Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Mushroom Shelf Tutorial!
I'm ever so sorry for putting this tutorial off for so long! Alas, I was nudged into action by a reader who had been patiently waiting for this since my first mushroom shelf post back in December (yikes! I'm so sorry!) Please accept my most sincere apologies and lets do just jump right into this!
One's active participation in this tutorial is rather dependent on access to suitable mushroom specimens, and while I regret that I'm unable to offer any specific advice on where to go looking, do just keep a keen eye in the trees (up and down the trunks, specifically) the next time you are out on a ramble through a forested area, and your diligence may well be rewarded. The correct sort of mushroom (there are actually a handful of different varieties that work) is typically espied growing from the trunks of trees that appear ill of health, or perhaps even dead, however there are never any guarantees of finding the mushrooms. I have been in areas that I thought must surely be lousy with mushrooms, but was unable to locate a single one, while at other times I have been surprised to find an abundance in what seemed an unlikely locale.
Examine the mushroom images in this post; any mushroom that appears shelf-like and feels solid and woody may be used. If the mushroom looks shelf-like but feels soft and mushy to the touch, or can be compressed between the fingers (feels spongy) then it will not be useful. In the image below I have climbed a "stairway" of mushroom shelves up to the top of a dead tree. I am pounding them away from the bark with my boot as I descend. Remember that these mushrooms feel, essentially, like wood, and are generally firmly attached to the tree bark. Using a hammer to pound them off will damage the mushroom, but pounding them with a fist or boot heel, or grasping firmly with two hands and applying firm downward (or, if that doesn't work, upward) pressure, will generally free your prize unharmed. I might also just add that it is a good idea to gather your specimens judiciously; these mushrooms play an important role in the forest ecosystem (mainly, aiding in the decomposition of dead or dying trees) so it is better to take just a few and leave plenty behind to continue their work in the forest.
Now that you have a few specimens to work with, I urge patience; let them sit in a dry place for 4-5 days (no more than a week, as bugs will take residence in the mushrooms rather quickly). I advise against washing the mushrooms; they aren't really very dirty, and the added water will hamper your drying and curing efforts. If necessary, just brush the mushroom off well with a big, soft dry paintbrush. After the resting period, open up your kitchen windows, turn on the kitchen exhaust fan, warm up your oven to 250 degrees, and place the mushrooms directly on the middle rack in the warm oven and leave them for 3 hours. After three hours, turn the heat up to 325 and let the mushrooms bake for another hour. Your abode will have taken on a very mushroom-y aroma at this point; make sure the windows are open and plenty of fresh air is circulating through the kitchen and home. This heating period is sufficient to drive out any insects that may have taken up residence in the mushroom and, as a critical procedure in the successful preservation of your prize, must not be skipped! Turn off the oven and leaving the mushrooms within, allow everything to cool back down to room temperature with the oven door cracked open a few inches.
It is now time to trim your mushroom shelf. Note that your mushroom has spent it's life on the trunk of a tree, and so its back will be curved at the point of attachment. Since it's new point of attachment will be against a flat wall, you must cut away the curved portion before we can continue. The image above shows the cured mushroom with a red line indicating where the cut will be made, and the saw I like to use to make the cut. The saw is nothing fancy or expensive; in fact it is the cheapest mitre saw available from the hardware store (seven dollars maybe?) but works very well. Please do not, under any circumstances, attempt to use any power hand tool (circular saw, jig saw, etc.) for this procedure. The mushrooms, with their irregular surface and shape, are difficult to hold steady and almost impossible to clamp; they are tough and have an irregular "grain"; any attempt to make this cut with any tool other than a nice slow, steady hand saw could result in disastrous injury or worse! Keep it simple! No power tools for this part please! Before making your cut, study the image below representing the side view of 2 mushroom shelves mounted on the wall, the aim of which is to convey the necessity of making your cut at a 90 degree angle to the "shelf" surface of the mushroom, so that when it is mounted on the wall, it sits straight out. If you start cutting without visualizing this, then you may make your cut at an unfortunate angle, and when mounted flush against the wall, the mushroom shelf may either point downward (bad, as nothing will stay put on your shelf) or upward (not as bad, but still not good).
Now, keeping your saw blade straight up and down at a 90 degree angle to the shelf surface of the mushroom, grasp the mushroom firmly and slowly begin to cut into the mushroom at a point that will allow all of the curved back portion to be cut away; the picture should help visualize this. Go slow, remember your angle, and use steady downward pressure as you saw. Easy does it! If you aren't used to using a hand saw, practice on some scrap wood first, and for safety, go ahead and wear a heavy leather glove on the hand that you are grasping the mushroom with.
Done! It only takes a few minutes! The photo below shows the raggedy back portion we wanted to get rid of, and our new mushroom shelf with a nice, flat back. Nice!
Now we need to address how the mushroom shelf will attach to the wall. I like to use these hangers often referred to as "keyhole hangers" that my local hardware store stocks-- yours probably stocks them as well; if you don't see them, just ask! These work well because once mounted to the mushroom, they are completely flush with its back surface, and allow the mushroom to be held tightly against the wall using a common drywall screw as a hanger. You may be able to devise another way of hanging, but remember that it must not protrude out from the back of your shelf, or the shelf will not be held against the wall securely. If you opt to use the keyhole hangers, the next step is to trace the shape of the hanger onto the center of the back of the mushroom as pictured below. Then, using the tracing as a guide, I use a tiny sanding drum on my dremel tool to grind out that area to a depth of about 1/8", or enough so that the hanger sits flush with (or slightly below) the surface of the shelf. If you don't have a dremel tool, you may be able to use a sharp knife or woodcarving tool to cut around the diameter of the tracing, then carefully chip out the middle part. I scooped the area directly behind the actual keyhole a little deeper than the rest to accommodate the screw head from which the shelf will hang.
