Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Making a Basswood Whistle...

at Buckhorn Camp

Winter has been hanging on a lot longer than normal here in the Northeast. So there's little sign yet of budding trees. But soon willows and the basswoods will be in growth mode and will sprout their leaves and bloom for the bees to go to work making the delectably basswood honey.  Young new branches will spring forth and it will be time to make a whistle.

When I was a young boy, long before I ever dreamed of anything remotely similar to being a voiceover talent, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandfather. The timing was perfect. He was recently retired having operated a hardware & grocery store in the tiny village of Schuyler Lake all of his adult life.  He was avid hunter, fisherman and loved the outdoors.  Grandpa and Grandma Washburn had a summer cottage, known as Buckhorn Camp, on Canadarago Lake in Otsego County NY.  There grew a hedgerow populated with basswood trees.   Some call this tree a linden which is, I suppose, where the city in New Jersey may have borrowed its name from.

For me, anytime someone mentions basswood, I think of my grandfather and the basswood whistle.  Grandpa would find a new growth basswood branch and with his pocket knife snip it off. He'd trim the leaves and end up with a stick about the thickness of a finger and about  10 – 12 inches long. He then would go to work.  I watched with awe.

I borrowed some text and the illustration from an old school book I found at a flea market. The book is long out of print or copyright. On page 351 of Public School Methods, Volume 5,  published in 1916 there's a perfect illustration of how to make a willow whistle.  It's the same process for basswood and I'll share it here.

“A live willow stick about one-half inch in diameter and six inches long is cut from the tree. Then the end is slanted at an angle like in Fig. 1. Next square off the point to look like Fig 2, and cut a notch through the bark into the wood as shown in Fig. 3.

Score a line (A) with the knife through the bark the whole way around. Tap the bark gently all over the surface from the score line to the right end with the side of the knife handle. Be very careful that you do not break the bark at any point. Hold one end in the left hand and the other in the right, and twist to loosen the bark from the wood. The bark must not be broken. Slip the bark cap off the end as shown in the sketch, Fig. 4. Now cut away the shaded parts of the wood, Fig 5. Moisten the surface and slip the cap back on Fig 6.  The whistle is now ready to try.  Finish by smoothing up the left end with a jackknife.”

The basswood whistle is one of those handicrafts that has been passed down through the years in my family.   Do you have any traditions worthy of passing along?

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