It Was a Bad Day in the Shop–So I Made a Spoon

Yesterday was one of those days in the shop.

I had a few hours I could devote to woodwork, so I decided I would work on another pipe.  As I began shaping it, I went to re-adjust the handscrew that was clamping the workpiece, and the whole thing (wood, pipe stem, and handscrew) fell to the ground, shattering the stem.

Not having time to assemble another stem, I decided to look in on that bit of dogwood I had salvaged a few weeks ago.  I figured it would still be wet enough to carve into some woodenware.  When I picked it up, however, I found it full of bug holes!  So I treated it with some borax and set it aside for something “rustic.”

Pecan Spoon 10-12 So I did what I always do when things go wrong in the shop.  I took out some straight-grained wood and made a spoon.

It’s something I can do quickly and confidently, though not without thinking about it.  My tools and materials rarely let me down.  This one is pecan–not easy to shape, but very strong and durable in use.  This one is a narrow stirring spoon.

It’s all probably just as well.  A recent spate of weddings has depleted my stock of wooden spoons, and need to build up my stock again.

What about you?  What do you do when disaster strikes in the shop?  Do you plow ahead, switch to something else, or just walk away?

Posted in Musings, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | 4 Comments

Making a Joiner’s Mallet

My current joiner’s mallet is over six years old and is starting to show a little wear.  I’ve had some pecan wood drying in my attic for a year now, and I decided it was time to bring it down and make some mallets with it. I have a 3″X4″ thick piece just for the heads, plus a nice 1″-thick piece for the handles. Both have a little spalting in them, but the wood is still perfectly sound. I’ll be able to get three mallets out of this stock. 

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 1

Mallets come in many sizes, and two of the three I’m making will be fairly big. All the striking faces will be 3″ square. The heads themselves will be somewhere between 3 1/4″ and 3 1/2″ tall. The heads of the two big ones are about 5″ long at the bottom, and the smaller one is about 4″. The striking faces are angled at about 5 degrees.

The handles were cut out at 15″ long, but once they are nicely fitted, I can trim them back if necessary.  I want a handle that is about 10″ long underneath the head, and I want to leave about 1″ sticking out of the top.  The handle blanks are 1″ wide at the bottom and 1 1/4″ wide at the top.

For joiner’s mallets, just about any tough hardwood is suitable: hickory, pecan, ash, white oak, beech, elm, hard maple, osage orange… the list goes on and on. You just don’t want anything that’s easy to split. (I would not use black walnut or mesquite, for example.) And when the mallet does finally give up the ghost, it takes only an hour or two to make another one.

I do like Roy Underhill’s approach to making a joiner’s mallet, and my method is almost identical. I’ll point out a couple differences in a moment.

After squaring up my stock, I rough-cut the parts out on the bandsaw. (That’s the first departure from St. Roy!)

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 4The handle on a joiner’s mallet can be attached in a variety of ways.  Some are turned and wedged into a round mortise in the head.  Others are attached with a square or angled mortise.  In this design, which I owe to Paul Sellers, the entire handle is tapered and is inserted through the head.  The more you use it, the tighter the head gets wedged in place.

Like Paul Sellers (and unlike Roy Underhill), I like a rounded top to my mallet heads. If the top of the head is flat, the top edge is an acute angle, which is naturally weak. Rounding the top off is an extra step in the process, but it seems to keep the top edge of the mallet face from splitting out. Ideally, that top edge should be a slightly obtuse angle.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 2

I sketched the curve freehand, cut it out on the bandsaw, and then smoothed the surface with a smoothing plane. I start planing at about the last half inch of the surface, then work my way back slowly taking short strokes. With care, the result is a nicely rounded surface.

Laying out the mortise on the head is a little tricky. It’s best to use the handle itself as a template for the angle.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 3

I mark the width of the mortise on the bottom, then lay the handle across the head. I measure from both ends to make sure the handle is centered, then trace my layout lines. It’s a little precarious, but it does work.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 5

The result is a slightly angled mortise.

Then it’s time to actually cut the mortise. If you’re using good, tough wood (as you should be), it’s not going to be terribly easy any way you cut it.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 6Roy’s advice is spot-on. Use a brace and bit (I used a 15/16″) to bore out the center of the mortise. Bore in from both sides. It’s a lot easier than trying to turn a big bit in a 3″ deep hole.

Then it’s just a matter of squaring up the mortises.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 9

I took small bites with my 1″ chisel, but I did also resort to a couple narrower chisels for the final clean-up. A 1/2″ chisel is much easier to drive into tough wood than is the 1″. You want the ends of the mortise straight and clean–no under-cutting! (A rasp or file can help clean up from the chisel work.) The sides, however, can be undercut a little to allow the handle to pass in cleanly. You want it wedged up against the end grain on both ends of the mortise. Once the mortise is squared up, the handle can be planed to an exact fit.

