As one might expect there is a Facebook group for spoon carvers. It’s very active with multiple posts each day, usually with photos of recently completed spoons, bowls and kuksa, most of which display a very high degree of skill, craftsmanship and artistry. There are some great carvers out there, often with distinctive styles. Viewing the work by others is inspirational but can also create a sense of inadequacy and inferiority.
My spoons don’t quite measure up and, frankly, I haven’t felt compelled to post photos on the spoon carver’s site. This is the only exception because it is, in fact, unique.
I had the idea to demonstrate a spoon emerging from a branch. Of course, it’s rendered in a way that is opposite of the manner in which one carves a spoon and it’s still pretty rough.
All my spoons seem to be kind of rough, not quite symmetrical, uneven in thickness, imperfect. This could be discouraging were it not for the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi.
Wabi sabi, at its essence, is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and simplicity. “…it’s an intuitive way of living that emphasizes finding beauty in imperfection, and accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay.” Recently, I collected a lot of spalted maple. It’s not greenwood and it’s hard to carve. Sometimes the wood is totally rotten and doesn’t work. But a nicely spalted piece reveals wonderful and unique patterns. Spalting is a vivid example of the cycle of growth and decay.
The spoon is perfect for manifesting wabi sabi. It is the basic tool—a small bowl with a handle useful for many applications. And, it doesn’t have to be perfect to work. It can be asymmetrical and uneven and still be appreciated. Wabi sabi works for me. I’m feeling better about my crude spoons.
Related to and evolving from wabi sabi is kintsugi, another Japanese ideal. Kintsugi it is the art of embracing damage. In bowl carving, for example, the wood can check (split). Should the piece be tossed? Or, possibly repaired? Or, just enjoyed with the imperfection being considered a part of the history of the piece.
This bowl checked badly, yet it still works perfectly as a bowl and the split adds to its character and rusticity.
At it’s essence, carving a spoon can be seen as a basic survival or homesteading skill. It is a craft. Craft can rise to the level of art but it doesn’t have to.
My audio book for the last week has been a bio of James Stewart who was the ubiquitous actor of my childhood and early adulthood. Stewart made dozens of films or “pictures” as they called them in those days. Truth be told, his biography isn’t all that interesting except for the fact that he was the major motion picture star of the fifties. I can still recall scenes from “Broken Arrow” (with Jeff Chandler as Cochise). Playing cowboys and Indians around age 8 or 9 I was always Cochise. I recall saying to a friend that my name was Cochise because my arrows were a little bit yellow. Can’t recall if I was serious or making a bad play on a pun.
I felt I had things in common with Mr. Stewart. We were both tall and very skinny. And, I can attest that when, at a later date, I found myself in the same room with him, an event I will get to, I noted that he was the narrowest human I had ever seen. That is, looking at him straight on, he was not very wide. “Thin” doesn’t really describe it.
Stewart came from Indiana, Pennsylvania where his dad ran the local hardware store and was a pillar of the Presbyterian church. That’s something else we had in common—fathers who took a life long interest in influencing our lives and who found church going to be of the utmost importance. James Stewart as a personality is what one might expect of a boy from the midwest. He was a staunch Republican, exempt from McCarthyism, and best friends with Ronald Reagan. He wore a toupee, something I didn’t know and had a hearing problem from middle age on.
He was a hero of WWII. Not a fake hero but the real deal. A bomber pilot who rose from private to Lt. Colonel during the course of the war who was continually promoted to more responsible command positions. He continued as a reservist and eventually achieved a star although his promotion to general was opposed by Senator Margaret Chase Smith on the grounds that there were more deserving officers.
He became a family man at forty, marrying a divorcee with a couple of boys. Before that he had affairs with lots of actresses most notably Marlene Dietrich.
With the exception of the time out for WWII his biography is pretty much a recounting of picture after picture. I’ve seen a lot of them and this week took time to watch “Winchester 73” and “Call Northside 777”. Jimmy Stewart is a very effective and very watchable actor. The only contemporary actor who might have played all the Jimmy Stewart roles is Tom Hanks. There was an edginess to Stewart the actor, however, that Hanks doesn’t have.
When I was a kid living in Vancouver, Washington we learned that they were filming a Jimmy Stewart movie called Bend in the River up near Mt. Hood. We jumped in the car on a Sunday and headed up toward the mountain and were rewarded with a distant view of a wagon train circled in a clearing down below the hiway.
