Homemade Woodenware, Part 2: An Easy Spatula, and Food Safety with Woodenware

In my last post, I described how I make wooden spoons from a block of wood.  I began that process by cutting the blank into two pieces, one of which became a spoon, and the other of which became a spatula.  Cutting two utensils out of one blank not only saves on materials, but it also makes for a nicely matched set. This set is made from some pecan that I salvaged from a downed tree in a neighbor’s yard.

Making the Spatula

The spatula is much simpler than the spoon, though I use many of the same techniques. I used a shop-made template to trace out the shape of the utensil on the planed face of the wood.  I made the template based on a spatula I made several years ago which I find particularly pleasant to use.

I sawed the blank in half with a bow saw (also known as a turning saw).  Then I used a drawknife to cut away the waste on the other side, just as I did with the spoon.  Yes, I work in my dining room.

Unlike a spoon, whose bowl is thicker than the handle, the blade of the spatula should be a little thinner than the handle.  So I used a marking gauge to mark out the final thickness of the blade:

I typically darken the gauge line with a pencil so I can see it more easily.  Now to remove everything beyond the line.

Working with the bevel down, I slice off shavings until I am down to the layout lines.  Cutting stock this wide takes some doing, so I generally slice off the corners first, and then remove the ridge left in the middle, and repeat the steps until I am down to the lines, or maybe a little bit over them.  If the blade is a little thinner than originally marked, that’s okay.

I use the spokeshave to smooth everything out and remove any irregularities left by the drawknife.  Careful drawknife work leaves the spokeshave with relatively little to do, though.

Now time to flip it over and shape the handle.

Unlike my spoon templates, which have relatively tight curves at the shoulders, the spatula has gentler curves, so I can smooth them all with the spokeshave.  I work the handle to a square cross-section, and then remove the four corners, leaving me with a hexagon.  I then remove all sixteen corners and am left with something like a round cross-section, which I find to be comfortable on a spatula, but not on a spoon, because the two utensils are generally held differently.

Once the handle is satisfactory, I shape the blade a little more, first by sawing the end of the blade at a slight angle, and then by rounding the edges of the backside and cutting a chamfer at the top:

This is all spokeshave work, followed by card scrapers and a little sandpaper.  Like my spoons, I round off the end of the handle, although that is not strictly necessary for the spatula to function.  But it looks nice.

As with my wooden spoon in the previous post, I used a homemade Danish oil as a finish.  It helps if you buff the finish with a clean cloth several times as the finish cures.

While we’re waiting for the finish to dry, here is a gratuitous group-shot of all the tools I typically use to make wooden spoons and spatulas:

What About Food-Safety?

You may have noticed that woodenware for the kitchen is coming back in style.  Even Wal-Mart now carries a full line of celebrity-endorsed wooden spoons, cutting boards, and rolling pins.  Until recently, it was assumed that wooden utensils harbored more bacteria than comparable plastic or nylon utensils.  Woodenware was discouraged in both home and commercial kitchens.  Then in the mid-1990s, a researcher named Dean Cliver at UC Davis performed experiments showing that wooden cutting boards actually harbor less harmful bacteria in the long-term than do plastic cutting boards.  Since then, the FDA has revised its recommendations concerning wooden utensils.

But some people still have doubts, and Cliver’s research has yet to be duplicated in further, larger-scale experiments.  (If there are any microbiologists reading this, we have a publishable research project for you!)  But most of us can’t wait for science to tell us how to run our kitchens.  We’re hungry, and we need to cook.  So here are a few thoughts on food-safety with woodenware in the home kitchen.*