Before you insert the handle into the mortise, relieve the corners.  If you’ve cut everything accurately, the handle should stop a little short of where you want it. Then you can just plane the handle down to fit where you want it.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 10

In dry weather, a head can creep up the handle, but when it gets humid again, it will jam onto the handle and will become impossible to remove. That’s a good thing, ultimately. But that means you want to leave a little extra handle sticking out of the top.

But before you get the handle irrevocably wedged into the head, you need to shape the handle. This is my favorite part–all spokeshave work.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 11

Now, if you just rounded over the corners, the handle would want to slip right out of your hand when you used it. So some shaping is in order. It’s difficult for me to take a good photo of the process, but the above layout lines will give you a good idea of how to proceed. You want to begin right up where the handle meets the head, in case you need to choke up on the handle. You also want to leave a bit down on the bottom to prevent it from leaving your hand mid-swing. The most important thing is that the handle fit your hand comfortably.

Once the handle is shaped to my hand’s liking, I round over both the top and bottom of the handle, just for looks.

Now, while you’re at it, relieve all the other corners on the mallet.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 14On the striking faces, make an especially big roundover, at least 1/4.”  If you don’t relive these edges, they will relieve themselves in short order.

The result looks something like this:

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 15

Now for the big finish.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 17

I thinned some safflower oil about half-and-half with mineral spirits and gave the heads a good soaking. (Safflower oil won’t go rancid like most other vegetable oils. Mineral oil would also be a good choice.) Once you stop seeing the bubbles rising from the wood, the head has absorbed about as much as it’s going to. This will add some significant weight to the mallet, so do this only if you want the extra heft. Otherwise, just use a top-coat of oil or wax over everything. Or leave it completely unfinished.

After the long soak, both head and handle got a top-coat of Danish oil, mostly for consistency of color. Pound the handles in, and we’re ready to do some heavy chopping.

Mallet Making 10-14 - - 18I’m keeping the one in the middle for myself.  The other two are going to live in other woodworkers’ shops.


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The Servile Arts Are the New Liberal Arts

What is the place of handicrafts–especially traditional handicrafts like spoon carving, basket weaving, pottery, and blacksmithing–in today’s world?

Before I answer the question, allow me to indulge in a little philosophy.  Since at least the 13th century A. D., and probably since the 4th century B. C., philosophers have distinguished between the liberal arts and the servile arts.  The liberal arts are ends in themselves; they may have practical applications, but they are essentially pursued for their own sakes.  (In the Middle Ages, there were exactly seven of them: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.)  The servile arts, on the other hand, aim at some pragmatic good.  They are pursued for ends beyond themselves.  If it weren’t for their practical results, they probably wouldn’t be practiced at all.

Two Saw Handles 8-2014 - - 18

This is a very practical tool. It cuts wood. Why, then, does it have decorative elements on the handle? Do they serve any purpose?

So, got that?  Liberal arts are pursued for their own sake; servile arts are pursued for the sake of something else.  So, for example, if I could still play the piano, I might sit down at a piano and play a Bach minuet for the sheer pleasure of it.  Thus music is a liberal art.  If, on the other hand, a button falls off my shirt, I might sew it back on.  I don’t enjoy sewing buttons on–in fact, I find the whole operation tedious.  I do it because I want my shirt to button properly.  Thus, sewing is a servile art.

But here’s the problem: in an age of mass-produced clothing, a lot of people now sew for fun.  A friend of mine is getting married next year and has decided to make her own wedding dress.  She could afford to buy a nice one if she wanted to, but she has chosen to sew the dress herself.  At some level, she is undertaking the work for its own sake.  On the other hand, many chain stores now play “mood music” continually.  The music is deliberately chosen (and sometimes composed) to subtly influence customers to buy merchandise.  The music is valuable only insofar as it increases sales.

That brings me to the assertion in the title: the old servile arts are the new liberal arts.

Spoon Ornament Christmas 09 4

Spoon carving is supposed to be a servile art. But what purpose does a spoon like this serve?

There was a time, I suppose, when manual labor (if you include agricultural work) was the norm for most people in the West, but the Industrial Revolution changed all that.  There is still some meaningful manual labor available, such as electrical work, plumbing, and auto repair.  But skilled, manual labor is no longer the norm for most Westerners. Individuals can go back to practicing pre-industrial crafts, but I’m afraid that societies can’t.  And while a few skilled artisans may be able to make a living using traditional methods, most cannot.

