I prepared this guide as a helpful tool for aspiring spoon makers and instructional guide for collectors. While each maker will have his or her own way of working, I offer this to share methods and techniques that I have developed (or borrowed) and refined during my thirty-five years as a spoon carver. I hope you will find it useful.
My simply-shaped spoons do not shout, as my preference is for subtlety and understated elegance. I work with the wood itself to reveal the unique spoon that lies within. Although most of the spoons weigh just a few ounces, they come from rough, irregularly shaped chunks that can weigh forty pounds or more. It may take as little as two weeks or as long as several years to make the transition from obtaining the wood to the final coat of finish. A large spoon requires several days of work and demands thoughtful decisions at every stage.
I take pride in saying (with just a bit of exaggeration!) that I can make a spoon from any six-inch or longer tree section that’s at least a few inches in diameter or from any piece of firewood. I’ve always concentrated on species that grow locally. In some cases I fell a small tree. More often, the wood is rescued from a firewood pile, offered as lucky finds from tree service companies or local municipal maintenance crews, or given to me by my firewood suppliers and friends. I’ve even stopped at houses where a tree is being removed to ask if I may have some of the material. Building relationships with local professionals such as arborists and sawmill operators can be very useful for finding exceptional specimens.
Just because I can make spoons from lots of pieces of wood does not mean that all of that material is suitable for my spoons and dishes. Only a small portion of the wood I see is acceptable and it is a challenge to identify a proper candidate in the rough. I must force myself to use only the best pieces in terms of figure or configuration (preferably both). Both diameter and length are important but this varies, as is reflected in the range of sizes of my finished work. A spoon has to approximately follow the grain direction that formed as the tree grew. For example, a ladle with a near ninety-degree angle between the rim of the bowl and the handle cannot be made from a thick block but must be taken from a section of tree that grew with that curve. I look for pieces of wood that are large enough for a single spoon and consider it a bonus to get additional spoons from a piece. Much of the wood I use contains attractive “defects,” many of which can be exploited for aesthetic purposes. I am alert for problems such as powder post beetle infestation or excessive white rot that would preclude using the wood. Even to a trained eye, however, the extent of such damage is not always immediately apparent.
After carefully examining a piece of wood for potential opportunities and possible problem areas, I proceed with a general configuration in mind and allow the characteristics of the wood to refine my ideas. The initial images are fluid and can evolve, sometimes considerably, anytime during the process of making the spoon. It often helps, particularly when trying to determine grain direction, to reconstruct the position and orientation of the piece of wood as it was formed in the tree. Special figure, such as “curly”, “tiger stripe”, “blister” or “birds eye” is desirable and its presence can often be discerned by looking at the exterior of a tree. If the attractive figure is ubiquitous throughout the piece there is no decision needed regarding how it will be employed but, if it is localized, I must decide where that area will appear in the spoon. I try to locate it in the bowl of the spoon though that’s not always possible. Contrast of surfaces is an important aesthetic tool and this applies to color, figure and texture, including the portion just under the bark.
Wood in the standing tree contains a lot of moisture. For some species there is more water than wood! Woodworkers work with material at a variety of moisture levels, depending on how they obtain their wood, what they are making and what methods they use for removing moisture from the wood (“drying”). With spoon making there is more latitude than with, for instance, furniture making. Whereas a furniture maker has to be concerned with warping as well as checking (splitting at the ends or on the surface of a piece of wood) spoon makers can ignore all but the most extreme warping and concentrate on avoiding checking.
I am able to break down wood, band saw it, and rough hollow a spoon bowl at very high moisture levels. I’ll often do that and then let the resulting, relatively thin, sections lose additional moisture by placing the wood in an appropriate environment. There are times, particularly with maple, when the spoon is at a stage where it can’t be left to dry on its own because it is likely to develop stains. I combat this by placing the wood in front of box fans because simply moving air over the surface of the maple reduces staining. The wood is repositioned every few hours to make sure all surfaces are affected. Another technique that is effective, particularly when the roughed out spoon has to be set aside for several days, or longer, is to put the wood in our freezer to temporarily stabilize it. At times it has seemed we have more wood than food in there! With proper technique, particularly when our woodstove is working, it’s possible to take a spoon from tree to finished object in a week by roughing it out and then moving it to progressively drier environments.
To begin, I use any means available, including the assistance of friends, to break the wood down into a manageable size. I both saw and split, employing my chain saw and a set of wedges. I rip as well as crosscut with the saw and, in some cases, use it to do initial shaping. To split recalcitrant chunks, some several feet long, I insert wedges into the wood leapfrog fashion. It is sometimes necessary to employ a small hand-pruning saw to sever the last fibers that prevent a mostly-split piece from completely separating.
