How Do You Set Prices for Handmade Goods?

So you want to sell your work at a craft market. One of the most common questions that new makers ask is how to set prices. We all know that everything has a price, but we seldom think about why something costs what it does–until we suddenly find ourselves having to write a figure on that price tag ourselves!

Sometimes artists and crafters are averse to thinking about their work in terms of dollars at all. It can seem so crass to put a dollar amount on a work of art, even if you do need to sell your work to pay the bills. How do YOU know what your unique work is really worth? Who knows how much another person would pay to own it?

There Are Two Ways to Set Prices

Way #1 is to use a simple calculation: Labor + Materials = Price. Pay yourself an hourly rate, add any materials costs, and calculate accordingly. Let’s say you are making wooden picture frames. It could be minimum wage, but you are a skilled worker. So find out the standard wage for a skilled laborer in your region. If, say, an auto mechanic gets paid $25/hr., and you can make a picture frame in three hours, and if the materials cost you $10, then you need to price your work at $85.

Commercial shops use similar calculations, although they have to take many other costs into consideration–everything from utilities and administrative costs to insurance and wear-and-tear on tools. You may well be running a small business, but these are (probably) not costs you need to think about–at least not right now. When starting out, keep your calculations as simple as possible.

Way #2 is to just look at what comparable work is priced at locally or online, and stay in the ballpark. So if a handmade picture frame at a local arts-and-crafts market is priced at $90, and then you find a comparable one online for $75, then maybe $85 is a fair price.

The above figures are all arbitrary, but hopefully they’ll send you in the right direction.

You should also consider that prices will vary a lot by region. If you are in an affluent area where median income is fairly high, your work should command a higher price. But if you’re in an economically depressed region, you’ll need to price your work lower.

Beware Comparison

If you choose Way #2, you must beware of comparing your work to mass-produced products. Mass production has its place in the modern economy, but that is not the kind of work you are doing. There are good reasons that nice, tailored suits cost many times what mass-produced suits off the rack cost. Grigorio Armani is not competing with Kohl’s. Don’t ever try to compete price-wise with mass-produced goods of any kind!

Also be cautious when looking at prices online. Even when it comes to handmade goods, prices on the internet are often insanely low. Websites like Etsy have exerted a downward pressure on prices for handmade goods (often because the goods aren’t actually handmade in any meaningful sense), so where possible you should do your comparison-shopping in person in your local region, rather than online. Visit a couple craft markets and eyeball the prices for handmade goods of all kinds. You will soon get a good sense of what price range would be appropriate for your work.

Don’t Undersell Yourself

In the end, don’t worry too much about setting exactly the “right” price at first. You can always change your prices! If you price too low initially, you can just raise the price a little at the next market, until you find that sweet spot where your supply matches local demand. People expect inflation these days, so it’s okay to set your prices on the lower end and plan to raise prices as time goes on–and as your skills improve. Or if you set your initial prices too high, you can always reduce prices later, or even have an end-of-the-year sale to get rid of unsold pieces.

However, in my experience, artists and crafters often undervalue their work because of basic insecurity. You look at what you’ve made, and all you can see are the flaws. You need to know that those flaws are visible only to you, and that what your customers see is a unique, handcrafted work of art. Trust me: nobody will ever be as critical of your work as you are! Price accordingly.

Plus, many crafters and artists are used to living on a shoestring budget, so they really can’t imagine plopping down a large amount of money for the kinds of things they make for themselves. You have to accept the fact that your primary market is not other crafters and artists, but people who have more money and fewer skills than you do.

It’s crazy, I know. But there really are more people in this world who can afford to pay you well for your work than there are people who can do the quality of work that you do.

A Third Way

Which brings me to the final way you can set your prices. Just ask yourself what you honestly think your work is worth–what you would pay for it yourself on the open market.

Then double that figure.

Or triple it.

At that point, you’re probably getting close to the real market value of the things you make.

Posted in Market, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Do NOT Boil Your Wooden Spoons

You may have seen a TikTok video in which somebody tells you to clean your wooden spoons by boiling them in water. This person fills a pot with water, brings it to a boil, and then boils a handful of commercially-made wooden spoons for about twenty minutes. At the end, she points out how cloudy the boiled water is. She thinks she has gotten all the “dirt” out of her spoons.

I’m not going to link to the video because, frankly, it doesn’t deserve any more views.

What is actually happening in the video is that the wood itself has started to deteriorate in the boiling water. The spoons were clean to begin with. The boiling water isn’t removing food debris. What it is removing is the wood itself!

What is left floating in the boiling water isn’t food debris. It’s tiny pieces of wood!

The result is a utensil that looks very clean to the eye. But because the wood has been damaged, these spoons are probably more likely to catch and hold food debris than they were before.

Boiling your wooden utensils is a terrible way to clean them. It just wears them out prematurely. And for the record, the same thing happens when you wash them in the dishwasher.

So what is the best way to clean a wooden utensil? It’s simple. Rinse with clear, hot water and wipe them with a wet dishcloth. Set them in the dish drainer to air-dry. Use mild dish soap if you like, but you don’t really need to–unless you’ve had the utensil in raw meat.

