Chinquapin Trench Bowls
by A. J. Hendershott
Once, just this once, I made something from chinquapin wood because I could. Not because I did extensive research on it or because I found a quote saying people used to use the tree for this purpose. I did it entirely because I thought it would be fun to do and yield a quality product. I made trench bowls.
I make all kinds of historic and prehistoric replicas and bowl making is something I have learned over the last 5 years. Part of my work with the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation is to rediscover past uses for this tree. I seized an opportunity to work green chinquapin wood which is something I had never done. These wooden bowls were called trench bowl and crafting them works best with “green” or unseasoned wood.
The beginning of this story can be found on a rocky ridgetop in Carter County Missouri. It is a site with dozens upon dozens of chinquapin trees. The genetics for these trees ranged from good to exceptional when it comes to blight resistance. Many of the nuts that come off this plot end up going to active members of the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation (OCF) each winter. (To enroll as a member click here.
The OCF has a goal to restore 100% pure Ozark chinquapin trees to its former native range. With that goal comes a promise. It means any seed we send out will be 100% Ozark chinquapin genetics. Our intent with that goal was to say we would not cross breed the trees with Chinese chestnuts but the goal has other ramifications. We won’t have other genetics either; even if they are a native species. One of the trees on this Carter County plot was tested for genetic heritage and apparently it had a significant amount of Allegheny chinkapin (Castanea pumila) genetics in it. When you have scores of Ozark chinquapins (Castanea ozarkensis) surrounding this one tree it means that tree would cross pollinate with other C. ozarkensis and achieve a seed with hybrid genetics that was unintended. Now that we know the tree’s genetics it had to be removed.
Image 1.) Ozark Chinquapin research plot in Carter County Missouri
Image 2.) OCF Vice President A.J. Hendershott completes cutting down an Ozark chinquapin with hybrid Alleghany chinquapin genetics
I took solace in knowing the parent tree genetics were preserved in living trees, and seeds from those parents live on in other places.
As soon as the tree came down, I began with my plans. Normally, I do experimental ethnobotany projects to rediscover ways of using the Ozark chinquapin. But in this case, I wanted to try something new.
In the Trenches
Trench bowls, also called trenchers, are a traditional craft that can be traced to historic folk craft of the late 1500s on through the early 1900s. Native Americans made similar wooden bowls with stone axes and adzes and burned away the depression with coals and scrapers. Colonists from new England to the Deep South, Appalachians and the Ozarks practiced this craft. Trench bowls were once a common household item. In the beginning this was the common dinner ware for most meals. Some trenchers were for eating and others were for serving. Some of the larger bowls were used for mixing and kneading bread dough. Then they were a place for the dough to rise under the cover of a cloth.
The process for making a trencher was not complicated but it did require some skill to be proficient at it. Required tools include a froe and mallet, hatchet, drawknife, (a hand plane is nice but not essential) a bowl adze, gouge, small mallet and a curved scraper for the smoothing. (Image 3) This process is essentially the same as it would be for someone from the 1800s.
Image 3.) Bowl carving tools including drawkife, spokeshave bowl adze, hand plane, scraper gouge and mallet
Step 1. Take a block of wood and split the wood with a froe and large mallet to rough shape the top and bottom of the bowl. (Images 4 & 5) If the log is large enough you may have to begin with an ax or hatchet and some splitting wedges. (Images 6 & 7)
Image 4.) A froe and mallet with 2 small diameter limbs before being split.
Image 5.) The same small diameter limbs seen in previous photo, split by froe and mallet.
Image 6.) Splitting a log with hatches and wedges.
Image 7.) Split log using hatches and wedges.
Step 2. Froe work is often rough and required clean up with a draw knife or spokeshave. I use a hand plane to get the surface of the top and bottom smooth and free of high spots or twist. (Images 8 & 9)
Image 8.) The first froe split is rough and will require drawkife work to clean it up.
Image 9.) Drawkife used to clean up the top and bottom.
Step 3. Once that is done the bowl is sketched out and a bowl adze is used to chop out the inside. (Image 10)
Image 10.) Adz work on the bowl depression.
Step 4. When the bowl depression is roughed out and sufficiently deep enough it is time to switch to a gouge. If your gouge can be struck with a small mallet that helps to refine the shape and margins of the bowl. (Image 11)
Image 11.) Gouge and mallet work on bowl depression.
Step 5. Following that a sharp gouge is used to clean up harsh lines and get the interior far smoother.
