Article by Julia Houriet
Driftwood has always been a fascinating material to use for fine arts, hobby crafts, and building animal and plant environments. Driftwood can be purchased at pet stores and craft supply shops. But it is free if you are willing to go look for it! I can’t think of a more enjoyable past time than combing a lovely beach in search of these washed up treasures.
Not all driftwood is from saltwater beaches. You will find driftwood on the shores of large freshwater lakes and brackish river deltas. The type of driftwood you find on any beach depends, of course, on what kinds of trees are growing in that geographical area.
The area of Trinidad, for example, offers some of the most beautiful driftwood in the world. Because Trinidad’s northeast mountains and hill regions hold vast amount of old growth rainforest and because there are so many rushing rivers running from those forests to the sea, there is ancient, petrified driftwood to be collected by the basket full. But you have to get to the beach before the beach cleaning crew rakes it up and burns it! Here is a short description of how that wood became ‘driftwood’.
The rainforests of Trinidad are full of towering trees with names like Mora, Balata and Tamarind, and the forest floor is littered with the rotting remains of these giants after they fall. Imagine orchids and lianas clinging to the buttressed roots and twisting branches of these huge trees while they thrived perhaps hundreds of years ago. Imagine one such tree. At some time in its life that tree fell over. It was pushed over in a storm or maybe cut down by farmers and left to rot on the forest floor. There it did rot and with each rainy season more and more bits and pieces of this tree wash into the river nearby.
Now, with each rainstorm that passes over Trinidad that same river becomes a torrent rushing to the sea carrying this wood with it. By the time it reaches the beach it has become hard like bone, the soft outside layers of the wood are gone and all that is left is what we call ‘bone’. After a storm, the beach is piled with wood from the river. While searching for this bone driftwood, you are also likely to come across similarly ancient bone wood of trees living closer to the beach such as Almond, SeaGrape and Hogwood.
Many of these pieces of bone driftwood are beautifully gnarled and grained and will last for years and years. It will not break or decay. Each piece of driftwood is a work of art unto itself, really, but when sanded and buffed with beeswax the wood reveals more of its lovely grain and gorgeous colors.
Best times to harvest driftwood are after storms and high tides. Time of day is important also. It’s easier to spot interesting pieces in the morning or late afternoon when there are shadows.Tap the wood on a rock or hard surface to make sure it’s hard like bone and not about to splinter.
Mora bone is my favorite of all tropical driftwood because if has a very dark, deep color, it takes carving and sanding well, and it has lots of natural oils still in it (if you don’t boil it or bleach it). Bone driftwood is terrific for carving sculptures and jewelry. You can paint it–acrylics work best– or collage with it. You can make windchimes, trellis’ and coat racks with it. You can build anything in your imagination with driftwood. Bone driftwood is gorgeous in Bonsai, terrarium, and vivarium projects. Mora bone (specifically) is heavy and sinks naturally in the aquarium. No need to be anchored down on a clumsy piece of stone.
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