Making Stir-Fry Spatulas from Curly Oak

We all know about curly maple, but how about curly oak?  I didn’t know it existed until I started salvaging wood down here in Alabama.  One day I found that some brush had been cleared across the street from my house, and I picked up the bole of a small water oak tree

Curly Water Oak Spatulas 2014 - - 2The water oaks, sometimes called swamp oak, are common around here, and they often go down in storms because of their shallow root systems. The wood is much more close-grained than your usual oaks, so it’s about the only oak that I’ve found suitable for woodenware.

I split the log open, only to find that the whole tree was a knotty corkscrew.  The grain spiraled around the whole trunk, so it wouldn’t split straight. There were a number of other defects, so I only managed to get a few usable pieces, one of which you see here.  I wasn’t sure how to handle the twisty grain, so I sealed the ends and set them aside to dry.   This piece sat around for years until I dug it out last week.

Curly Water Oak Spatulas 2014 - - 1

Moment of truth: yes, my workbench usually is this cluttered. You don’t need much bench space to make a spoon.

The natural twist, I decided, would make great stir-fry spatulas.  Following the grain, I could make a wide spatula with a natural scoop without any grain running out.  The resulting utensil would be both light and strong.  So I drew out two spatulas on the blank and sawed them out with my bow saw.

The wood worked easily, though the curly figure resulted in much tear-out.  I spent more time than usual scraping and sanding.  As with other curly woods, I found that sometimes cutting perpendicular to the grain was the best approach to avoiding tear-out.

The results were well worth the effort.

Curly Water Oak Spatulas 2014 - - 3

These spatulas were some of the first things to sell at last week’s craft show.

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Craft Show Success

Selling my work–mostly wooden spoons–at craft shows has been hit-or-miss for me.  But recently I found out that our local art museum, the Mobile Museum of Art, hosts a regular craft show, and I thought that venue might bring in the clientele I’m looking for.  So I plopped down the small table fee and set up a booth.

Show Table MMoA 12-2014 - - 2

I didn’t have a lot of spoons to sell, but I had enough to make it worth my time being there.  I got a good table right in the middle of the venue, and I had a good flow of traffic.  And sales were good.  I sold nearly half my stock in about three hours.

It really helped that I was able to process credit card payments with my smartphone.  That accounted for almost two-thirds of my sales tonight.

Next time around, I want to have a wider variety of shapes and sizes to offer–especially spatulas.  But mostly I just need to make more spoons.

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A New Ladle–For Me This Time

One of the more annoying kitchen implements we’ve owned is a plastic soup ladle.  We’ve probably had it as long as my wife and I have been married.  Aside from the design being awkward, the ladle imparted a plastic-ish taste to soups and stews if we left it in the pot too long.  So my wife finally commissioned a replacement.

Walnut Ladle 12-2014

The new walnut ladle with the old plastic one behind it. Yes, there is a large googly eye on my workbench. No, I don’t know why.

I worked on it on and off for the last few weeks.  Usually it takes me under an hour to make a spoon, but this one was special.  The wood had a nice crook in it, but also quite a bit of reversing grain in the bowl.  Plus, it took me some time to get the bowl deep enough.  I went back and forth between my gouge and my hook knife until the bowl looked right.

The finish is still curing, so I suppose we’ll hold off on serving soup for the next couple of days.  In the meantime, the old plastic ladle is being relegated to the kids’ play kitchen on the back porch.

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Spoon Carving Article in Woodworker’s Journal

It’s my first real woodworking article.

WJ Spoon Carving Article 2014 - 1

It’s in the November/December issue.

WJ Spoon Carving Article 2014 - 2

The pictures were taken by my friend and colleague Doug Mitchell, who is a much better photographer than I am.

The article is an update of my original blog post on carving a wooden spoon.  In writing the article, I had to re-think my carving process, breaking it down into discrete steps, so this article is, I think, clearer and more concise than the original post.  It’s also a little shorter.  I suspect writing this article has ultimately made me a more efficient spoon maker.