If the original finish has disappeared, you can refresh it with one of the few vegetable oils that actually dry: walnut oil, hemp oil, or linseed/flaxseed oil. (Other vegetable oils will not dry and so will wash right off the spoon.) Flood the surface with the oil, wipe off the excess, and let it dry on a sunny windowsill for a couple days, turning occasionally.

There is never a good reason to boil your wooden utensils.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Narnia! A Stone Table Made from Wood

Whenever my kids start a new activity, I inevitably get sucked into it myself. This time it was a play at my local community theater. My youngest daughter landed the role of Lucy in a stage version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and at first I did my best to step back and let her do her thing. But when the crew had trouble engineering a collapsing stone table for Aslan to be slain on, my wife asked me to help.

The table had been partially built, but if you know the story, then you know that the stone table has to break in half at a very important scene. They were having trouble getting it to collapse and go back together reliably.

Building sets is nothing like my usual approach to woodworking. I love to build things using special wood (often boards I have sawn from logs myself) put together with traditional joinery and crafted to last a lifetime. But for a stage play, everything is built from cheap construction-grade pine, lots of deck screws, and a couple layers of paint. Every object is meant to be used only X number of times and then disassembled or discarded.

So I grabbed my power drills and a circular saw and went to work on the thing. The only hand tool I used was a (very dull) handsaw, with which I cut a couple sharp corners off some plywood.

Opening night wasn’t far off, so speed was essential. (I took no process pictures.) The finished object has a plywood top with three supports. The supports on each end are hinged to a plywood base. That allows the whole thing to be carried on and off stage in a single piece. The central pillar is removable. When pulled out from the back, the two halves of the table drop down into a “broken” position.

For the record, I was responsible only for the engineering and the frame. The painting was done by others. I have no idea what the runic inscription is supposed to say–or whether those are even actual runes. But it looks cool, and that’s enough for the theater.

Here’s how it works: at the end of the scene in which Aslan is killed by the White Witch, the lights go out, and the actor playing Aslan gets up off the table and pulls out the central support. The audience hears a “bang!” as the two halves of the table fall and hit the base. The lights go back on as Lucy and Susan run onstage to find the stone table broken and Aslan’s body gone. It was a pretty effective prop, if I do say so myself.

Halfway through the show, however, the hinges at the bottom of each leg started coming off their plywood base. So I had to put in longer screws that ran all the way through the base. Then I cut off the points flush with an angle grinder.

My woodworking projects don’t usually involve this many sparks flying. But it this is theater, after all, and it makes for a fun picture!

Like I said–not my usual style of woodworking, but I enjoyed it.

Along the way, I managed to get roped into a few other odd jobs too. I had to repair the wardrobe itself once or twice. And I ended up making a shield for Peter to carry. It’s just a sheet of luan plywood screwed to some curved pine battens on the back. I used some scraps of leather for the handles.

My son got to model the shield for us before I handed it off to the crew to be painted. And although the stone table got disassembled after the show ended, I’m pretty sure this shield has made its way into the prop room and will probably show up in another show eventually. I should have signed it.

Best of all, the play was very well received by the audience. Nearly every night was sold out, and my daughter has gotten a real taste for the stage. It was her first acting gig, but it certainly won’t be her last. Which means that this won’t be my last foray into building props and sets, either.

Posted in Kids | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Breadboard Ends on a Stove Cover

I always enjoy it when somebody commissions a piece that gives me the opportunity to try something new. This time it was a friend who asked me to make her a wooden stove cover. (Full disclosure: I didn’t even know such things existed until she asked for one. Apparently a lot of other people don’t actually cook on their stove tops all that often?) Stove covers come in a few varieties. Some of them are designed to be used as cutting boards and even have juice grooves around the edges. Others have handles that allows the cook to remove the heavy cover more easily. A lot of the ones I saw online seemed pretty crudely constructed.

After talking with my friend about what she wanted (yes, handles; no juice groove), I dove into my stash of hardwood and came up with some rustic cherry boards. This is the result.

I’m pleased with the final result, and I hope the owner will be, too. It’s about 20″ wide, 30″ long, and 3/4″ thick.

I’m not going to detail the whole construction process here. Instead, I want to focus just on one element: the breadboard ends. I had never tried to make breadbord ends before, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it out.

A stove cover may be a simple concept–just one wide board that goes on top of your stove–but the problem is that any wide board is bound to warp over time, especially when exposed to heat and/or moisture, both of which are normal in the kitchen. So any solid-wood stove cover needs to be built in such a way that the panel will stay reasonably flat over the long haul. That’s where the breadboard ends come in.

Other makers of stove covers solve the problem by nailing long battens across the panel on each end. The result is a pretty utilitarian look, and a surface that’s not actually flat all the way across. If that’s your thing, I have no objection. But breadboard ends result in a flatter, cleaner surface that looks like it was made by someone who knew what he was doing. (I hope to keep that illusion going here.)

Here’s how a breadboard end works: each end of a panel is captured inside another board whose grain runs perpendicular to that of the panel (as in the photo above). Each breadboard is attached to the panel with a tongue-and-groove joint combined with a number of mortise-and-tenon joints. The tenons provide strength, and the tongue-and-groove ensures that the panel won’t warp between the tenons. The resulting panel is very stable and very strong.