This leaves traditional handicrafts in the hands of amateurs–people who practice them but do not depend on them for their livelihood.  Often they begin to pursue a craft out of some pragmatic need, as I did when I started working wood.  I needed bookshelves that could actually hold books.  But then something happened.  I began making things (including tools) not just because I needed them, but because I enjoyed the process of making them.  At some point, I crossed the line from practicing woodwork as a servile art to practicing it as a liberal art.  I find that many amateur craftspeople do the same.

The disadvantage of leaving the older handicrafts to the amateurs is that these people often have little time to devote to learning the craft, and they can have trouble finding mentors locally.  It can take them years to learn what the old professionals learned in only weeks.  On the other hand, an amateur is free from the burden of the market.  He or she can make something without worrying much about labor costs and overhead, and if an amateur furniture maker wants to try out some new style or design feature, he or she is free to do it.  The professional furniture maker doesn’t always have that luxury.

Paradoxically, many of the old liberal arts function a lot like servile arts. Professionally, I teach in the liberal arts–specifically literature.  Because I do it for a living, I can’t always do it exactly the way I might like.  If I want to explore a new avenue by, say, designing a new course, I have a long list of stakeholders to consider–administrators, accrediting agencies, colleagues, and students.  It is very seldom that I can actually pursue literature solely for its own sake.  If, however, I want to try veneering or French polishing, all I need to consider is my available toolkit.  One or two specialized tools, and I’m free to go in a new direction.  I don’t have to need to veneer a piece of furniture; in fact, I don’t need to build things myself at all.  There are days I just want to make a box, a spoon, or a pipe.  So I do.  I may end up using it, selling it, or giving it away, but those outcomes are secondary.  In itself, the work can be utterly gratuitous.  In a very real sense, my woodworking is far more free or liberal (in the old sense) than is my teaching.

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Are Traditional Handicrafts Good for Society?

A couple weeks ago, in preparation for a talk, carver/turner Robin Wood asked people to comment on this question about traditional handicrafts:

“We can see the benefit to a few craftspeople but can you prove the benefit to the wider community?”

He had over 170 positive answers within a couple of days, and last I checked, it’s up to 285 responses. (You can see the whole thing at his Facebook page.)

Layout Tools 2012 - - 2Although we Americans tend to ask first about the value of things for individuals, Europeans (like Robin Wood and his immediate audience) tend to ask more frequently about social value. Both are important questions. Matthew Crawford, for example, makes a strong case for the value of skilled, manual labor for individuals in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft.

But what about society as a whole? If more individuals in North America began to learn to work with their hands, would our society as a whole tend to flourish? My short answer is, of course, yes. I think that society as a whole benefits from having a lot of people who have the skills to make and repair physical objects.  Or, put negatively, I think our society will suffer if we continue to drain it of people who can shape our physical environment without destroying it.

But that raises a further question: what does it mean to flourish as a society at all? It seems to me our modern economy thrives on consumers who are impatient, greedy, gluttonous, easily manipulated, superficially enthusiastic, imperceptive about quality, and quickly bored—people who value cheap thrills and immediate ease above all else. If a flourishing society is one in which an ever-increasing number of people are living in ever-increasing physical comfort at ever-decreasing prices, then handicrafts really have very little place in a modern society—at least the American one that I live in. Insofar as our economy has any connection to the physical world at all, it is built on low-quality consumer goods that require rapid replacement.

If, however, human flourishing has anything to do with developing a well-ordered soul, then we would do well to cherish and teach traditional handicrafts. These crafts require the craftsperson to be patient and thoughtful, to persevere through difficulty, to notice subtle differences, to pay attention to details, and to value the integrity of the thing itself above the thing’s market value. Learning a craft not only fosters an independent spirit (“I can make it myself.”), but it also unites people in communities of like-minded workers–guilds, as we used to call them.  These communities both set the standards for excellent work and ensure that the skills necessary to meet those standards remain alive and active.   These sorts of communities are also, I think, foundational to civil society. Speaking for myself, I would like to live surrounded by communities of people who are thoughtful, careful, patient, honest, thrifty, and perceptive. I would like to live around more skilled workers.

How about you? Do you know of any examples of that demonstrate the social value (and not just the individual value) of traditional handicrafts?  If so, I’d love to hear your story.

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A Little Dogwood

A friend of mine contacted me a couple days ago asking if I could help him take down some dead and dying trees that were leaning up against his house (and providing bugs with a convenient entry point).  So I brought my chainsaw over to see what I could do.

