Last Week’s Spoons Finished

Last week, I had roughed out some spoons from cherry and then set them aside to dry a little bit.  Last night, I finished shaping them with a spokeshave and smoothed them out with a card scraper.  This afternoon, I sanded and finished them.

Cherry Spoons 4-2014 - - 1 Cherry Spoons 4-2014 - - 2

The wood did twist a little as it dried, so I’m glad I left the handles thick enough to make adjustments to the handles.  There was no checking or cracking to speak of, which was a relief.  I’m also glad I was able to capture some of the natural curves of the wood in the handles.

I should point out that the three oddly-shaped spoons on the left represent my latest attempts to carve spoons Sloyd-style from some mystery wood.  It looks a bit like soft maple, but I don’t think it is, as the wood came from across the street, and maples don’t grow widely here.  It’s also significantly softer than soft maple.

Not counting the wait-time between coats of finish, those eight cherry spoons probably took about 5-6 hours from start to finish.  I’m pleased with how they turned out.

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Green wood or seasoned wood for wooden spoons? Both!

The other day, a neighbor was clearing some brush and happened to cut down a cherry sapling.  I salvaged the trunk for spoon carving.  I split out eight usable blanks, all relatively straight.

I can carve out a spoon from seasoned wood pretty quickly using my gouge, drawknife, spokeshave, and card scrapers.  But I am not nearly fast enough with my Sloyd knives to carve all of these before they start to dry out.  So I decided on a hybrid approach.  I roughed out the handles with my hewing hatchet, and then I brought the blanks in to my workbench, where I roughed out the bowls with my gouge and did as much drawknife work as I could.  I spent about ten minutes on each one, and this is the result:

Cherry Spoons Roughed Out 4-2014

Now I’m setting the roughed-out spoons aside for two or three weeks to dry out a little.  Then I will go to work with my spokeshave and card scrapers, thinning down the bowls and handles, and smoothing everything out.  (My low-angle spokeshave works beautifully on dry wood, but not so well on green wood.)  When I’m done, I should have a few mixing spoons in two difference sizes, as well as a couple serving spoons.

Thus far, I really like this approach to spoon making.  The rough work goes much more quickly in green wood than it does in seasoned wood, and once the wood dries, the finer shaping work should be quick, too.

I will post pictures here once they are finished.

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Spoon Carving Process Pictures

The other day, a friend of mine came over to take some pictures of me at work on a wooden spoon.  (The pictures are for an article forthcoming in Woodworker’s Journal, but more on that another time.)  Here are a few pictures from the photo shoot.


Carving the bowl with a gouge.


A little drawknife work.  Using a drawknife at a regular bench vise is a little awkward, but with practice it can be done efficiently.


Catching a shaving from the spokeshave in mid-air, while one of my daughters looks on.


Her “aggressive” face.


Scraping the bowl smooth.


And the finished product, about 40 minutes’ work.

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A Good Sloyd Knife

After making a few spoons with my current knives (a short Frost knife and one or two chip carving knives), I determined that I needed a longer knife for shaping handles. I searched for Sloyd knives at all my usual, favorite tool companies. Lee Valley had discontinued theirs. There was nothing at Tools for Working Wood. Nothing at Highland Woodworking. Ditto at Woodcraft.

In desperation, I did what any half-sane person my age would do. I Googled “Sloyd knife.” To my surprise, Amazon was offering a 4″ Morakniv  Sloyd knife.  It was very well-reviewed and priced under $15.

Mora Sloyd Knives 2014I balked.  I usually steer clear of new, cheap tools because, well, when it comes to real tools, you usually get what you pay for. But between all the positive reviews and the low sticker price, I took a gamble on this knife. I’m glad I did.  I’ve since gotten a second one.

After using the Mora knife for several spoons, I find that it is comfortable to hold (if you are used to holding a standard Sloyd knife handle).  The blade is long enough to take a good, long shaving with the right technique.  It also holds its edge very well. I used the knife to carve a spoon out of dry black walnut, pausing to resharpen only once in the process. Other knives I’ve had would have required two or more resharpenings over the same period.

The knife comes well-ground and somewhat sharp, but it’s not ground correctly for good Sloyd technique.  A proper Sloyd knife should not have a secondary bevel.  Rather, it should be sharpened more like a double-bevel chisel or drawknife, with two primary bevels going all the way to the edge.  This allows the user to register the knife edge firmly on the workpiece and make long, straight cuts.  The problem is that this knife comes with a secondary bevel on both sides.

I decided to lap one of the primary bevels flat and retain the secondary bevel on the other side, so as not to end up with too shallow a bevel, which would make for a fragile edge.  This way, when I make long strokes away from myself, I can register the wide bevel on the workpiece.  When I turn the knife around and make shorter cuts toward myself, I have a much smaller secondary bevel registered on the workpiece, but in this position I am usually making short cuts, and it works out okay.  The secondary bevel on one side also allows me to cut curves of a slightly tighter radius than I would otherwise be able to.

