How to Start Carving Spoons

As part of my ongoing “How to Start” series of blog posts, here is some advice on how to start carving spoons.  My goal is not to guide you through the entire process of making a spoon; I just want to put you at the right trail head with enough equipment to make some progress on your own.

Spoon-making requires perhaps the fewest tools of any specific branch of woodworking.  If you’re just going and getting branches off trees and carving them into spoons, then you need very few tools.  You need more if you’re starting with bigger pieces of wood, but for the moment let’s assume you’re just starting with tree branches or other small pieces of wood–scraps and whatnot.  Here are the very basic necessities:

  • You need a saw to cut wood to length.  Even a tree saw or limb saw will do–this is something you can get from a hardware store.
  • You need a hatchet to do the rough shaping.  There are dedicated spoon-making hatchets being made by individual craftsman, and many of them are quite beautiful.  But all you really need is a regular camp hatchet with a wooden handle–again, something you can get at the hardware store.
  • You need a knife to do the regular shaping.  I recommend the Mora 106 to begin with.  It’s a Sweedish-made knife with a very basic handle, but the steel is very good, and the knife is surprisingly affordable.  There are nicer and more expensive knives out there, but start with this one.
  • You need a hook knife to carve out the bowl of the spoon.  I recommend the Mora 164.  It’s affordable and has a good radius for most spoon work.  Again, there are many finer and better hook knives available for a higher price, but this one will do to begin with.

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Those are all the tools you absolutely need to make a spoon.

However, there are two more things you absolutely need in addition to the above:

  1. You need some kind of chopping block.  It can be as simple as a section of 2X4 set on the ground, and you work from a kneeling position (not ideal, but it works), or you can be as fancy as attaching legs to a section of a tree trunk.  But you need some kind of stable work surface for the axe work.  Ideally, it should be a few inches lower than your waist.
  2. You need sharpening equipment. (This is where a lot of woodworkers get stuck.)  Sharpening equipment is worth investing some money in because you can use it for sharpening EVERYTHING, from kitchen knives and pocketknives to your regular woodworking tools.

All your edge tools, including the hatchet, will need regular sharpening.  You won’t be able to carve more than one spoon without sharpening, so don’t talk yourself into putting off acquiring sharpening equipment “until you need it.”  You will need it about ten minutes after you put your tools to the wood for the first time.

To begin with, you can use sandpaper stuck to a flat surface, but sandpaper wears out quickly.  For spoon carving, you’re better off getting a double-sided oilstone. I have one that’s a soft Arkansas stone on one side and a hard Arkansas stone on the other, and I lube it with WD-40. You can save some money by getting a double-sided India stone, which is a synthetic stone.  It doesn’t produce as fine of an edge as a good Arkansas stone, but it’s cheap and you won’t wear it out.

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To put the final, razor-edge on your knives, you need a strop–just a piece of plain leather glued fuzzy-side-up to a flat surface like a block of wood.  You will also need something to hone the inside of the hook knife; I use a piece of leather glued to a section of 1″ PVC pipe, though you could also use a section of a wooden dowel or even a smooth tree branch with the bark removed as a substrate for the leather.  If you strop your edges every few minutes, you will keep them keen and reduce the amount of time you will have to spend re-honing them on the stones.

With the above tools, you can make spoons that you can eat from and use daily in your kitchen.

But what about finishing?  You can make a spoon and use it straight from the knife with no finish whatsoever.  However, most people like to put a final finish on their spoons.  Some burnish them smooth with something hard and smooth, like a piece of antler, bone, porcelain, or even stone.  Others scrape their spoons smooth with a piece of glass or a card scraper.  Still others just sand them down, starting with 120 or 220 grit and ending with 320, 400, or even finer.  You can do any, all, or none of these.

Most people oil their spoons before using.  The traditional finish is several thin coats of raw linseed oil (allow the spoon to dry in the sun between coats) or a commercial finish like salad bowl finish or butcher block oil (apply two or three coats about an hour apart, and then rub down with a soft cloth; allow the finish to cure completely before washing and using).  Experiment to see which finish gets you the results you like most.

Finally, you need guidance.  These tools are dangerous if used improperly, and you will wear yourself out quickly if you use bad technique.  I recommend learning in person from an experienced spoon carver if you can.  (Be sure he or she will teach you to sharpen, too.)  In lieu of that, here are two of my favorite online videos on spoon carving.  The first is Peter Follansbee’s appearance on Roy Underhill’s show The Woodwright’s Shop.  The second is the first in a series by longtime carver Jögge Sundqvist, who shows you each grip and cut.  Get yourself a piece of wood and a knife, and try to follow along with each video in the series.

So there you have it–everything you need to start carving spoons.

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