We begin our breadboard journey with the 20″-wide panel already glued up from five cherry boards that I had planed down from rough-sawn stock. The first step in making the breadboard ends is to cut what amounts to either a really wide tenon or a really long tongue on each end of the panel.

After laying out the shoulders with a straightedge and a knife, I used my stair saw to cut in the shoulders of the joint. (I love my stair saw for dadoes especially, but it works extremely well on any cross-grain cut whose depth needs to be precise.) This ensures that I have a straight shoulder that makes solid contact with the breadboard end all along the joint.

The next step is to remove the waste from the cheeks of the tenon/tongue. I went back and forth for a few minutes on the best way to do this, but I eventually settled on my rabbet plane, a Stanley 78. The tenon/tongue is only about 1″ long, so the rabbet plane should be able to take off the waste pretty well.

Except that it also made a mess in the process. Because of the plane’s construction, it caught a couple times on the corner where it entered the wood, mangling what should have been a nice, crisp edge. (It’s a good thing I started removing stock on the underside of the panel instead of on the top!) This rabbet plane works okay for cutting rabbets with the grain, but I’m not pleased with its performance across the grain. I quickly put it away and tried something else.

I pulled out my Veritas shoulder plane to see what it could do. Ordinarily, a shoulder plane is just for trimming–it’s not really optimized for heavy stock removal. But I decided to try it anyway.

I was very pleased to find that the plane worked well in this situation. I made the first few cuts just by tipping the corner of the plane into the saw kerf. After a number of passes, the plane was taking nearly a full-width shaving. It was slow going because the plane is designed to take a fairly light cut, and I had to stop a few times to clear the shavings from the throat. But it worked.

Soon the plane was cutting a very nice channel, and I was able to bring the cut right down to my layout line. The plane is only 3/4″ wide, so i left about 1/4″ of waste on the outside, which needed to be removed next. First I tried doing that with a small smoothing plane, but it was faster to just knock off the waste with a broad chisel and use the shoulder plane to remove any remaining high spots.

With the long rabbet/tenon now cut, the next step was to lay out the actual tenons and cut away the waste between them. Normally a breadboard end will have an odd number of mortise-and-tenon joints: one joint in the middle and the rest evenly spaced on each side. On this board, I decided to go with three tenons: one in the very center and two closer to each end. Each of the five boards in the panel has at least part of a tenon on each end. The panel will therefore stay together even if all the glue fails. (It won’t.)

The groove cut in the breadboard end itself is 1/4″ wide and 1/4″ deep, so each tenon needs to be 1/4″ thick, with a 1/4″ tall tongue running on each side of it. Instead of using a ruler or something like that to lay out the height of the tongue, I just used the width of my 1/4″ paring chisel to guage the height of each tongue.

I used a coping saw to remove the waste between the tenons. Fortunately, the tongue will be completely concealed inside the groove–except on each end–so the tongue is intentionally cut just a little bit short to ensure that it bottoms out in the groove only on each end. This whole process is pretty involved and takes a lot of time, so it’s good to economize by working quickly to approximate measurements whenever possible.

In a similar way, the mortises in each breadboard end are intentionally cut a little longer than necessary, which will accommodate some wood movement across the width of the panel. I used my plow plane to cut matching grooves into the breadboard ends, and the grove provided a very handy guide for placing each mortise. (Sorry, no picture; I was in a hurry to finish at this point.) I chopped each mortise with a mortise chisel. I also made each breadboard end a fraction of an inch long so that I could saw it off flush with the panel’s edge on each side.

Because the breadboard end runs across the grain, it needs to allow the panel to swell and shrink across its width as the humidity level changes. I intentionally used quarter-sawn boards for the panel, which will move less than flat-sawn ones, but there will still be some seasonal movement. The normal procedure, then, is to glue only the tenon in the center, and to use some more flexible way of securing the tenons on the outside. I opted to just peg them with poplar dowels.

I considered doing a true drawbored joint but decided that was more complicated than necessary. I merely clamped the whole assembly from each end and bored a hole through each joint. With the panel still clamped up, I tapped in a poplar dowel. With the clamps removed (once the glue in the center joint set), I trimmed the dowels flush on both sides. The poplar is soft enough that it should compress just a bit as the panel swells and shrinks throughout the seasons.

I rounded over all the edges with a hand plane and sanded the whole thing smooth to get it ready to finish. There were some old bug holes that I plugged with walnut sawdust flooded with CA glue and scraped flush with the surface. The result is a dark colored patch that adds just a little bit of visual interest and looks a whole lot better than an open hole in the surface of the wood.

I did also need to address the mess that my rabbet plane left on the shoulder of that one joint.

To explain how I fixed this, I need to back up in the assembly process a couple steps. Before putting on the breadboard ends, I created a wall around the gap with painter’s tape and filled the hole with cherry sawdust. Then I saturated the sawdust with CA glue (superglue) and let it set–the same process I use to fill the bug holes above. Once the glue set, I was able to sand the patch flush with the surface. The resulting patch is sturdy and will blend in well enough with the surrounding wood.

