Going Commercial: 7 Ways Selling Your Work Will Change Your Craft

When I started selling my handmade wooden utensils at local craft markets about a decade ago, I had to figure out much of it myself. Having run a successful sideline for years, I have now drawn it to a close, and I’d like to share my experience.

Perhaps you are considering selling what you make at markets near you. You may be wondering, though—can I actually make money by selling my handmade goods at local markets, or is it a waste of time and energy?

Yes, you can run a successful side-business selling your craft work locally. I don’t think it’s possible to make a living at it—unless you are extraordinarily frugal and enjoy living in abject poverty. But if you do it right, you can make your hobby self-sustaining, and with time and persistence, you can even make it a boon to your household economy.

If you are considering selling your work regularly as a side-business, here’s what you need to know about how it will change what you do:

1. It will make you focus on what other people want more than on what you want.

People won’t buy things just because you feel like making them. You have to think about the many kinds of things you can make and figure out where those overlap with the kinds of things that other people want to buy. If you already have people asking to buy your handmade goods, that’s a great sign. But if not, that’s okay. There are ways to connect with the people who might want to purchase what you like to make. Yet selling your work consistently means you need to think about it in terms of product lines and inventory—making things in fairly standard shapes and sizes, and maintaining a balance between standardization and variety in your work. When every item on the craft table is utterly unique, then most of the items are not going to sell. You must figure out what your customers are most likely to want and focus on making that.

2. It will change how you think about your products.

You will have to think about what you make as a product, and you will need to consider your products in terms of time and money. You will have to decide how to put a price on your work (See my post on pricing), and you will have to do some rough calculations to determine how many products you can reasonably expect to make given your time, skill, and materials. If math scares you a little, don’t worry. This isn’t calculus or anything. It’s not even tax prep (although that may come into it eventually). It’s just a matter of thinking about how many markets you can commit to given how long it takes you to prepare, as well as how much you need to charge for your work in order to make it worth your time to make and sell it.

3. It will change how you spend your time.

You need to realize that a lot of the work you will do won’t actually be craft work. It’s not as bad as running a full-scale business, but be prepared to spend time on communication, sourcing materials, traveling to and from markets, and even a little accounting. None of these is very time-consuming in itself, but it does all add up. You will definitely spend more time crafting, but you will also spend more time doing other things that support your crafting.

4. It will change how you use your space.

You will need to stockpile raw materials. You will need a place to store your inventory between markets. And you will also need to store your market gear: a canopy, a big folding table, your signage, and any other props for the table. All that stuff takes up space. The first time you load your car to go to a market, you will be shocked to see that the product you sell is only a small fraction of all the stuff you will haul to and from markets.

5. It will change how you think about people.

Selling to family and friends is a good start, but it only goes so far. You have to get your products in front of your ideal customers—people who appreciate handmade work and have the expendable income to buy it. So you have to figure out who those people are. What kind of people actually want what you make? Where they are likely to shop? This was one of the biggest ah-ha! moments of my little crafting career. I had been at a couple markets early on and sold almost nothing, but I was sure that there was a market for my work. I just hadn’t found it yet. When I did finally manage to set up at the right markets, I started selling my work more successfully. So scope out different venues as you figure out who your target market is.

6. It will change how you work.

It will encourage you to refine your workflow and make it as efficient as possible. When your craft is a hobby, you can be as inefficient with your time and materials as you like. But when you need to get X-number of items ready to sell by X-date, then you have to economize wherever you can. You will learn to use designs that are simple to execute given your skills and your tooling, and you will begin to embrace templates. You will learn to work within tolerances and do batch work. While some parts of the process can remain spontaneous, you will get to discipline yourself to work with both precision and speed. The result will be that you will learn to stay focused and work faster than you did before, and you will become more skilled because of it.

7. It won’t be fun anymore.

I don’t mean that you’ll never enjoy your work again. You will still have the satisfaction of a job well done, but now it will be a job. I have not been making spoons for fun all these years. It’s not relaxing. It’s work. If you start selling your work regularly, then your craft is going to become a job that needs to be done. When you have a big market coming up, you have to make your products whether you feel like it or not. So you have to be okay with not doing it for fun anymore.

I want to emphasize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this.

It is good that we get up every day and go to work whether we feel like it or not. It is good that we learn to see our work from other people’s points of view. It is good that we provide our neighbors with high-quality goods that they will value for years to come. Doing good work and selling it for a fair price is how the world keeps going economically.

You just have to decide whether you want your craft to become a part of that economic system. A lot of people get into crafting because it’s not part of the daily grind, but an escape from it. If that’s you, then why would you want to turn your craft into yet another job?