I ended up removing two dead dogwoods and another unidentifiable dead tree.  I’m always sorry to see a dogwood go, but I know that if you can get to them before they get rotten or buggy, the wood can be excellent.  But it rots in a hurry.  One bole was already punky inside, but the other had about 3′ of sound, clear wood in the bole.  It’s about 5″ in diameter, but then no dogwood log is ever very big.

With a hewing hatchet, I cut a flat all the way down the log so I could saw it open on the bandsaw.  Then I removed the rest of the bark with a drawknife.

Dogwood Log 9-2014  - 1

You’d think at some point I’d build a decent shaving horse, wouldn’t you?

Yeah, me too.

Dogwood Log 9-2014  - 2

I resawed the other section so I have one half and two quarters of the log. It has beautifully variegated colors (which this pictures absolutely fails to show) from yellow to cream to almost purple.  Dogwood is hard, heavy, and very difficult to split, so large pieces are prized for making carver’s mallets, as well as other things that need to stand up to heavy use.

S0 the larger half of the log I will set aside for mallets.  The quarters will probably become spoons–if I can get to it before it dries out.  Otherwise, I see some marking gauges and chisel handles in the works.

The ends are sealed now.  I can’t wait to see what comes out of this log.

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It’s Official: Spoon Making is “In.”

Earlier this year, the Popular Woodworking Magazine blog promoted several of the magazine’s spoon making resources.  There is now a Facebook group of spoon makers and greenwood craftspeople that boasts nearly 5,500 members (myself included).  And more recently, over at the Lost Art Press blog, Chris Schwarz has posted an old, one-page article from The Woodworker magazine, which is worth a look.  (Chris also shares his own early, traumatizing experience with spoon making.)  The article, which Chris says was probably written by Charles H. Hayward, is a brief look at the design of the hand-carved wooden spoon.

Hayward suggests that wooden spoons were developed in England in the 17th century, though we now know that they were used throughout Medieval England, and almost certainly earlier, though intact examples are difficult to come by.

FMitchell-2289or some reason, as soon as spoon making comes up, somebody will bring up Celtic “love spoons,” as Hayward does in this article.  I’m not terribly interested in these artifacts, and I don’t quite see why they should be lumped together with functional wooden spoons.  As far as I can see, they share only three similarities: they are made of the same material (wood); they are made using similar tools (carving knives); and they both have some sort of hollowed “bowl” attached to a oblong bit of wood.  You might as well lump together cauldrons and church bells.  As works of fine art, love spoons can be beautiful in their own right, but they are utterly useless and intentionally so.  Real wooden spoons, on the other hand, are judged primarily by their usefulness.  Their aesthetics are directly connected to their function.  A good spoon both looks good and feels good in use.

Nevertheless, I’m pleased that wooden spoons are finally getting some publicity in the USA.  I hope that will mean that we will soon see a wider range of spoon making tools becoming available, and that spoon making resources will continue to proliferate.

Yet, as G. K. Chesterton once said, “Fashions come and go, but mostly go.”  Me, I’m going to keep making functional kitchen spoons as often as I can.

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WIA 2014 Kids’ Corner: Special Thanks to North Carolina Woodworker

WIA 2014 - - 10The Woodworking in America conference naturally caters to the facial-hair-and-flannel crowd, but our experience this year was enriched by the “kids’ corner” set up by North Carolina Woodworker, a statewide association of woodworkers.  They had several quick, kid-friendly projects for children, and my kids tried them all out.

K, my oldest, made a laminated bracelet, which was then ripped in half.  She kept one half, and the other half went to a child in a local hospital.

I’ve never done a bent lamination before, so this was new territory for her as well as for me.

WIA 2014 - - 09 WIA 2014- - 07A lot of glue, a little blue tape, and a clamp was all it took, really.   Names and/or initials can be carved or woodburned into the bracelet to personalize it.  WIA 2014 - - 11It’s an easy project, and the results come quickly.

Next time somebody asks about a quick, kid-friendly project, I’m going to recommend this.

Another daughter, A, chose a simple scrollsaw project.  She was a little nervous around the machine, as it made a bit of noise.  The biggest difficulty for her little hands was holding the workpiece flat on the table while the saw cut.  Fortunately, she had some adult assistance with that part.

Drilling a hanging hole for it was a little easier for her.  She’s done plenty of work with an eggbeater drill before.

They glued on some googly eyes, and the project was done.  With a little more time, it would have been fun to paint it, too.   WIA 2014- - 10

A third project (of which I failed to take a process picture) was the light-saber.  They had a couple lathes set up, where kids could turn a simple handle.  They inserted a small LED flashlight on one end and a piece of PVC tubing on the other to make a glowing sword.  It’s a fast, boy-friendly project that I highly recommend to anybody with a little boy and a lathe.

