I would like to express my gratitude to my American friend
for her invaluable assistance in editing this article.
It was a Herculean effort, I am very grateful for it.
And of course I regret your wish to remain anonymous.
I carve spoons from wood I save from destruction. I find my wood in many places, from downed trees in the forest to firewood in the city. Many have asked me how I make my wooden spoons. Some are just curious while others take a professional interest in exchanging tips with other carvers. I wrote this article to share my knowledge. It is the second in a series of articles sharing what I have learned about giving doomed wood a second chance. The first one is about baking of wooden spoons.
My techniques have evolved with experience — years of experimenting, practice, and dozens of cuts and blisters. During this time, I have created hundreds of wooden products and I have improved my harvesting and processing techniques along the way.
Some General Carving Principles
Carving a wooden blank into a finished product – a spoon for eating – requires a series of steps, beginning with the selection of the wood. I like to find pieces of wood that would otherwise be destroyed. This includes pieces that have been cut off or have fallen off a tree and are left to rot as well as cut-off pieces left destined for burning in a wood stove.
I often use apricot wood. It’s my favorite. But most hardwoods — and even some softwoods — will work. Some of the other woods I use include birch, cherry, apple, mulberry, buckthorn, scumpia — any woods I can save from rotting or from being thrown into a wood stove for a few minutes of heat.
Wood Fibers and Sharp Blades
I use knives with very sharp edges. Many people think sharp blades are extremely dangerous. There is some accuracy to this. A sharp blade can cut you badly. But carvers have learned that, overall, the sharper the blade, the safer it is. Why?
A knife should cut wood fibers cleanly. A dull blade doesn’t cut through the wood easily, especially when the carver tries to carve from certain angles where wood fibers can grab the blade and cause the grain to chip or rip. Further, a carver trying to work with a dull blade ends up fighting the wood, applying excess force. This can cause the knife to slip. Even a dull knife, when it slips under force, is sharp enough to cut someone badly or accidentally cut off part of the spoon. In contrast, a very sharp blade just needs guidance to cut through wood. Using the proper technique, the carver retains full control over the knife because the blade is very sharp and requires only a minimum amount of force to slide through the wood.
Understanding wood grain direction is an essential aspect of carving. When carving wood, the carver often must change direction because the blade would otherwise ‘dig into’ the grain and can even cause a chunk of wood to break out along the grain. Being able to see and understand wood fibers and grain can help the carver avoid this problem but even a relatively inexperienced carver can overcome many of these problems with a sharp blade. Still, wood grain can be tricky so the carver should never rush the process.
Carving Technique Matters
Some carvers use a free-wheeling carving method that looks exciting but, in reality, can lead to mistakes and even injuries. To ensure accuracy, I use a carving technique that ensures my blade only cuts what I want it to cut. It is a controlled technique that limits the motion of the blade and how far it can move with each cut. This keeps it from slicing too deeply or becoming embedded in the grain such that a whole section might break out. By using this controlled method, my spoon blank stays true to my design.
Carving a Wooden Spoon — The Process
Creating the Spoon Blank
Cutting a log down to small pieces is an involved process and, at some point, I will probably write an article about that. For now, however, I’ll describe the process of creating a spoon from a piece of wood that I’ve already cut down to size.
Carvers often start with a ‘blank’ or a piece of wood that has been cut down to the rough outline of the intended carving’s shape. This not only helps the carver establish the outer limits of the carving — it also allows the carver to inspect the piece to ensure its integrity and identify any areas of the wood that might need special attention during the carving process.
I begin by drawing the shape of the future spoon on the piece of wood. I use a pencil for the initial outline then use a marker for the final outline. Carvers can use pencils, pens, markers, chalk — whatever they prefer and feel most comfortable using.
Many masters use pre-prepared templates so each spoon they carve has the same shape as the last. Either they develop their templates or use outlines they find on the Internet. There are plenty of these templates available online. I prefer to create the contour of each of my spoons manually so each spoon is a unique carving.
Several subjective factors influence the shapes I create. The intended use of the spoon is very important but subjective factors come into play as well. Even the weather and my mood affect my creations. My spoons actually embody my thoughts, feelings, and preferences. Each spoon carries the imprint of its carver’s soul. After drawing the shape of the desired spoon, I begin cutting away the excess wood surrounding my outline to create the spoon blank. With the first series of cuts, my goal is to achieve the general shape in the horizontal plane.
In the next step, I carve away all the wood outside the lines I’ve drawn, leaving the exact shape of my drawing as the outline of the piece. This is an important stage. It is essential to have an extremely sharp blade and a steady hand to ensure clean cuts that don’t accidently compromise an essential part of the spoon.
Carving the Spoon’s Contours for Functionality and Aesthetics
In the last stage, I carved the wood down to the outer edge of my outlined spoon. In the next stage, I carve the outside (bottom) of the spoon, creating a smooth handle with comfortable contours and a nicely shaped bowl. I leave room for adjusting the bowl of the spoon — sometimes, as I carve, I change plans to improve the final contours of the emerging spoon.
A well-made spoon should serve a purpose as well as please the eye. Any spoon can be functional. With some extra effort, however, it can also be beautiful. When I carve the spoon to its final shape, I not only create a highly functional spoon that will last for generations but I create a work of art.
Over the years I have experimented with the contours I find most pleasing. Although my spoons are unique, I have developed a general shape that satisfies both the functional and beauty requirements. This is the shape shown in these photos. Though I experiment with other shapes from time to time, this is the general shape I return to again and again because it pleases me the most.