You can purchase a copy at any Rockler store, or at the magazine’s website.

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Making Wooden Spoons (Quickly)

Our local art museum, the Mobile Museum of Art, is hosting an arts-and-crafts fair next month.  I don’t usually sell my work at craft shows, but the table fee was reasonable, so I signed up.

The problem is that I don’t have a lot of surplus spoons on hand, so I’ve been in production mode this weekend. That means I’ve had to streamline my workflow.  Because–let’s be honest–I enjoy the process as much as the product, so I don’t usually work as quickly as I can.

First, I pulled out some stock that I had been saving for spoons: these boards have some bad end-checking, and they were cut to a very uneven thickness (a casualty of my ineptitude at the bandsaw).  The figure isn’t spectacular enough for use in furniture, but it should make great spoons.

Pecan Spoon Spalted Stock 11-2014

Usually, I select stock to minimize waste, but this time I’m working to maximize the appearance of each spoon.  I’m also not bothering to work right up close to defects like knots and splits.  I don’t want any surprises after I’ve roughed out each blank.  My templates help me plan out exactly what parts of the board will become spoons.

If I’m making one spoon at a time, I cut out everything by hand, but this time I cut each blank to rough shape on the bandsaw.  Normally, I find that the whole ordeal of taking a single blank down to the bandsaw, turning everything on, putting on my dust mask, tensioning the blade, making the cuts, de-tensioning the blade… oh, shoot–it’s just not worth it for two cuts!  But when I’m cutting out seven spoons all at once, the machine is faster.

I still shape the spoons by hand with a large gouge, drawknife, and spokeshave, but I do contract out some of the finishing work.

Pecan Spoon Making Helpers 11-2014

My wife is pretty quick with the card scrapers, and I even taught her how to resharpen them!  I can sometimes get one or two of the kids to do a little sanding.  Other times, they just keep my company as they crack pecans.  (It was a pecan-sort-of-an-afternoon.)

By the end of the evening, I had seven pecan spoons ready for final sanding.

Pecan Spoons 11-2014 - - 2

Nearly all of them have at least a little spalting in them.

Pecan Spoons 11-2014 - - 1

I need to do a lot more, in both pecan and walnut.  But a few more afternoons like this, and I’ll have a good stock of spoons ready for the show.

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The Junior Armory–Again

This evening I finished a small commission for a very good friend of mine:

Swords for GR 2-14

His three children will be getting wooden swords for Christmas.

These are made from osage orange and walnut, and the two pieces are joined with a lap-joint.  The handles were cut out with a coping saw and rounded over with a file, while the blades were shaped with a drawknife and spokeshave.  The osage orange takes a beating without breaking (just ask my own kids!), and the walnut provides a nice color contrast and is easy to carve.  I did carve the initials of each recipient into the handle.

Despite being somewhat ornate (as toys go, anyway), these swords are pretty quick to make.  Once the stock is dimensioned, I can have one sword shaped and glued up in about half an hour.  The carving on the handle takes only a few minutes more.

The hardest part?  Getting the point to look sharp enough to satisfy a child’s demand for realism but blunt enough to satisfy mom’s demand for safety.  I think I have it right now.

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New Spoons for Sale

I’ve made a few new spoons recently, and I’ve just now posted them to my Etsy shop.  I’ve begun putting together matched sets, offered at a slight discount, which make great gifts.

WLGSM101 11-2014 - - 1This is a nice walnut mixer/server set.  I love the finished color of black walnut.

OLGSS101 11-2014 - - 1These are osage orange, which is not as difficult to work as I would have thought.  My wife told me she didn’t like the spatula design–too “Danish Modern,” I think she said.  Well, you can’t please everybody.  I do hope this one pleases someone.

PLG101 11-2014 - - 1I made this one from an offcut of spalted pecan.  The pecan is very hard to work, but it’s nigh unto unbreakable.  Plus, I love the spalting.  I need to do more of these.

CLG103 11-2014 - - 1This is black cherry.  I made this one while writing an article on spoon making that’s coming out in Woodworker’s Journal.

