Home » Paul Sellers’ Blog » Spoon making – Carving out the bowl

Spoon making – Carving out the bowl

Today I want to take two generally divided worlds of spoon making and unite them. Instead of seeing the axe-cut knife-cut spoon making as a splinter group from the world of woodland crafts, we engage them with other tools like the bow or frame saw, bevel-edged chisel, spokeshave, gouge and scraper; tools more generally associated with bench work that generally demand anchoring the workpiece atop a bench or in the bench vise. Instead of definitive separates subdivided as woodland craft and bench craft, we join the two seamlessly together in unity and so increase capability through greater diversity.  This then means that those living in East Manhattan can pick up a log pack from the gas-n-go or grocery store and not try finding a forest or woodland when they just just got home from work. The offcuts in some cabinet shop or even the lumber store can be a ready supply too. Instead of craftwork becoming exclusive by virtue of geographic limitations, time constraints, tool limitations, wood shortage suddenly its open to any and all. Remember! You can carve beautiful spoons from a spruce two by four or a broken mahogany table leg!

DSC_0608Working from a half round limb means I have plenty of thickness for my spoon blank but when I use cut boards I am looking for wood about 3/4” thick, and I would say that’s about minimum for this size of spoon. My width is about 3” but can be less as the overall width of this spoon is 2 3/8” and 10” long. Almost any wood will work but remember not all woods will split if you are splitting logs. This is a practical size for a general cooking utensil of this type – ones used for stirring, mixing and serving. On the one hand I have my half limb and on the other a uniform cut blank parallel in thickness and width.

 

DSC_0857The limb section can be housed in a clamp locked in the vise as shown. This is highly effective when working with uneven shapes like the half round of a log like this. Quite awkward on the benchtop using dogs and such. It’s also safe because the uneven underside is registered to the bench top and the vise jaw in a sort of cradled fashion while the clamp locks the blank securely and immovably from either end.

DSC_0853The square and squared off blank fits nicely in the vise and as long as you have a good vise there should be no issue with scalloping out the bowl of the spoon. You can also use clamps on picnic tables to anchor your wood. In fact, any heavy table will work with clamp,s so don’t feel excluded or discouraged from what we are doing just because you may think or others say you must have a shaving horse, special axes and so on. For this aspect of woodworking, many ways will work for you. Be inventive, but be safe.

DSC_0846

I want to start with making a spoon from the half limb. My limb anchors just fine in the vise. If your log is very wide, go ahead and split some off of the sides to a suitable width. Usually 1/2” (12mm) wider than the spoon bowl. DSC_0860In this case I planed off the surface undulations but that’s not absolutely necessary. It does make it easier to show you where my template lines are though.
We will use the bowl gouge I spoke of in the past that I bought from Highland Woodworking here. It’s a gouge made by Hirsch, a #7 sweep straight gouge 1 1/2″ (37mm approx) wide and I think that it’s the best gouge for the job and also the best gouge I have ever used.

DSC_0609I have made my templates from sign plastic and this makes it rigid to draw around, but a paper pattern works just fine too.

 

Making the scalloped bowl

You can carve out the convex bowl before or after you rough shape the spoon. Removing the bulk of the waste wood around the back of the spoon and along the sides of the spoon handle can be done using several ways. Here are three ways that I find practical. I think that the axe is the least safe in general because of the sharpness and size of the tool cutting edge and the fact that your left hand can at times be close to the cutting edge. You alone can judge your skill level for this aspect of work.

Method 1 – Stop cut

To use the stop cut method we saw down the sides of the blank to the guide lines with a saw and use a 1” wide chisel to split off the waste.

Method 2 – Axe cut

We chop waste wood from the sides to the lines and split off the waste wood using the hand axe

Method 3 – Bow saw or coping saw

We cut along the lines in sections to remove the waste

 

When to carve out the bowl

I prefer to carve out the bowl before I begin shaping the rest of the spoon. Somehow the bowl sets the parameters for the rest of the shaping and of course all other shaping surrounds the bowl and aligns the handle. What we are about to do is rough-cut the spoon from the main body of wood and not shape and round anything beyond that. I also like to have the bulk of wood surrounding my scalloping; so that I have the mass of wood counteracting the mallet blows and to generally support the work.

