Feb 272016

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.

Feb 202016

We take the spoon shape for granted. It’s so common and ubiquitous. From a high school physics standpoint we can see it as a lever. It’s the cooking version of the same shape we use for a shovel or garden trowel. There’s a bowl and a handle. From there the permutations are endless. That’s possibly what makes spoon carving so much fun.

If one searches for “carved wooden spoons” on Google Images or Bing Images the variations are amazing. Skim quickly through the photos on this website. Norwegian designer  Stian Korntved Ruud made a spoon a day for a year with riffs on the spoon/handle and comes up with a mind boggling display of sculptural, if not useful, shapes. From a design standpoint his work is inspirational and now properly resides in a museum.

We can put aside the argument as to whether this work is art or craft. He’s obviously taken design of the spoon to a different level. Sort of carving jazz.

For most spoon carvers the object is to make a spoon that is useful and pleasing to the eye. There are different categories: cooking, serving, eating. Spoons from any of these categories can be very plain or carved in a way to make them more interesting. They can be long or short, thick or thin. They can be decorated using techniques like chip carving or kolrosing. They can be painted or soaked in natural liquids like tea or beet juice. They can be inlayed. They can be baked or even burned.

Carvers who are in the business of selling their spoons can design for production, splitting wood into blanks of equal size then making multiple versions from the same template.

Right now, I’m in a mode where each spoon is different depending on the wood available, the size of the wood and the type of wood. I have a few templates and am creating more but the tendency is to let the wood decide what it wants to be. It’s fun to get carried away with decoration and variation but it’s easy to go too far. “Spoon” should be in quotes because the same basic techniques can turn out forks, spreaders, knives, spatulas, pie servers, etc.

A lot of the “eaters” that expert carvers post on Facebook seem to have bowls that are too big for your mouth. Occasionally, I have tried to carve a small spoon. One that can actually be used to eat with. The bowl has to be shallow and thin to feel right in the mouth. This is a quest that might continue for a long time.

Robin Wood is one of the best spoon carvers and wrote an essay titled “20 of the best wooden spoons in the world.”  He says, “Each (spoon) is a functional sculpture.” And as he discusses 20 great spoons from his personal collection he comes to an eating spoon by a fellow named Fritiof Runhall who “…explained how he had been studying the spoons he had made over the previous 10 years alongside old spoons in museums. He came to the conclusion he did not like any of his spoons. It is only through this sort of self criticism and deep analysis that you get to be the best…”

Good design is an ongoing process.

Feb 142016

Carving knives must be razor sharp. The test is to see if you can take thin slices from a piece of paper. It’s quite satisfying when your blade reaches that degree of sharpness. But when a knife is that sharp you can slice yourself in an instance.

IMG_5988I have shed blood and one chisel cut got infected which, unfortunately, required antibiotics. That was my own fault because I didn’t do proper first aid. Since then, when I sliced myself I stopped, bled it really well, cleaned the wound with alcohol, applied some antibiotic ointment and a band aid. It only took me about six cuts to decide to take some precautions.

I’m impressed watching carving videos that these experts normally don’t wear any kind of protection. I’ve sliced myself enough that I came to the conclusion it was better to be safe than sorry and I’ve gotten used to wearing a carver’s glove, a thumb guard and a leather apron.

IMG_7559The glove has metal threads running through it and although it isn’t foolproof it does offer a first line of defense. I’ve manage to slice through the glove but didn’t cut myself. Since my right thumb (my cutting hand) is always in jeopardy I wear a thumb guard. You can buy thumb guards or wrap some duct tape around your finger. I cut the fingers out of old leather gloves and that seems to work fine.

I haven’t cut myself since getting religious about protecting my fingers except for one small knick when I got too close to the corner of the carving hatchet.

The best protection against cuts are the different techniques for carving—grips and movements that limit how far the blade can travel. You can also use the piece you are carving for protection by keeping wood between your fingers and the blade or, in the case of the hatchet, by choking up considerably on the handle. Securing the work is also important using a vice, a shaving horse (another kind of vice), carving stump or hold fasts to keep the work from moving around.

Cuts are annoying but tendonitis, carpal tunnel or repetitive motion injuries are potentially a bigger problem. Yesterday I whacked away on a bowl with a hatchet, chisel and mallet and adze for over three hours. I wear one of those straps that tennis players wear to keep from getting tennis elbow. I stop periodically and do a series of stretches. My arm is often sore to the touch from elbow to wrist but, with the precautions I’m taking, with massage and liniment I’ve avoided anything that keeps me from carving. This type of carving is quite vigorous. My guess is that if some kind of injury stops me from carving it won’t be a cut. It will be sore muscles or ligaments.

Feb 102016

The most surprising thing about spoon carving is how much is done with a hatchet. It’s amazing how precise you can be in rough shaping a spoon. One master spoon carver said that one minute with a hatchet is worth ten minutes with a knife.

Of course, the hatchet has to be a good one and it has to be sharp. Many carvers use hatchets that look like Viking war implements with large curved blades. In fact, the majority seem to use hatchets that look like this one:




Notice the gap near the top of the handle. This is so you can choke up and grip right below the metal giving you much more control and precision.

My hatchet is a bit smaller:



It’s a Gransfors Small Carving hatchet and weighs less than a pound. When I first started carving I could only use it for five minutes at a time. Hatcheting used some new muscles and it took considerable time to build them up. Many carvers stand when they carve using a variety of stumps or work surfaces on which to hold the wood. My stump is on the floor and I sit on a stool so I can rest the elbow of my hatchet hand on my leg. This takes some of the pressure off the elbow joint which, frankly, is now sore a lot of the time. I’m pleased that I haven’t developed tendonitis over the last couple of years.

IMG_7504This much of the spoon was done with the hatchet and I wasn’t done yet. Using the hatchet like a chisel on a stick, I kept chipping away until I was down to the lines. A heavier hatchet might work even better now that the arm is in shape. There are many small forges popping up around the world making high quality hand tools. There are two forges in the San Juan Island making carving knives and adzes.

As always the key is to keep the axe sharp and to make certain the bevel makes contact in a way that the axe can actually slice wood.

Here’s how the spoon blank pictured above ended up.


Feb 032016

IMG_7464 (1)As a recovered sports fan I now find amusing our attachment to professional teams, normally made up of young millionaires from other communities, many of whom will soon move on to teams in other cities. Seahawks mania has been especially intriguing as the Hawks have become the personal avatar for hundreds of thousands of NW fans.

It is impossible to not be affected by the impact of the Seahawks. Their ubiquitous logo appears on the back windows of autos: 12th man flags fly from flagpoles, evidence of the delusion that makes the non-participant believe they are having some sort of impact on the outcome of the contest. I suppose the emotional involvement is part of the entertainment. And, granted, when the Seahawks are on they are fun to watch. When they lose the community angst and anguish is palpable.IMG_7466

Each game becomes a week long discussion around the office cooler and on sports radio. During the off season the next season’s speculation is endless.

I have not contributed much to Seahawk fever. But I did carve a Seahawk bowl from a dry chunk of big leaf maple. It’s my kind of bowl game now. Felt pretty satisfied with this one. IMG_7467 (3)IMG_7462