I finished the stove cover with several coats of Danish oil, which really brought out some lovely figure in the cherry wood. Last, I installed two black door handles on each end.

In retrospect, it was a lot of work to end up with what amounts to a single, flat board. But this board is going to stay flat, and I learned a lot in the process. I’m glad I did it.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Spoons, Spoons, and More Spoons

During market season, it sometimes seems like all I make is spoons, spatulas, and other wooden utensils. I take photos of a lot of my work, but I don’t always remember to post the photos here on my blog. So today I’m going back into my photo archives from the last couple years and putting many of my favorite spoon pictures together into one post.


For several years, I was making many of my spoons out of black walnut from a single tree that I helped take down in my in-laws’ back yard. I finally exhausted my supply, and these utensils are some of the last that came from that old tree.

Pecan wood is plentiful down where I live, and pecan spalts beautifully. It is often a challenge to know exactly when to cut up the log. If you leave it sit for too long, it quickly rots. These utensils show off the wide variety of colors that develop when pecan wood spalts. (There’s also a single spoon made from black walnut up in one corner of the picture.)

Another common wood in this area is Eastern red cedar. It’s fairly soft, so I don’t use it for utensils very often. But it does hold up very well to water–the red/brown heartwood is nearly impervious to rot. So once in a while, somebody will bring me a cedar log from their property and ask me to make them something from it. I like to oblige when I can.

Not long ago, an old friend gave me a large red oak log from her family’s property. Oak isn’t great for spoons–the pores in the wood are large and tend to get gunk stuck in them. But it does make a decent spurtle, which is a utensil for stirring stews and sauces. The grain in these utensils is very pretty. The rest of the log will be used for stool legs.

And then there was that one Christmas….

We got an order for a hundred small utensils, needed in two weeks.

So we did it!

It was a lot of work. But we got really good at making them quickly!

I love being able to set out beautiful, unique utensils at every market I attend.

Posted in Woodenware | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

How I Make a Spoon

One of the most common questions I get about my spoons at craft markets is “How do you make them?”

It’s hard to know how to answer. If I’m feeling a little snarky, I usually say something like, “I find a piece of wood that looks like it has a spoon in it. Then I cut away everything that doesn’t look like a spoon. What’s left is the spoon.”

It’s a response that amuses children, at any rate.

But if the person asking seems to be interested in the technical process, I’m happy to go into detail, even though that requires a description of the tools as well as the process. (Not a lot of non-woodworkers know what a spokeshave or a carving gouge is, for example.) What follows here is not a tutorial about how to make a spoon. It’s just a description of the stages that a piece of wood goes through on its way to becoming the spoon you might have bought from me at a craft market.

It Starts with a Log

I use many different kinds of wood for spoons, but my favorite kind of wood is free. Living in Hurricane Alley, I have a pretty constant supply of great spoon wood from trees that go down in storms. I’m picky, though. Most trees that come down in storms are firewood. I use only good-quality hardwoods. This double-trunk cherry tree, for example, came down in a friend’s back yard during Hurricane Sally back in 2020. My son-in-law helped me cart off as much as I could. It was a lot of hard work! (Good thing he takes payment in homemade pizza.)

Once I get the logs home, I remove the bark. Each log gets split lengthwise into smaller sections.

Because I split the wood like this, the wood grain in each spoon runs straight and true, making each utensil stronger.

The Electric Part

Nearly all the work of spoon-making is hand-powered. Except what comes next.

I use my bandsaw to cut each section down into rough boards of about 1″ thick and as wide as I can manage. It’s dusty work.

The result is a lot of rough-sawn boards. I set them aside to dry for a few weeks at least. Fresh-cut wood is very wet. In fact, the mass of a living tree can be two-thirds water! As the wood dries, it also shrinks (in width and thickness, but not in length). Once it loses some of that initial water weight, the wood becomes more dimensionally stable and generally easier to work.

Once the wood has lost some of its initial water-weight, the next step is to begin sawing those boards into spoon blanks.

I have a wooden template for each style of spoon I make. I lay the templates out on the boards and trace out the rough shape of each utensil with a pencil. Then I saw out the blanks on the bandsaw. This process allows me to get as many blanks as possible out of a single board with minimal waste.

I will often saw out 20 or 30 blanks at a time and set them aside near my bench until I need them.

The Fun Part

The really enjoyable part of spoon making is shaping each blank with just a few hand tools.

With the workpiece clamped securely in a bench vise, I begin by smoothing down the face of the blank so I can see the grain clearly. Blanks with cracks or other serious flaws can sometimes be repurposed for smaller utensils, but a few inevitably become firewood. Such is the nature of working with wood.

Then the real shaping begins. I carve out the bowl of the spoon with a carving gouge. I keep the gouge razor-sharp so it takes minimal effort to push it through the wood.

The next step is the shape the handle. It’s a delicate balance of taking off just enough material that the handle is comfortable to hold, but not so much that it becomes thin and weak.

I use a couple different kinds of hand tools to do this work: the drawknife and the spokeshave.