WIA 2014- - 28

My son was especially fond of this project.

So once again, thanks to the North Carolina woodworkers who volunteered their time, tools, and materials to make this a family-friendly event!

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The Kids Do Woodworking in America 2014

Attending the Woodworking in America conference was a little different for us this year.  My wife and I were both running cameras for various sessions (which got us in free!).  On the first day, my wife ran cameras for Graham Blackburn, as well as for Brian Coe, a joiner who supervises all the costumed interpreters at Old Salem.  Meanwhile, I took my own kids down to Old Salem to see the sights.

Old Salem 9-2014(Note to self: if there is water, the kids will get wet.)

The next day, I ran camera for Phil Lowe as he showed how to make a full-scale drawing of a chair, and for Matt Cianci as he taught saw sharpening.  Thanks to Matt, I now know what I’ve been doing wrong.  My next sharpening attempts should be better.  I also took a quick spin with the kids around the Marketplace.  I could have spent all day there, but as it was, the kids seemed to hover between enjoyment and bemusement.

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My son, R, found a mallet just his size at the Lee Valley display.  He promptly tried to hammer in the pegs it had been hanging on.

My kids also got a good look at the high-tech, mechanized side of woodworking.  The Legacy CNC Woodworking booth featured a CNC machine that was cutting names and designs into pieces of cedar.

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All four of the kids took home a custom-made nameplate.

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Since this event was part of the kids’ schooling experience (life is learning, after all), we made up a pictorial scavenger hunt for the Marketplace.  To make the list, my wife and I looked at the list of exhibitors online, visited their websites, and picked out pictures of items we thought would be likely to show up at their booths.  I think the kids found everything on the list, except for Roy Underhill.

WIA 2014- - 05

One of the items on the list was the Knew Concepts fretsaw.  My daughter, A, got to try it out.  (My wife wants one now.)  My youngest daughter, M, learned to positively identify a backsaw, and she went around the room picking out every single backsaw she could find.

WIA 2014 - - 13

K also got to try out the travishers made by Claire Minihan and offered by Peter Galbert.  Claire was on hand to give K some pointers, but she got the hang of it pretty quickly.  I hope to see this more often: young women working wood.

More pictures of the event coming soon!



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Getting the Kids Ready for WIA 2014

Since the Woodworking in America conference is going to be a family event for us this year, I thought it best to start getting the kids ready now.  This afternoon, I pulled representative tools out of my tool chest and quizzed everybody on their names.  My oldest (7 years old) knew almost all of them, and the younger kids caught on quick.  Even my youngest (2 years old) knows “hammer.”

Then we brought out the “little workbench” and the kid-sized tools and let them putter around with some scrap for a little while.  I’m so glad I bought that set of leather punches on closeout a couple years ago.  They’re great for making designs in wood, and the kids love using them.  Eggbeater drills are also great for kids, even if they do spin them backwards.


I just hope they’ll be ready for next weekend.

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Woodworking in America 2014

Early this summer I started to get e-mail notices about the Woodworking in America conference to be held in September 2014.  The location this year is Winston-Salem, NC.  My wife and I really wanted to go.  First we looked at our schedule.  Then we looked at our savings account.  Finally, we looked at each other.  We shook our heads and said, “not this year.”

Then just yesterday one of the conference organizers contacted me (by virtue of my being a moderator on WoodNet, I think), asking if I knew of anybody who could do A/V and wanted to go to the conference.  As it happens, my wife and I have done a lot of sound tech work and even a little camera work for various churches we have attended.  I eagerly volunteered our services.

So now we have a week to get ready for WIA 2014!  This time we’ll be taking our four children, which will be an adventure for them and for us.  Kids 12-and-under get into the Marketplace free, and there’s a “kids’ corner” this year, too.  I’m already drilling them on the names of tools so they won’t embarrass themselves at the exhibitors’ booths.  My wife and I trade off on childcare duties, and there are so many kid-friendly, educational things to do in Winston-Salem that we’re having a hard time deciding where to take them when they aren’t at WIA.

There will be lots of exciting things going on at conference, too.  I’ll be reconnecting with old acquaintances, and I hope to meet Drew Langsner, whose book Country Woodcraft persuaded me that I could make useful things with a few, simple hand tools.  Lee Valley has promised a big unveiling of new products at their booth, too.  But it’s always the unplanned things that end up being really memorable.

Whatever happens at WIA 2014 won’t stay there.  I’ll be taking pictures and blogging about it here next weekend.

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