The image below shows that the shape of the hanger has been ground out with the dremel tool. I then paint that area with some acrylic paint (here I used blue for visibility) to seal that surface. It is important to make sure that no bare mushroom surface remains when we are done, because a bare mushroom surface presents a point of entry for mushroom hungry bugs! Maybe you noticed that one of the hanger depressions is sideways on the flatter mushroom; Keyhole hangers work best straight up and down (the keyhole slips over the screw head protruding from your wall, then the shelf is pulled down until the screw head is "locked" behind the narrow part of the keyhole) but they also work sideways, though maybe not quite as securely (keyhole slips over screw head protruding from the wall, then the shelf is pulled sideways slightly until the screw head is locked behind the narrow part of the keyhole). If your mushroom is too thin to accommodate the hanger vertically, then go ahead and put it on horizontally.
The image below depicts the hanger being affixed to the back of the shelf using wood screws. A little glue may be smeared on the screws first for added security, if you like. When the screw is screwed all the way down, and starts to feel tight, stop screwing! If you keep going, thinking you will get it really tight, you will probably end up stripping out the hole, and your screw will not anchor the hanger to the mushroom effectively! If this happens (indicated by the screw suddenly turning very easily even though it is all the way in) back the screw out, fill the hole with wood glue, then put the screw back in and leave it until the glue dries; it will be fine. I bring this point up because, although woody, the mushroom is not as dense as real wood, and is more prone to stripping when the screw is over tightened.
Almost done! Now it is time to completely seal the surface of the mushroom. I use a clear, matte finish, lacquer-type spray from the craft supply store. I have also used clear krylon protective spray from the hardware store (in the spray paint aisle). You may experiment with gloss or satin finishes as well; I found that the matte finish doesnt darken or discolor the mushrooms as much as a gloss finish, for some reason, and leaves the surface looking just as natural as it looked growing on the tree. It is probably worth gathering a few extra mushrooms (maybe the less perfect looking ones) to try different sprays on. Go outside for this, and spray every surface of the mushroom thoroughly. Spray the top, the bottom, turn it and spray the back. Dont be shy; it is important that every crack and pore gets completely sealed-- apply a heavy coat, and allow it to dry for an hour. Then go out and apply another heavy coat of spray. Let that dry, then apply a final, lighter coat over every surface of the mushroom. Let the mushroom dry according to the directions on the spray can-- probably 24 hours. When I am spraying my mushrooms, I really saturate the surface with the first coat, and the surface looks dark, but lightens back up as the coating dries.
To finish the mushrooms, I like to trace around the back of the mushroom onto a piece of marbled paper. I think felt might also be nice. I then trim around the outline, and glue the paper backing onto the back of the mushroom using a thick white craft glue. After the backing is dry, the keyhole shape can be cut out easily with an exacto blade.
Finished mushroom shelves!
Following is an alternate mounting technique that you may like to try, and is especially effective for mushrooms that are too thin to put the keyhole hanger on the back of. This technique lends a unique "mounted trophy" appearance to your mushroom that you might like as an alternative to the aforementioned method! First, obtain a small wooden plaque in a shape you find pleasing (I like oval or rounded rectangle shapes for this) from the woodcraft aisle at your local craft store. You may paint it or stain it any color you like now, though I left this one bare. Position your cured, cut mushroom on the plaque as pictured below, and trace the outline of the mushroom onto the plaque in pencil.
Now drill two holes near the center of the mushroom outline you pencilled onto the plaque, a few inches apart. On the back of the plaque use a countersink bit to countersink the hole you just drilled, so that the screw heads will be flush with back of the plaque.
Now, carefully hold the mushroom firmly in position against the front of the plaque, exactly where you outlined it, and carefully screw a 2 inch screw through each of your pre-drilled holes from the back of the plaque into your mushroom. The mushroom should now be held tightly against the face of the plaque by the two screws. Now affix a keyhole hanger vertically in the back center of the plaque, following the same instructions used for mounting the hanger directly to the back of a mushroom, then apply a paper or felt backing to the back of the plaque to finish things off! Following is the back of a completed plaque-mount mushroom shelf (I stained the plaque dark mahogany), and the example shelf after the shelf has been screwed on, but before the heyhole hanger has been affixed.
A completed "plaque-mount" mushroom shelf!
My, but hasn't this been an exceptionally long tutorial (I think that's why I was putting it off!)? I Thank You most sincerely for hanging in there until the end. I hope by now you have some nice mushroom shelves to display your curios on! If not, get out into the woods and keep a sharp eye out, then be sure to come back here and follow this tutorial when you've found your mushrooms!
In regards to what sort of curios you should display on these shelves, I must warn that, as the shelf surface may be somewhat irregular, and the shelf itself is affixed to your wall but by the head of a screw and hence not infinitely strong, it will be quite unsuitable for displaying, for instance: a heavy chunk of the Berlin wall, Aunt Maude's expensive heirloom vase, your favorite antique Chinese porcelain Foo dog, etc. More appropriate choices might include: that tatty old taxidermied sparrow you found at the flea market for 3 dollars, a large dried Fly Agaric mushroom you found in the woods (while harvesting mushroom shelves!), A piece of fan coral from your vacation on Sanibel Island, the odd looking piece of Cholla cactus skeleton from your trip to the Southwest....
Thanks For Joining Me!