Ideas for carving new life into a dead tree

Cutting down a dead tree can be expensive and dangerous. Not only that, but cutting it down will probably leave a gap in your landscape that needs to be filled with something. A creative alternative to cutting down a dead tree is to turn it into a work of art. Get out your chisels and whittling knives and prepare to turn a sad looking dead tree into a fine art sculpture. 

Motif and design

Before beginning the project, look at some resource material for prompts and inspiration. For your design, consider floral and vine motifs, African tribal patterns, Pacific southwest tribal designs, Totems, repetitive geometric patterns, tessellations, wood spirits and animals. Once a design decision has been made, print out your inspiration resources and gather together your cutting and carving tools. You will need loppers, knives, saws, chisels and gouges. You may also consider using a wood burner tool, a Dremel or other small rotary cutter.

Prepare the tree for carving

Shape and clean up the tree by trimming, lopping and snapping off all the small twigs and branches that are in your way. Your goal is to provide room to work the trunk of the tree and the larger branches. You can always trim more as the project progresses. Leave the bark on and incorporate it into your design or strip it off for a smooth surface. Clean up the debris before beginning to work.

Step back and take a good look at the tree now. Consider how your design will wrap the tree trunk and branches. Using a crayon begin to rough sketch your design. This rough sketch will aid in planning the proportions and scale of all the elements of your design. Be prepared to stay flexible as you work; the sketch is just a guide.

Rough out the design

Cut a V-groove to outline a portion of the area where you are going to work. Extend the outline as far as you need in order to visualize the flow and continuity of the design. You are now ready to begin roughing out your design with your various cutting tools. Continue working in this fashion throughout the tree to create an overall design. 

Finish the details

When you are satisfied with the big picture, cut in the details. You may want to use a pencil or crayon to sketch in some of the details if you are unsure about where to go with the design. If necessary, finish your finer design cuts using a wood burning tool or a rotary multi-tool cutter.

Add color if desired

Adding color to your carved tree can be done in a number of ways. A soft natural look can be achieved using aniline dyes or wood stains. Stains and dyes will likely fade, but that may be the look you’re going for. Painting is an option if you want a more vibrant application of color. Paint may flake off and need ongoing maintenance. Another option for color are the solid body stains that are often used on outdoor decking and exterior wood. Be aware that no color is going to be permanent and will likely need at least a minimum of maintenance.

Carving a dead tree is the ultimate in up-cycling and adds a spark of artistic interest to your landscape. Not only are you creating art, but you are also preserving a habitat for certain birds who like to nest in dead trees. Why not hang a birdhouse and a feeder that coordinate with your design?