One of the most common questions I get about my spoons at craft markets is “How do you make them?”
It’s hard to know how to answer. If I’m feeling a little snarky, I usually say something like, “I find a piece of wood that looks like it has a spoon in it. Then I cut away everything that doesn’t look like a spoon. What’s left is the spoon.”
It’s a response that amuses children, at any rate.
But if the person asking seems to be interested in the technical process, I’m happy to go into detail, even though that requires a description of the tools as well as the process. (Not a lot of non-woodworkers know what a spokeshave or a carving gouge is, for example.) What follows here is not a tutorial about how to make a spoon. It’s just a description of the stages that a piece of wood goes through on its way to becoming the spoon you might have bought from me at a craft market.
It Starts with a Log
I use many different kinds of wood for spoons, but my favorite kind of wood is free. Living in Hurricane Alley, I have a pretty constant supply of great spoon wood from trees that go down in storms. I’m picky, though. Most trees that come down in storms are firewood. I use only good-quality hardwoods. This double-trunk cherry tree, for example, came down in a friend’s back yard during Hurricane Sally back in 2020. My son-in-law helped me cart off as much as I could. It was a lot of hard work! (Good thing he takes payment in homemade pizza.)
Once I get the logs home, I remove the bark. Each log gets split lengthwise into smaller sections.
Because I split the wood like this, the wood grain in each spoon runs straight and true, making each utensil stronger.
The Electric Part
Nearly all the work of spoon-making is hand-powered. Except what comes next.
I use my bandsaw to cut each section down into rough boards of about 1″ thick and as wide as I can manage. It’s dusty work.
The result is a lot of rough-sawn boards. I set them aside to dry for a few weeks at least. Fresh-cut wood is very wet. In fact, the mass of a living tree can be two-thirds water! As the wood dries, it also shrinks (in width and thickness, but not in length). Once it loses some of that initial water weight, the wood becomes more dimensionally stable and generally easier to work.
Once the wood has lost some of its initial water-weight, the next step is to begin sawing those boards into spoon blanks.
I have a wooden template for each style of spoon I make. I lay the templates out on the boards and trace out the rough shape of each utensil with a pencil. Then I saw out the blanks on the bandsaw. This process allows me to get as many blanks as possible out of a single board with minimal waste.
I will often saw out 20 or 30 blanks at a time and set them aside near my bench until I need them.
The Fun Part
The really enjoyable part of spoon making is shaping each blank with just a few hand tools.
With the workpiece clamped securely in a bench vise, I begin by smoothing down the face of the blank so I can see the grain clearly. Blanks with cracks or other serious flaws can sometimes be repurposed for smaller utensils, but a few inevitably become firewood. Such is the nature of working with wood.
Then the real shaping begins. I carve out the bowl of the spoon with a carving gouge. I keep the gouge razor-sharp so it takes minimal effort to push it through the wood.
The next step is the shape the handle. It’s a delicate balance of taking off just enough material that the handle is comfortable to hold, but not so much that it becomes thin and weak.
I use a couple different kinds of hand tools to do this work: the drawknife and the spokeshave.
These are tools that were first developed by woodworkers to shape things like barrel staves and wagon spokes, but they work well for spoon making, too. The drawknife takes off a lot of material very quickly, and is ideal for initial shaping. The spokeshave is a small handplane with handles on each side, and it takes a fine shaving. It is ideal for refining the shape.
I finish the shaping work by completing the underside of the spoon’s bowl, also done primarily with the drawknife and spokeshaves.
The trick here, as with the handle, is the get the bowl just thin enough so that the spoon is not too heavy in use, but not so thin that it’s fragile and prone to cracking.
From Shaping to Smoothing
Once the shaping is done with the cutting tools, the result is a perfectly serviceable spoon.
The tool marks are clear–every surface is faceted, but the spoon would still stir your pancake batter or turn your stir-fry veggies just fine. A long time ago, when people had to make a living doing this, they often considered the spoon done at this stage. You can still find antique, hand-carved spoons with many tool marks still evident.
However, nearly everyone these days prefers a smooth surface. So I do more work to remove all the tool marks and gently round over every edge. This also makes the spoon more durable, as rounded edges are less prone to chipping than are sharp ones.
I smooth out each spoon in two steps: scraping and sanding.
The scraping is done with a card scraper, which is the woodworker’s secret weapon.
A card scraper is a simple piece of tool steel, with a burr created on the edge. By pushing or pulling the edge across the wood, I can take very fine shavings, making each surface perfectly even.
After scraping, I rinse the spoon with water in order to raise the grain. It’s an important step, but it requires some explanation. Remember how much water is in a living tree? And remember how the wood shrinks as the water in it evaporates? Well, dry wood will also absorb water back into its surface, which can temporarily make the wood swell up again–but just on the surface. Once the wood dries yet again, the severed wood fibers can remain swollen, resulting in a rough or fuzzy surface texture. So, if I didn’t raise the grain, the first time you used the spoon you might find a formerly smooth surface becoming rough.
So after raising the grain, I sand the spoon down to about 320 grit, which leaves the surface nice and smooth to the touch.
The final step is to oil the spoon and let it dry. I use an oil mixture that I make myself: about one part each flax oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane. (No, it’s not a toxic finish, once it’s cured.) I dip each utensil in the oil, let it sit for fifteen minutes or so, and then wipe off any excess oil.
I lay out the finished utensils on an old oven rack to dry in the sun all day, turning them over periodically. Normally, the finish would take a few days to fully cure, but direct sunlight really accelerates the drying process. Once I can’t smell the finish, I know it’s totally dry.
The Other Fun Part
Now the finished spoon is ready to use! Take it into your kitchen and use it regularly.
When you’re done, wash your wooden spoon with clear, hot water and a dishcloth, and let it air-dry. You can wash it with soap if you like, but the original finish will last longer if you don’t. Just don’t put it in the dishwasher.
You can re-oil your spoon periodically if you like; just use flax seed oil, hemp oil, or walnut oil from the grocery store. Those are the only vegetable oils that will actually dry; the others remain liquid and will just wash right off. Flood the surface with the oil and then wipe off the excess. Set it aside to dry for a day or two–ideally in direct sunlight. Then keep using it!
With care, your spoon will last for years and years in the kitchen, even with daily use.
So now you know how a spoon gets made.