The sub-boreal forests of southern Ontario furnish the material I use to make rustic, nature-inspired necklaces. I gather fallen branches from the wooded island in Muskoka which has been in my family for more than 100 years. Centuries before that, the lake provided rich hunting and fishing grounds and portage routes for native peoples (our family has found arrowheads and a stone pounding tool on the island), and in the late 1800s and early 1900s boasted a thriving logging and boat-building industry. We have several tree species on the island: white and red pine, white and red oak, eastern white cedar, common juniper, red maple, poplar and white birch. But although we’re surrounded by trees, it’s harder than you might think to find appropriate specimens to turn into jewellery; the wood must be seasoned, not green, and can have no signs of pests, disease or rot, and I never harvest living wood. Only a handful of branches I find on the forest floor will make the cut, so to speak!
I prefer to use the most natural materials and tools possible (I do use an electric drill and a woodburning tool), and it takes several days to complete each necklace. I hand-saw each slice, drill a bail hole and sand with five successively finer grits until the surface is silky smooth. Some pendants I leave unadorned in order to highlight the wood grain; oak, juniper, cedar, birch and maple are particularly beautiful, each with its own character. Then I seal the piece with two coats of non-toxic linseed/beeswax wood oil. I finish by buffing on several layers of beeswax polish for further protection and a subtle, natural sheen.
For other pieces, especially those made of pine, the pale wood of which makes a perfect canvas, I embellish with pyrography (woodburning). Most of the designs are my own, applied freehand without a pattern or transfer. I enjoy incorporating motifs from nature, or Celtic or Norse art and traditions; runes, Ogham and Viking sigils work particularly well. I do sell these pieces internationally, so I’m obliged to follow my government’s phytosanitary regulations. Any wood I export must be small, have no bark, and be sealed to prevent the spread of pests to the destination country. I’d love to be able to keep the bark on some of my pieces, but I can’t risk the chance of them being seized at the border – and, therefore, not delivered to my customers. So I came up with an easy way of simulating bark by using pyrography to burn on the effect around the edges.
I’ve also experimented with adding colour to the designs. Watercolour pencils are perfect, rather than paint, which would introduce too much moisture to the wood. Their wash of colour lends a soft antique effect that I quite like.
I also like varying the shapes of the pendants. Cutting the branch in crosswise slices results in discs with lovely end grain patterns. Thinner branches of the same woods can be cut lengthwise to reveal a completely different grain effect, and any knots, sanded smooth, add even more rustic character. They can be cut longer for pendants or kept small and drilled through the centre to make beads. I like to give my customers choices for cords or chains, too. Waxed cotton, hemp, soft jute, macramé cord, ribbon and genuine leather are natural cord options, and I can add glass or ceramic beads (a good way of weighing down the lightweight wood pendants), finishing them with either adjustable sliding knots or metal findings and a clasp. I also offer chains in different metals including nickel-, silver- and copper-plate.
The same production techniques lend themselves to non-jewellery items, too. Oak, a durable hardwood, is suitable for keychain fobs. I’ve used oak and other woods to make toggle closures for my drawstring leather bags. And wood slices without bail holes, pyrographed with good luck and protection symbols such as the Scandinavian Aegishjalmr and Gibu Auja, are popular. They are pocket talismans or amulets intended to be carried rather than worn; I’ve been meaning to make up some unbleached muslin drawstring bags to pop them into. Time to get out the sewing machine!
Most of the items shown here have been sold. I really must get on with making more to replenish the shop. Earlier this year, my brother gave me some lilac and linden branches from storm-damaged or pruned trees. They’re still drying out and seasoning, but I’m dying to give them a go. And I’m always looking for ideas for new designs; if you have any suggestions, please let me know!