For me, though, woodworking has always been a matter of economics in the most basic sense of meeting household needs. I enjoy the craft, but it has always been work—good work, productive work, rewarding work—but work nevertheless. Early on, I decided that I would not allow my hobby to be a drain on the household economy. My woodworking needed to be at least self-sustaining, and for many years it has helped support the household economically.

In sum, here are the main benefits of going commercial with your craft:

A. Money. If you find the right market and price your work reasonably, you can supplement your income.

B. Community. At markets you will enjoy the company of like-minded people, and you will make friends.

C. Skill. Making products to sell will motivate you to develop your abilities and your speed.

D. Respect. You will find out what it was like to be a professional craftsman in the pre-industrial age. Our crafting ancestors honed their skills in professional shops, cranking out high-quality work with remarkable speed. They knew how to speed up and get the job done, and they knew when to slow down and get things just right. You will never be closer to your ancestors in the craft than you are when doing production work by hand for a whole day, and your respect for them will grow.

So if you decide to go ahead and start selling your work, here’s a rundown on how to get started:

Read my blog post about everything you need to get ready for your very first market.

Read my blog post on how to price your work fairly.

Read my blog post on best practices for selling your wares successfully.

Read my blog post on how to be such a great vendor that everybody invites you back.  

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 1 Comment

Moving on from Markets

Over a decade ago, I set up a table to sell my spoons at my very first craft market. Now, after dozens of markets and hundreds of spoons, I have brought my spoon-making side-business to a close. While I am still willing to make spoons and spatulas upon request, I don’t plan to make them in batches to sell at markets anymore.

The reason is very exciting. After fifteen years teaching at a small, private college in south Alabama, I have accepted a new position at a larger, private university in Ohio. I will be moving my family there this summer.

I have decided that this move is the right time to quit the craft market scene—for two reasons. First, the repetitive work of shaping spoons has been taking a toll on my hands and wrists, and my body has been telling me for some time that it is time to slow down. Second, because my new job pays better than my old one, I hope I won’t need the extra income from spoon making quite so much as I have in the past. Plus, I have been wanting to explore other aspects of woodworking that I just haven’t had the time to get into yet.

Today I packed up all my heavy woodworking machines. For the first time in years, my workbench is clear. For the first time ever, my spoon-making tools and materials are packed away.

I want to thank everyone who has bought my spoons, who has invited me to markets, and who has told family and friends about my work. Crafting can be such a solitary activity, yet I have made so many friends at the many markets where I have been a vendor. I am so very grateful to have been a small part of a local arts & crafts community over the years. I am rich beyond measure in relationships.

In the coming months, I plan to blog a little bit about my move—about disassembling and packing up my current workspace and setting up a new (and bigger!) one. I am also hoping that this blog will get back to its original purpose of documenting a wide variety of woodworking projects, instead of focusing almost exclusively on spoon making.

Ohio, here I come!

Posted in Market, Woodenware | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

What’s the Difference between Art and Craft? Problem-Solving.

Just today, a spoon carver on a social media platform I follow asked other carvers, “Do you call yourself an artist or a craftsperson?” I was one of many who responded, and I said that I sell two kinds of things at my market table. I sell wooden utensils, which I make. And I sell small paintings done by my daughter on scraps of wood. When customers are browsing my table, they often ask me, “Do you paint, too?” I tell them, “No, my daughter is the artist. I stick to craft.”

Some customers protest mildly that my spoon-making work is also art. And I don’t fight them on it. In a very strict sense, I suppose they are right that all skilled making involves what we might call “artifice,” the imposition of preconceived form on raw material. But today people use the word “art” not so much in the sense of “artifice” but in the sense of “uniquely creative” and maybe even “self-expressive.” Art is, for most people, something unique created for an aesthetic purpose. And if I make my spoons to be nice to look at as well as pleasing to use, then yes, you could call them “art” as well as “craft.”

In the same way, my daughter’s act of painting requires the skillful use of tools (a paintbrush, a palate, paints, a Bob Ross video on YouTube, etc.) in order to create a picture. We call the result “art,” but most art that people really value is the result of what we would call “craft,” the skillful use of tools and techniques to achieve a desired result.

So What’s the Difference?

I say all this because I was also just reading an essay by Dorothy L. Sayers, who thought profoundly about the nature of artistic creation, as well as of craftsmanship. A professional novelist (she authored the Lord Peter Whimsy series of detective novels), Sayers makes an incisive remark in her essay “Problem Picture,” in the volume Letters to a Diminished Church:

…the artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation. (pg. 238)

This, I think, gets at the heart of the fundamental difference between craft and art. Even though in practice they are very seldom found in their pure form, one major difference between craft and art is that the practice of a craft is all about problem-solving, whereas art is about the creation of something new.

