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.
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.
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.
I 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.
The 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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
Linda’s Grandma Ersie’s jam spoon was worn down from use. It was my favorite spoon to cook with but it was declared an historical artifact and removed from service. A year ago I decided to make a copy of it. At the time, I must have been happy with my replica of Ersie’s spoon. Looking at it now I realize that it is a piece of crap, very crude and poorly done.
I must have been delusional to think it was an acceptable piece.
But, hey, self-delusion is one of humanity’s greatest defense mechanisms. It protects us from true self-awareness.
In fact, self-delusion is quite necessary for all erst-while crafts people and wannabe artists. The Bell Curve rules and when one embarks on a new creative endeavor odds are that one will end up being mediocre. But we are all so happy with our creations, because we created them, that very often we are actually willing to show them to people. The “showing” arises out of a desperate desire for positive feedback.
I am blessed to live with someone who is a positive feedback machine. Every carving I bring in the house is praised to the rafters, even my crappy jam spoon replica. The wonderful thing about positive feedback is that even if we know our creation isn’t really that good, the feedback is soothing and keeps us going.
Self-awareness is a positive virtue and lack of it is extremely notable in those who don’t possess it. On the other hand self-awareness can be depressing. It’s not that much fun to take a close look at our warts and blemishes.
So in a burst of self-awareness and self-criticism I realized that my try at making a jam spoon like Grandma Ersie’s was a failure. The question that arose from this insight was: A year later could I do a better job? I set out to try. It could be delusion but I think I succeeded. I must be improving a little bit.
Part of the reason for improvement is tools. (At some point I will try and reconstruct my tool acquisitions). A lot of the fun of a new hobby is getting to buy stuff. Boys like to buy tools and really sharp things like knives, saws and chisels are especially satisfying. There’s some danger involved. (At some point I will try and recap my cuts and how I try to avoid them).
Part of the reason must be improved technique. Technique involves manipulation of the tools but also sharpening. Sharpening is really important. I’m getting better but have a way to go. Sharpening opens up a whole other shopping opportunity with diamond stones, water stones, Arkansas stones, etc.
Although I now have a working replica of Ersie’s spoon it is only a replica. Missing are those years and years of stirring strawberry jam, so much stirring that the edge of the spoon is worn down. I once read a book by the quirky British archeologist TC Lethbridge who believed that emotions could attach themselves to inanimate objects like rocks or, I suppose, spoons. Using a pendulum (dowsing) Professor Lethbridge could determine the emotion that was attached to it. I can’t know if his findings were as valid as they are interesting but all of us know that historical artifacts are fascinating because they have been used. We can visualize a pioneer churning or hewing or whatever.
Ersie’s spoon is different from mine because she used hers for maybe fifty years making jam, stirring so much that she wore off an inch of wood in the process. There’s a whole category of spoons called “love spoons.” Hard to beat the amount of love in Grandma Ersie’s jam spoon.
Since this blog space is paid for I’m going to use it to document a project I’ve started. I’m documenting it for my own benefit. I pretty much have said all I want to say on the subject of “transition” which was the original motive for this blog.
Many years ago I started carving. A year ago I started carving in earnest. A few months ago I got into carving spoons (also forks, bowls and kuksas—a wood cup). I am “self-taught” in the way that anyone is self-taught in the age of Youtube. There are many, many excellent instruction videos on how to carve spoons, bowls and kuksas (a traditional cup from Scandinavia). There is an amazing Facebook page where carvers post photos of their work and where one can learn about and discuss techniques, tools, finishes, etc. There’s another Facebook page where carving tools are sold.
Carving is addictive. Some might say “meditative.” I don’t use it for meditation, however, because while I carve I listen to audio books. Often when I look at a piece I’ve carved I recall what I was listening to at the time. There’s a “Dearie” spoon for that Julia Childs biography, an “Inferno” spoon for that great book on WWII that took forever to get through. There’s a Jack Reacher kuksa. Time flies while one carves.
It’s pretty easy to carve something that looks like a spoon. It’s difficult to carve a really good one. I feel like I’ve moved out of the beginner stage and am somewhere in the vicinity of intermediate. I can tell by the photos spoon carvers post that I’m a long way from expert. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s well-read book, we were told it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a skill. At three to four hours a day I might not live long enough to achieve “mastery.” I am willing to set my sights lower than “mastery” and “expert.” But, why would anyone want to spend several hours a day whittling on pieces of wood anyway? I can’t answer that. I have never been willing to spend hours a day doing any one function having always been something of a dilettante. There is something magical about taking a chunk of firewood or a piece of old 2″ X 4″ and reforming it with hand tools into something useful, sometimes even artful. There is a connection to transition and self-reliance as well.
Yesterday I spent several hours hacking away a big kuksa (cup) that I was trying to carve out of a piece of cedar 6″ X 6″ that I found in my lumber pile. Dry wood is harder to carve than wet and cedar has a big tendency to rip, tear and shred. I was really unhappy with the wood but refused to give up. I wasn’t happy with the finished kuksa either. Finished, it looked like something one might have dug out of the ruins of a pioneer home. Very crude. Rough. Uneven. If it had been my intention to make something that looked really old I might have been happy with it. But, it was an accident. The point being that in time past people carved their tableware, bowls, plates, cups, etc. Some of what they did, maybe most of what they did, might have looked as crude as this:
So, I decided to set a goal of carving 300 spoons in 2016 to see if I get better or just plateau somewhere. Certainly, technique is involved. Tools are important. You need to learn how to sharpen really well. But, I expect, that somewhere along the line I will find out if I have any natural ability (talent) for the process.
If I don’t become too obsessive carving will be a fine way to pass the time.