I got closer to Stewart, in his role as General Stewart, in 1967. I was at a base in NE Thailand when the Secretary of the Air Force with his entourage dropped in. I was an intelligence officer for the Air Commando Wing stationed there and, as was always the case with intelligence shops, worked in a windowless building. It was an inadequate facility with small briefing rooms connected by a long hallway. The main briefing room was full of pilots so the Secretary’s entourage couldn’t squeeze in. The Secretary, Harold Brown, who later became Secretary of Defense under President Carter, stood in the doorway and his followers trailed down the hall. I was just inside the door describing what was going on in a whisper to Secretary Brown who whispered the info to the next guy and so on down the line like “Pershing at the Front“.
The briefing over, the pilots made their way out squeezing past the Secretary and his posse who then circled through the briefing room glancing at maps and charts, then exiting. The last guy was General Stewart wearing tan 1505s, a short sleeved khaki outfit. It was just me and General Jimmy. He picked up a map of Laos and studied it a bit then turned to me as if to ask a question. I was waiting for his characteristic stutter, looking forward to answering. But he changed his mind and put the chart back on the easel, nodded and left the room. It would have been a violation of military courtesy to ask for an autograph.
It’s hard to know exactly what impact James Stewart’s films had on me. Watching his old pictures I have a sense he was a strong role model. I know for certain that his film “Strategic Air Command” was not the movie that tipped me in the direction of the Air Force. That distinction belongs to “A Gathering of Eagles” with Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor (1963). In a demonstration of shallowness, I was overwhelmed with the idea of how good I would look in the Air Force’s tan Class A uniform. I joined the next year, the same year the Air Force dumped the tan for a blue uniform that looked like something a bus driver would wear. Things don’t always work out the way you want them to.
I don’t usually read or listen to show biz bios. But I’m glad I spent some more time with Jimmy Stewart. I didn’t get to know him very well on our first encounter.
This was from a piece of alder and it’s very crude. Many hours and several more excellent tools later the results start to improve.
A neighbor took down a huge maple that was all rotted out. As a result of the bacteria and fungus working their way through the trunk you get these wonderful spalting patterns in the wood.
To carve a spoon you need a hatchet (or a band saw), a straight knife and some kind of bent knife. You can carve the bowl of a spoon with a chisel but a bent knife is often a more efficient tool. Bent knives come with an almost infinite number of variations. I have three double edged bent knives forged on Waldron Island at North Bay Forge. These are terrific knives that hold an edge and move a lot of material.
They are designed for doing totems and masks and other types of Northwest carving. But they work for spoon bowls as well.
I also have a couple of what are known as “spoon” knives. My newest one comes from a forge in England. The craftsman is Nic Westerman.
His 65mm Twca Cam is a really popular blade with spoon carvers. Twca cam, pronounced “tooka cam” means “hook knife” in Welsh. You will note, if you clicked the link to Western’s site, that the Twca cam doesn’t have a handle. Lots of blacksmiths just sell the blade. I guess it’s assumed that a wood carver ought to be able to carve a handle for his knife. I made one about a foot long for my Westerman Twca cam to give me lots of leverage. You drill a hole starting with a small drill bit and then larger ones so that the hole is tapered, then epoxy it in place.
Bent knives are surprisingly easy to sharpen. Most of the time you just need to strop them. Glue a piece of leather around a dowel and rub stropping compound on the leather. Once in awhile I hit it with some fine sandpaper also wrapped around a dowel.
Even with a razor sharp Twca cam and my selection of bent knives I find it difficult to get the bowl as smooth as I want it. Barry H. on the island, who makes very high end violas and violins, taught me about scrapers. He uses them as a finishing tool. Most importantly, he taught me that you can sharpen them. I’m talking about a scraper that looks like this.Very inexpensive when compared to the bent knives.
Kestrel Tools, the forge on Lopez Island calls them “crooked” knives. They rivet their blades to the handle and have quite a variety.
Spoon carving starts with a blank, a rectangular piece of wood hewn from a log or branch. Using a hatchet, band saw or bow saw you cut out the rough shape of the spoon including “crank” the bend which occurs in eating spoons and ladles. The finish work is done with a straight knife. The knife I grab most often is the Mora 106.
