either with varnish or a clear wood sealant. Leave it to dry somewhere away from dust and particles which may adhere to the sticky surface. It can then be decorated with hag stones, seashells, crystals or whatever you fancy.

If you have made a staff with a Y-shaped top, this can be used as a ‘stang’ or outdoor altar. The stang is placed in the ground and decorated with animal skulls, flowers and ribbons. Again this acts as a focus for personal or group rites or ceremonies.

Although my family sigh a great deal at the number of different “sticks” I have lying around the house or when I bring new ones in to work on, I love my wands and staves. I use them for workshops with my healer development group and people seem to enjoy sensing their energy or meditating with them.

I hope this article will help you to feel confident to try working with wood. It’s a very forgiving medium to work with, offering great fun and freedom from the stresses of everyday life.

Kindred, G The Tree Ogham ISBN 0 9532227 2 1
Paterson, JM Tree Wisdom Thorsons 1996
West, K Real Witches’ Year Element Thorsons 2004


Sandies' Patch said...

I have an interesting book by Karen Cater, called, 'The Ogham Sketchbook'. It takes you throught the year in her neck of the woods, looking at various trees and shrubs.

Have a lovely weekend,

Sandie xx

Comfrey Cottages said...

A most interesting article, Sarah. I enjoyed it very much! I love working with my hands and can understand how this would be a very relaxing and fulfilling thing to do. I appreciate your insights on the meanings of the different woods also. Thank you very much for sharing with us:) xxx

Rowan said...

I really enjoyed reading this post and I shall print it and read it again. I found the words 'I'm not a practical person' very encouraging as the same words apply to me as far as woodworking etc goes. I haven't come across Circle magazine before so I shall go and Google it now.

Jo-Ann said...

I found this post fascinating, I've only just begun learning about the significance and meaning of trees. I started collecting small branches I found under trees, by accident really. I have a lovely piece of Ash that feels so wonderful to hold, it fits in my hand perfectly. Ive always wanted to do something with them, but never sure what. I think this winter I may try to collect those associated with Ogham.
Best wishes Jo-Ann x

Sarah Head said...

I'm so pleased you've all enjoyed the article. Sandie, I have Karen's book. I bought it after finding and falling in love with her cards based on the individual trees. It is a lovely book and I thoroughly enjoyed sharing her journey of discovery. I use Glennie's Ogham book more for interpretations when I'm using the ogham for divination. I've made sets for friends who also find them useful for making sense of now. If you want to delve deeper into tree lore, Tree Wisdom by Jennifer Memory Patterson is lovey and she's produced a pocket sized version. For in-depth study of ogham, try Nigel Pennick's Ogham and Coelbren and New Celtic Oracle by Nigel Jackson and Nigel Pennick - if you could learn everything from those two books you would be seriously skilled!