Overall, the Morakniv is a good knife, though perhaps not a suburb one. If I continue to plumb the depths of traditional greenwood carving, I will eventually trade up to an artisan-made model.  In the meantime, if you are just beginning to learn greenwood carving, as I am, it’s hard to go wrong with the Morakniv.

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On Setting Prices as a Hobbyist Woodworker

“Somebody wants me to make them something.  How much should I charge for it?”

“I’m going to my first craft fair.  How should I set prices for my work?”

“I’d like to start selling some of the things I make, but how do I know what they’re worth?”

On woodworking forums and blogs, I run across questions like these a lot.

If you ask a successful professional, you will get a pretty standard series of calculations that take into account raw materials, production costs, insurance premiums, and a host of other factors to arrive at prices that maintain a satisfactory profit margin. Such calculations are essential for a professional or semi-professional woodworker, but what about the hobbyist who sells only a few small pieces each year?  The discussions that professional craftspeople have with each other about shop rates, overhead, and markups are very important, but most of those factors are irrelevant to hobbyists working out of their home shops.

How much is it worth?

How much is it worth?

I found myself in this position a couple years ago.  I’ve had been doing spoon carving and other woodwork as a hobby for several years. I had done it and still do it primarily for myself and my family–plus, when I need to attend a wedding or a housewarming party, a set of handmade wooden spoons makes an excellent gift.  It costs me little more than time and a chunk of wood from the scrap bin. But when I first began to sell my work, I couldn’t make any of the Business 101 calculations work for me. I wasn’t trying to make a living on my woodwork. My shop costs, such as water and electricity, are the same as my housing costs. Many of my materials are picked up for free on the side of the road. Wear-and-tear on my tools is so small as to be unmeasurable.

After reading through a lot of forum threads and blogs on the topic, I had to step back from the conversations between the pros and think about what I wanted to get out of my woodwork.  First, I wanted to find an outlet for some of my better work, since occasionally my supply of wooden items outstrips my family’s demand for them.  (The wooden spoon drawer is chock full now, and my wife frowns on pipe smoking.)  Second, I wanted to earn some spare cash for new tools here and there.  I didn’t need a steady cash flow, but I did want to make my hobby less of a drain on the household economy.  Ideally, I wanted to make my woodwork self-sustaining.

As I thought about the matter and did a little more reading, I discovered that there were two simple methods that I thought a hobbyist like me could use to set reasonable prices for his or her work.

1. Materials + Hourly Rate = Price

Let’s say a well-to-do friend asks you to make a picture frame.  You have a pretty good idea what the materials will cost, and because you’ve done some work like this before, you have a ballpark idea of how long it will take you to complete the project from start to finish.  Very well.  What is the going wage for skilled labor in your neck of the woods?  What would you expect, say, an electrician, a plumber, or a welder to make per hour?  Multiply a reasonable hourly rate for skilled labor by the number of hours you take on the project, add the materials cost, and you have a reasonable price to ask for the picture frame.

This is not a foolproof method, and there can be hidden variables, such as wear-and-tear on your tools (do you charge extra if you break a bandsaw blade in the process?), availability of materials (do you charge for materials you already have left over from another project?), and the wait-time between coats of finish.  But the equation may help you establish a base price for your work.

This method is simple, but I chose not to use it.  First, my materials are sometimes scavenged rather than purchased, and it is hard for me to clock myself in the shop.  So I did what I normally do when in a bind: I did more research.

2. Look at prices for comparable products in your market.

What worked for me was taking an honest look at what other people were charging for work that I thought was similar to mine.  I looked at a lot of price tags, both in person and online.  I did not bother looking at prices on mass-produced items, nor did I look at prices on items sold by major retailers.  They don’t sell to my market.  I went to craft fairs, gift shops at craft villages, and websites like Etsy where I could see items being sold by small, independent makers to customers who are willing to pay a premium for unique, high-quality items.

Naturally, I saw a few prices online that I thought were either embarrassingly low or fantastically high, but I also saw a lot of price tags that tended to clump around a narrow price range.  That gave me a pretty firm idea of where my work fit into the market.  So I settled on prices that were just a little bit below what I honestly thought were comparable products on the market.

This has worked reasonably well for me. The products sell at a rate I can keep up with, and they remain affordable for regular, working people who would like to spend a little extra on something handmade. A few items remain unsold, but that means I can keep a small stock of products on hand for those weeks and even months when I have little time for woodwork.

The Price Tag Caveat

Most people know the danger of setting prices too high–only a few people, if any, will purchase your work.  (On the other hand, there is a certain allure to an exorbitant price tag, and some craftspeople have learned to exploit it. Customers who are not price-sensitive often assume that they are getting something extra-special just because they are paying a higher price.)  Additionally, when an upstart craftsperson asks too high a price, it is likely to draw the ire of established makers: “Just who does this guy think he is, asking the same price for his entry-level work that we ask for our professional work?”  If possible, I try to stay on good terms with other makers.