Almost every spoon carver seems to own a Mora 106 knife. One reason it is so ubiquitous is that it is very inexpensive. You can buy one for less than $25. The second reason, of course, is that it’s a very good knife. Better, I’ve found, than many more expensive blades. The Mora knives come from Sweden. The 106 is long (3.25”) and thin (less than a half inch). The thinness allows the carver to work in concave areas. The length allows for long slicing cuts. A shorter blade might seem safer but one can get used to the three inch blade especially after nicking yourself a couple times.
The blade is laminated. That is, made by layering soft steel over a center of harder steel. This knife is also machine made which is why it is cheaper than hand forged blades. This sandwich of hard in the middle and softer on the outside makes sharpening a bit easier.
They need to be sharpened enough to pass the paper test where the knife can slice clean strips off the edge of a piece of paper.
The grind on a carving knife is called a Scandi grind. There is no secondary bevel because we want the knife to be able to lay flat against the object being carved. The Scandi grind is like a very narrow “V”. These knives rate high on the Rockwell Scale. The Rockwell Scale is a metallurgical measurement of hardness. A good kitchen knife is rated 56-58. The Mora’s hardness on that scale is 61.
I started carving with a North Bay Forge straight knife. This is a hand forged blade made on Waldron Island. It’s a more expensive knife because it is hand made. It’s a very easy knife to use. And, hard to nick yourself with it as the blade is only 1 3/4”.
I also have a Mora 120 which is shorter than the 106. I got this first and used it a lot but rarely choose it over the 106.
Sometimes the long reach of a hunting knife is helpful when you need some leverage. I’m lucky to have a really nice one made by Bark River in Wisconsin. It’s very satisfying to sharpen it to paper slicing sharpness.
Spoon carving may just be an excuse for me to listen to audio books. I’ve liked audio books for a long time but have become a chronic listener since I started spoon carving. Perhaps it was the convenient Blue Tooth unit by friend Ed Reed talked me into buying. This unit hangs around my neck and is so light and comfortable I could wear it all the time which I now do while gardening, carving or even walking the beach.
The library has lots of audio books to download for free. And, if I really want a specific book right this minute I can use Audible.com.
What I find is that I associate certain spoons with the book I was listening to at the time.
I look at this ladle and can’t get Rebel Yell, a biography of Stonewall Jackson out of my mind. Jackson was a true military genius but his failure to be on time at the Seven Days cost the South a real chance to deliver a knockout blow.
Any Charles Dickens audio book will take one through a bunch of spoons which means there are several that remind me of Nicholas Nickleby. It’s a wonder I haven’t named the spoons of those several hours Squeers, Smike, Noggs, or Madame Mantalini. No author comes up with better names than Dickens.
There are some amazingly talented book readers who can make the stories dance in front of you like holograms. My favorites are Simon Vance, Frederick Davidson and Katherine Kellgren.
Ms Kellgren reads a series of YA novels about Bloody Jack, a 19th century girl who is orphaned on the streets of London and talks her way onto a British Naval frigate disguised as a boy. I’m not sure if I would have thought it was as good if I had read it. But in Katherine Kellgren’s hands, it’s a winner.
My fall back is always Simon Vance reading the Patrick O’Brian’s series about Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon/friend Stephen Maturin. There are 21 books in this series. I’ve read them three times and am half way through the audio books.
John LeCarre: The Biography was interesting. I like his books but it turns out I didn’t like him very much. Won’t name any spoons after him.
Of course with Dearie:The Remarkable Life of Julia Childs I focused on serving spoons. I had never paid much attention to Julia but I loved author Bob Spitz’s book on the Beatles so I gave it a try. It’s a terrific bio of a very interesting and influential twentieth century personality. I was compelled to go to Youtube to watch some of her old shows.
Inferno: The World At War 1939-1945 by Max Hastings was good for a few spoons. Hastings kept me on the edge of my seat as he managed to personalize a macro history of WWII.
The book of the moment is 17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-up in History by Andrew Morton. If you are one who doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories and cover ups do yourself a favor and give this a read or a listen.