MLG102 11-2014 - 1Soft maple is a favorite wood of mine for spoons, when I can get it.  The wood will darken a bit in use.

PSM103 11-2014 - - 1

This is another pecan spoon, this time a small mixer.  This one has dead-straight grain, so I’m marketing it as “unbreakable.”

All available at my Etsy shop.


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A Note on Well-Designed Joiners’ Mallets

There are many, many variations on the basic joiner’s mallet design, but there’s one design element I will always insist on in my own mallets: a curved top to the head.  I used to think this was merely a decorative element, but I recently found out it’s not.

But does it really matter whether the top of the head is curved or straight?

Yes, it does.  Here’s why.

Below is a small mallet I built a couple years ago, mostly to be used for adjusting wooden planes.  It doesn’t get much use, and I made it before I had thought much about mallet design.  The striking faces are angled as usual, but the top of the head is flat–co-planar with the bottom.  That makes an acute angle on the top edge of the mallet, a potentially weak point.

Mallet Head Design 10-2014 - - 1

Imagine that the ruler on this square is the trajectory (more or less) of an errant mallet blow that lands right on the top of the striking face.  If I strike the mallet there enough times, the top is eventually going to mushroom over.  Given enough abuse, the top edge will eventually begin to split off.

That’s exactly what’s happening to my oldest mallet:

Mallet Head Design 10-2014 - - 3

This mallet has a few years on it, and when the original face began to show some wear, I sawed about 1/4″ off of it in order to expose a fresh striking face.  However, I eased the angle of the face just a bit, leaving the top edge at about a 90-degree angle.  It’s now beginning to show some mushrooming, which you can just see in the above picture.

So when I made my most recent mallet, I decided to put a healthy curve on the top of the head:

Mallet Head Design 10-2014 - - 2

This makes the top edge of the striking face an obtuse angle, which should be less prone to mushrooming and eventual splitting.

The curved top on the head thus protects the top edge of the striking face from excessive damage.

Okay, but does it really matter all that much?  I can imagine a few objections already:

Objection 1: If you use a split-resistant wood, it shouldn’t matter. The top edge will be robust enough to take a pounding for years.

Reply to Objection 1: I partially concede the point.  Although my old mallet, made of elm, shows some mushrooming on the top edge, there’s no sign of splitting.  That wood is nearly unsplittable. If, however, you are making your mallet from wood that can actually be split, such as beech or hard maple, I maintain that your mallet will probably last longer with a rounded top–all other things being equal.

Objection 2: Mallets aren’t meant to be indestructible.  When (not if) your mallet wears out, you make a new one.  Don’t waste time on little details.

Reply to Objection 2: I want my mallet to last as long as possible.  I will gladly spend an extra fifteen minutes on a single design detail if that means the tool lasts a year longer.

Objection 3: You must not be very accurate with your mallet, or you wouldn’t have the problem of errant blows mushrooming over the top edge in the first place.

Reply to Objection 3: All right, if you want to get personal, I’ll admit to a good deal of inaccuracy when pounding with my mallets. But within a few thousand blows, I’d wager that a few are bound to land somewhere near one edge of the striking face or another, no matter how accurate you are.

Objection 4: There’s little historical evidence for mallet heads as you describe them.  Neither Moxon nor Roubo show mallets heads with curved tops. The old guys built some pretty fine furniture with what you seem to think are sub-standard mallets.

Reply to Objection 4: That’s true.  Moxon and Roubo also don’t show planes with proper totes.  While there are many, many things we can learn from them, that doesn’t mean we can’t improve on them.  If the mallets in 18th-century joiners’ shops were as clumsy as Moxon and Roubo make them look, I wouldn’t want to use them.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a modern mallet made quite like the ones Roubo shows (click on the link above and scroll down.)

Objection 5: This seems kind of trivial. I’ll bet you were just especially hard up for a blog topic this week.

Reply to Objection 5: That’s true. (It’s also an example of the genetic fallacy.) But I’m still going to be curving the tops of all my mallet heads from now on.


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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?

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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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