It’s all my wife’s fault. A few years ago, she was working with some unsatisfactory wooden utensil in the kitchen and asked me how hard it would be to make her own wooden spoon. I had never tried it myself, but I had seen a furniture maker make a wooden spatula as part of a hand-tools demonstration, and I guessed that with a carving gouge or two, I could manage to make a spoon. So we bought a couple gouges and gave it a try.
Our first results were a little crude, but we were happy with our efforts. (The top two are made from pecan with an odd coloring called “bluing” that results from a fungal disease in the tree, and the bottom two are hard maple. You can see that we had already used the spatula for a curry dish.) With some practice, we refined our designs and found that we could make them pretty quickly.
My wife now seldom helps me make spoons, but what follows is the general process I follow when I make a wooden spoon from scratch.
I normally use the following tools, though I have used others, and occasionally I will resort to a tool not on the list.
- Bench vise, preferably attached to a sturdy bench
- One or two large carving gouges (I use a 1” #7-sweep and a 1″ #5-sweep),
- A hand saw
- A 1″ chisel
- A drawknife
- A low-angle spokeshave
- A half-round rasp and half-round file
- card scrapers (one flat, one rounded)
- 220 grit sandpaper.
Unless I am using pre-dimensioned lumber from a hardwood supplier, I prefer to rive billets from a log. I then either resaw the billets on a band saw or use a broad hatchet to flatten one face of the billet.
Any hardwood can be used, and I have used hard maple, soft maple, cherry, walnut, mesquite, oak, pecan, and a few other species that I can’t remember off-hand. I have even successfully used Southern Yellow Pine for low-impact applications like a salad set, though I do not recommend using pine for anything but practice, as it tends to wear down quickly. I suggest beginning with a wood that is relatively easy to work, like soft maple or cherry. Straight-grained wood is absolutely necessary. I also prefer quarter-sawn or rift-sawn stock, especially in woods like pecan that have pronounced differences between early wood and late wood, as it makes carving the bowl easier. Tough, hard woods like pecan, hard maple, and mesquite make excellent woodenware.
Plane the best face flat. Look carefully at your stock, and lay out the utensil with a pattern or an existing utensil, or just freehand a drawing of a shape you like. Be sure the grain runs straight for the length of the utensil. I use a template for the outline but lay out the inside of the bowl freehand.
I am using pecan for this demonstration. Notice that this billet is wide enough for me to get both a large spoon and a spatula out of it if I saw carefully. Cutting multiple utensils out of a single blank not only economizes on materials, but it also ensures that I will end up with a perfectly-matched set.
Begin by carving the bowl with a gouge. Some spoon carvers do the bowl last, but I find it easier to hold the stock in the vise when it’s still a rectangle. I carve across the grain, beginning in the middle of the bowl and working my way back to the layout lines. The hardness of the wood dictates how much you can take off at a time. A small mallet is helpful for harder woods, but if the gouge is sharpened properly, hand pressure is usually sufficient. This sequence of pictures shows how:
Start in the center and use slicing cuts. Keep going until you have removed all the waste from a small well in the center.
Now work back to the layout lines and continue to take small, slicing cuts.
Use a flatter gouge to clean up the ridges left by the first gouge.
You will notice that I have already roughed out one side of the handle. That’s because I have already cut away the piece that will become the matching spatula. Order of operations is not always important.
So we backtrack a bit. There are many ways to cut the curves on the outside of the spoon, including these:
- By machine. A band saw, a saber saw, or a scroll saw will all work fine.
- By hand, using a drawknife.
- By hand, using a turning saw.
The last two are my preferred methods. Let me illustrate.
Cutting the curve with a bow saw (or turning saw):
Cutting with a drawknife:
To cut with a drawknife, first secure the stock in the vise sideways and use the drawkinfe bevel-down to remove the corner of each edge. Then remove the remaining ridge. Take a skewed cut, which makes for smoother operation than holding the drawknife at ninety degrees to the direction of the cut. Work down almost to your layout lines.
Regardless of your method, you should end up with something like this. Drawknife work goes very quickly.
I move to the spokeshave now and get the handle exactly the shape I want it:
After using a lot of different shaped handles, I have found that I prefer a modified oval profile, with the underside more rounded and the top more flat. Each handle is a little different, but I try to shape them all so they are comfortable to hold.
It will probably be necessary to clean up the shoulder of the spoon with a chisel, or with a rasp followed by a file. This time I chose a chisel:
As you can see, I’ve already done some shaping on the outside of the bowl. As I said above, order of operations is not crucial. So let’s backtrack a little.
This stock was especially thick, so I needed to use a saw:
and then a chisel:
before I could move to the drawknife:
This time I am using the drawknife with the bevel up. (A drawknife is used with the bevel down for straight cuts, and for concave work, but with the bevel up for convex work. Like a chisel, the flat back will want to dig into your workpiece.) As always, take slicing cuts with the edge skewed.
Then move to the spokeshave:
This is where the low-angle spokeshave really comes into its own. I have successfully used a spokeshave with the iron bedded at 45 degrees, but the low-angle is especially smooth when working on end-grain, as in this application.
Look at the emerging spoon from this angle to see how symmetrical your work is:
Looking pretty good!
One of the more difficult parts of spoon carving is shaping the shoulders gracefully. It’s easy to leave them broad and bulky, so take your time to get this shape right. Because of the way the work must be held in the vise, it is practically impossible to use a drawknife here, so I just work as quickly as I can with the spokehsave.
From this, to that:
Continue to look at your work from several angles to be sure everything is symmetrical. Notice that I have gone over my layout lines here, making the shoulders uneven:
You probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t pointed it out, right? And it’s not like the asymmetry would affect the spoon in use. But I notice. And every time I use it, I will notice. So back to work with the chisel and spokeshave until I get it right! A half-round file is also very helpful in refining the shape.
I always round off the end of the handle with a coping saw, and clean up the cut with a spokeshave. It’s not really necessary to make the spoon function, but it makes the spoon look finished and provides a visual consistency in the piece:
Once I have done everything I can with the spokeshave, I finish up with two card scrapers:
I use a card scraper with a convex profile to smooth the bowl. This is a LOT faster than sanding. I use the concave end, as well as the regular square scraper, to smooth down the rest. The scrapers shown above came in a set of four, though I did have to reshape the profile on the convex end to get it to fit the spoons I make.
I typically follow up with 220-grit sandpaper. If using a ring-porous wood like pecan, do not remove the sanding dust.
I use whatever oil finish is available. I have successfully used boiled linseed oil, Danish oil, mineral oil (sold as a laxative, also the main ingredient in baby oil), and vegetable oil. I prefer a drying oil, but any oil finish will be non-toxic once fully cured. If in doubt, use a food-safe oil to begin with. These are finished with a home-made Danish oil (one part each boiled linseed oil, varnish, and mineral spirits):
After a few coats at 15-minute intervals, I will buff down the finish with a clean cloth. The sanding dust has become a sort of grain-filling paste underneath the finish, and I find that finishing without removing the sanding dust, followed by a vigorous buffing, makes even coarse woods like pecan become smooth.
Now allow the finish to cure completely, and wash thoroughly in soapy water before using in the kitchen.
In part 2, I will show how I make a spatula, and give some further information on food safety with wooden kitchen utensils.