All of the wood I’ve carved so far has come from Lummi Island or the Pacific NW except for some pieces of hinoki cypress. It’s the Douglas fir of Japan, grown for lumber and used in construction. The chunks I have came from the Kintai-kyo Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan. Iwakuni and Everett, Washington have been sister cities for many years and a few years back Iwakuni sent craftsmen and lumber to build a small replica of the Kintai-kyo Bridge in the Japanese Garden at Everett Community College. The Kintai-kyo Bridge was rebuilt around fifteen years ago and my pieces of cypress were left over from that rebuild. So, I don’t know if the wood is from the old bridge or the rebuild. This wood could be 100 years old!
Suffice to say it is completely dry and very hard. The grain is straight and the wood has a wonderful lemony odor. An essential oil is made from the wood is said to have a calming and relaxing effect.
It splits like a dream, has no knots and has a buttery texture. It also sands beautifully. So, except for being very hard, requiring lots of stropping of blades, it is fun to carve. I got brave and decided to try and carve a large bowl. The risk was ruining a very nice piece of wood that could have produced four or more spoons.
The challenge is to carve the bowl with some kind of symmetry. Having the right tools help. One useful tool is a pencil that writes on wet or dry surfaces. I also use a compass to make circles and arcs.
I start with a big gouge and whacking on the butt of the handle with a mallet start to rough out the bowl part. Using the gouge I outline the edge of the bowl.
This is quite an amazing knife that has a foot long handle I carved which is big enough for two hands giving one lots of leverage and control.
Really good carvers tool finish their pieces. That is, they don’t sand. They like the look of the tool marks although many of them seem to be able to carve pieces that look like they were sanded. I’m not that good. I reach for the sand paper and use it like plastic surgery to finish up a piece.
The finished bowl still has that lovely hokoni odor. I’ll be sad when I use it all up.The bottom right photo shows the bowl oiled and kolrosed (more on kolrosing later) with the kanji for “Kintai-kyo”
Well, maybe this represents a couple of weeks as I got sidetracked with a bowl that wasn’t going too well. I can probably knock out four to five spoons in the time it takes to carve a bowl.
These spoons represent several different kinds of wood and carving challenges. The two on the left are “eaters.” They are made from rhododendron. We had a big one die during the drought last summer. It morphed into a couple of spoons. Rhododendron is hard but has really interesting grain. The eaters are a challenge because they have to feel good to the mouth and the hand. The bowl has to be deep enough to some food but not so deep that you can’t get the food out. There’s a lot to learn about eaters.
The one on the far right might also qualify as an eater. It’s big leaf maple and I was experimenting with color using a wash made with a bit of paint mixed with linseed oil to water it down. I’m not convinced it was a successful experiment.
The third and fourth spoons from the left are vine maple and they were dry when I started carving them. But, they have wonderful two toned grain compared to the all blond big leaf maple which when green and healthy is a pretty bland looking wood, though fun to carve. Which brings us to the fifth spoon—spalted big leaf maple. Our neighbor’s tree was dying and they cut it down. Spalting is caused by a fungus which marks and discolors the wood making it very interesting. Those dark lines are called “zone lines” and look like someone scribbled on the wood. I scrounged quite a bit of the spalted maple and each spoon that comes out of it should be different.
The sixth spoon is big leaf maple. I managed to keep some of the inner bark layer, the periderm, which is darker than the wood and creates a bit of interest.
The seventh spoon is lilac which has lovely multicolored wood but which is very hard and difficult to carve.
Next up—some red alder.
Originally, I was blogging about sustainability and self-reliance as a general subject and, specifically, how it might be important on Lummi Island in the future.
Green woodworking actually falls into the broad category of self-reliance because with some basic skills and a few specialized hand tools, one can make a variety of objects useful around the home, e.g. spoons, forks, plates, bowls, vases, cutting boards, pipes, ladles, cups, storage containers all from trees or shrubs found within walking distance from home. A skilled woodworker can even make musical instruments. We have more than one person on the island who can make violins (although not specifically green woodworking, an awful lot of carving is involved).
After a friend showed me this video I decided to try and carve a set of bones.
The bones are a folk percussion instrument that has deep roots in history. Most of us are probably more familiar with “playing the spoons.” There is something satisfying about playing rhythms on something you made yourself.
I had a pair of carved wood bones to use as a model. I thought it would be easy but it wasn’t. It was difficult to get the curve the same and to make a matching pair.
I used maple and they came out okay and sound really good.
Crank: Archaic. a bend; turn.
Spoons can be straight but they are a lot more interesting from a design standpoint if they have “crank.” You can create a crank with an axe as in this photo from Silva Spoon.
