When I sell my spoons and spatulas at craft markets, people always ask me, “Where do you get the wood?” I often laugh because, truth be told, practically ever piece of wood has a story behind it. More often than not, I don’t really find the wood; the wood finds me. This is the story of one such wood-finding event, which happened just last month.
We were pulling up to the house when we spotted two old dressers that somebody had dropped off in the neighborhood trash pile across the street. (It’s the spot where we dump yard waste for weekly pickup by the trash truck.) They looked pretty rough from a distance, but we decided they might be worth a closer look.
Upon first inspection, the dressers were indeed trash. The veneer was peeling off of every visible surface, and some of the edges and feet were rotted–evidently from being exposed to standing water. The hardware was gone, too. If I were a furniture restoration guy, I probably would have passed these up as lost causes.
However, old furniture often contains good-quality hardwood that is excellent for spoon making, so I put on my work gloves, grabbed my crowbar and claw hammer, and started pulling them apart.
A number of the drawers were stuck, so I began by removing the plywood backs so I could push the drawers out from the back. What I saw was encouraging.
Although the insides smelled pretty musty, the construction was nearly all solid wood. The only plywood parts were the backs and the drawer bottoms. And all the drawer sides and backs were solid mahogany, much of it with very pretty figure. (More on that below!)
As I took the dressers apart, I began to get a sense of their age. The machine-cut dovetails and mahogany-veneered case indicates mid-twentieth century construction. They were nice dressers in their time–not the fanciest you could buy, but well built and attractive. It’s a shame that they were neglected and allowed to get to this state in the first place.
After about an hour, I had disassembled both dressers entirely, picked out the pieces that might yield useful lumber, and discarded the rest.
I carried home two dresser tops (both laminated oak), four dresser sides (all laminated poplar), a bunch of mahogany-veneered plywood (from the drawer bottoms), and quite a few drawer blades (the horizontal pieces that separate the drawers).
Not to mention a whole pile of pre-finished 1/2″ thick mahogany boards in various lengths and widths. I think I’ll be making some pencil boxes and jewelry boxes soon!
But I’m mainly here for spoon wood, so on to the less-superficially-attractive stuff! The sides and drawer blades had the best spoon wood: soft maple and poplar.
But before I could start cutting spoons and spatulas out of this wood, I had to work carefully to remove all the nails and screws I could find. I also pried off as much of the veneer as possible.
The next step was to bring out my templates and start deciding on the best uses for each piece. Ideally, I would get a good mix of spoons and spatulas out of this pile of wood, but the nature of the material often dictates what I can and can’t do with it. Looking at every piece from every side, I had to work around mortises, screw holes, and rot–all the while paying attention to grain direction.
In many cases, I found I could nest different utensils within the same board. It became a Tetris-like game of optimizing the placement of each utensil on each piece of wood. Often it took me working through several possible configurations to get the most out of each piece.
Once I had the shapes laid out, I sawed each workpiece to length with a hand saw. Then I sawed out the rough shape of each utensil on the bandsaw. With each cut, I was careful to watch for stray hardware like embedded nails and other mortal enemies of saw teeth.
Back at my workbench, I went to work on some of the poplar. This is tulip poplar, which has a light yellow sapwood but distinctively green heartwood. The wood was very dry, but poplar works quite easily with hand tools, and in short order I was able to make some spoons and spatulas.
The green color is entirely natural. I think the shavings look like that vegetable-pasta that we sometimes have for dinner–except this has extra fiber.
I did end up having to discard a few blanks because of flaws that only became apparent once I started carving, but much of the wood has turned out to be very useful. So while I was sad to witness the end of what was once some nice furniture, I am happy to give some of the wood a new lease on life.