These are tools that were first developed by woodworkers to shape things like barrel staves and wagon spokes, but they work well for spoon making, too. The drawknife takes off a lot of material very quickly, and is ideal for initial shaping. The spokeshave is a small handplane with handles on each side, and it takes a fine shaving. It is ideal for refining the shape.

I finish the shaping work by completing the underside of the spoon’s bowl, also done primarily with the drawknife and spokeshaves.

The trick here, as with the handle, is the get the bowl just thin enough so that the spoon is not too heavy in use, but not so thin that it’s fragile and prone to cracking.

From Shaping to Smoothing

Once the shaping is done with the cutting tools, the result is a perfectly serviceable spoon.

The tool marks are clear–every surface is faceted, but the spoon would still stir your pancake batter or turn your stir-fry veggies just fine. A long time ago, when people had to make a living doing this, they often considered the spoon done at this stage. You can still find antique, hand-carved spoons with many tool marks still evident.

However, nearly everyone these days prefers a smooth surface. So I do more work to remove all the tool marks and gently round over every edge. This also makes the spoon more durable, as rounded edges are less prone to chipping than are sharp ones.

I smooth out each spoon in two steps: scraping and sanding.

The scraping is done with a card scraper, which is the woodworker’s secret weapon.

A card scraper is a simple piece of tool steel, with a burr created on the edge. By pushing or pulling the edge across the wood, I can take very fine shavings, making each surface perfectly even.

After scraping, I rinse the spoon with water in order to raise the grain. It’s an important step, but it requires some explanation. Remember how much water is in a living tree? And remember how the wood shrinks as the water in it evaporates? Well, dry wood will also absorb water back into its surface, which can temporarily make the wood swell up again–but just on the surface. Once the wood dries yet again, the severed wood fibers can remain swollen, resulting in a rough or fuzzy surface texture. So, if I didn’t raise the grain, the first time you used the spoon you might find a formerly smooth surface becoming rough.

So after raising the grain, I sand the spoon down to about 320 grit, which leaves the surface nice and smooth to the touch.


The final step is to oil the spoon and let it dry. I use an oil mixture that I make myself: about one part each flax oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane. (No, it’s not a toxic finish, once it’s cured.) I dip each utensil in the oil, let it sit for fifteen minutes or so, and then wipe off any excess oil.

I lay out the finished utensils on an old oven rack to dry in the sun all day, turning them over periodically. Normally, the finish would take a few days to fully cure, but direct sunlight really accelerates the drying process. Once I can’t smell the finish, I know it’s totally dry.

The Other Fun Part

Now the finished spoon is ready to use! Take it into your kitchen and use it regularly.

When you’re done, wash your wooden spoon with clear, hot water and a dishcloth, and let it air-dry. You can wash it with soap if you like, but the original finish will last longer if you don’t. Just don’t put it in the dishwasher.

You can re-oil your spoon periodically if you like; just use flax seed oil, hemp oil, or walnut oil from the grocery store. Those are the only vegetable oils that will actually dry; the others remain liquid and will just wash right off. Flood the surface with the oil and then wipe off the excess. Set it aside to dry for a day or two–ideally in direct sunlight. Then keep using it!

With care, your spoon will last for years and years in the kitchen, even with daily use.

So now you know how a spoon gets made.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 2)

In my last post, I described some of the working properties of two local woods that I have harvested over the last couple years: southern magnolia and crepe myrtle. In this post, I’ll describe three more species that have no presence on the commercial lumber market: waxy (or Chinese) privet, Chinese tallow tree (or popcorn tree), and mimosa. All are non-native invasive species that were planted as ornamentals. All are typically regarded as pests, so I hope this post will give some of my readers a reason to cut a few down and turn them into something useful.

Waxy Privet (Chinese Privet)

As a tree, this one is pretty in its own way, with glossy leaves and inedible fruit that looks a bit like bunches of purple grapes. Waxy privet doesn’t grow very big, and it often produces multiple smaller trunks from one root. If there’s only one trunk, it branches early, meaning you can’t get large sections.

During one of the 2020 hurricanes, a mature specimen was blown down right across from out house, blocking the street for the evening. Early the next morning, I fired up my chainsaw and cut it up, leaving the sections as long as I could. I had never worked it before and was curious about how it might behave.

I’m very pleased I did. For a spoon carver, shorter sections with a bit of curve to them are perfect. (I have an idea that some of the curved sections might make fine crest rails for chairs, but that remains to be seen.) Other sections were straight enough that I could saw out some short boards on the bandsaw.

The wood itself is fairly hard, diffuse-porous, and milky white. It reminds me of hard maple, both in its color and its texture, although the color is somewhat variegated throughout the log (see above). It’s not as springy as hard maple, but it is quite tough when try, so if you decide to carve a spoon from it, carve it green if you can. It makes a fine spoon, and I suspect if would also make an excellent cutting board–if you could find pieces big enough, or wanted to laminate several thinner pieces to form a wide board.

Like maple, it seems to attract bugs pretty quickly, so you’ll want to cut it up promptly. Treat it with an insecticide (like a Borax solution) if you intend to set it aside to dry for a while. I suspect it would spalt well, though I haven’t tried it yet.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more mature trees that might yield some straight, clear pieces.