Sometimes I will rough out the spoon blank before scalloping and especially will I do this if I use the axe method for roughing out. For gouge work it is definitely better to begin with the bowl first. I just want you to consider the steps, try different ways and decide for yourself which way you prefer after trying them out.

 

Knife work with dried wood?

Carving the bowl and back using knives, and especially the curved hook knife, works best with green wood but not nearly so well with dried out stock as with kiln-dried wood. The grain fibres respond very differently to the cutting edge and of course in most woods suited for spoons, the dried wood is many times harder and therefor much harder on the cutting edge and on the hands. Because of this, we should recognise that these two wood conditions separate out the tooling methods we choose. Knives and axes work well on green wood, especially well, and you can indeed use these tool types on dry wood, they are much less effective and especially is this so on harder, dense-grained woods. On the other hand, gouges, spokeshaves, saws, chisels and scrapers work at their peak on dried wood, though I think that the gouge works acceptably on green wood too.

 

Laying out

Regardless of whether you cut the bowl first or not, it’s good to lay out the spoon shape on the blank and this includes the bowl part. I usually use a centreline on my templates to guide the position of the bowl itself. The centreline enables me to mark the alignment of both templates onto my blank so I then have perfect alignment. Remember that having parameters is important for young people and also new woodworkers or those new to shaping wood with methods they have never experienced before. Eventually they will probably want to freehand their work, but starting out is different.

DSC_0610After first drawing around the template, I then mark from the template centreline a centreline onto my spoon blank at either end. Joining these two points gives me a line to align my bowl template. DSC_0615I centre the bowl template on the centreline and adjust the bowl template to equidistant the bowl evenly in relation to the main spoon position on the blank.

Starting to cut

Assuming you will carve your first spoon by carving out the scalloped bowl first, let’s scallop the bowl using the gouge. A centreline across the axis of the bowl ellipse helps you to center the opening cuts. Gouging the bowl is basically six chopping cuts in three equal steps from each end of the bowl.

The eye

DSC_0398The first two opening cuts with the gouge make what looks like an eye in the dead centre of the spoon. DSC_0636DSC_0640Chop down from one side of the centreline as shown, about 1/2”, and then do the same from the other side to meet in the centre. On the last chop, lever and the mid section will pop out.

DSC_0641DSC_0645Extending the distance from these first opening cuts to a distance about one third the way along, repeat the same steps. These cuts undercut the first eye, but take care not to strike too hard and go too far into the end grain. Change ends and come from the opposite direction, in toward the centreline. DSC_0647This then makes the second, larger eye.

DSC_0650For the final heavy cuts we follow the outline of the bowl we drew from our bowl template. Cut just inside the template line and let the gouge  scallop the actual bowl shape. Rotate the gouge and change direction as needed to take a full half scallop down into and toward the centreline, but with the first half stop well short of the half way line. Driving too far will split fibres on the other half and that can extend into the wanted wood.

DSC_0661Do the same from the other end and remove the whole.

Usually you will need to do some further refining to the bowl. Do this by using a paring action from the high points of the bowl rim down into the basin. Working from both ends works best, but you can also work the wood across the grain carefully to remove the awkward center part of the basin area. I generally do as much gouge work as I can before engaging the round scraper.

DSC_0652

 

With the scraper, scrape out the bowl working from the high points down to the low points until any and all undulations are removed.

I will try to do a quick blog on making this shaped scraper. It’s really simple to make by hand with a hacksaw and flat mill file and sharpening is a snap too.

DSC_0410

16 comments

  1. mladen says:

    Hi,
    i made some spoons using gouges and spokeshaves and i find that when working with hard and dense wood (olive wood) it is easier for me to carve the bowl part going across the grain. Maybe ti has nothing to do with the hardness or density, i don’t know. The first one i tried to make in pine and there was no problems.

    But when i tried my first with olive wood, i was going with the grain, and as a novice my gouge was not very sharp. So using more force to do the cut i used a little to much force and break off the front part of the spoon 😀 The wood was not shaped, the first thing i do is carve a bowl of the spoon.

    Next one i tried across the grain, and it worked really well. Even with the not so sharp tool i managed to make a spoon. I had to do more scraping and sanding to smooth it, because i think that for cross grain work a sharp tool is essential, and as a novice i was (am) still learning to sharpen properly.
    But in the end what is important i was really satisfied and the wife was really happy.

