Yep, it sounds a bit crazy, but at times it's very important. Often the natural branches that you'll gather will have a certain amount of dirt or fungus attached to the bark. (Look at some of the branches in the back of my van in the photo below.) Nothing a little water and a pot scrubber or old washcloth can't take care of! Make sure the branches and twigs you work with are clean. Otherwise, some of that outside soil or fungus will get on your hands and end up smudging the piece you're carving.
Twigs from the paper birch in front of the hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey, turned into five flowers, a rooster and a mini hunting knife.
While I sometimes used blocks or scraps of milled wood, most of the carving I do is with twigs and branches of all sizes. Little twigs 1/16 of an inch thick can be whittled into miniature flowers, trees, and even super-mini hunting knives! Large maple, oak, dogwood, and sycamore forks make great slingshots for small pumpkins . . . and for "Country Pitching Machines" that can toss a baseball 500 feet and pitch a knuckleball 130 mile per hour! You wouldn't believe all the fun I've had with this unique piece of "sports equipment," which is usually anchored to the roof rack of my minivan!!
Of the 80 or so varieties of wood I've carved in the past fifty years, I'm guessing that 75 of them have been hardwoods. To name just a few: birch (any kind), maple, live oak, water oak, pin oak, holly, beech, ironwood, cherry, orange, grapefruit, lemon, quince, bottlebrush,
myrtle, redbud, viburnum guava, alnos (Philippines), lentisco (Portugal), elm, olive. Naturally, since these wood are hardwoods, I do most of my carving when they are still relatively fresh. Definitely don't try to carve a rooster or a heron out of dry pin oak, maple, or beech!
Below are photos that show raw material found in all kinds of places and in a wide variety of circumstances: Trees or limbs downed by storms, or at construction sites, tree pruning piles, house demolitions, splinters from old barn doors, twigs from historic places, carpentry cutoffs, . . . and the list could on and on. But let me add just a few more: toothpicks, fondue skewers, chopsticks, tongue depressors, wooden ice cream spoons, wooden matches, broken clothespins. All kidding aside, you wouldn't believe how much fun you can have with these! I'm never bored in slow restaurants, doctors' offices, long wedding receptions, or even sitting in the oral surgeon's chair waiting for the novocaine to kick in!
Ice storms and hurricanes leave a lot of "lemons" scattered all over the ground! An awful lot of "lemonade" can be squeezed from them!
Just experiment with whatever wood you have around. Some you'll discover will work well. Others, not so much. Many times I've worked with wood that I don't have the slightest clue what it is. In most of the branches I work with I look for several characteristics: (1) a straight grain; (2) a small pith in the center of the branch; (3) no sticky sap to contend with. (4) If I'm making a figure that requires a forked branch, I try to get a fork that is fairly clear of knots and extra branches in the area of the Y.
These little guys, knives, and blank "name logs" came from the branches on the right.
A splinter from an old barn door became the four pieces on the right.
Sometimes, when I manage to collect a lot of fresh branches, there's no way I can carve all of them before they get too dry to carve easily. Often I've found that I can "bring back" the branches by cutting them up into the sizes I'll be using and then soaking them in a bucket or large jar for a couple of days. Then I take them out of the water and treat them like freshly cut wood. The inside wood tends to darken a bit, and sometimes the bark splits a little, but I will say that soaking dry branches has salvaged a lot of wood for me!
Yep, here's another probably unusual suggestion (not original with me), but one that can help a lot. If you happen to find a very large supply of fresh branches, and you know there's absolutely no way that you're going to able to work with them before they get too dry and hard, FREEZE THEM. Cut them up into workable sizes, and put them in freezer bags and stick them in the freezer. Then, when you're ready to carve them, take them out and let them thaw. I have a friend who has preserved branches for years that way.
You just never know when a good source of carving wood will show up. Always be ready to pounce!! Day before yesterday I noticed that a neighbor had cut down a large maple in his front yard. When I contacted him he had no problem at all with my salvaging some branches. While I managed to get quite a few "carving blanks" for a lot of different projects, I'm sure there are countless more still hidden in that pile.