butter light

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church cross project: special features

File:Blue-green.jpgGeorgia O’Keeffe said “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” She was (and is) a famous artist. Her opinion is helpful even if you aren’t an artist.

Did you ever read a book, hear a piece of music or look at a painting and think, “Too much, just too much.”

This project is one in which selection is necessary as the process evolves (although not Darwinian selection). What details to leave out? What details to accentuate?

When I sketched the cross in the beginning I had an idea that 3 nails would be a good detail. As I pondered it and talked about it with others the detail of nails slid into the column of “too much.”

Remnants of rope as they might have been used in a crucifixion was a detail that stayed.*

*Thank you JMG Ranch for providing the rope. 

securing old rope to the cross beam

securing old rope to the cross beam


However, the idea of nails is not left out altogether. The detail of nail holes randomly struck in the beam gives the suggestion of the cross having been used several times before. It is likely that the Romans would reuse their crosses. I doubt that the authorities thought this man from Nazareth needed a special cross since he would one day become famous. He was condemned as a criminal like thousands of others. No special treatment.

But this criminal was not merely “not guilty.” He was innocent. In the horror his beauty shines. Innocence gazes on us ever so pure, so holy, when around it the darkened sky of evil swirls. The many nail holes remind us that he was “numbered with the transgressors” (see Isaiah 53:12esv).

nail holes from previous uses

nail holes from previous uses

Then there are details that most people will not notice because those details blend with the whole. In this step I add more spots of glaze or color as needed. It helps to look at the assembled piece in different lighting. I set it up in the shop, later outside in the sun light and still later in the church a couple of weeks before the installation.

Fitting the cross together in the shop helps to get a sense of what needs adjusting. Black is not a color most artists use well. When black is needed I prefer to mix a pseudo-black from other colors. However, in a few small places I add a little true black. Some of the crevices needed a little depth from a dab of black.

Another detail  is to “grey out” some of the edges. This gives the sense that those places have been bleached by extended exposure to the sun. But here again, I only do this to the slightest degree since too much would be too much.

fitting in shop and final glazes

fitting in shop and final glazes

Finally a small detail, but a useful one that fills out the visual narrative is the foot hold. I want it to appear tacked on as an after thought. It is possible that these foot holds had to be replaced from time to time. Even though a cross was still usable a foot hold might swing loose with repeated nailings or weight stresses. 

adding the foot hold

adding the foot hold

Interesting though they be these details are not things to be admired. The cross is a disgusting thing. We admire the Cross because of Christ. Like a diamond the cross is the setting in which the jewel sits. The Christ of the Cross is our anthem. We cherish the Stone that the builders discarded. We love him who, as Isaiah wrote, “was wounded for our transgressions.”


next: cross project – 7, an empty cross (stay tuned)

You can see the start of this project here.


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church cross project: base coat and surface glazing

Any endeavor goes better with the good aide and companionship of a faithful son. I am blessed to have my son’s help. Caleb put himself into brushing on the base coat. He is using one of my favorite brushes – a Corona sash with Tynex bristles. All through this coating process we are careful to use paints with a low sheen. This will minimize glare or hot spots from directional lighting or even ambient light.

church cross - base coat

After the base coat is dry I add a series of glazes to give the surface a sense of depth and variety in color. A piece of wood of almost any species will have a range of colors across its grain. With exterior exposure and much use a bare piece of wood such as a cross will accumulate mud, dust, bits of debris or dried blood.

Below is a section of the vertical piece where the back of the criminal would have rested. When I put on the “dried blood” glaze my son remarked,

“Wow Dad! That looks so real…and gory too.”

On reflection it seemed like a good idea to tone it down a bit. After it set up I applied a little layer of rottenstone, a compound used in the framing industry to give that “dust in the crevices” look. Much better, more subtle it looked after that.

church cross - blood stain

Another effect adding to the realism was to paint in the evidence of birds having paid a visit. Birds like to perch on elevated spots where they can rest and get an unobstructed view of the world about them. A cross on a hill would be an inviting stop over when flying from here to there. Any place where birds frequent is a surface and edge that will be discolored by what these birds leave behind.

church cross - bird evidence

next: cross project – 6, special features


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church cross project: weathering effects

File:Barn Barberêche Mar 2011.jpg

After carving knots and grain into the boards the next step is to achieve a weathered look. This step is very important to getting that rough and rustic appearance we are going for. It’s a key step because even if you have a top-notch finish on it without the real texture on the surface most people would have a feeling that something is missing. 

Before any paint is applied I use a variety of shop techniques to “beat up” the surface. In this process I am trying to give it…

– the appearance as if the lengths of wood have been knocked around many times from being transported back and forth from places of execution or from being put together and taken apart again and again.

– the appearance of having been exposed to all kinds of weather from being left in place. Often those executed would been left to hang there for many days or even weeks.

– the appearance of some edges or sections of the wood having fallen off due to repeated stress or rotting in an over-exposure area.

church cross - weathered effect

Here you see the cross boxing still in the “raw” state. The weathering effects are now mostly complete.

next: cross project – 5, base coat and glazing

To see this project from the beginning go to this page – the cross


church cross project: real, unreal wood – authenticity?

File:A sawmill in the interior from The Powerhouse Museum Collection.jpg

From synthetic to authentic – is that possible? Authenticity is a fave idea right now (as though authenticity is something recently discovered).

“Keep it real,” we say. Of course, it is good to be real. Nobody would ever go about town blurting out,

“I want to be fake and I want to have a fake job and I want fake friends and I want fake money and…”


Perhaps there’s a better way to view ourselves and the world around us than to potentially idolize what we think is authentic.