Chinese Tallow Tree (Popcorn Tree)

The Chinese tallow tree, which locals call the “popcorn tree” due to its popcorn-like flowers, is a particularly aggressive invasive species. This understory tree propagates easily and grows quickly.

The tree on the right is a “popcorn” or Chinese tallow tree. The trunk is unusually straight. The multi-trunked tree on the left is waxy (Chinese) privet in bloom.

It seldom gets very big, although individual specimens can have trunks over 18″ in diameter, plenty enough to saw into boards. The trees tend to follow the sunlight, however, so the wood is nearly always twisted–sometimes severely so. Take a close look at the bark of a living tree, and you’ll see how much it spirals as it grows.

The wood itself is diffuse-porous, very fine textured, and creamy white to yellow when freshly cut, though it can darken to a grayish brown fairly quickly from what seems like spalting. I understand that it was commonly used in China to make printing blocks, since it is dense and holds fine detail. It is also nearly impossible to split, so it needs to be sawn into usable pieces. Don’t try to rive it.

I have not found it to be a particularly nice spoon wood. It’s not that it makes a bad spoon–it’s just that the twisted grain means you will always be fighting the grain as you work. I don’t care for that.

However, it does make a fine bowl or trough–if you work the wood green. It is quite hard once dry.

In bowls, the wood’s resistance to splitting is a boon. For the same reason, it makes a very fine chopping block. Just saw out a short section of the log, drill holes for legs (or screw them on), and you’ll have a chopping block that will never split apart.

I suspect that the wood will also be very good for stools and maybe even chair seats, for much the same reason. I’ve got some short slabs from a big tree set aside to dry. So the Chinese tallow tree can be a useful wood in the right applications.


A mimosa isn’t just a brunch cocktail–it’s also an ornamental tree that’s become an invasive species. It’s immediately recognizable in bloom, and you often see it growing along roadsides in the South, showing off its distinctive, power-puff pink blossoms in the summer.

Its growth pattern is curious. It nearly always grows at an angle, not straight up and down, seemingly to get the best sunlight. It won’t grow in the shade. The trunk will grow dead-straight for three or four feet, but at an angle. Then it branches into a two or three straight sections, which will eventually branch again in the same way. The result is a lot of short sections that are quite straight.

The wood itself is also curious. It is ring-porous, lightweight, stringy, and somewhat brittle. It works very easily, but it’s best to let it dry a little bit before planing or shaping it, or you’ll have no end of stringy, fuzzy tear-out.

But it’s the color of the wood that’s super-weird. When you first cut open the wet log, you’ll be stunned by the shimmering color of the fresh wood.

The sapwood is a creamy yellow, and the heartwood is a beautiful, variegated bown that alternates between tan and chocolate tones. It glistens in the light.

The above picture is a trough carved out of a freshly-cut mimosa log. Pretty colors, aren’t they?

And then you will be even more stunned when those vibrant colors completely disappear as the wood starts to dry.

The knife on top of the bowl above is also mimosa, which has now dried and has been sitting for a few months. The heartwood has turned a plain brown with little visual interest.

At a certain point, you will barely be able to tell the difference between the sapwood and the heartwood anymore, and the vibrant browns will have all but disappeared.

Such a disappointment!

But wait. The color change doesn’t stop there! If you let the wood age for a year or so, most of the colors will eventually come back! The sapwood regains its vibrant yellow that will remind you of a highlighter marker, and the heartwood turns a lovely brown again. Some of the color variations will become visible once more. It’s not as striking as the freshly-cut color, but it’s nevertheless quite attractive.

Above is the same bowl, now fully seasoned and finished with a bit of oil.

I have seen other woods whose colors change drastically as it ages, but I have never seen a wood that changes color and then changes back. I hope that someday some botanist will explain to me what’s going on. Should you ever get the chance to work some mimosa, I recommend it just for the experience of the color changes over time.

So take a look around your own neighborhood and see what trees and even large shrubs you might be able to harvest for the wood. You really never know what the wood will be like until you try it.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 6 Comments

Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 1)

I live in one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world–the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in southern Alabama. That means I have access to a very wide variety of tree species to work with. Many are non-native species, and most have no commercial uses, so when I want to know what the wood from a weird, local tree will be like, I can’t just Google it. I have to cut it open and start working it.

What follows is an account of my experience with several different woods that are fairly common where I live but that might be less familiar (or completely new) to readers in other regions. If you live in the Deep South, you may find some interesting new species to work with. But if you live elsewhere, I hope this inspires you to try working with some of the species that are local to you.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I make more spoons than anything else, so for practically every wood I list, I’ll show utensils I’ve made from it. That’s because making a spoon is an excellent way to really get in touch with the working properties of a wood that is new to me. I get to see how well it splits (or doesn’t), how it saws and planes, how well it holds carved detail, and how smooth it is when sanded, as well as how it behaves as it dries (does it check? does it twist?). Once I’ve made a few spoons from a particular wood, I’ve got a very good sense of how it works and what else it might be good for.