  1. Any food surface can harbor harmful bacteria if not properly cleaned.  You should thoroughly wash any surface or utensil (counter, cutting board, mixing bowl, spoon, knife, etc.) that comes into contact with raw meat or eggs, which are some of the most common carriers of the germs that cause food poisoning.  If in doubt, wash it.  Use hot, soapy water, and be sure to remove all food particles.  Rinse in hot water and allow to air-dry.  While plastic, acrylic, and nylon utensils can be washed in a dishwasher, I recommend hand-washing your woodenware.  Wood can rapidly disintegrate when repeatedly exposed to the high heat and humidity in a dishwasher.
  2. Bleach is your friend.  Commercial kitchens use chlorine-bleach or other similar chemicals to sanitize (i.e. kill germs on) food prep surfaces and utensils.  If you are worried that soap is not enough, you can use a diluted bleach solution (about 2 Tbsp. bleach to 1 gallon of water) to sanitize your work surfaces, as well as utensils.  Be aware that repeatedly using bleach on wood will tend to lighten the color.
  3. If a wooden utensil become severely gouged, cracked, or splintered, you should either repair the damage or discard the utensil.  Shallow chips and scratches can usually be rubbed out with sandpaper or an abrasive scouring pad.  Although the most current studies show that cracks in wood are inhospitable to bacterial growth, a wide enough crack can collect food debris that will likely be more conducive to the growth of pathogens.  Deeper chips or cracks may require planing down, but if in doubt, retire your utensil.

Insofar as I can tell from the information currently available, wooden utensils are safe to use if handled correctly, and I use wooden cutting boards and spoons every day in my own kitchen with no problems so far.

* Disclaimer: Although I have worked in commercial kitchens, I have never held a food-handling license, nor do I have professional or legal expertise in food preparation safety.  I provide the following advice as suggestions only; my suggestions should not be taken as authoritative, especially concerning protocol in commercial kitchens.  Professional food handlers should seek the advice of their certifying agency.  In a home kitchen, remember that you always cook at your own risk.

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8 Responses to Homemade Woodenware, Part 2: An Easy Spatula, and Food Safety with Woodenware

  1. Pingback: Homemade Woodenware, Part 1: How to Carve a Wooden Spoon | The Literary Workshop Blog

  2. Bob Strawn says:

    Great set of articles on woodenware!
    I use High Linoleic Acid safflower oil. I use it instead of BLO for just about everything. is a superb drying oil and is used in quality oil paints. It does not tend to mildew or yellow. It dries slower, but you can instant dry it by heating it carefully over a burner or with a heat gun. It does not contain the cobalt and lead that BLO does, so I vastly prefer it for food related products, and well for everything really.

    While the Western World is a bit less active on the wood sanitation issue, in the East, quite a bit of scientific research has gone on. Vinegar has been shown to be more effective than bleach on wood, and a lot of woods have been shown to end up harboring much lower levels of pathogens than plastic.

    Bob

  3. Does some BLO still contain lead? I’ve pulled up the MSDS on it, and I’ve not seen any mention of it containing heavy metals of any kind. I know that it used to be treated with heavy metals (including lead) in order to make it dry, but I was pretty sure they use a different chemical treatment now.

    Regardless, I’d like to try to safflower oil next time I mix up a batch of wood finish. It would be nice to have an oil that dries a little better than the BLO. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Joe Anderson says:

    Interesting interchange about boiled linseed oil (BLO) and High Linoleic Acid safflower oil.

    Is the safflower oil referred to found in the supermarkey, or is there a special supplier for getting High Linoleic Acid safflower oil.

    By the way, what are the portions for making the home made Danish oil refferenced in the story?

    • I’m not sure exactly what Bob uses, but I think he uses the safflower oil available in supermarkets. You can see his own blog here: toolmakingart.com

      The proportions of the home-made Danish oil are equal parts of everything. It’s a recipe that’s been around for many years, and I take no credit for it.

  5. Pingback: Homemade Woodenware, Part 3: Cutting Boards | The Literary Workshop Blog

  6. rebecca says:

    Great blog. I found this very interesting. Can you suggest please what glue to use to mend broken wooden spoons. I have a favourite ‘porridge’ spoon that has been made in segments. I know not the best way to make them but it’s a favourite!

    • I don’t know of anyone in the business of actual repair, though there are many spoon makers who sell their wares online, and might either be willing to fix it or would be able to make a replacement.

      Mending woodenware is difficult to do. Most of the time it’s more cost-effective to simply replace it. Something made in segments could be doubly difficult to repair. But if it has sentimental value, it might be worth doing. Some kinds of damage, like a clean split or break, could be mended with a strong, waterproof glue like epoxy. Cracks and splits often can’t be repaired, because they occur as the wood dries out and shrinks. Cracks can be filled, but probably not so as to make the piece usable again. If you just wanted it to look whole again, it’s probably possible to patch it up.

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