North American burl treen
For decades, these items have consistently commanded respectable prices in private dealings and at auction, yet the subject has been seriously neglected in print, leaving most collectors and dealers with only a general understanding of the material.
North America was first explored by Europeans in order to find a Western route to the riches of Asia, but in the process it was surveyed and explored for its own resources. The resources found in North America were tremendous: dense virgin forests of large, strong, and varied hardwoods and softwoods; a coastline rich with fish, accessible ports and islands; excellent growing soil; new agricultural crops like tobacco and corn; and huge numbers of animals for husbandry and skins.
By 1600, Continental Europe and England had a population exceeding seventy million. Though Europe was well forested and not necessarily in danger of depleting its resources, finding land masses that included huge tracts of virgin forests became ever more important as the need for strong timber was required for building and maintaining a strong naval defense. This was also the age of global exploration and larger and larger ships were constantly being commissioned for commercial purposes.
Steven S. Powers conveys that though the tradition of using wood for domestic purposes was nearly as old as Europe itself, the use of burl for domestic purposes was a new experience for Europeans arriving in North America in the 17th century. Burl treen, as they would learn, with its interlocking grain and strong matter made for a more durable treenware than treen of a straight grain. Since a living tradition of using burl for domestic purposes was not part of what the European settlers brought to this[clarification needed] country, it can be said with assurance that they learned of the use of burl and its practical applications from the New England natives, for whom it was a centuries-old tradition. (Burl in Europe was used sparingly, principally for veneers.)
Early accounts from European explorers and settlers of North America made note of the artistry and the value that the Native Americans held for their carved wood bowls and ladles.
Daniel Gookin writes in 1674 in Historical Collections of the Indians of New England,
“Their dishes, and spoons and ladles, are made of wood, very smooth and artificial, and of a sort of wood not subject to split.”
Also writing in the 17th century, John Josselyn observed in TWO VOYAGES TO NEW ENGLAND,
"dishes, spoons, and trayes wrought very smooth and neatly out of knots of wood."
Early colonial probate records from the 17th and 18th centuries often make accounts of “knot” bowls and dishes. The will of Eleanor Pierce of Kittery, Maine dated from 1675 is particularly interesting as it distinguishes wares made by themselves and wares made by the natives.
History accounts that the American Indians made bowls and other wares for trading purposes and much is known and documented of the Indian made baskets in early homes, however, not much is known of the bowl trade. It is likely that we[who?] underestimate the amount of burl treen of Native American manufacture that would have been commonly found in early American households.
It is a gross misunderstanding to think that Native American works were more primitive and less refined than those of the early settlers. On the contrary, at the time of the first colonial settlements and further into the years of this nation, the Woodlands people excelled at wood crafts and made the finest hewn bowls and related articles.
In some ways, it is unwise to make a blanket statement that turned bowls are of early American manufacture and hewn bowls are of Native American manufacture. However, little evidence supports the contrary.
Before engagement and trade with Europeans, Native Americans employed flint and other stone blades as knives and axes and hafted beaver’s teeth as an adze-like tool for hewing and carving wood and other materials. A block of wood or burl would be cut from a tree and the interior burned out with hot coals, scraped, and burned some more. This was repeated until a sufficient cavity was formed. The bowl would be shaped and refined further using a combination of smaller stone implements and beaver’s teeth. In finishing the bowl it would be burnished with a smooth stone or the side of a beaver’s tooth.
Numerous manufactured metal tools and appliances brought over by 16th and 17th century European settlers had an immediate impact on the lives of the Native Americans. Two such implements were the steel or iron hatchet and the steel knife (which would later evolve into the mocotaugan, or crooked knife). These were quickly favored over the stone and tooth tools. Though the proficiency in which the natives made their bowls improved, there is no indication that the new tools improved the craftsmanship and artistry of their wood carved bowls and ladles.
