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Starting From the Top: Wooden Spoons

Wooden Spoons

My first attempt at carving spoons

In about 2002 my mom gave me a hand carved wooden spoon she picked up in a Moravian shop in Old Salem village, in Winston-Salem, NC.  I was interested in how it felt compared with the milled spoons you can buy at a department store or specialty shop.  Despite feeling lighter than my milled spoons, it had greater balance.  The bowl of the spoon was deeper, the handle had a sweep, and the particular spoon she gave me even had a little hook to keep it on the edge of the pot so that it wouldn’t fall in. It felt like the spoon had come out of the wood and had been worked within the grain, and because of that it seemed that it would be unlikely to split right down the middle like so many of my old spoons had.

I’d long since begun oiling my raggedy, milled wooden utensils because of that tendency to split after years of use and abuse; when inadvertently (or carelessly) left soaking in a pot of water overnight; when a house guest loaded them into the dishwasher without my knowing that was bad for them; when used as fly swatters. But there’s a point at which no amount of oiling will return a milled, split spoon to its former glory. Whenever I got out all my wooden utensils to oil, I always finished with the hand-carved spoon so that I could consider how evenly the wear showed in its character, how it held up to use and abuse better than the milled spoons.  And, there was also that notion in the back of my  mind that, “It’s a spoon.  It shouldn’t be that hard to carve my own spoons.”

Upon moving from Orange County, California to North Carolina, I knew that sooner or later, I’d get to try this project.  Our yard is littered with fallen tree debris, and we have enough scrap lying around from other projects that all it would take is the gumption to begin, and a knife to do the deed.

Recently, while cleaning up scrap from a previous project, I let inspiration take hold and without doing any real research on the subject, I set off.  I considered the best way to proceed for my first attempt and decided to take what I’d learned in a simple carving project I’d done for a friend a few years back, by again going to my jigsaw and Dremmel.

I traced the outline of my favorite Moravian spoon on a 2×4 scrap and used my jigsaw to rough it out. Then I grabbed my trusty pocket knife and went to town. It turns out, this is not the quickest road to spoon carving success, but undaunted, I soldiered on.  What follows is how I came to a better understanding.

First, regarding my choice of medium, I hadn’t realized how much wood needs to come off of a 2×4 to make a spoon — even after having roughed it out with my jigsaw.  That spoon handle is about a half inch in diameter and the best you’re going to do with a saw is get the sides cleaned up a bit.  Now, this depth is going to make for a beautiful sweep.  It’s also going to allow a very deep bowl (yay!) but it’s a lot (a LOT) of wood to remove.

Second, a buck knife is great for lopping the dead limbs off a walking stick and fashioning a quick handle.  It’s lovely for making points on wooden tent stakes, or cleaning a trout.  It’s lousy for roughing out a wooden spoon.  The edge on my knife was dull very quickly and short of getting out the wet stone I didn’t know what to do.  Also, both because the blade got dull so fast, and because I had to use so much force to remove as much wood as needed to come off, the handle of my knife was not conducive to long sessions carving.

Third, how on earth does one carve a bowl?  Again, my “quickest route to success” thinking said to me, “That’s easy, you just put a round sanding bit in your Dremmel and you’ll have that bowl done in no time!”  I suppose this could be true if the whine of a Dremmel tool and getting covered in (and breathing) saw dust for an hour or so is part of your vision for carving a wooden spoon.  If it’s not, then like me, you quickly realize that you’re walking down a failed path.

About 2 hours in, my hand aching from holding the non-ergonomically created knife handle, covered in saw dust from the Dremmel; ears buzzing with Dremmel whine, stressed out, sweaty and disgusted, I had a rough spoon starting to take shape from my 2×4 block, but I was defeated.  I knew I had hours of uncomfortable carving ahead of me, followed my several more with the Dremmel buzz.  Needless to say, it was time to re-evaluate.

After a quick shower, taking my turn with the baby for a few hours, and thinking over where I went wrong, I decided that carving a wooden spoon is slightly harder than I’d imagined — what, with being a modern Gent and having none of the formative education concerning wood craft, working with grains or blade care (let alone blade options), I was out of my depth.  Enter, The Internet.

