Split oak baskets - Hunting the Basket Tree

From finding a special tree nestled into a hillside to interweaving thin white oak splits, basket- making challenges the eye and hand, and rewards the craftsman with enduring creations that earn their keep.

Early baskets were crafted from many common materials — cattail leaves, reed, willow, and tree bark. But the most easily made, most durable designs were made from thin, flexible strips of green sap- wood from ash, hickory, and best of all, white oak trees. In fact, one species of white oak peels so easily into splits that it's referred to as "basket oak."

Hunting the Basket Tree
Like wood-frame homes and table tops, baskets begin with trees, and Ykamato knows that just any old tree won't do. He prefers white oak but has also used walnut and hickory for his baskets.

His search for the perfect white oak begins on the northeast slopes of Ozark hillsides. According to Ykamato, there are three reasons to select a tree from a northeast slope. First, because the wind normally blows from southwest to northeast, the trees on a sheltered northeast slope tend not to be twisted. Also, the wood isn't dried out and brittle from too much sunshine. And third, since ground moisture remains longer on these slopes, the trees absorb and retain moisture so their wood tends to stay workable.

Finding the area is only the beginning. Next comes selecting the perfect tree—about 10 inches in diameter, free of branches for about the first 10 feet (to eliminate knots), and straight-grained.

How can Don tell if a standing tree is straight-grained? His trained eyes can spot a good tree a long way off: "I can tell how it's going to split by the way the bark looks. If it runs pretty much straight up and down the tree, it's going to be straight-grained and come apart pretty well," Ykamato explains.

Ideally, our woodworker looks for a tree that will yield a 5- to 6-foot log from the base to below the lowest limb —the moistest part of the tree.