In this post, I’ll talk about two local woods for which there is some detailed information online at The Wood Database, which is my go-to source for technical specs on woods of all kinds. Then, in the next post, I’ll talk about a few woods that are so obscure that they aren’t listed there.

Southern Magnolia

A ubiquitous yard tree in the Deep South, the southern magnolia produces huge, fragrant blossoms each year. It is a truly iconic tree. (Our neighboring state of Mississippi is “The Magnolia State.”) Everybody in the South knows what they look like–on the outside. But what do they look like on the inside?

When first cut, the wood is a milky white with visible growth rings. But it will soon turn a greenish-gray color that, personally, I find mildly repulsive.

But I find the trees themselves repulsive. Their dense canopy casts a deep shade that prevents anything–even grass–from growing underneath. They branch very early, and unless lower branches are removed as a tree grows, the shape of the tree will be similar to that of a spruce tree–branches all the way to the ground. Magnolias are are evergreen. The leaves are big and leathery, and difficult to clean up; they take forever to decompose. A southern gardening book whose title I have long since forgotten put it best: the southern magnolia is a beautiful tree–in someone else’s yard.

But I digress.

The wood is a little harder than black cherry and walnut, and the hardness of the wood makes for a durable utensil especially, and it wouldn’t be bad as a secondary wood in other applications, such as drawer sides. Basically, I think anything you can’t see regularly is a good candidate for magnolia wood.

I do have a chopping block made from a section of a magnolia tree, and it holds up well in that application. Fortunately, after a few minutes of use all chopping blocks look pretty much the same. Magnolia would also make a fine cutting board. And if you do like the color (you psychopath), there’s no reason not to use it just like you would use any other domestic hardwood.

Unlike the other woods I’ll be discussing here, the magnolia is sometimes harvested and sold commercially in the South, and you can read about its technical properties here.

Crepe Myrtle (Pyinma)

These ornamental trees are everywhere here. Often planted along avenues or in borders, they produce lovely blossoms all summer long. They are usually pruned ruthlessly in order to produce maximum blooms, often to the detriment of the tree itself (a practice that some locals refer to as “crepe murder”). Because the tree grows very straight, the trimmings make great walking sticks.

Left to themselves, a crepe myrtle can grow to a medium height with a big trunk. Yet in landscapes they are almost never left to themselves. That’s why, even after living in the South for nearly twenty years, I had never tried working crepe myrtle. I never found any pieces big enough to work!

That changed when my friend had a crepe myrtle tree blow over in her yard during a storm.

After an hour with the chainsaw, the yard was cleared and I had a three-foot section of the trunk sticking out of the trunk of my car. I split the log into sections and set them aside for an opportune moment. It took me about a year to get back to them, but I’m very glad I did.

Crepe myrtle is hard but workable. The grain is fine and the pores are small. The sapwood is creamy white, while the heartwood is a nice brown–with just a hint of green. When freshly cut, the wood has a distinct vinegary odor, but that fades quickly. You can read more about its properties here.

Evidently, crepe myrtle has curly figure more often than not, though this particular log has pretty straight grain (except where it grew around some big knots). Once dry, it can be sanded exceptionally smooth. It would make a very nice accent wood. I found the wood very nice to work, and I’d be happy to get more in larger sections. Utensils made out of it have sold well at craft markets so far.

In my next post, you’ll get to hear about the properties of more obscure woods, all of which come from invasive ornamentals: waxy privet, Chinese tallow tree, and mimosa.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Four Steps to Rust-Free Tools

Ever since the dawn of the Iron Age (whenever that was), rust has been the enemy of the woodworker. I live in the wettest region of the continental USA, so rust is ever present to me. Even though I store and use my hand tools indoors, there are still big fluctuations in humidity from season to season, so I have had to give a lot of thought to rust-prevention.

Like everything else in the shop, the key to success is establishing good habits and routines. Here are four practices that I have found helpful in keeping my hand tools rust-free:

1. Wipe them off. Our shops are dusty places. But dust particles that settle on your tools give moisture in the air a convenient place to condense, which leads to rust. So the less dust you have on your tools, the less rust-prone they will be. You can use a clean cloth or even a handheld vacuum to dust off your tools at the end of the day. For hand tools with a lot of nooks and crannies (like hand planes), I use a small paintbrush I got at a hardware store. Also be sure to wipe down metal surfaces that you have handled with your bare hands. The natural chemicals that our skin produces can quickly corrode iron and steel.

2. Apply a lubricant.  There are many good oils and waxes that, when applied in a thin layer, form a very good barrier between atmospheric moisture and your tools. I’ve used a lot of different lubes over the years, including jojoba oil, paste wax, and synthetic motor oil. I’ve heard of good results from natural products like camellia oil and mutton tallow, as well as products in a spray can like Topcote, Boeshield T-9, and WD-40. They all work. Pick one and try it out. (Just don’t use a drying oil like linseed oil–that goes on wood, not on metal.) Apply only thin a coat, and wipe off any excess. Waxes and some oils can get gummy when applied too thickly.

A trick I learned from Paul Sellers: to make a simple oil applicator, roll up a cotton rag and stuff it into a small, clean can. Soak it with your choice of oil. Use it to apply the oil to your tools before putting them away.