When I have attained a chunk small enough to be manageable on my band saw, and, keeping the criteria described above in mind, I roughly sketch my idea for the spoon on the wood with chalk, crayon or a broad marker. In some cases I simply visualize the piece without marking.
With the exception of several steps of hand scraping and sanding, I use electrically powered tools for making my spoons. Everything done with power tools can also be accomplished with edge (hand) tools and I cover both approaches in my private workshops. There’s a trade off here. On one hand I miss the fun of precise splitting, the sound and feel of a sharp tool cutting through high moisture, straight grained wood. On the other hand I savor the process of shaping on the band saw. Even more so, I enjoy the sculptural process of watching wood (as sawdust) being removed as I engage a fast moving coarse abrasive belt.
There seems to be an inverse relationship between a tool’s ability to remove wood and the degree to which that tool can be controlled. At each step I use my most powerful tool to remove as much waste material as possible, knowing that caution must be exercised to avoid removing too much wood and ruining the planned shape.
Now it is time to make the initial cuts on the band saw. At this point I have a rough chunk that might still weigh thirty pounds and sometimes I need a friend to stand on the other side of the saw to steady and receive the irregular piece as it is passed through the blade. This is the last step at which anyone but me will work on the spoon.
The product of the first cuts may only vaguely resemble the planned spoon or dish but I continue, with each cut getting a the wood closer to the desired shape. I continue cutting, using the band saw as a carving tool. I’ve never counted, but it’s possible that this trimming process requires a few dozen cuts with some of the pieces removed by a particular cut being no larger than a matchstick. In any case, when the band sawing is complete the piece of wood looks very much like a spoon, albeit somewhat rough.
I begin to refine the shape of the exterior of the spoon, working with my favorite “tool”: a three-wheel metalworking sander that uses a four-inch wide by eleven-foot long very coarse abrasive belt moving at 2700 feet per minute. The shaping is accomplished by holding the wood against the bottom, nearest quadrant of a 3.5-inch diameter rubber contact wheel. I progressively switch to finer grit belts, softer contact wheels and reduced speeds. This sander removes wood rapidly but considerable force is still necessary for shaping the figured hard maple that I use most often.
Next is the rough hollowing. Until now, the spoon has been in my hand for all operations but, for the hollowing, it is securely clamped to a heavy pedestal. For all except the smallest spoons I do the initial hollowing with a router that has specially made handles but no base. I use up to a 1.25-inch diameter bit and it removes wood quickly though vigilance is needed to avoid the tool grabbing the wood. I’m able to get to within about an eighth-inch of the configuration I want, though the surface is rough and uneven.
I alternate between working on the inside of the bowl and working on the exterior of the spoon seeking to have as much “agreement” between interior and exterior surfaces as possible. I finish almost all shaping of the interior while the spoon is clamped down.
The exterior is refined through another two or three grits on the sander and then I switch to “hand” work (for both exterior and interior surfaces) because I cannot obtain the evenness I seek with power sanding. This leads to scraping and hand sanding, tedious work that can easily occupy several hours over a couple of days on a large piece. Including both power and hand sanding I go through at least eight different abrasive grits from P24 through P1500. I wet the wood between several of these steps to raise the grain, making the fiber ends stand up from the surface so they can be removed with the subsequent grit. This is most important in the finer grits but l also do it at one or more of the medium grits because it helps me see places I’ve missed in the sanding. Patience and perseverance are important throughout!
For me, making a spoon is not typically accomplished straight through from start to finish, but might be stretched out over weeks, months, or even, years. I’ll often leave a partially shaped piece on a counter that I walk past several times a day, glancing at the piece to notice a curve or other feature that doesn’t seem quite “right”. These are marked with pencil and then I correct them during the next time I work on that piece. Sometimes, even after I have a spoon completed I’ll notice a discordant area. It’s painful to re-work a completed piece but it does happen.
Because the early years of my career were devoted solely to making functional utensils I have always used non-toxic finishes. I made that choice not only because concern for contact with food but also because I didn’t want my family and me exposed to potentially unhealthy substances while applying the finish. Over the years I have tried several finishes and have settled on Mike Mahoney’s heat-treated walnut oil followed by his wax-oil finish for the functional utensils. For the decorative pieces I apply five coats of the walnut oil, each at least a day apart, and then two coats of Orange Wax.