    • Paul Sellers says:

      I think that your choice of wood was not so easy and, yes, cross-grain cutting works fine and with awkward grains especially. I am showing with-the-grain cuts to use the #7 38mm gouge as the tool you can use to guarantee and exact shape for the bowl and this works with almost any straight grained wood. Olive wood is inconsistent in grain orientation but that’s what makes it so beautiful.

  2. Joe Allen says:

    A question on the template. Why have separate templates for the spoon and the bowl, as opposed to just cutting out the bowl shape on the spoon template? It seems like this would be easier and you wouldn’t have to worry about alignment. Am I missing something?

    • I’m not sure what the question is?
      Who said that you can’t do that if you want to? I don’t see that it would be better way or more convenient, but if that’s what you’d like, go for it and enjoy.

      • Joe Allen says:

        I know you’re not worried, Paul 🙂 I was just wondering about the extra step of having a two-part template instead of all in one. Many times the techniques you show have advantages that are not readily apparent to those of us new to the craft, so I was wondering if that was the case here. As always, thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.

        • Ahh! Now I see. I think there is an advantage to positioning once the main spoon is positioned. I don’t know that I could tell you what it is though. That’s often the case for me. Sometimes I don’t actually know why I do what I do.

          • Steve Massie says:

            Paul thank you for this Blog, I am enjoying this very much and want to start carving spoons with my Grandson. Highland Woodworking is my favorite Tool Store I have spent many a Day there when I lived in Atlanta.

            Personally I like the idea of ( 2 ) templates and at least for me I think it would be easier to do this way. I am anxious to start after I finish my Bench which is your design BTW.

            Thanks again !

            Steve

          • I was so glad to have visited Highland Woodworking when I was in Atlanta. It was such a treat. I just spent the evening barbecuing with my family and grandchildren – my daughter has five boys and a girl. I would have loved to be able to take them all to Highland Woodworking.

    • Most catalog companies sell these items. You don’t say where you are in the world but just search Google for catalogs or you could try eBay. I bought three large gouges there a few weeks ago that were very nice.

  3. Ian Fassnacht says:

    Hi Paul,
    Have you made a video that shows how to file the scraper corners round and how to sharpen it? Thanks!

  4. Ian Fasssnacht says:

    Hi paul. Thank you for your blog and videos. I have made a few spoons from random 2x4s originally gotten at a big box store. They turned out ok. I pruned the olive tree in my backyard and have enough of the trunk for decent sized spoons. Any tips on working with such a sporadic grain pattern? It is very hard and I actually broke my cheap little ax trying to split it. Thanks!!

    • Olive wood has been used for treen for centuries. you could try carving a spoon from green wood and then drying it slowly away from any heat source. That should work. Or you can seal the ends with paraffin wax, melted candle wax works fine and slowing the process down and then carve in a year or two when dry.

  5. Ian Fassnacht says:

    Paul! Thank you for the reply! First off, I had to google what treen meant. 🙂 The olive wood I have is something I took off the tree last year. I did not seal the ends. I’m very new to working with wood and have never tried doing anything with wood that I have chopped down myself. I came across your spoon making video a few months ago and realized that I had that olive wood that I chopped down. I thought I would give it a go. Next time I get some wood from my olive tree I will for sure seal the ends or give it a go of trying to make a spoon while it’s green.

    Ok, so, I’ve already split my year old unsealed olive log (breaking my cheap ax in the process). As far as I can tell the wood is pretty dry. I live in a very dry climate and I would think it didnt take very long for it to dry. However, I believe the point of sealing the ends of the wood is to slow the drying process down. Do you have a blog or video on that?

    I’ve been taking a chisel (my wife’s granfather let me borrow some chisels that belonged to his dad. I believe you have mentioned before about hand tools and thinking about the previous hands that used the tools and what they made with them. Very cool to hold a chisel in my hand thinking about it in that way) at it to try and square it up enough to get it into my vice. So, I was looking more for advice to working with the unusual grain of the olive wood. Is there anything I should pay attention to while gouging or chiseling? The grain is very cool and a spoon should turn out pretty neat looking.

    Sorry for the lengthy response. Thanks for the help!
    Ian

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *