A few years ago, I became frustrated with the mass-produced wooden spoons in my kitchen. They were, for the most part, uncomfortable to use, easily broken, and ugly. So at the suggestion of my wife, I taught myself to carve spoons with a few joinery tools I possessed already. I practiced on softwoods, but now use hardwoods exclusively. I shape them at my joiner’s bench.
I knew when I started that the methods I was developing for myself were not traditional. Now that I am confident in my own methods, I am ready to investigate the methods of the past.
Recently, my eye has been drawn to old wooden spoons I run across at antique shops. Even a cursory look indicates that they were carved by hand, making each piece unique. That means that shapes, styles, and quality varied enormously between makers. In America at least, most spoons were highly utilitarian and decoration was kept to a minimum, and the makers almost never signed their work. (In Europe, many countries have long traditions of ornate spoon carving, and different regions developed distinctive styles and features, often according to local cooking customs.) Some spoons were made primarily on lathes, but I am interested in hand-carved ones here.
On a whim, I picked up two very different wooden spoons, which I think illustrate the range of possibilities in the more functional antique spoons, and give us many clues as to how they were made.
I cannot tell how old these spoons are, though the condition of the wood suggests later 19th century. The larger one is 14″ long with a 3 1/2″ wide bowl, clearly a serving spoon or ladle, probably intended for soup. The smaller one is 9 1/2″ long with a 2 1/2″ bowl, probably something of a table spoon, for eating porridge, stew, etc.
We do know some things about how spoons like these were made.
They were typically carved green, which was easier than using seasoned wood. The disadvantage was that spoons sometimes cracked or twisted as they dried out. Most American spoons I have seen are made from softwoods or soft hardwoods. Years of use in the kitchen renders some woods unidentifiable, but I believe that pine, alder, birch, poplar, and soft maple were among the more common woods. Wood appears to have been selected according to local availability.
Spoon making was not a lucrative business, so the number of tools was kept to a minimum. Spoons were typically lap-carved with just a few tools. Logs were initially cut to length with a saw and split into billets with a hatchet or froe. The handle and the outside of the bowl were shaped with one or two carving knives, and a hook knife was used for the inside of the bowl. With five tools and quick hands, you could crank out enough spoons each day to barely evade starvation.
The spoons I bought reflect this process.
Notice that the handle of this ladle twists when you sight down it. It was probably straighter initially, and twisted as the wood dried. The twist makes it uncomfortable to hold. Also notice the prominent tool marks on the inside of the bowl. It appears that the maker’s hook knife had some chips in its edge, leaving regularly-spaced lines in the bowl. This craftsman was not fastidious about maintaining his tools.
The whole spoon is curved downward, making the bowl slope away from the handle. It would be nearly impossible to use this ladle to scoop liquid out of a deep pot.
The most telling part, though, is the back of the bowl.
It is carved like a jewel, with facets instead of a smoothly rounded surface. The spoon was nevertheless used, as the edges of the facets are worn down from scraping the bottom and sides of a pot. Also notice the abrupt transition between the handle and the bowl. The transition is rough and sharp, which indicates practiced haste on the part of the maker. In my own experience, a graceful transition between the handle and the bowl is the most difficult part of spoon carving.
In contrast, the lines of the smaller spoon are gently curved, and the surfaces are nicely smoothed. The bowl angles up slightly, which enables the user to easily scoop food out of a dish.
The back of the spoon is smooth, though some tool marks are visible at the shoulder, and there is significant tear-out on the back of the handle. Near the bowl, the handle is almost round, but it gradually widens and flattens, until it is no more than 1/8″ thick at the end.
This spoon is close to symmetrical in all its dimensions, though the bowl is just a little lop-sided. The thickness of the bowl is also less, about 3/8″ at the thickest and 1/8″ at the thinnest, than that of the ladle, which is a good 1/2″ at its thickest. The thickness of the bowl is a trade-off, since a thinner bowl makes for a lighter spoon but is also more easily cracked.
Traditionally carved spoons seldom have holes drilled in the end for hanging on a hook. That, I believe, is an innovation that caters to the store owner rather than the cook. A spoon hanging on the wall is almost certainly a decoration, not a utensil.
Today we are seeing something of a revival of traditional spoon carving. Some makers, like Robert Kidd of KitchenCarvings or the folks at Whetstone Woodenware, are returning to traditional shapes, with wide bowls and bulbous handles. Personally, I prefer a straighter handle and shallower bowl for stirring spoons, though I avoid the round handle profile of modern, manufactured spoons. But whatever your preferences, you’re sure to find inspiration in traditional and contemporary spoon makers.