Before coming to America, Europeans had use of the pole lathe for nearly two thousand years and for several centuries small towns were accustomed to acquiring their treen from local wood turners and shops. Not only was the use of burl not much of a tradition in Europe, neither was the hand hewing of bowls, platters, and dishes. Even the poorest of peasants generally had turned wares.
Because the machine could easily be assembled and disassembled, the pole lathe made its journey with many men to the new country. From the 17th century on, the lathe was the method of choice for making treen in early America, not hewing it as did the natives. A lathe, either a pole lathe or later, a rotary lathe, works on the same principle: a block of wood is fixed between two stocks by means of a spike or faceplate and is then rotated at some speed at which time a chisel is employed to shape the wood into its desired shape. By the nature of the craft, the orchestration between ever-adjusting foot speeds and maintaining the appropriate pressure of the chisel, each turning is unique and each will have subtle nuances of wall thickness, proportions and ornamentation (beaded and incised turnings).
Burl is a cancerous growth on a tree or bush. This irregular cell growth makes determining the species difficult unless a portion of the host or straight grain is available. Though burl is an irregular growth, there is some consistency within the irregularities in that species of trees that are prone to developing burls produce the same kind of burl over and over again.
For example, ash burl consistently looks like ash burl and maple burl like maple burl. However, sometimes a burl will not exhibit its telltale character traits —- it may have the traits of more than one species or just some of them, but then have an altogether unfamiliar trait. To identify this we can just make an educated guess. Nearly 90 percent of burl treen in North America was fashioned from black ash burl. It is a common misbelief that the majority of burl was fashioned from maple or walnut burl. It should be stressed that not every piece of wood that exhibits a strong or decorative grain is burl.
In America today, we prize a surface that is what it was when it was last used in its former life. This old undisturbed surface or “original surface,” combined with a couple hundred years of oxidation can make for a stirring aesthetic sensation. An untouched surface on a common burl bowl can be much more appealing than a refinished surface on a rare or more desirable form. However, an untouched surface can only reflect the life it led—though the surface may be right it may not be the most desirable. A long and well used life will result in a richer more desirable surface than a life of little use and wear. This preference has not always been the case. A short time ago dealers and collectors were waxing, oiling or varnishing their treen. That is why today, when an untouched example is found, we have to appreciate it as “one that got away.”
Exact dating can almost never be attained with treen. Even if an object is inscribed with a date, it still has to prove itself. Our best gauge for dating treen is dating it to like forms in other materials that have a known date, such as pewter or silver which is often hallmarked to indicate its year of manufacture. This, however, is still a loose tool and can at best give us a ten year window. Over the years, the more objects that we see and feel, the more they speak to us, the more they tell us of their age and lives.
Large ash burls are scarce these days and therefore are quite expensive when they enter the market. Overwhelmingly their value is stretched by converting them into veneers. I have not seen any contemporary ash burl turnings made to look old.
Ash burl bowls, especially Native American bowls, have been known to have been reshaped. A carver will take an antique burl bowl and modify the bowl in some way to make it more commercial, maybe by in-cutting handles or figures. A keen eye looks for proper proportions (does it look cut down?) and appropriate wear.
Recently, I have seen a flood of Chinese and Tibetan turned burl objects enter the Americana market. They are usually small footed bowls with a figure resembling ash, but more the color of maple. They are old and nice objects, however definitely not American.
The most disturbing fakes on the market are carved effigy bowls made with the intent to appear as authentic 18th and 19th century bowls (this past year, I saw four enter the market). They are somewhat skillfully carved with moderately thin walls, a rounded bottom (which is atypical), a zoo-or-anthropomorphic head projecting off from the rim (awkwardly so) and they often have several side castellations (supposed appendages). The surfaces are often well manufactured and are sometimes almost convincingly old. Given the value of real effigy bowls, I expect to see more of them. Though we all want a treasure, the age-old adage applies, “if it’s too good to be true....”