Wednesday, June 20, 2012


"Thou shalt not covet Thy Neighbors' boxwood"

While I was working on my Maple print I noticed (but had noticed long before) that there was another tree of interest in the neighborhood.

But this time my interest lay not in its artistic potential as model, but in its potential as a lumber source. I have a print I'd like to do that is fairly detailed and will have very fine lines. As solid Cherry gets more and more expensive and as even cherry-faced plywood becomes more and more costly, even expensive alternatives become options--at least for smaller prints.
While in the US, I began to think about trying to find a source of boxwood for at least the key block. Most lumberyards don't carry it and specialty stores for luthiers and furniture makers are frightfully expensive and have usually very small pieces if they have any at all. Big trees are scarce, cut long ago, and what's left are small trunks and branches and these often have to be glued together to make pieces big enough to use for carving. It is very slow growing and the wood is very hard and was used for centuries to make woodblocks for printing text and engravings. Boxwood species are a favorite of Bonsai enthusiasts but they too usually look for an old specimen to dig up and shape as starting from a cutting would take a very long time.

However, one of the advantages of being in an old country (Italy) is that there are lots of old things about.

Boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, is a common landscaping shrub used for centuries in Italy and Europe and as synonymous with the formal landscapes as the cypress tree is to rural. It is commonly used to make boxed gardens, pruned into hedges and topiaries and there is a thriving landscape/nursery industry in producing small boxwood shrubs. In formal renaissance gardens small areas were divided by boxwood hedges to create elaborate formal symmetric gardens. They have to be pruned/shaped several times a year. When fertilized the leaves and branches grow more quickly but the trunks take a very long time to thicken. But in addition to European Boxwood or American boxwood, there exist over a hundred of other cultivars from Asia and South America and they differ in growth habit, leaf-size, and color. Some grow a bit faster or are more yellow or darker green. In the 1800's and early part of the 1900's a resurgence in garden revival led to restoration of antique gardens or planting of new ones.

If work need to be done (wells, roads, laying pipe, etc.) and part of a hedge removed or damaged, or if landscaping desires suggest putting in a new hedge--There are "quick" ways to get a new hedge fast; buy bigger plants and plant them closely together (costs a lot more), or look for smaller plants that grow faster. And indeed there are Asian and South American cultivars that grow faster. On this property sometime in the last Century (?), someone planted a faster-growing South American boxwood to make a "new" hedge on the corner of the lawn, next to a large Cedar of Lebanon. It may be older however; older gardens have mixed hedges usually comprised of boxwood and myrtle and bay laurel while new hedges (last century) are more commonly planted to only one species. This is a mixed hedge of European and South American Boxwoods and Laurel and at one time it WAS neat and tidy, curving around a bright green lawn in the center of which is a towering Cedar of Lebanon.

But hedges need trimming.
Trimming hedges requires labor.
Good gardeners grow old and retire or die.
Fortunes change; houses are sold or abandoned.
Wars intervene and gardening and hedges become superfluous.
Sometimes yard work just gets put on hold when landscaping costs get too expensive and trimming the hedges happens less often.

So at some point in history, someone stopped trimming this hedge and when they came back and started to fix up the place they trimmed around the slightly taller South American boxwood; pruning the bay laurel and European Boxwood lower and more neatly. And once our specimen got a bit taller it seems they stopped trimming it altogether and it took advantage of the neglect and took off. And grew. And grew.

So here we are now. some centuries later and there is a magnificent Boxwood tree, inclined to the Left in search of light (that Cedar of Lebanon they planted around was much taller). This one is a good 12"-13" in diameter at the base and at least 40' tall?

That's a lot of Boxwood.
There's more to this story: but I'll give a clue and forewarning.

Our hero was briefly tempted by Lust and Greed to commit an act of great depravity too terrible to even mention here but was spared by the gentle hands of Providence and Chance and a swift kick in the behind from their sister, Conscience, causing him to stumble into a dusty, dark and almost invisible workshop on this side of the river Arno.

And there, downstairs, in the back was a small stack of boards pretty much just like this:


  1. Didn't I hear recently of Earthquake and Tornado being in Italy? Maybe one of them, along with Providence and Chance, helped you out of the terrible State of Mind you had gotten yourself into?

  2. Jane C from baren forumJune 21, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    Usually faster-growing trees have softer wood. So even if it's "boxwood", that big tree might not be just what you want. (An offering of sour grapes.)

  3. Sour grapes are always welcome.
    It is likely, judging from the width of these boards that they come from a similar tree.
    They are used primarily for veneer and marquetry work and came in 3mm, 5mm, 7mm and 9mm thicknesses (they had a few of each).
    This one is about 7" wide and two feet long.
    I'll see how it carves and prints and if I like it go back for two pieces and try to join them side by side for a larger piece.
    I'll still need to glue this down onto a piece of ply to keep it from warping. I got the 7mm thickness which should be more than enough for my keyblock.