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CAS, you mentioned carving wood spirit walking staffs; I have carved literally thousands of these within the past 20 years. Although I have carved several different species for this subject matter, I have found the maple is one of the best and easiest to carve. The trick is that you must carve it green. Find yourself a nice straight maple sapling, about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Do not let it sit fro more than a couple of days before starting. If you think it will take you several days to complete, then start immediately after cutting. Assuming your tools are nice and sharp, you will be pleasantly surprised - the green maple will carve like soap. After you are done, slather the stick with a 50/50 mixture of mineral spirits and boiled linseed oil. This will slow drying, and will increase the visual contrast between the bark and the exposed wood. It will also make the carved details pop. Maple bark has a sort of ashy grey look to it, but once you add the oil, it will turn dark brown. Once the oil has absorbed after a few days, apply a sparing coat of either satin poly or satin tung oil for a seal coat. It is my desire to make sure the final finish is not glossy and plastic looking, but a dull sheen instead.

Do not be concerned about splitting and checking - it will not. I have never had one in twenty years do this. Also, once it dries, it will get much lighter and will be rock hard. I carve these things in about 3 hours with a few half round gouges, a v-tool, and a long thin knife. Here is a sample (from my website):
 

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It certainly does not have to be that detailed to be nice - that is just something I've developed along the way. I don't think you should wait to try it. I think if you go get a maple stick, clamp it down on that table contraption you have and go nuts on it with your gouges, you will be delighted! Just practice all over it - you be surprised at how easy it is green. You will need a mallet, of course. Just my opinion - why wait?
 

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Thanks! You know, wood spirit sticks were the first thing I ever carved, so repetition is the keyword. I have done so many, that it is the easiest thing for me to carve. After a while you develop a "formula", and then you alter the formula in order to keep each one unique. Even then, they all look the same to me ; ) At this point point, I just dive into the wood. I do draw a few guidelines here and there occasionally if the wood has an unusual shape, or if I want the face pulled in a certain way. I probably have been doing that after the first twenty or so.

Years ago, when I did craft festivals (lots of sticks and folk santas), I used to attend the annual Irish festivals in Pittsburgh. All I did on those days was offer wood spirit sticks, and I would also demonstrate all day. The promoter would always set me up near the beer lines, so I had throngs of drunken Irish around me all day watching me work, buying my sticks, hanging on me and buying me Guinness drafts. I learned to carve fast and under pressure ( and drunk).

Good times.
 
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