The Moth

We’ve just completed work on a bit of an unusual project – a large sculptural moth made with Burr Elm wings and a Sycamore body.

This commission came from existing clients. We had already designed and made some Oak study furniture for their home near Banchory. While we were taking photographs of the study, the clients mentioned that they had a large blank wall in their kitchen/ dining room and would we be able to create a sculptural piece – something quite organic and natural to contrast with the clean white lines of their modern kitchen.

It’s not often we get the opportunity to work on such a creative and open ended project so we felt especially motivated to come up with a successful design.

Furniture design often begins with a blank piece of paper and a sharp pencil but for a project like this, we find the best place to begin is with the wood itself. In the loft space above our showroom, we keep a treasure trove of smaller burr Elm boards. These are the off cuts that are too small and twisted to be used for more conventional furniture or kitchens but were too lovely to throw away. Most of them are strangely shaped creatures with convoluted edges and wild grain.

Local Burr Elm can be very beautiful with rich colours and gorgeous swirling grain patterns but it is also usually full of “defects.” Because the grain is so wild, burr timber often buckles, cracks and twists as it dries. It can also feature patches of decay, ingrowing bark and dead knots. What counts as a defect though, depends on the project and depends on the client.

Buried in our pile of boards we found a matching pair that featured a large hole where a dead limb had fallen from the tree years before. The timber was heavily burred with beautiful grain patterns but they were also quite twisted.

We remember milling that tree. We bought half a dozen Elms from Fyvie Castle in 2014. One of them was enormous and the bottom section was hollow. We had to quarter it with the chainsaw before it would even fit onto the sawmill. Most of the wood was too far gone to use but what we could save was fabulous. These two boards were “bookmatched” - from subsequent cuts of the log so the shapes and grain patterns were very similar but not the perfect match you get with thin veneer.

When the boards were aligned in a particular way, the shapes reminded us of the wings of a butterfly or moth. The two holes were even reminiscent of the eye pattern on a Peacock butterfly or an Emperor moth.

So Mother Nature had provided us with the design and the materials for the wall sculpture. We found a block of fine grained Sycamore for the body which was cut on the bandsaw and shaped with the spokeshave into a stylised insect body. The cream coloured Sycamore has a beautiful smooth grain with subtle ripples which provides a lovely contrast to the wild grained Elm.

The surface of the Elm wings was quite rough – just as the sawmill had cut them five years ago. We couldn’t plane them smooth on our machines – they were far too twisted for that. The only option was sanding them by hand, following the contours of the boards and working down through the grits. It took one of our cabinetmakers about eight hours to get both wings silky smooth and gleaming. The outer edges were left natural – just a little cleaning with a wire brush to remove any loose bark.

It took a bit of thinking to work out how the separate components could be jointed together and mounted on the wall. The problem was the shape of the wings – they were so twisted, it made conventional joinery impossible. In the end, we cut out a six legged support bracket from 4mm steel and this was bent and hammered to conform to the convoluted shape of the wings and screwed to the back of the Sycamore body.

The last job was to attach a hanging rail fitted with quick release steel brackets. The completed sculpture was then disassembled, given a final check over and fine sanded to 320 grit.

Steve finished the moth with a high quality satin sheen lacquer that really brings out the beauty of the timber. We particularly like the contrast between the subtle and delicate Sycamore and the richness of the burr Elm.

The moth has now been installed in situ and creates a dramatic and unique focal point to the room. This was an unusual commission for us and we really enjoyed working on this project. We would love to carry out more sculptural work like this - we can’t take any credit for the design though – Mother Nature is the true artist here.