Split oak baskets

Making billets

"In summer, the green, felled log must be split within ten days, or the ends will dry out and check," our woodworker says. "In winter, though, splitting can be done as long as four months after the tree has been dropped."

From Billet to Split

Our woodworker begins the process of turning billets into splits by taking off the bark with a drawknife at the shav­ing horse.

Removing the bark

Next, the individual billets are shaped to desired form, also on the shaving horse. "The object," ex­plains our woodworker, "is to taper each end of the billet so that when strips come off, they'll be wide in the center for

Splitting the billet with a drawknife the bottom of the basket, and they'll taper toward their ends to form the basket's ribs.

Our woodworker does this shaping with the drawknife, turning the billet to work it from both ends. He uses the same method to form weavers, the long, narrow, and straight pieces that tie the ribs together. He de­pends on a well-developed eye to maintain widths.

Traditionally, from the shaving horse, billets would move to the workbench to be split into weavers or ribs with a drawknife and a simple jackknife. Standing a billet on end, the basket maker would split it with the drawknife down its length parallel to the annual growth rings. He would keep splitting until the pieces could no longer be reduced by that method, then switch to the jackknife. Our woodworker knows the old way, too.

Placing the blade of the jackknife in the grain, our woodworker begins the split. When the knife has separated enough of the wood to grasp by.

Pulling the split by hand

hand, it's put aside, and the pulling begins.

Hand-pulling becomes increas­ingly delicate as the strips near their final thickness. "If the split runs off to one side, you pull toward the other side," he says while demonstrating.

Final hand-pulling

That's the traditional way, but in the high production basket shop, the traditional takes too long. In­stead of hand-pulling, our woodworker has fit­ted a cooper's spokeshave with a planer blade to shave weavers and ribs from the billets clamped on a shaving horse.

Shaving a split with a spokeshave

It's still hand work, and the results aren't always uniform. Ac­cording to our woodworker, "anything done by hand is going to have some varia­tion on it."

With no gauge to rely on, the shaving technique requires a prac­ticed eye. "The thickness of the split is solely a product of how hard the spokeshave is pushed down and the strength of the maker's pull," our woodworker says.

He makes his splits "down the tree" with the spokeshave and then works the tool back and forth fol­lowing the grain and keeping it to the center. "The strips must be constant in their thickness, with ribs thicker and weavers thinner. If they're thick on the ends and thin in the middle, the basket will have a weakness," our woodworker explains.

The splits come off the shaving horse moist and pliable, ready for weaving. They'll stay that way for 3 to 4 days in normal weather, but hot days dry them out in an hour. That's when our woodworker wets the splits down with a sprinkling can or gives them a good soaking.

Two Types of Baskets in 50 Styles

To this basket maker, the world of split-oak baskets is divided into two parts—designs woven over a form and those built completely free­hand. Yarger makes both, in 50 different styles. Starting below, we'll follow him through the steps in making a formed, rectangular basket that's a popular seller.