If there is one, what would this “other way” be?

Redemption. In the life and in the Gospel of Jesus we certainly see authenticity, but more importantly we see redemption. We see restoration. In him I see a man doing the work of renewal, a man taking unlikely things and unwanted people to remake them, to restore them with fullness of life and holy purpose.

I hope the little narrative how this “cross” becomes a cross is among other things an micro-tale of redemption. Since the journey of this cross project begins with something that is synthetic, rather bland and generic, this journey could hardly be one of authenticity – no matter how real it may look in the end. It’s not even worth the attempt to portray it as a story of skill overcoming blandness to then be crowned by the ultimate triumph of authenticity. Yada, yada, yada… 

In life, sometimes authenticity is just too much work. How often do we put on “authentic” in an effort to show those around us that we are indeed authentic? Think about it – wouldn’t doing that be a sort of slight of hand (iow, not authentic)?

I want to think of this cross’s journey as one of transformation and less an attempt at authenticity. Transformation – this is what redemption does. It is the taking of an unlikely thing to redeem it from its blandness, even obscurity, into a greater purpose, into a beautiful existence.

Isn’t this story pattern much like the journey of Jesus? Certainly, Jesus, the master builder, restores us to a higher degree than we can do so for ourselves. His work is one of ultimate redemption…but still isn’t it fun to see if we can spread it out, helps others see it too, push it into the corners?

In stage 2 of this cross project I plod through the imprecise processes of carving random grain and carving random knots in the “wood.”

carving knots and knot grain into the HDU boards

carving knots and knot grain into the HDU boards

In addition to working the grain effect into the HDU board I need to use several techniques to achieve a weathered look. In various crafts or trades this weathering step called distressing

The cross needs to look like it’s been exposed to the sun and wind for a long time. It needs to look like it’s stood atop a hill in the rain, season after season, day and night in dust storms while it wobbles left and right. Later, in close up pics you may be able to see what looks like rotted wood, knocked off corners or deepened grain cracks. In the next post you will see the raw results of this process.

carving grain and giving it the look of having been tooled by crude instruments

carving grain and giving it the look of having been tooled by crude instruments

cross project – 4, weathering effects


church cross project: materials – why urethane?

File:Ash Tree - geograph.org.uk - 590710.jpgAs I mentioned in the last post, the new cross is going to be made of a synthetic material. This synthetic material is malleable. Thus, it can be easily sanded, carved, glued and shaped to resemble a variety of other substances. In this case, we are going for a rustic and rough wood look.

You may ask, “Why not just use wood? Ya’ know the stuff that grows in trees and can be found all over the place?”

Here are some great reasons to use the urethane board for the new church cross:

– it is lightweight, thus it will be easier to install and unlike a couple of massive solid wood beams the lesser weight minimizes safety concerns

– it can be made to look like wood and from even a short distance it is difficult to tell that it’s not wood

– it has a lower maintenance factor than wood, especially if it were to be installed in an exterior setting. Even, in an interior setting it’s good to know that the urethane board is not a friendly environment to termites, carpenter ants, and other bugs. It also will not absorb moisture nor be altered by swings of humidity.

– old, rustic and weather-worn lumber that is stable can be difficult to find. Often when real wood is desired for a project like this the production team will have to use newer lumber anyway and then go through the steps to make it look older.

-…which brings us back to why we are using the rigid urethane for this cross project. We can make it look just like wood. If I hadn’t told you this process before seeing the completed cross project I becha a “Caramel Macchiato extra espresso” that you would have assumed it was wood, really old wood. However, I’ll let you be the final judge when we come to end of this series of posts.

Here is an example of a sign I made several years ago from HDU board. It is still in good condition today.

Morganwood 018

If I hadn’t told you would you still think the sign panel is wood?

Here is a view of the whole sign.

Morganwood 001in the next post: stage 2 – authenticity?



church cross project: design – wood, metal or something else?

File:Millennium Cross in Skopje (1).jpgIf not the most important symbol in Christianity certainly the cross has to rank in the top 5. Whether to have a cross or not in the church is for some groups a topic of debate. If so, then what kind of cross is best?

The church where my family and I go has not had a cross outside or inside its buildings for nearly 3 decades. This was not necessarily out of some ingrained belief. For whatever reason we never got around to it.

Finally, it was decided to have a cross (an empty cross, not a crucifix) installed in the main worship room. The room is large, with walls painted in a creamy white and a few architectural details. As churches go it is a rather simple looking room. But there is a beautiful wide stone wall section, from floor to ceiling, centered behind the pulpit. The stone is natural so it’s pleasing to the eye. This would be an ideal place for a new cross.

So, now we have the spot for this new cross. What should the cross look like? What material will be best to use? Should it be wood with a furniture quality finish? Should it be of metal, like satin brass or satin aluminum? Should it be made of wood, but with a rustic and rough look?

My personal preference leaned toward wood with a quality furniture finish. At the end of this discuss the leadership decided on wood, but rustic and rough. At the time I wasn’t sure about going that way, but now that we have gotten this far into the project I see that it is indeed the best choice.

The next question was how it would be installed and how heavy will it be? Long story, short we decided to make the cross not out of wood, but out of a lightweight material called HDU. HDU is high density urethane. It’s a great material to work with in the shop, but one big problemo. It has no wood grain to it. Off the delivery truck HDU board looks like sanded plastic.


Here is a look at stage 1 of this cross project. I cut the sheet into proper widths and lengths for gluing and screwing into a “u,” an open box shape. In future posts I will lay out before you the story how this synthetic, hollow construction turns into a convincing replica of a rustic wood cross. 

next: church cross project – why urethane?