Carving the Spoon’s Bowl or Ladle
After I create the outside contour of the spoon, I turn to the bowl or ladle portion of the spoon. My goal is to carve the inside of the spoon’s bowl, giving it a smooth surface and a fairly uniform thickness. Successfully accomplishing this gives birth to the spoon.
To carve the concave area of the bowl, I use a hook knife or semicircular chisel or gouge. My choice of tool will depend on the type of wood, the depth of the bowl, and whether the wood is wet or dry. From the end-user’s point of view, it generally does not matter what the carver uses as long as the final result is good. But from the carver’s perspective, caution, accuracy, and authenticity are important. Digging out a concave area can be dangerous and I don’t particularly like cutting my hands, so I take my time to ensure safety.
Some carvers use clamps or other gripping devices to secure the piece on a carving table. I prefer to hold the spoon in one hand while carving with the other hand. This gives me complete control over the process and allows me to feel the wood as I work. I never hurry because that leads to mistakes. I don’t try to remove large quantities of wood quickly, as some carvers do. Instead, I cut thin shavings — so thin they are almost transparent. I love the actual process of carving and every shaving I create is a pleasure. I know some master carvers create the bowl at the very end of the spoon-carving process. That is, they carve the whole spoon, including the handle and, at the very end, carve out the bowl of the spoon. By doing this, they rigidly conform to a predetermine plan regarding the exact profile and depth of the bowl. I prefer to give myself some leeway. I let the spoon’s shape and the wood grain guide me in creating the final depth and profile. This flexibility has allowed me to create more interesting and more beautiful spoons.
Carving and Refining the Handle
In the next stage, I refine the handle of the spoon and the reverse side of the bowl. The handle is the most creative aspect of the whole process. The development of the handle will determine how comfortable the spoon will be when held in your hand. During this stage, I often imagine who might use this spoon, how often he or she will use it, and what kinds of wonderful foods the spoon will help prepare. I also think about whether the future owner will think about the spoon while using it and wonder about its origins. The handle can be adorned with decorative carving and a variety of figures, from simple to intricate, to make each spoon unique. These decorative designs are only limited by my imagination. If I am making a simple spoon for everyday eating, I might focus largely on function and I might just make a simple handle with little or no adornment. The spoon shown in this article is such a spoon — its beauty is in its grain and in its function.
Refining the Back of the Bowl
The reverse side of the bowl requires work with a very sharp knife. Every cut is important here. At this stage, you can make an elegant product or irrevocably damage it, undoing the value of all previous stages. Gradually, step by step, removing thin shavings, I create the bowl, constantly monitoring the result with my fingers to achieve the wall thickness that will allow me to create a finished spoon of elegance, lightness, and sufficient functional rigidity. From the first cut to the final finish, each stage demands more and more accuracy and care. There is no place for rough sweeping cuts. Complete control and lack of haste – these are the keys to successful completion of the work.
The Tricky Transition Area
The next stage involves the point of transition from bowl to handle on the back of the spoon. At first glance, this might seem a quick and easy task. But this area of the spoon is particularly important to me as it represents the area of the spoon with the most mass. It is this area of the spoon where balancing elegance with functionality is the most difficult. It would be easy to leave a large lump there, ensuring that the spoon will hold up under heavy use. The technically difficult part is ensuring that strength while creating an elegant curvature that transforms the piece to a work of art. I never rush and I make sure my knife is very sharp.
The Delicate Edge
Once I have completed the transition from handle to bowl, I focus on the edge of the entire spoon. In the case of this spoon, I carved a highlight angle down each side of the handle, ensuring that it flowed into the walls of the bowl smoothly and elegantly. I also shaped it in a way that integrated it into the design I used in the delicate transition area. Here you can experiment and try different options. Perhaps you want small edges. Someone else might prefer wide edges. Some might like those edges rounded. This is a matter of artistic preference and usually doesn’t involve the structural integrity of the spoon. To be sure, however, if you get it wrong, you can still ruin the whole spoon. Again, take your time and make sure your knife is sharp.
Sanding the Surface
Once I have finished these six stages, I have completed a rough spoon. Some carvers will spend more time on the rough spoon, smoothing the corners, removing irregularities, and shaving it down to a final spoon that is fairly smooth but still bears visible facets from the knifework. Others prefer to use sandpaper to smooth the entire spoon. I prefer to use sandpaper to create a perfectly smooth surface that is a joy to the touch.
I start with a medium-coarse sandpaper and transition to finer and finer sandpaper grits. I perform the entire process by hand and it’s not unusual for this sanding process to take as long as the carving process took. But it’s worth the time to have a beautiful spoon that is so smooth to the touch that it almost feels soft. Once I have smoothed the spoon to my satisfaction, it’s time to apply the finish.
Notice, in the photo above, that I used a piece of wood with knots in it. These areas in wood are exceptionally hard and carving them is quite difficult. But it is unusual features like these that make each spoon unique and eye-catching.
Creating a Beautiful Finish
Finishing the spoon requires applying a food-grade covering and polish to the wood. I apply some layers of linseed oil and a thin layer of my favorite polish — a combination of beeswax, linseed oil, and carnauba wax. I use a soft cloth to buff it to a glossy shine. This process protects the wood and highlights the wood’s beautiful grain. Then I repeat the process, which hardens the surface and protects the wood further. The result is a spoon that is light, elegant, and strong with its own unique beauty that stands out with the polished finish.
The end 🙂
If you have any questions, ask them in the comments section. I will respond and may even incorporate my answers into this article.