Friday, April 20, 2018

Burning Buddha

So going to school, or rather applying yourself at school, takes a lot of one's time and energy. But, I'm trying to incorporate woodworking where I can. Here's the unadulterated text of an assignment for my Meditation 101 class ...

Proposal: Wood burned meditation icon

Create a standing or hanging wood burned plaque to focus on during meditation. I will research symbols, icons and images related to meditation, draw or create a draft image, prepare a wood surface, transfer the image the to wood, then burn the image into the wood with a hand woodburning tool. 

Execution: cutting (time estimate: 1.5 hours)

The first step in creation was to select a wood surface upon which to work, as that would determine the surface area, size and position of the drawn figures. Several ideas arose, including a standing alter-like platform upon which incense could be burned, but didn't call for much hand-woodburning. Ultimately, I elected to make something that could hang on a wall and passively remind one of mindfulness and/or serve as an object to reflect upon during meditation. This form allowed for the appropriate amount of work input and would not take up floor or table space in a meditation area.

I had two seasoned wood slices remaining from several I'd cut from a tree felled in Quantico, VA, by base workers. The wood type is unknown, but is most likely poplar based on the color, wood grain and bark (when it was still attached). It also features a "live edge" (uncut outer wood edges), some beautiful spalting (black stain caused by fungus), as well as some marks made by parasitic insects (likely termites), all of which added to the spirit of universality and timelessness I wanted to express in the work. I selected the piece best suited for the project and began to cut away the uneven, chain-saw-marked face in order to make a workable surface. As I do not own a planer, I used a table saw with fence and several passes to cut a semi-level surface, followed by an electric hand saw to cut the center, which the table saw blade could not reach.

Execution: sanding (time estimate: 3 hours)
Owning a planer would have greatly reduced the labor here, but without one I was forced to use a hand sander to level and smooth the surface. I used 60, 80, 120, 150, 220 and 320 grits of sandpaper successively to do so, the majority of time spent at 60 grit to get the surface level. I also used a disc sander at 80 grit both on the face and on the back so it would rest flush to a wall.

Once the back edges were sanded flush at 80 grit, I used a router table to cut the hanging slot into the back surface, ultimately defining which side would be "up." I then resumed sanding on the facing surface at 120 and successive grits, beveling the facing outer edges for a smooth, rounded aesthetic.

Finally, I hand-sanded the surface at 400 grit. Woodburning requires a very smooth surface for clean lines.

Execution: creating the image (time estimate: 4 hours)

With the size and surface area now defined, I photographed the wood and imported the image into photograph editing software. I researched mindfulness and meditation imagery, careful to select images from across the broad spectrum of philosophies and religions that practice mindfulness meditation.
I imported these images into the editing software and arranged them on the image of the wood surface. Ultimately, I wanted the natural beauty of the wood to merge with and compliment the images. I decided to center Buddha's head in the wood rings to give the impression of wisdom emanating from his mind, and then arranged the supporting images around him so they would compliment the wood markings and balance the overall look of the piece. I tilted the images at varying angles to make them appear to circle Buddha.
I printed the image, taped it to the wood, and used carbon paper to transfer the image outlines to the wood. Because the final image was wider than 8.5 x 11" paper, I had to hand-draw some of the image edges. I also had to hand-draw the center of Buddha's head, as I had to cut out this portion of the printout in order to center it on the wood rings.

Execution: woodburning and finishing (time estimate: 4.5 hours)
I traced the images now on the wood with a hand woodburning tool, adding shading to the outer edged of several images to give the impression that Buddha was the light source. This is a very time-consumptive process, due to the slow nature of hand burning. It had to be done in several stages because the tool's shape and the slow process cause hand cramps.

After I was satisfied with the burned image, the piece went back to the workshop for another light sanding at 600 grit to remove any snags or burs created by the woodburning process.

I then polished the piece with a series of polishing pads ranging from 1200, 2400, 3600, 8000 and 12000 grit. Polishing the wood gave the non-burned surfaces luster and shine without affecting the (lower because of the burn) burned images. I cleaned the piece with compressed air.

I finished the piece by giving it a generous coat of tung oil, which darkened the wood and made the grain, spalting and burned images pop, wiping away excess after 20 minutes.


I'm very pleased with the finished piece, which met my original intent despite the potential for myriad mistakes at any point in the process. With the exception of the computer-based portion of the work, the project required me to live entirely in the moment, mindful of each step along the way. Distractions in the workshop could have led to severe injury; distraction during the drawing and burning process could have led to mistakes. Overall, I find woodworking and this project in particular a very mindfulness-promoting activity.

Total time invested: approximately 15 hours

By the way, this piece will soon be available in my Etsy shop! 

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