Craft is Basically Problem-Solving

When I set out to make a spoon, I approach the whole process as a set of problems to be solved. I want to get an optimal number of utensils out of this particular piece of wood, and I want to do so in an efficient manner. Each part of the spoon needs to be shaped by the use of particular tools. There is an optimal sequence of actions in which I shape first one part and then another part of the utensil.

All the while, I am working to produce something that will solve a other peoples’ problems. They have soup they want to stir or sourdough starter they want to mix. They need a tool that is durable and comfortable to handle, and just the right size for the job at hand.

You don’t make a good wooden spoon by accident, or by just fiddling around with a block of wood and some tools and seeing what comes out. If the spoon is too long or too short, too thin or too fat, it will only create additional problems for the user. In order to solve the problem of stirring or scooping food, the spoon maker has apply good design.

Making the spoon is a matter of sequential problem-solving, and the spoon itself exists to solve a problem.

Art is Basically Creation

If you want to scoop up your soup, you need something like a spoon. So you go out and buy a good spoon, and your problem is now solved. But imagine you also went out and bought a nice little painting, done by hand on a scrap of wood. You probably didn’t buy it to solve a problem. In fact, you probably didn’t even know you needed that little bit of paint-on-wood in your life until you saw the painting.

But even if you did set out to purchase a painting because, say, you had an empty spot on your fireplace mantel and you wanted a splash of color or a small conversation piece that would fit the empty space while complementing the decor, that is not why the artist painted the picture.

There was no pressing need in the world for a little landscape painting. Producing the painting solves no practical problem. The painter simply saw the potential for a new creation in that collection of raw materials. Granted that the process of artistic creation does involve a lot of practical problem-solving. How to mix the colors to get the right shades? Which brush to use to achieve this effect? But the artist is solving these practical problems in order to combine the materials before her into a new entity–a new creation.

To take another example, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is currently being rebuilt after a catastrophic fire. The reconstruction requires a LOT of problem solving. But in the end, Notre Dame does not exist as a solution to a problem. To ask, “What problem does Notre Dame solve?” is to ask the wrong question. As a place of worship, it is superfluous. People can worship God very well without it. It is certainly a cultural icon, a tourist destination, and a testament to the technical ingenuity of the Middle Ages, but those things are all by-products of the simple fact that the cathedral is an astounding work of art. Why should Notre Dame be rebuilt at such great cost of time and money? Because it is a work of art. It is better that it continue to exist than that it should cease to be.

The artist makes something that did not exist before, and behold, it is very good.

Let Craft Be Craft and Art Be Art

A few of my customers tell me that they don’t buy my spoons to actually use. They just hang them on the wall or put them in a jar to look at. Even though I crafted the spoons to solve problems, these people simply enjoy the fact that the spoons exist. I suppose I don’t mind if people see artistic value in craft work, though sometimes I think they would appreciate the spoons even more if they used them once in a while.

I think the best way to honor a work of craft is to use it to solve the problems it was made to solve. A hammer is made to drive nails, and a chair is made to sit in. The spoon is made to stir and scoop. The best will do their job exceptionally well–which you wouldn’t know unless you actually put them to use.

In the same way, one does not use a marble sculpture to prop up one end of a rickety table. A Mozart sonata does not exist as background music for a furniture ad. Although works of art can be used in this way, to do so devalues them as art.

In much the same way, a lot of people expect artists to be the world’s problem-solvers. Some movie star is asked what she thinks is the solution to the war in Ukraine or climate change–as if the person whose vocation is pure creation has any special ability to solve the world’s problems! If you want a practical solution, don’t ask artists. They’re busy creating things that didn’t exist before. Ask people who have some real knowledge of the problems you want solved.

To return, then, to the original question: what do I call myself in reference to the things I make? I call myself a crafter because I make things to solve problems. But my daughter’s painting is not problem-solving work. She creates new things–she is an artist.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 3 Comments

How Do You Set Prices for Handmade Goods?

So you want to sell your work at a craft market. One of the most common questions that new makers ask is how to set prices. We all know that everything has a price, but we seldom think about why something costs what it does–until we suddenly find ourselves having to write a figure on that price tag ourselves!

Sometimes artists and crafters are averse to thinking about their work in terms of dollars at all. It can seem so crass to put a dollar amount on a work of art, even if you do need to sell your work to pay the bills. How do YOU know what your unique work is really worth? Who knows how much another person would pay to own it?

There Are Two Ways to Set Prices

Way #1 is to use a simple calculation: Labor + Materials = Price. Pay yourself an hourly rate, add any materials costs, and calculate accordingly. Let’s say you are making wooden picture frames. It could be minimum wage, but you are a skilled worker. So find out the standard wage for a skilled laborer in your region. If, say, an auto mechanic gets paid $25/hr., and you can make a picture frame in three hours, and if the materials cost you $10, then you need to price your work at $85.

Commercial shops use similar calculations, although they have to take many other costs into consideration–everything from utilities and administrative costs to insurance and wear-and-tear on tools. You may well be running a small business, but these are (probably) not costs you need to think about–at least not right now. When starting out, keep your calculations as simple as possible.

Way #2 is to just look at what comparable work is priced at locally or online, and stay in the ballpark. So if a handmade picture frame at a local arts-and-crafts market is priced at $90, and then you find a comparable one online for $75, then maybe $85 is a fair price.

The above figures are all arbitrary, but hopefully they’ll send you in the right direction.

You should also consider that prices will vary a lot by region. If you are in an affluent area where median income is fairly high, your work should command a higher price. But if you’re in an economically depressed region, you’ll need to price your work lower.

Beware Comparison

If you choose Way #2, you must beware of comparing your work to mass-produced products. Mass production has its place in the modern economy, but that is not the kind of work you are doing. There are good reasons that nice, tailored suits cost many times what mass-produced suits off the rack cost. Grigorio Armani is not competing with Kohl’s. Don’t ever try to compete price-wise with mass-produced goods of any kind!

Also be cautious when looking at prices online. Even when it comes to handmade goods, prices on the internet are often insanely low. Websites like Etsy have exerted a downward pressure on prices for handmade goods (often because the goods aren’t actually handmade in any meaningful sense), so where possible you should do your comparison-shopping in person in your local region, rather than online. Visit a couple craft markets and eyeball the prices for handmade goods of all kinds. You will soon get a good sense of what price range would be appropriate for your work.

Don’t Undersell Yourself

In the end, don’t worry too much about setting exactly the “right” price at first. You can always change your prices! If you price too low initially, you can just raise the price a little at the next market, until you find that sweet spot where your supply matches local demand. People expect inflation these days, so it’s okay to set your prices on the lower end and plan to raise prices as time goes on–and as your skills improve. Or if you set your initial prices too high, you can always reduce prices later, or even have an end-of-the-year sale to get rid of unsold pieces.

However, in my experience, artists and crafters often undervalue their work because of basic insecurity. You look at what you’ve made, and all you can see are the flaws. You need to know that those flaws are visible only to you, and that what your customers see is a unique, handcrafted work of art. Trust me: nobody will ever be as critical of your work as you are! Price accordingly.

Plus, many crafters and artists are used to living on a shoestring budget, so they really can’t imagine plopping down a large amount of money for the kinds of things they make for themselves. You have to accept the fact that your primary market is not other crafters and artists, but people who have more money and fewer skills than you do.

It’s crazy, I know. But there really are more people in this world who can afford to pay you well for your work than there are people who can do the quality of work that you do.

A Third Way

Which brings me to the final way you can set your prices. Just ask yourself what you honestly think your work is worth–what you would pay for it yourself on the open market.

Then double that figure.

Or triple it.

At that point, you’re probably getting close to the real market value of the things you make.

Posted in Market, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Do NOT Boil Your Wooden Spoons

You may have seen a TikTok video in which somebody tells you to clean your wooden spoons by boiling them in water. This person fills a pot with water, brings it to a boil, and then boils a handful of commercially-made wooden spoons for about twenty minutes. At the end, she points out how cloudy the boiled water is. She thinks she has gotten all the “dirt” out of her spoons.

I’m not going to link to the video because, frankly, it doesn’t deserve any more views.

What is actually happening in the video is that the wood itself has started to deteriorate in the boiling water. The spoons were clean to begin with. The boiling water isn’t removing food debris. What it is removing is the wood itself!

What is left floating in the boiling water isn’t food debris. It’s tiny pieces of wood!

The result is a utensil that looks very clean to the eye. But because the wood has been damaged, these spoons are probably more likely to catch and hold food debris than they were before.

Boiling your wooden utensils is a terrible way to clean them. It just wears them out prematurely. And for the record, the same thing happens when you wash them in the dishwasher.

So what is the best way to clean a wooden utensil? It’s simple. Rinse with clear, hot water and wipe them with a wet dishcloth. Set them in the dish drainer to air-dry. Use mild dish soap if you like, but you don’t really need to–unless you’ve had the utensil in raw meat.

If the original finish has disappeared, you can refresh it with one of the few vegetable oils that actually dry: walnut oil, hemp oil, or linseed/flaxseed oil. (Other vegetable oils will not dry and so will wash right off the spoon.) Flood the surface with the oil, wipe off the excess, and let it dry on a sunny windowsill for a couple days, turning occasionally.

There is never a good reason to boil your wooden utensils.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Narnia! A Stone Table Made from Wood

Whenever my kids start a new activity, I inevitably get sucked into it myself. This time it was a play at my local community theater. My youngest daughter landed the role of Lucy in a stage version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and at first I did my best to step back and let her do her thing. But when the crew had trouble engineering a collapsing stone table for Aslan to be slain on, my wife asked me to help.

The table had been partially built, but if you know the story, then you know that the stone table has to break in half at a very important scene. They were having trouble getting it to collapse and go back together reliably.

Building sets is nothing like my usual approach to woodworking. I love to build things using special wood (often boards I have sawn from logs myself) put together with traditional joinery and crafted to last a lifetime. But for a stage play, everything is built from cheap construction-grade pine, lots of deck screws, and a couple layers of paint. Every object is meant to be used only X number of times and then disassembled or discarded.

So I grabbed my power drills and a circular saw and went to work on the thing. The only hand tool I used was a (very dull) handsaw, with which I cut a couple sharp corners off some plywood.

Opening night wasn’t far off, so speed was essential. (I took no process pictures.) The finished object has a plywood top with three supports. The supports on each end are hinged to a plywood base. That allows the whole thing to be carried on and off stage in a single piece. The central pillar is removable. When pulled out from the back, the two halves of the table drop down into a “broken” position.

For the record, I was responsible only for the engineering and the frame. The painting was done by others. I have no idea what the runic inscription is supposed to say–or whether those are even actual runes. But it looks cool, and that’s enough for the theater.

Here’s how it works: at the end of the scene in which Aslan is killed by the White Witch, the lights go out, and the actor playing Aslan gets up off the table and pulls out the central support. The audience hears a “bang!” as the two halves of the table fall and hit the base. The lights go back on as Lucy and Susan run onstage to find the stone table broken and Aslan’s body gone. It was a pretty effective prop, if I do say so myself.

Halfway through the show, however, the hinges at the bottom of each leg started coming off their plywood base. So I had to put in longer screws that ran all the way through the base. Then I cut off the points flush with an angle grinder.

My woodworking projects don’t usually involve this many sparks flying. But it this is theater, after all, and it makes for a fun picture!

Like I said–not my usual style of woodworking, but I enjoyed it.

Along the way, I managed to get roped into a few other odd jobs too. I had to repair the wardrobe itself once or twice. And I ended up making a shield for Peter to carry. It’s just a sheet of luan plywood screwed to some curved pine battens on the back. I used some scraps of leather for the handles.

My son got to model the shield for us before I handed it off to the crew to be painted. And although the stone table got disassembled after the show ended, I’m pretty sure this shield has made its way into the prop room and will probably show up in another show eventually. I should have signed it.

Best of all, the play was very well received by the audience. Nearly every night was sold out, and my daughter has gotten a real taste for the stage. It was her first acting gig, but it certainly won’t be her last. Which means that this won’t be my last foray into building props and sets, either.

Posted in Kids | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Breadboard Ends on a Stove Cover

I always enjoy it when somebody commissions a piece that gives me the opportunity to try something new. This time it was a friend who asked me to make her a wooden stove cover. (Full disclosure: I didn’t even know such things existed until she asked for one. Apparently a lot of other people don’t actually cook on their stove tops all that often?) Stove covers come in a few varieties. Some of them are designed to be used as cutting boards and even have juice grooves around the edges. Others have handles that allows the cook to remove the heavy cover more easily. A lot of the ones I saw online seemed pretty crudely constructed.

After talking with my friend about what she wanted (yes, handles; no juice groove), I dove into my stash of hardwood and came up with some rustic cherry boards. This is the result.

I’m pleased with the final result, and I hope the owner will be, too. It’s about 20″ wide, 30″ long, and 3/4″ thick.

I’m not going to detail the whole construction process here. Instead, I want to focus just on one element: the breadboard ends. I had never tried to make breadbord ends before, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it out.

A stove cover may be a simple concept–just one wide board that goes on top of your stove–but the problem is that any wide board is bound to warp over time, especially when exposed to heat and/or moisture, both of which are normal in the kitchen. So any solid-wood stove cover needs to be built in such a way that the panel will stay reasonably flat over the long haul. That’s where the breadboard ends come in.

Other makers of stove covers solve the problem by nailing long battens across the panel on each end. The result is a pretty utilitarian look, and a surface that’s not actually flat all the way across. If that’s your thing, I have no objection. But breadboard ends result in a flatter, cleaner surface that looks like it was made by someone who knew what he was doing. (I hope to keep that illusion going here.)

Here’s how a breadboard end works: each end of a panel is captured inside another board whose grain runs perpendicular to that of the panel (as in the photo above). Each breadboard is attached to the panel with a tongue-and-groove joint combined with a number of mortise-and-tenon joints. The tenons provide strength, and the tongue-and-groove ensures that the panel won’t warp between the tenons. The resulting panel is very stable and very strong.

We begin our breadboard journey with the 20″-wide panel already glued up from five cherry boards that I had planed down from rough-sawn stock. The first step in making the breadboard ends is to cut what amounts to either a really wide tenon or a really long tongue on each end of the panel.

After laying out the shoulders with a straightedge and a knife, I used my stair saw to cut in the shoulders of the joint. (I love my stair saw for dadoes especially, but it works extremely well on any cross-grain cut whose depth needs to be precise.) This ensures that I have a straight shoulder that makes solid contact with the breadboard end all along the joint.

The next step is to remove the waste from the cheeks of the tenon/tongue. I went back and forth for a few minutes on the best way to do this, but I eventually settled on my rabbet plane, a Stanley 78. The tenon/tongue is only about 1″ long, so the rabbet plane should be able to take off the waste pretty well.

Except that it also made a mess in the process. Because of the plane’s construction, it caught a couple times on the corner where it entered the wood, mangling what should have been a nice, crisp edge. (It’s a good thing I started removing stock on the underside of the panel instead of on the top!) This rabbet plane works okay for cutting rabbets with the grain, but I’m not pleased with its performance across the grain. I quickly put it away and tried something else.

I pulled out my Veritas shoulder plane to see what it could do. Ordinarily, a shoulder plane is just for trimming–it’s not really optimized for heavy stock removal. But I decided to try it anyway.

I was very pleased to find that the plane worked well in this situation. I made the first few cuts just by tipping the corner of the plane into the saw kerf. After a number of passes, the plane was taking nearly a full-width shaving. It was slow going because the plane is designed to take a fairly light cut, and I had to stop a few times to clear the shavings from the throat. But it worked.

Soon the plane was cutting a very nice channel, and I was able to bring the cut right down to my layout line. The plane is only 3/4″ wide, so i left about 1/4″ of waste on the outside, which needed to be removed next. First I tried doing that with a small smoothing plane, but it was faster to just knock off the waste with a broad chisel and use the shoulder plane to remove any remaining high spots.

With the long rabbet/tenon now cut, the next step was to lay out the actual tenons and cut away the waste between them. Normally a breadboard end will have an odd number of mortise-and-tenon joints: one joint in the middle and the rest evenly spaced on each side. On this board, I decided to go with three tenons: one in the very center and two closer to each end. Each of the five boards in the panel has at least part of a tenon on each end. The panel will therefore stay together even if all the glue fails. (It won’t.)

The groove cut in the breadboard end itself is 1/4″ wide and 1/4″ deep, so each tenon needs to be 1/4″ thick, with a 1/4″ tall tongue running on each side of it. Instead of using a ruler or something like that to lay out the height of the tongue, I just used the width of my 1/4″ paring chisel to guage the height of each tongue.

I used a coping saw to remove the waste between the tenons. Fortunately, the tongue will be completely concealed inside the groove–except on each end–so the tongue is intentionally cut just a little bit short to ensure that it bottoms out in the groove only on each end. This whole process is pretty involved and takes a lot of time, so it’s good to economize by working quickly to approximate measurements whenever possible.

In a similar way, the mortises in each breadboard end are intentionally cut a little longer than necessary, which will accommodate some wood movement across the width of the panel. I used my plow plane to cut matching grooves into the breadboard ends, and the grove provided a very handy guide for placing each mortise. (Sorry, no picture; I was in a hurry to finish at this point.) I chopped each mortise with a mortise chisel. I also made each breadboard end a fraction of an inch long so that I could saw it off flush with the panel’s edge on each side.

Because the breadboard end runs across the grain, it needs to allow the panel to swell and shrink across its width as the humidity level changes. I intentionally used quarter-sawn boards for the panel, which will move less than flat-sawn ones, but there will still be some seasonal movement. The normal procedure, then, is to glue only the tenon in the center, and to use some more flexible way of securing the tenons on the outside. I opted to just peg them with poplar dowels.

I considered doing a true drawbored joint but decided that was more complicated than necessary. I merely clamped the whole assembly from each end and bored a hole through each joint. With the panel still clamped up, I tapped in a poplar dowel. With the clamps removed (once the glue in the center joint set), I trimmed the dowels flush on both sides. The poplar is soft enough that it should compress just a bit as the panel swells and shrinks throughout the seasons.

I rounded over all the edges with a hand plane and sanded the whole thing smooth to get it ready to finish. There were some old bug holes that I plugged with walnut sawdust flooded with CA glue and scraped flush with the surface. The result is a dark colored patch that adds just a little bit of visual interest and looks a whole lot better than an open hole in the surface of the wood.

I did also need to address the mess that my rabbet plane left on the shoulder of that one joint.

To explain how I fixed this, I need to back up in the assembly process a couple steps. Before putting on the breadboard ends, I created a wall around the gap with painter’s tape and filled the hole with cherry sawdust. Then I saturated the sawdust with CA glue (superglue) and let it set–the same process I use to fill the bug holes above. Once the glue set, I was able to sand the patch flush with the surface. The resulting patch is sturdy and will blend in well enough with the surrounding wood.

I finished the stove cover with several coats of Danish oil, which really brought out some lovely figure in the cherry wood. Last, I installed two black door handles on each end.

In retrospect, it was a lot of work to end up with what amounts to a single, flat board. But this board is going to stay flat, and I learned a lot in the process. I’m glad I did it.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Spoons, Spoons, and More Spoons

During market season, it sometimes seems like all I make is spoons, spatulas, and other wooden utensils. I take photos of a lot of my work, but I don’t always remember to post the photos here on my blog. So today I’m going back into my photo archives from the last couple years and putting many of my favorite spoon pictures together into one post.


For several years, I was making many of my spoons out of black walnut from a single tree that I helped take down in my in-laws’ back yard. I finally exhausted my supply, and these utensils are some of the last that came from that old tree.

Pecan wood is plentiful down where I live, and pecan spalts beautifully. It is often a challenge to know exactly when to cut up the log. If you leave it sit for too long, it quickly rots. These utensils show off the wide variety of colors that develop when pecan wood spalts. (There’s also a single spoon made from black walnut up in one corner of the picture.)

Another common wood in this area is Eastern red cedar. It’s fairly soft, so I don’t use it for utensils very often. But it does hold up very well to water–the red/brown heartwood is nearly impervious to rot. So once in a while, somebody will bring me a cedar log from their property and ask me to make them something from it. I like to oblige when I can.

Not long ago, an old friend gave me a large red oak log from her family’s property. Oak isn’t great for spoons–the pores in the wood are large and tend to get gunk stuck in them. But it does make a decent spurtle, which is a utensil for stirring stews and sauces. The grain in these utensils is very pretty. The rest of the log will be used for stool legs.

And then there was that one Christmas….

We got an order for a hundred small utensils, needed in two weeks.

So we did it!

It was a lot of work. But we got really good at making them quickly!

I love being able to set out beautiful, unique utensils at every market I attend.

Posted in Woodenware | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

How I Make a Spoon

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.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 2)

In my last post, I described some of the working properties of two local woods that I have harvested over the last couple years: southern magnolia and crepe myrtle. In this post, I’ll describe three more species that have no presence on the commercial lumber market: waxy (or Chinese) privet, Chinese tallow tree (or popcorn tree), and mimosa. All are non-native invasive species that were planted as ornamentals. All are typically regarded as pests, so I hope this post will give some of my readers a reason to cut a few down and turn them into something useful.

Waxy Privet (Chinese Privet)

As a tree, this one is pretty in its own way, with glossy leaves and inedible fruit that looks a bit like bunches of purple grapes. Waxy privet doesn’t grow very big, and it often produces multiple smaller trunks from one root. If there’s only one trunk, it branches early, meaning you can’t get large sections.

During one of the 2020 hurricanes, a mature specimen was blown down right across from out house, blocking the street for the evening. Early the next morning, I fired up my chainsaw and cut it up, leaving the sections as long as I could. I had never worked it before and was curious about how it might behave.

I’m very pleased I did. For a spoon carver, shorter sections with a bit of curve to them are perfect. (I have an idea that some of the curved sections might make fine crest rails for chairs, but that remains to be seen.) Other sections were straight enough that I could saw out some short boards on the bandsaw.

