I don’t remember exactly when I began to use templates to lay out my wooden spoons and spatulas, but after I had made my first dozen or so wooden spoons, I hit upon a couple of spoon shapes that just “worked” for me. There were two of them, and they were comfortable to hold and convenient to use. So every time I went to make another wooden spoon, I grabbed those spoons from my own kitchen and traced them out onto my workpiece.
Eventually I got tired of running to the kitchen every time I made a spoon, so I endeavored to make some templates out of some scraps of seasoned pine. Over the course of a couple years, I made templates for two kinds of spoon and two kinds of spatulas. It took a couple of tries to get each of the templates just right, but once I did, they worked.
I’ve been using some of these templates for 7 years now. I’ve made dozens and dozens of utensils from these templates, and they sell reliably at markets.
But a couple months ago, I was making yet another batch of spoons for an upcoming holiday market. I was in the middle of shaping yet another spoon and thought, “If I have to make one more spoon following these exact same lines, I’m going to scream!”
I didn’t scream. I held it in. But I did start deviating from my lines here and there, and it felt good.
Varying length, width, and depth a little bit here and there as the wood allows has brought some of the spontaneity back into my spoon making, and that’s a healthy thing when I’m cranking out a batch of spoons for an upcoming market. But if I depart too far from the template, I will end up with a virtually useless utensil. A handle that’s only one inch too long or short, a bowl that’s just a half-inch too wide or too narrow, or a neck that’s just 1/8″ too thick or too thin is all that separates a great utensil from a mediocre one.
Let me illustrate. Take a look at these utensils:
The ones on the left were made “freehand.” I had a piece of wood in about that size, so I made a spoon or spatula out of it. Each utensil is functional, but there’s something about each one that makes it a little awkward to use. Maybe the handle is a bit too long or a bit too short, too thin or too thick. They’re not bad, but they wouldn’t sell at a market. The two on the right, however, were made from templates, and experience tells me they will sell. They feel right in the hand.
So for me it’s a delicate balance between varying each piece a little bit and staying within a very narrow range of proportions that fit the ordinary human hand.
A lot of spoon carvers avoid templates entirely. Some sketch the spoon out freehand on the blank before carving it, while others just go at it with a hatchet and knife and see what comes out. It can be fun to just “follow the grain,” and people who work without templates or layout lines will often say that they “just let the wood tell me what it wants to be.” The problem with that approach, however, is that all the wood really “wants” to be is a stick. You have to turn it into a spoon. And while it is important to work within the limits imposed by the material, you can’t let the material control the process and expect good results.
Another problem with the “let the wood decide what it wants to be” mentality is that, in the end, it’s not the wood that will be using the spoon; it’s a human being. Although there’s always something of a symbiotic relationship between a woodworker and his or her material, ultimately the human has to be the one in charge.
The results of the “free” method can be anywhere on a spectrum between amazing and useless, with most falling somewhere in the middle–often clustering around “bemusing” and “not quite right.” And I have two drawers full of my earliest spoons to prove it. If you’re just making stuff to amuse yourself, then there’s no harm in working spontaneously all the time. But if you aspire to make an excellent object–something that is both useful and pleasing–and further, if you need to make money by selling those objects (as I do), then you had better lay your work out carefully before you start.