On a spoon-carving forum I read, the question of templates comes up frequently. A lot of spoon carvers say they “just wing it,” or as others put it, “just see what the wood wants to be.”
Now, there’s no question that woodworking of any kind requires a certain amount of negotiation between the woodworker and the wood. Certain pieces of wood have certain features that will nudge a thoughtful woodworker in certain directions. But it’s important not to let the wood always be the one in charge. Because, as one astute forum member once remarked, “what the wood really ‘wants’ to be is a stick.” To turn it into anything else (like a spoon), you have to be willing to impose your will on the material.
I’ve made a lot of spoons over the past few years, and I’ve handled quite a few made by other woodworkers. In my kitchen, I’ve used the spoons that I and others have made. That experience has taught me something about the importance of templates–which is to say, about the importance of careful design.
Spoons carved by “just winging it” aren’t usually very good. Unless l you are very experienced (or just have a preternaturally good eye for this sort of thing), just winging it will result in something between not-quite-right and fairly-useless about 90% of the time.
There’s a pretty narrow range of dimensions beyond which a wooden spoon becomes less than comfortable to use. If an eating spoon is too long, it doesn’t balance correctly, but if it’s too short, your hand ends up getting dipped in the soup. If the bowl is too narrow or too shallow, it doesn’t hold enough food. Too deep or too wide, and it’s hard to eat out of.
I haven’t reduced any of these dimensions to numerical values, and I’m not going to. I arrived at my own templates by trying to use some of my first spoons to cook with and considering why I didn’t like them–too long, too short, too wide, too thick, whatever. I also observed what I liked about the one or two spoons that I found myself reaching for over and over–the bowl was the right size, the handle was the right shape, the whole thing was the right length, etc.
Eventually I traced out a couple of my best spoons and made myself some templates so I could replicate my success. Because ultimately, that’s what a template helps you do–succeed repeatedly–instead of just finding new ways to fail.
(Templates can be made out of anything you can trace around–a thin piece of wood, a bit of paperboard, or even a piece of plastic cut out of a milk jug. I often put the date on mine, just for fun.)
Using a template does not take the joy out of spoon carving. It just releases you from having to do the design work and the carving work all at once. When you do the design work first, even if that’s just sketching out a few pencil lines freehand on the face of a bit of wood, you liberate yourself to focus on the carving itself once you put your knife to the wood. (There is great freedom in being able to do just one thing at a time instead of many things all at once.) And if you find that you need to depart from your intended design, you can always do that, too.
If you want to make good wooden spoons, a pencil is the first carving tool, and one of the most indispensable.