And, it’s a great way to read!
The New York Times on line for July 30, 2015 has a great twelve minute video on Sandor Katz whose book “The Art of Fermentation” is the bible of the kraft. “The best known style of fermented vegetables in the United States and most of Europe is sauerkraut.” Sauerkraut is just shredded cabbage and salt. We keep making more of it each year because it is so darn tasty and a great way to preserve cabbage for use throughout the year. Our problem is getting to be refrigerator space because we are making a ton of kraut using three then liter water seal crocks and trying to make two batches with each crock. The fermentation process using this method takes at least six weeks so, at some point, you are warehousing cabbage waiting for an empty crock.
The process is pretty easy. You can slice the cabbage using a knife although we use a Cuisinart to speed things up. It helps to break up the cabbage fibers to help release liquid. A potato masher works well. And, you need something to put the sliced cabbage in like a crock or a jar. Here’s the process in a series of photos.
I’m not a “foodie” but am interested in food. I grow much of my own food and use the gardening principles best described as “mineral augmented organics.” Proponents of this method like Steve Solomon (The Intelligent Gardener), Michael Astera (The Ideal Soil) and Gary Kline of Black Lake Organics in Olympia, Washington argue that we have to go a step beyond the organic method which urges the use of compose, biological additions and cover crops and add minerals as dictated by an annual, or more often, soil test.
So, I am naturally predisposed in favor of the farm to table movement which Dan Barber gets credit for starting. Barber was featured in the recent Netflix original series called, “Chef’s Table.” In that he seemed quite obsessed with finding the best tasting food and delivering it to the table of his very upscale restaurant to diners who have paid a small fortune to taste his creations. One complaint that reviewers have of his book is that it has an arrogant, top down view where the big time rock star chef as a conductor directing farmers to grow certain foods and training the customer to try new things.
Farm to table is a concept I endorse and kudos to Mr. Barber for the progress he has encouraged through his farm, restaurant and book. I listened to the audio version with Barber reading and I made it to the end. He had lots of interesting food adventures. It’s great when you are an important and wealthy enough chef to fly off to Spain multiple times to research foie gras and the best ham in the world. And this is where I get confused by the idea of a third plate which, apparently, includes humanely raised foie gras and ham from pigs who fatten by foraging on acorns in a particularly fertile area of Spain. I’ve never eaten foie gras. Most of us haven’t. I just wonder of the third plate might make more sense if it included foods that are more accessible to the average eater.
However, if you want to take a tour of high end food, high end millers, cutting edge farmers and top of the line plant breeders (including a lot about Steve Jones who runs the WSU research facility in Mt. Vernon) there is much of interest to read about in The Third Plate.
We live in a small community that boasts a James Beard Award winner and our roads are full of cars heading to a destination where their dinner experience with wine will cost $250 per plate. The Netflix Chef’s Table series feature six chefs (some quite weird and eccentric) who create tastes that make foodies willing to pay big bucks. I suppose the foodie thing has its place but, personally, I’d prefer an affordable meal at a farmer’s market food stall or from a good food truck. (My kind of food show is “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”)
In reality, I hope the ultimate “third plate” will include food from everyone’s personal garden and from local farmers. Essentially, if you take out the fancy ham, the goose liver and a few other esoteric delights that seems to be Chef Barber’s goal as well.
Taste, rather than nutrition is the goal Barber is chasing. There has to be some correlation between taste and nutrition but there is little if no discussion of nutrient value. Perhaps the goal of superior nutritious food will come with The Fourth Plate.
Since I don’t seem to have much of interest to tell these days I should report on my day in court which turned out to be a demonstration of growing senility or at least my inability to focus on the written word.
So, I reported to Bellingham Municipal Court this past Thursday at 1:30pm with about 50 other violators. We were divided into “mitigators” and “contestors.” The mitigators got to go first. What I learned was that if you have the time and some kind of story to tell you have a chance of having your $30 ticket reduced to $22 or even $15 or even dismissed (if the judge can’t find the police report on his computer). If you happen to park in a handicap spot where the ticket is $450 then you really need to come up with some kind of tale and the judge might cut it in half. The judge was quite lenient. The mitigators were an entertaining bunch and that portion of court lasted for an hour.
Two brothers (farmers) in Central New York state are going to try to survive the year eating only food that they produce, forage or hunt. It’s an interesting experiment and one that you can follow on their blog. They have allowed themselves some exceptions:
- “Salt and pepper are allowed.
- Vitamins and seaweed are allowed.
- Barter is allowed, particularly if the item we’re trading for is produced by the other barterer.
- Gifts of food, so long as the giver grew them him/herself, are allowed.
- Seasoning added by the butcher to meat we raised e.g. bacon and ham, is allowed.
- Cider (mostly hard) made from apples we picked at a nearby farm is allowed. We paid for the apples as it was a u-pick operation. The wild apple crop in 2014 was very poor, so we made an exception about purchasing food for those apples. Plus, we still put in all the labor gathering them and Garth did all the labor fermenting the cider.
- (They will quit) if (they) lose 15% of (their) starting body weight.”
The last caveat is interesting and might be a bit conservative although from the photos on their website they seem to be pretty lean to start with. However, I will note from my own personal experience that when I experimented with a radical diet (raw food) for a full year I lost 37 lbs (thought gained back about 20 for a net loss of more than 15).
These guys are going to blog about it, of course, and it should be interesting. If you want to follow their progress (or lack of it) you can sign up with blog trotter and you’ll get an email when they make new posts.
With a farm, the ability to barter and an omnivore’s diet they should succeed. After all, it’s been done before by generations of people who lived on self-sufficiency farms. In our day and age, it’s quite radical.