Dry It: Much Patience Required!

One of the hardest things about working with diamond willow is waiting for it to dry. When I find a beautiful piece of wood, I’m really eager to peel it and discover the hidden beauty inside. Once I see what’s inside, I just can’t wait to work with the wood! But I must wait. Patiently. For a looooooooooooong time. Frustrating!

A willow stick that is an inch or two in diameter must air dry for about 4 months, depending on conditions. If you try to sand a stick when it’s still wet, the sawdust will be mushy and stick to the sandpaper. Also, sticks will sometimes check (crack) as they dry, and you don’t want your finished product to start cracking because it’s still drying.

If you do some reading on this subject, you’ll come across a “one year per inch” rule that suggests you must air dry your wood for a year per inch of diameter. This really discouraged me when I first started collecting willow. Wait a year and a half before I can finish my stick? No way!

So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I weighed my sticks when I collected them, and then after a few months weighed them again. I even weighed some weekly and graphed the decrease in weight over time. I found that sticks lose weight rapidly in the first month or so and then the drying rate slows down. Most of the checking occurs when the drying rate is the fastest.

My workshop – each cubicle holds about 25 sticks

I discovered that sticks stop losing weight after about 3-4 months. Sticks can even gain weight if you move them from a dry place to a more humid one. So I have rejected the “one year per inch” rule. Maybe that rule makes sense for some kinds of hardwood lumber, but it doesn’t make sense (to me) for willow sticks. Maybe I’m just justifying my impatience, but I’ve made dozens of willow sticks and I’ve never had one crack after I finished it.

Even with my relaxed standards, you must prepare to be patient. Put the stick out of sight, out of direct sunlight, and in a place where it will get some airflow. Then find something else to do so you can forget about the stick. That’s not easy, especially when you are collecting your first willow. It’s easier for me now because I have plenty of dry willow I can work with. But I still get impatient waiting for a really amazing specimen to dry!

I like to dry my willow upright in small 12″x12″ bins where I can easily get at them. I first started stacking my sticks on the floor, but the oldest sticks ended up on the bottom, and they were really hard to get at. I like random access to my sticks.

I also collect larger pieces (3-6″ diameter) for projects like bird feeder poles and lamp bases. These can take much longer to dry because of their diameter. I store these in the rafters of my garage.

My favorite way to know if a piece is dry is to weigh it a few weeks apart and see if it has stopped losing weight. If the weight loss has stopped or is very small, I consider the stick to be dry. I understand you can buy moisture meters as well, but I haven’t tried these.

Some people dip the ends of the sticks in wax or paint them to prevent checking. I don’t do that with small sticks. I’ve had a few cracks, but since I cut my sticks longer than they need to be, I haven’t had a crack in a crucial spot. I’ve also heard about complaints about mold under the wax. The larger sticks I collect, however, seem more prone to checking, so I brush wax on the ends of those. I just melt parafin wax on my wood stove or with a heat gun and brush it on the ends. I’ve heard that latex paint works also.

After the long wait, your stick is finally dry. Yay! Now you can get to work on finishing it.

The next step:Sand It: The Nitty Gritty Work