YouTube has a wealth of information about how to carve spoons — both power carving (using saws and Dremmels and power chisels and routers, etc.) and hand carving, using (you guessed it) hand carving knives.  I also found some folks who make lovely, affordable knives, with comfortable handles for lefties and righties, draw pullers and pushers.  I learned how to split a small length of branch for the start of a spoon, how to take a 1/3 approach for a flat, quick spoon or a 2/3 approach for a deeper bowl.  I learned how to notch the handle’s edge of the bowl, and that there are several good ways to dig a bowl, including a bowl knife, a gouge, or various palm chisels.

I ordered myself a nice knife from Deep Woods Ventures.  I also ordered a leather strop and strop conditioner to keep my blade sharp. I went to the local hardware store to buy a cheap gouge.  I asked my family if they had any chisels they weren’t using and if they did, if they would please send them my way.  Last, I ordered a bottle of food-grade mineral oil with bees wax — butcher block conditioner — to treat my spoons after they were done.  Then, I waited.

This last is a lesson that I’m finding, permeates my pursuit of a well-rounded Post Apocalyptic Skill Set.  Not just waiting though, but patience too. Patience for the right season, or the right expert, or the right soil, or mulch, or help… or tool. I’m learning.

Carving Tools

All told, I think I spent $45 on my knife, strop, conditioner, gouge, mineral oil, and shipping for chisels that were sent my way.  I could have purchased about 15 milled wooden utensils and probably been good for about 20 years, but then I’d not have gotten the lessons and learned from so much failure!  And without all the failure, where would I find my fun?

While I waited for my new knife (and my leather strop and strop conditioner), I studied up.  I read forums, I watched YouTube videos, and I looked at the wood I had started carving.  I hadn’t followed the grain (a milled 2×4 does not, as it happens, give you the optimal grain for a spoon, necessarily) or paid attention to knots I’d have to work around or with.  Also, I’d chosen a particularly pitchy piece of 2×4, that was rather green.  Green wood is easier to carve, but you are taking your chances with splits when it dries out.

Finally the day came when my knife arrived, and my strop, and I could resume carving.  Wow, what a difference.  The handle on my new knife alone made a world of difference.  And the strop kept the blade polished and sharp.  Using my cheap gouge worked wonders on digging out the bowl, and I learned how best to use the angle of the particular gouge I’d found for a dollar and a half, to help out on the neck of the spoon.  I didn’t bother picking up the Dremmel again, and put it away.  I put away the jigsaw too, knowing I wouldn’t be needing it for future carving projects.

When I finished the spoon, I gave it a light sanding — paying special attention to the bowl, in places where I had been indelicate with the gouge.  Three days (more patience) and three coats of mineral oil/beeswax later, it was complete.  I took what I’d learned to a new little scrap of 2×4 I’d found that was grained properly and already shaped about how I wanted, and in a few hours, had made a small scoop with a fishtail handle.

Blank-making tools

Several days later I dove into a new project, using a chisel to split a round piece of maple branch that had come off a tree in our front yard last winter.  I roughed notches in using the hammer and chisel again, and with my knife and gouge, completed that project using all my newly earned knowledge in about 1/6 the time it took me to do the other spoon, even using a jigsaw and a Dremmel at the beginning.

I’m really enjoying this process now.  It’s meditative.  I can make small or medium sized spoons now in a few hours or in short 20 minute bursts over a few days.  I’m happy with the non-uniform nature of my results.  I may even be starting this early enough in the year to make gifts for family by holiday time.

Three Spoons

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  1. July 6, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Very nice blog!

    I like the idea behind a “post apocalyptic” skillset. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. If basic societal functions were to cease, most people in the developed world would have no idea how to survive.

    Knowing how to carve wooden spoons is a good start to building that skill set 🙂

  2. December 31, 2011 at 4:13 am

    What a lovely hand made spoon. My husband just made me one and there is something fantastic and very base about holding something in your hand that you or someone close to you has made. Every time you use it you can think about them, about the tree that made it and about how it enriches your life when you use it. Thanks for this post. I was hunting for spoons and wooden ladles online and found your amazing blog. I will be coming back often…

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