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?

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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