The wood itself is fairly hard, diffuse-porous, and milky white. It reminds me of hard maple, both in its color and its texture, although the color is somewhat variegated throughout the log (see above). It’s not as springy as hard maple, but it is quite tough when try, so if you decide to carve a spoon from it, carve it green if you can. It makes a fine spoon, and I suspect if would also make an excellent cutting board–if you could find pieces big enough, or wanted to laminate several thinner pieces to form a wide board.

Like maple, it seems to attract bugs pretty quickly, so you’ll want to cut it up promptly. Treat it with an insecticide (like a Borax solution) if you intend to set it aside to dry for a while. I suspect it would spalt well, though I haven’t tried it yet.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more mature trees that might yield some straight, clear pieces.

Chinese Tallow Tree (Popcorn Tree)

The Chinese tallow tree, which locals call the “popcorn tree” due to its popcorn-like flowers, is a particularly aggressive invasive species. This understory tree propagates easily and grows quickly.

The tree on the right is a “popcorn” or Chinese tallow tree. The trunk is unusually straight. The multi-trunked tree on the left is waxy (Chinese) privet in bloom.

It seldom gets very big, although individual specimens can have trunks over 18″ in diameter, plenty enough to saw into boards. The trees tend to follow the sunlight, however, so the wood is nearly always twisted–sometimes severely so. Take a close look at the bark of a living tree, and you’ll see how much it spirals as it grows.

The wood itself is diffuse-porous, very fine textured, and creamy white to yellow when freshly cut, though it can darken to a grayish brown fairly quickly from what seems like spalting. I understand that it was commonly used in China to make printing blocks, since it is dense and holds fine detail. It is also nearly impossible to split, so it needs to be sawn into usable pieces. Don’t try to rive it.

I have not found it to be a particularly nice spoon wood. It’s not that it makes a bad spoon–it’s just that the twisted grain means you will always be fighting the grain as you work. I don’t care for that.

However, it does make a fine bowl or trough–if you work the wood green. It is quite hard once dry.

In bowls, the wood’s resistance to splitting is a boon. For the same reason, it makes a very fine chopping block. Just saw out a short section of the log, drill holes for legs (or screw them on), and you’ll have a chopping block that will never split apart.

I suspect that the wood will also be very good for stools and maybe even chair seats, for much the same reason. I’ve got some short slabs from a big tree set aside to dry. So the Chinese tallow tree can be a useful wood in the right applications.


A mimosa isn’t just a brunch cocktail–it’s also an ornamental tree that’s become an invasive species. It’s immediately recognizable in bloom, and you often see it growing along roadsides in the South, showing off its distinctive, power-puff pink blossoms in the summer.

Its growth pattern is curious. It nearly always grows at an angle, not straight up and down, seemingly to get the best sunlight. It won’t grow in the shade. The trunk will grow dead-straight for three or four feet, but at an angle. Then it branches into a two or three straight sections, which will eventually branch again in the same way. The result is a lot of short sections that are quite straight.

The wood itself is also curious. It is ring-porous, lightweight, stringy, and somewhat brittle. It works very easily, but it’s best to let it dry a little bit before planing or shaping it, or you’ll have no end of stringy, fuzzy tear-out.

But it’s the color of the wood that’s super-weird. When you first cut open the wet log, you’ll be stunned by the shimmering color of the fresh wood.

The sapwood is a creamy yellow, and the heartwood is a beautiful, variegated bown that alternates between tan and chocolate tones. It glistens in the light.

The above picture is a trough carved out of a freshly-cut mimosa log. Pretty colors, aren’t they?

And then you will be even more stunned when those vibrant colors completely disappear as the wood starts to dry.

The knife on top of the bowl above is also mimosa, which has now dried and has been sitting for a few months. The heartwood has turned a plain brown with little visual interest.

At a certain point, you will barely be able to tell the difference between the sapwood and the heartwood anymore, and the vibrant browns will have all but disappeared.

Such a disappointment!

But wait. The color change doesn’t stop there! If you let the wood age for a year or so, most of the colors will eventually come back! The sapwood regains its vibrant yellow that will remind you of a highlighter marker, and the heartwood turns a lovely brown again. Some of the color variations will become visible once more. It’s not as striking as the freshly-cut color, but it’s nevertheless quite attractive.

Above is the same bowl, now fully seasoned and finished with a bit of oil.

I have seen other woods whose colors change drastically as it ages, but I have never seen a wood that changes color and then changes back. I hope that someday some botanist will explain to me what’s going on. Should you ever get the chance to work some mimosa, I recommend it just for the experience of the color changes over time.

So take a look around your own neighborhood and see what trees and even large shrubs you might be able to harvest for the wood. You really never know what the wood will be like until you try it.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 6 Comments