Working with Bamboo Canes
By Charissa Brock, bamboo sculptor
Bamboo is an amazing material to work with. It can
be used architecturally, as part of a structure, or as part of a
detail within a structure. It can be used in a garden to support
plants. It can be used in an art studio as a fine art or craft
material, or in the home, as a decorative element. Whatever the use,
here is some basic information about working with bamboo.
About bamboo canes (anatomy and coloring)
Most bamboo has hollow culms with nodes that are
solid. The skin of bamboo shreds easily when cut or drilled, and the
grain runs the length of the cane, only crossing over at nodes. The
color, sheen, and texture of the skin can vary within a species. The
diameter of bamboo is largest the base and tapers to the top. The base
also has a very thick culm wall and gets thinner as it tapers.
The skin of the bamboo can easily splinter if not
cut properly. To create a nice smooth cut follow these tips. Wrap one
layer of masking tape around the bamboo where you want to cut it.
Stabilize the cane so it doesn’t roll or vibrate. Use a fine-toothed
saw. Bamboo Garden sells the Silky Oyakata folding saw. When you have
sawed through the pole about 3/4 the way, rotate the bamboo so your
cut is facing down, line up the blade on top of the culm and continue
cutting. If you don’t rotate the bamboo, the weight of the piece you
are cutting will fall and rip the skin off one side. Remove the tape
carefully after cutting.
Moisture, light, insect degradation, and mold can
all affect the quality of bamboo. Storing it outside on the ground is
not adequate if the bamboo is going to be used to build with. Bamboo
can be stored vertically or horizontally, just like planks of wood.
There needs to be some ventilation, a little light, and a little
warmth to make it unattractive to insects and keep mold from growing
in the bamboo walls.
Preparing bamboo is only necessary when using the
bamboo for fine crafts/arts or when incorporating it into an interior.
It changes the surface of the bamboo, giving it a beautiful sheen. It
removes a sugary starch, which some insects are attracted to, making
it an archival art material. It will also kill any bugs living in the
bamboo, whether they are eggs or mature insects.
Preparing bamboo is done with a torch and propane.
Before preparing bamboo it should be washed with a non-abrasive cloth
and soap then dried. Use the heat from the flame to treat bamboo in
about six inch sections, turning the culm around so all surfaces of
those six inches are being heated. A sheen should rise to the surface
of the bamboo-that is an oily starch that insects are attracted to, a
sort of sugar they eat. When the oil has become consistent and starts
to bubble just a tiny bit wipe the oil off with a rag. If you hold the
bamboo in the flame for too long it will toast or burn the bamboo
skin. It will also make the bamboo brittle, should you need to split
or bend it. Move on to the next 6-inch section, carefully overlapping
just a little. Use a different section of the rag each time you wipe a
new area, as to not accidentally wipe oil back on the bamboo.
Heat-treating should be done in a well-ventilated area.
Preserving bamboo for outdoor use
The outer skin of bamboo is fairly water resistant.
The woody inside will mildew when exposed to moisture. When fencing is
made in Asian countries it is not treated with anything. When parts
are no longer stable they are replaced. Canes used outdoors can last
in between 5 and 12 years, depending on weather conditions, structure,
and bamboo species. Bamboo used in building structures should be
incorporated in a way where water does not enter the bamboo cane. A
good book to read for information about bamboo preservation is “Bamboo
Preservation Compendium” by Walter Liese and Satish Kumar. It is
available for purchase through Bamboo Garden.
Changing the color of bamboo
Bamboos water resistant skin is difficult for any
paint, lacquer or dye to adhere to. Traditional Japanese dyes are
effective, but come in a limited amount of colors, and are not
available in the USA yet. Research needs to be done in this area.
Bamboo can be toasted with heat to change the color
to varying degrees of tan or brown. See the section on heat-treating
bamboo for more information on this. If the skin is sanded or planed
off paint or lacquer will stick to the bamboo but the beautiful
natural sheen of the bamboo and interesting shape of the nodes will be
Constructing with bamboo
Bamboo grain runs the length of the cane, with
fibers only crossing over each other at the nodes. Because of this,
pounding a nail straight into bamboo will split the cane. Putting
holes in bamboo, like cutting bamboo, can tear the fragile skin, so it
is better to tape where you want to drill. One easy way to attach two
canes together is to tape the canes together, drill a pilot hole
through both canes, then use a screw or bolt to attach the canes
together. Remove the tape afterwards.