3. Store them in a wooden box. I learned this one by experience. When I first started working wood, I kept my hand tools in a metal tool box, and I would occasionally find rust spots on them. But since I built my wooden tool chest, I’ve had far fewer rust problems. I think the wood acts as a moisture regulator, absorbing excess moisture in the air inside the chest before the moisture can condense on the tools. It might not be a practical solution for large power tools, but for everything else, I highly recommend a wooden tool chest or wall cabinet. If you do need to keep your hand tools in a metal chest or cabinet, consider using a small rod heater (like a Golden Rod heater) to prevent condensation. These devices are inexpensive, plug into a regular outlet, and are designed to regulate temperature and humidity in everything from pianos to gun safes. They work for tools, too.

4. Use them frequently. One of the greatest causes of corrosion is neglect. (And that applies to a lot more than just woodworking!) Regardless of how carefully you store your tools, they will tend to corrode if left to themselves. But if you use your tools often, you will notice the small rust spots before they become big rust spots. And if you are in the habit of cleaning your tools before putting them away, you will be cleaning them frequently. But if you never use them, you probably won’t think to dust them off and oil them, either. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of shops full of duplicate hand tools just sitting around on shelves, unused. That invites rust, unless the tools are regularly maintained. There’s nothing wrong with collecting tools, and if you do, then naturally you’ll want to curate your collection in more ways than are detailed in this blog post. But if you’re not a dedicated collector, and some of your tools are deteriorating from lack of use, consider passing them on to somebody who will actually use them.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | Leave a comment

Planing Stop

To plane down a piece of wood by hand, you have to immobilize the wood. If the workpiece is small enough, it can be held in a bench vise. But if the workpiece is too wide or too long, it won’t fit in the vise. What do you do then?

There are a lot of gadgets and gizmos that will hold a big piece of wood steady while you plane it down, but the simplest is the planing stop. Because as it turns out, when you run a hand plane over a piece of wood, it really needs to be immobilized only in one direction–the direction you are planing the wood.

Some time after I built my workbench, I installed a very simple planing stop that has worked fairly well for years. The design is not mine–I modeled it on something I saw on the internet years ago. The original was built partly of plywood, which delaminated over years of use. I recently built a new one from solid wood, so I’m taking this opportunity to blog about this simple but essential part of my workbench.

The design is very simple. It’s a wide board reinforced with battens. It has slots that allow it to slide up and down on threaded rods that I have epoxied into the end of my workbench. The stop is secured with wing nuts.

The planing stop can be raised just a little bit so as to handle regular planing jobs. One of its advantages is that it can be raised as little as 1/8″, which allows me to plane down very thin pieces of wood.

Or it can be raised up to about 2″ high for planing thicker stock, or wider stock on edge. If I had wanted, I could have made it bigger so I could raise it even higher, but I don’t think I’ve ever needed a planing stop any higher than this.

Construction Details

If you want to add something like this to an existing bench, the exact dimensions are not critical, but it helps to have some general dimensions to start with. My planing stop is about 19″ long (along the grain) and about 7″ deep. The main stop is made from 3/4″-thick red oak. (I had a scrap of a trim board that I cut in two and edge-glued.) The cross-grain battens are made from yellow pine scraps and screwed on. The oak is dry enough and the screws are set close enough together that cross-grain movement shouldn’t be a problem. The battens add stiffness to the stop, which is important in use.

I cut the slots by boring a 1/2″ hole at either end of each slot and cutting out the rest with a coping saw. Measure carefully so that, when you drop the stop all the way down, it sits level with the benchtop. Or, better yet, cut the slots so the stop sits just a little bit proud of your benchtop and plane it down exactly level. But don’t worry; the top of the planing stop will soon get chewed up by your handplane, and you’ll find that it eventually sits just a little bit below your benchtop.

The stop slides up and down on 3/8″ threaded rods, and the extra-wide slots allow the stop to slide up and down easily. They also allow me to set the stop a bit higher on one end than on the other, which is helpful when working stock of slightly different thicknesses.

The threaded rods were cut from a piece of 3/8″ all-thread I had lying around. (You could also use carriage bolts with the heads sawn off.) I secured them in the bench top by drilling holes a couple inches deep into the end-grain and gluing the rod in with original JB Weld epoxy. Leave plenty of rod protruding so the wing nuts can be loosened without the nuts falling off. Leave them longer than you think you’ll need them–you can always saw them shorter with a hacksaw if you want. Use washers behind the wing nuts so you don’t chew up the wood behind them. Be sure you let the epoxy cure completely before using the planing stop!

Right now the slots in the stop only go about halfway down. That’s partly for leverage–if you think of the planing stop as a lever, with the rods as the fulcrum, the force created by planing a piece of wood against one end needs to be countered by the bottom of the stop pressing into the end of the workbench on the other end of the lever.

Should I need more height on the planing stop, it’s easy to grab my drill and coping saw and cut the slots just a bit longer.

This planing stop is easy to build and extremely versatile, and it can be retrofitted to practically any workbench.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | Leave a comment