A few weeks ago in Penrhyn Castle I split some logs for some spoons. Phil the gardener and groundsman saves culls and limbs for firewood and lets me go through his massive pile when I need something, but I also disappear into the woods on my own and go down by the river after the tree surgeons have been in too. I like to sit there and write or work or draw and photograph. This is always sanity for me.
I have made many a hundred wooden spoons. I have also made spatulas and ladles too, since about 1987 when I first arrived to live in the USA. Mesquite was an abundant wood in a few southwest states there and very popular as a novelty wood for gifts. It’s just under twice as hard as oak, rich in colour and grain configuration and no two pieces ever look the same. Ken Rogers who then worked for the Texas Forest lab described it in a book he wrote as “The Jewel in the Crown.” Once you’ve worked with it for as long as I have you will understand why.
My first spoons came from limbs and logs of mesquite. Sometimes they were split limbs and sometimes they were from planed boards; to use up my off cuts. In this series I will show you different possibilities and whereas the techniques my be similar, there are advantages you might want to consider too.
It was around this time that I had children, in may case boys, that were old enough (which means young enough) to learn how to work with wood in real and tangible ways. Whereas spatulas are great starter projects for anyone regardless of age, spoons have that added appeal to encompass a range of other skills including the use of tools most spoon makers may never use and tools critical to other aspects of woodworking should the desire grow and new direction take place later.
Today I want to talk about some briefer aspects of our woodland source, a pretty much free wood. This also translates into looking through your woodpile of firewood, limbs that need cutting from your sycamore or aspen, poplar or yellow birch or from overhead line clearance crews who are always willing to give what they limb off.
Just about any wood will carve for a spoon. Some will taste your food, but will make a nice looking spoon. Some are harder than others, but most green wood is easy to carve when freshly cut. Wood hardens as it dries. You can still carve it when it’s dry and it will resist more with every degree of hardness. For ax and knife methods, the greener the better, at least for roughing out your stock. For gouge and bow saw, spokeshave and scraper, for me, the wood is by far best when dried down to under 15%. You can use these tools when the wood is wetter, but I suggest the dryer the better as the tools work so much better then.
So, I guess here is the separating divider. Wet wood works well with ax, knife and gouge, dry wood works best with spokeshave and scraper, bow saw and chisel. The gouge can be used with wet and dry wood equally well with no compromise. Today I am splitting wet or what we call ‘green’ wood. I am combining tools for variety and safety issues. To begin today I am introducing the tools listed. If children are involved you must decide about their ability, maturity and ability levels. Too many variables for me to connect with individuals on this.
Gouge-No 7 sweep
Scraper-round and straight
There are skills you will need to use these tools, mostly surrounding sharpness, but also shaping their cutting edges, which usually is a combination of of both elements in one. Whereas sharpness always follows the same course to develop as keen an edge as is practicable, shaping the bevel often changes within the same tool and between different tools. Hence, as a working craftsman, I have several gouges with different sweeps and also the same sweeps with the bevels shaped differently.
For the spoons we will be making I have chosen what I consider to be the best spoon gouge available for these and other projects. It is a lifetime tool. I doubt anyone could wear one out in a lifetime of spoon making provided they never use machine grinding methods (totally unnecessary for general work). It is available from Highland Woodworking here. In the UK I have chosen an Ashley Iles gouge. Ashley Iles tools have been made to exacting standards for many decades. The London pattern is a wonderful gouge and can be bought from Workshop heaven here.
This gouge parallels the Hirsch gouge Highland Woodworking sells (left). Not so highly polished but I like both.
The chisel hammer
Few hammers meet the criteria like this Thorex hammer 712. The faces are replaceable but I doubt you will break one or even distort one unless you truly mistreat it.You can buy alternative faces for a soft and hard face but I like the same from both sides for striking other tools. The weight is about 1 1/2-lbs and you can use it on any chisel handle, the back of an axe, driving steel, composite, plastic or wooden wedges.
It is inexpensive and can be had for around $15-20 or £13-17. Shop around for a good price if you want to.
Small is best for this although you can use a large for splitting and a small for in-tight trimming. I can recommend one of several Bahco standard 1 1/4lb hand axes. The have fair to good edge retention and durable strength and they are inexpensive starter axes for lighter work like this. You will need to reshape the edge and we may do a video on this if time permits. The bevel edges can be filed to shape and prepped for additional honing by hand, a big plus for me, on the whetstone.
Scrapers are indispensable for shaping the spoon bowl, the back of the spoon and the handle if you are looking to minimize or eliminate tool marks. Tool marks have an appeal if they are neat and well executed. Something that comes with practice. I like spoons with both tool marks and without. The crispness of knife work and gouge work can be attractive if well executed with sharp tools. You can have both. In this case I like to make a shaped spoon scraper rather than buy a multi-shaped scraper. To do this I cross cut the corner at an angle using a small hacksaw and then file to shape with a fine mill file. It takes only about five minutes to do this.
I use a thin, square, flexible card scraper that bends easily. I suggest you buy a set of scrapers from Lee Valley Veritas. These are well-proven in my book. I have used them to the fullest extent and like the quality they deliver at the work end. This scraper bends on the round parts like the spoon back and the handle and evens out tool marks. I also use it inside the neck where the shoulder of the back transitions to the round handle. Buying the set of three means you have a thick one for shaping with the hacksaw and file the middle one for a plane scraper and the thin one for flexiscraping.
In this series I will be using these different tools and will be adding more in tomorrow all being well. The work can be done without one or to of the tools; for instance, an axe could be eliminated if you choose not to use limb wood for a spoon blank and a scraper if you don’t want to remove tool marks.
Additionally,you may have tools already that will work. You don’t have to buy the tools I am using if the ones you have are suited. The most important for me is the gouge. We will be using this tool throughout.
You will see how we make the templates as we start the actual shaping. Right now we are equipping you to get started.
Place to work
I will be working mostly in the workshop and from my bench. Axe-cut spoons are usually chopped on a standing root stump or log stood on end. We will do both on the filming. In the blog there is no point because I want to discuss the feeling as I film. Not easy on a blog.