There is an equal danger, too, in setting prices too low.  Not only are you liable to have more demand than you can meet and still make little money, but you also tend to devalue your work in the eyes of your customers.  In fact, too low a price can scare away potential customers:”That woodwork looks kind of nice, but it’s priced really low.  There must be something wrong with it.”  Plus, when you deeply undercut other makers in the market, you may ultimately drag down the price that even experienced professionals can charge.  We all know about the “Walmart Effect” on local businesses, and most decent people deplore it.

There is no standard, easy method by which a hobbyist craftsperson can price his or her work.  When it comes down to writing a dollar amount on a price tag, the difference between $24.99 and $27.49 may be arbitrary.  But the way you decide between charging $20 for one piece and $200 for another is not.  There are simple ways for hobbyists to set reasonable prices for their work, but they are not the calculations that the professionals use.

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Winding sticks? We don’t need no stinkin’ winding sticks!

The other day, I set to work truing up the sole of my wooden jack plane, and I was doing my best to find the high and low spots with my straightedge.  The sole seemed slightly twisted, and it occurred to me that what I needed was a pair of winding sticks.  Normally I can tell if a board is twisted just by sighting down one face–if it looks straight to my eye, then it’s straight enough for me.  But, this being a plane sole, I was taking extra care to ensure that I did not remove any more wood from the sole than absolutely necessary.

I dug around in my scrap bin for a minute, trying to find some suitable scraps to use for winding sticks, when it occurred to me that I already had what I needed right there on my workbench.

Makeshift Winding Sticks 12-2013 - - 2

I set my iron fore plane on its side at the far end of the stock and set my 16″ ruler (from a combo square) on the near side. Then I sighted down the plane sole to check for twist.

Makeshift Winding Sticks 12-2013 - - 1

As you can probably see, the far right corner dips down slightly.  With this guidance, I was able to correct this out-of-flat plane sole pretty easily.

There are no doubt situations when real winding sticks, complete with inlaid sights on each end, are a treat to use. And if you want to make or buy a nice tool, who am I to argue? But if you need winding sticks only once in a great while, as I do, you can probably make do with what you already have in your toolbox.

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A Window into Fifteenth-Century Woodworking

You can learn a lot about period woodworking at the art museum.  Robert Campin’s Merode Alterpiece, a triptych painting of the Annunciation, is well-known in the art world, but it ought to be better know to woodworkers, especially those interested in historical tools and techniques.  According to the Met in New York, the piece was made in the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium) between 1427 and 1432–sixty years before Columbus sailed to the Americas, if that helps put the painting in context.  The right-hand panel of the triptych shows St. Joseph working in his carpenter’s shop using tools and techniques of the period.

Let’s take a close look (and ignore the erroneous date printed in the center):

Campin Joseph

Working from top to bottom in the painting, here are a few of the interesting things I see.

The shutters appear to be nailed together with clenched nails.  The high wainscot chair is joined with double-pinned mortise-and-tenon joints. Just outside the window we can see a drop-leaf counter where Joseph is displaying goods for sale.  He is currently selling mousetraps.  (I am told that a near-identical mousetrap appears in Roubo.  Would anybody else like to see a Roy Underhill episode on building a Renaissance mousetrap?)

Joseph’s workbench is a simple, sturdy affair.  The legs are mortised into the relatively thin benchtop, and the legs are splayed for stability.  There is no sign of any planing stop (or any hand planes, for that matter).  On the bench itself, we see several familiar tools, and one or two unfamiliar ones.  There is a T-auger with a slightly canted handle, as well as a bowl of nails, a tack hammer, a large fishtail chisel, and pincers (probably for pulling nails). I’m not sure about the knife with the curved blade, but it may be a trimming knife of some sort–perhaps a basket-maker’s picking knife?

Joseph himself is using a simple brace-and-bit to bore holes in a piece of wood. As he is using it, the brace is a one-handed tool. The painting is stylized, but notice how he is using his chest to press on the pad of the brace while using his right hand to turn the tool and his left hand to hold the stock steady. It looks to me like he needs to seriously upgrade his work-holding capabilities–in fact, I don’t see any clamping devices anywhere in the picture.  I believe that he is making an implement to be used in wine making, but I’m not sure of its exact function.

Down at Joseph’s feet, we can see a curious saw resting on a simple footstool.  The saw has a long, thin blade with teeth that look like they are designed to cut on the push-stroke.  Frame saws were common, we know, in Europe at this time, but we suspect that hand saws with unsupported blades as we know them today were first developed in the Low Countries in about the seventeenth or eighteenth century.  Perhaps this is an ancestor of the modern handsaw.  The broomstick handle seems long enough to be used with two hands, but that may not be the case.

We also see a hewing hatchet stuck into a billet of wood.  The design of the head indicates it is primarily for working with the grain, flattening faces of stock.  The shape of the head is pretty typical of the era.

Pre-modern religious paintings give us some incredible insights into daily life in past ages. Before the eighteenth century, artists never bothered much with trying to portray Biblical scenes in historically-accurate clothing and contexts. Nearly all of them dress the characters in contemporary clothing. So if you want to know about historical carpentry, look for paintings of Joseph. If you want to know about ship building, look for paintings of Noah. Often the tools that the characters are holding are symbolic, but they do tend to be historically-accurate, too.

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