Step 6. When you have the right thickness, and you really can’t improve the smoothness anymore you have graduated to a scraper. Scrapers were what wood workers used before sandpaper was invented. (Images 12-14)
Image 12.) Bowls cleaned up with gouge and scrapper.
Step 7. When the bowl was properly smoothed and fully seasoned (dried) it was time to put it in use. Most were never given a formal finish and some seldom saw soap in favor of a good rinsing and wipe down with a towel.
There is a more to this simple process but the essentials are there.
Most woodworkers today use seasoned wood. What this means is the tree has had time to lose its moisture content and the wood is hard and has shrunken to its final dimension. Woodworkers of the past use mainly hand tools and instead preferred using green or unseasoned “wet” wood. A Freshly cut tree yields green wood which is infinitely easier to work than seasoned wood.
I did a test cut with my gouge on a 2 inch wide slab of seasoned Ozark chinquapin wood and found it to be exceptionally hard. It compares to working seasoned oak. I then did a test cut on a limb from this freshly cut chinquapin tree and discovered it was far easier to work which made the work go faster.
I was able to take a 7 inch diameter log and split it in half, trim to length and carve three trench bowls with gouge and mallet work completed in one day. I spent the following day slowly slicing away rough ridges with a hand gouge. This involved shaping the outside as well. While I did some green woodwork with a scraper, I had to be careful. Scraping green wood can be a great way to remove nicks and gouge marks that are unsightly. It was also a way to take a smooth area and unnecessarily rough it up with too much pressure – especially on areas with a lot of growth rings are revealed. The spring growth rings didn’t have the same resilience as the summer growth. Finesse was required.
Here is where I found a stopping point. Once I had the final dimensions I had to let them dry in a slow and controlled manner to reduce the risk of checking or splits forming. In the past a shaded spot covered with leaves might serve for this duty but for my modern preferences I put the bowls in a thick plastic bag with a heap of saw dust. This allows the wood to dry slowly and reduce checking.
With that stage complete I then can do final sanding, sign and be done. Most historic trenchers were not given a finish beyond use. Oil from hands and from food will gradually create a patina and bring out the grain. Sunlight also helps darken most hardwoods.
I chose to make the grain pop right up front. The grain of chinquapin is amazing and worthy of some extra attention. To accentuate that grain, I applied food grade walnut oil to the wood. This helps seal the wood and really brings out the grain color and lines. Walnut oil requires an annual reapplication and a little time in the sun to cure properly. (Image 15) Once cured the bowl is ready for any culinary delight you have planned for it.
Image 15.) Spoon oiled compared to unoiled items.
Out of the Trench
I learned something from all of this. People who see the wet grain on this wood comment on its beauty. It really makes me wonder if Ozark chinquapin was used for trenchers. I say this because Native Americans and European settlers in the Ozarks did appreciate beauty and would incorporate it into their life where possible. I can’t imagine a rail splitter or someone riving shingles wouldn’t look at that grain pattern and consider what other thing of beauty and usefulness they could coax from the wood.
I remember a quote form Robert Barnes on Ozark chinquapin wood. In the early 2000s Barnes shared, “Everything about the tree was used. The wood produced some beautiful furniture and musical instruments, even today things made from the chinquapin wood is highly prized.” I think this was his way of saying the wood was so pretty it was used for anything people could think of and it was appropriate to make. I truly think that includes trencher bowls.
When splitting wood there are stray sections that don’t split out with either half. Most are small but some are larger than most. Those random detached sections are often discarded to the wood pile. However, with the scarcity of this tree’s wood I couldn’t do that. Consequently, I decided to carve a spoon (Images 16 & 17) and a butter spreading knife (Image 18) with one of the scraps. I gave them some oil and was well pleased with the result. (Image 19)
Image 16.) Wooden spoon carving in progress
Image 17.) Chinquapin wooden spoon, finished
Image 18.) Chinquapin wood butter spreading knife.
Image 19.) Ozark chinquapin bowls, spoon, and butter knife.
Lastly, I saved all of the bark, wood chips and shavings this bowl project generated. (Images 20 & 21) My goal is to do a hide tanning experiment. I am aware that that bark of the American chestnut trees was once used for tanning leather. I also remember an article stating that the bark and wood of the Ozark chinquapin was equivalent to the American chestnut in tannic acid content which indicates it could be used for tanning as well. In the next year I plan to learn about hide tanning and try my hand at it with these chinquapin wood shaving and scraps. Stay tuned for more to come.
Image 20.) Wood chips and shavings saved for hide tanning project.
Image 21.) Chinquapin bark saved for future tanning projects.