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What Is Treen Carving?


what is treen carving?

What You Should Know About Treen Carving

“Treen” probably isn’t a word you use every day unless you’re a Scrabble wizard or a woodcarver. Treen is an English word that actually means “from a tree.” In a broad sense, then, all wood carving could be treen carving. However, treen has become a generic term for handmade wooden household items that are usually small and designed primarily for their functionality rather than for decoration.

This article introduces you to treen and treen carving--the history of the craft, its unique aspects, and its renaissance as a woodworking form that’s now popular with hobbyist carvers and accomplished artisans of all ages. 

The history of treen 

Historians categorize antique treenware as dating from the Middle Ages to approximately the late 1800s. Although very few pieces still exist from medieval times, various treenware carved in the 18th and early 19th centuries reside in museums. Some are family heirlooms tucked away in attics or prominently displayed in curio cabinets or shadow boxes. Examples of ancient treen include spice boxes, snuff boxes, and stay busks--narrow pieces of carved wood inserted into a woman’s dress stays.

Treen carving flourished in colonial America. Treen items included a vast array of small household and farm items. Women needed trenchers, bowls, spoons, baskets, butter paddles, and tankards for the kitchen. Men used piggins to carry milk and made mallets, chisels, hammers, pliers, and awls to help them build homes and barns. Children played with carved treen toys like yo-yos, tops, whistles, and slingshots.

Native Americans added an extra dimension of beauty to their treen carving by using wood from tree burls, portions of a tree where the grain has grown in a twisted manner. A burl often looks like a bump or wart on the side of the tree. 

Burl treen was unusual not only for its unique--often snarled--grain, but also for its durability. A burl’s interlaced and twisted grain made it less apt to split when carved and stronger for daily use. Native American burl treen included pipes, ladles, and bowls. Treen was a popular trading commodity between the Native Americans and European settlers, many of whom became treen carvers themselves. 

hand carved bowl with Schaaf Tools

Unique aspects of treen carving

Treenware is known for its:

Utilitarian function

Historically, people made treenware because they needed something--a tool, a gadget, a toy, a container, or a utensil. They fashioned a design, either mentally or with a drawing, and matched it to a suitable wood block. The utility of the item was the critical factor in a carver’s design.

This doesn’t mean that treen was ugly or poorly made. Much of it was skillfully carved and attractively finished using beeswax or another natural finish. Some treen even included a bit of decorative etching. However, functionality was the driving force behind treen products. Woodworkers carved treenware to meet an array of household needs.

Lathe work

The vast majority of treenware was turned using a simple lathe, such as a foot-operated treadle lathe. The turning process introduced great variety into everyday items found in nearly every home. For example, a dozen treenware ladles might serve the same essential purpose in a dozen different homes, but no two ladles looked exactly the same. 

Lathe work also produced smooth surfaces that were easy to handle and attractive to the eye. A well-turned piece also tended to age well, developing a natural patina that increased the piece’s beauty.

Anonymous carvers

If you have an antique treen piece, you probably don’t know who made it unless it’s been handed down through your family. Very few carvers autographed their woodenware, even if it was beautifully crafted. Since treen carving stressed functionality, very few carvers felt the need to autograph the set of butter paddles they’d carved, even if they were skillfully turned and finished.  

Variety of woods used

Treen carvers frequently chose to use hardwoods like beech, boxwood, and sycamore because they were plentiful and had a close grain that turned well. Oak and cherry were also popular. 

Experts estimate that nearly 90% of Native American burl treen was carved from black ash, mainly because that species produced the preponderance of burls. Settlers who later carved burl treen also preferred black ash because it turned well. 


Treen carving’s renaissance

As a craft, treen carving fell out of vogue after the turn of the 20th century. So, collectors who valued treen pieces found them relatively plentiful and comparatively inexpensive. 

Recently, treen carving has seen a dramatic increase in popularity. Some of the major factors include:

  • General revival of interest in folk art and vintage crafts. “Old” skills are now valued for their heritage and their unique qualities.
  • Relative ease of learning to carve treen objects. A set of basic wood carving tools that includes knives, chisels, and gouges is all a beginning treen carver needs. Turning the piece on a lathe is a skill carvers can learn and incorporate gradually. 
  • Abundance of raw material. A fantastic variety of wood species work well for treen projects. In the United Kingdom, a recent Bodgers Ball (a gathering of woodcarvers who use green wood in their projects) displayed treenware made from at least 20 different types of wood, including boxwood, cherry, willow, beech, oak, rosewood, alder, and bramble.
  • The practicality of treenware. Hobbyists and skilled craftsmen with a practical bent appreciate the fact that their hours of careful work yield something attractive that’s useful and lasting. 
Spoons carved by Schaaf Tools in a Woodcarving class

Key Takeaways

  • Treen literally means “from a tree” and is applied to a broad array of small household items carved by hand.
  • Treen emphasizes functionality more than decorativeness.
  • Treen carving can be traced back to the Middle Ages and was very popular in colonial America.
  • Interest in treen carving dwindled throughout most of the 20th century.
  • In recent decades, treen carving has surged in popularity with hobbyist carvers and expert woodcarvers.
  • Treen carving is relatively easy to learn, requires only basic wood carving tools at first, and allows woodcarvers to attractively blend form and function in a lasting peace. 

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