Or, you can find a branch with a natural curve and take advantage of this turning of the grain which will make a very strong spoon (or in the case of the following photos—a ladle). I mistakenly thought a branch angling off was the curve I was looking for. What I discovered was that all the grain on the short side was going in a completely different direction and made a weak connection to the larger piece. As I whacked on it with a hatchet the short side busted off a chunk at a time.
But the bend to the crotch was enough, given some crank, that I was able to make it work. (Note to self: this crotch angle is too severe to be useful).
First, here’s a drawing by master carver David Fisher that explains this principle more vividly.
Now take a look at a soup spoon from our silverware drawer. I’d never noticed the “crank” before. But it’s definitely there. This makes an eating spoon ergonomic. Stirring spoons or serving spoons don’t really need crank although it can make them more interesting.
You can get that angle into the piece a couple different ways. You can freehand it with the hatchet (which all the big boy/big girl carvers seem to always call an axe). You can also take a saw and make a stop cut to reduce the possibility of making a mistake.
In this photo you can see a slight bend in the wood. Using the axe I created more crank.
You can see the kerf line which was my stop cut so I didn’t go too far.
The finished ladle has a nice bend in it. Enough to make it useful.
According to the experienced spoon guys using the natural grain will make the piece last longer.
Expert carvers don’t need to sand. They are skilled enough to tool finish their work. I’m not that good and find I do need to sand most of the stuff I’ve carved to make it look decent.
Recently, I saw a photo on the spoon carving FB site where the carver used the Japanese technique of Shou-sugi-ban to finish his piece. I knew something about this method as our nephew charred the siding on the house he is currently building. The idea behind scorching the wood is to create a long lasting and low maintenance finish. It can also be quite beautiful.
This video demonstrates the technique used on siding.
I recently carved a bowl from birch. It had some hidden knots and imperfections that made finishing the concave part of bowl difficult. Then, I dried it too quickly and it developed a big check (split). I decided this was a candidate for Shou-sugi-ban. Subsequently, I carved a spoon out of a left over piece of cypress and wasn’t happy with some of the detail. The cypress spoon became a second candidate for “The Art of Charred Cedar”. A running mate, if you will.
I made an executive decision that it didn’t have to be cedar for me to put it to the torch. Holding a hissing propane burner to wood takes a bit of bravery when you don’t know what you are doing. It went pretty well, however. Only a few flames which I was able to stamp out with my foot without doing more damage to the piece. I didn’t char the inside of the bowl, just the outer edge and the bottom.
I am happy with the result. There is also linseed oil on the bowl and spoon but I would like to give both more of a glossy aspect so will keep working on finishes. The trick, I discovered, is keeping the torch moving so the piece doesn’t burst into flames. I got a bit carried away and did some serious charring of a couple of edges.
I expect I will experiment with this on other pieces. Here’s a business that specializes on shou-sugi-ban.
To date I’ve carved stuff from alder, big leaf maple, water maple, birch, lilac, rhododendron, cedar, cherry, plum, fir, basswood and Japanese cypress. Carvers seem to be split between the benefits of dry vs wet wood. Having carved both, I don’t see too much of a difference.
I’ve had really good luck with kiln dried two by fours of both fir and cedar. I made this cedar spoon from a two by four that was salvaged from a twenty year old deck.
Many carvers, particularly those who use power tools to carve, like basswood and cottonwood bark. I’ve tried basswood and don’t like it. It is a bland wood with no discernible grain and needs to be painted to look interesting.
It’s hard to name a favorite. Maple is nice and looks great when it’s done and all smoothed out. It is extremely hard and requires patience.
Perhaps the most interesting wood I’ve carved is Japanese cypress which was gifted to me. These particular pieces have a history as they came from the Kintaikyo Bridge in Japan.
Japanese cypress is a light colored wood with extremely straight grain and has a pleasant and very discernible odor. It’s very easy to split into desired shapes because the grain is so perfectly straight. It is the wood of choice for carvers of the traditional Noh masks.
The main reason given for carving green wood is that it is easier. I haven’t noticed that it is that much easier. Ultimately, you have to work with what you have, wet or dry. Green wood offers more options with elbows and joints that allow you to use the natural curve of the grain to create strength. Fruitwood is supposed to be especially nice and I’m on the lookout for any old apple or pear trees that are going to be cut down.