For more information on the gouge, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.
Chopping spoons with axes versus other hand tools and vice-versa
I think spoon making is one of those remarkably simple woodworking tasks that become even more remarkably simple with the right tools and a good bench. Rarely if ever do I see spoons being made the way I am about to show you in this series. Here in Britain, spoon-making has somehow become what has been dubbed more a sort of bush craft. When I left Britain to live in the USA about three decades ago it was not at all anywhere in sight to make spoons let alone cut spoons with an ax. Today the skill has been so revived one might think it never dwindled almost into historical obscurity and now it seems commonly promoted in magazines and at woodland shows and so most spoon makers, not all, are splitting a limb or log of firewood with an ax using mostly specialist axes and shaped and straight knives. The ax is then used to further split and chop the rough shape to remove the bulk, and knife work generally refines the final shape by scalloping the concave bowl parts, convex back, neck and handle. The axes used are not a cheap, but they can be. Small axes will do the job quite well but often they need some refining in the shape of the head to give full access throughout the chopping and shaping, perhaps there will be time for more of that later. The commonly used and often preferred Gransfors axes are very much individually forged and under mechanized drop hammers, hand hammers and anvils and then further refined to shape and cutting edge by an individual metal worker or blacksmith. A small bushcraft ax starts at around £75 ($120) and some versions go progressively on up in price with larger axes now costing up to £500 ($750). It seems more and more that these tools form as much a part of an image for the axman bushman type in some groups as do owning very expensive woodworking tools in other domains of woodworking. People enjoy collecting nice looking hand tools to display in their workshops be they old or new as much as they who enjoy carrying knives and axes to sites they can split off and trim out a spoon blank, chair legs and other such pieces. Walking from the woods with what you made can have its own intrinsic reward in self-satisfaction and of course you leave the waste to return to the earth on its own.
With the hand ax used to remove most of the meat of the split limb, green woodworkers often take two axes to work their rough and raw stock with. Larger axes split and chop intermediate level work whereas smaller axes give tight control for working close in on this small of a project. In the hands of an experienced craft worker, this is a speedy process and very interesting. I like to watch people do this even though I prefer to do the work myself.
There is no point using any edge tool in a dull state, mostly for safety reasons. Risks are heightened when you need more force and effort to sub for a sharp edge. That said, here can be the rub. Some children and young people have good common sense using hand tools, but the majority have never been exposed to hand work and especially hand work of this type. Children now live in an extensively protected environment where most levels of risk are removed. This leaves them vulnerable when it comes to what was a commonly practiced craft such as woodworking in all of its many diverse forms. Especially is this so when it comes to hand axes and even more so in chopping and cutting freeform work as small pieces such as spoons, spatulas and so on. In this realm of woodworking, it’s obvious that parents and adult supervision must have a real feel for the young persons capabilities, personal character and demeanour. This may well be the first time they use the less dominant hand to hold and serve the wood to the ever-dominant other hand. Even when I was in my 50’s, after 35 years using axes, the wood split wrongly and I had a deep cut at the top of my left forefinger just below the large knuckle. Whereas from time to time I do see young children using axes, rarely have I seen them doing it to a level I felt it was safely executed or that they even had safety in mind. That does not mean there are not children and parents being responsible, just that, even with my skill and years of using sharp axes, a slip is often serious because of the weight of the ax,the unpredictability of wood and the close proximity between the holding hand to the ax blade when spoon carving. Just as I might never use a chainsaw to carve a spoon for obvious reasons, I would most likely not generally use an ax either. Skilled though it is, ax-roughing a spoon out pushes me to a limit I find impractical as a furniture maker and woodworker. That said, I do like watching spoons made by axing methods when I go to woodworking shows here in the UK. This type of woodworking has a certain veneration of dedicated followers around Europe that many like following and every spoon maker has a certain twist with his ax and hook knife that makes him unique. The skills of axing spoons is not so transferable to furniture making and other areas of woodworking for several reasons. That said, I have a simple Brades ax in my tool bass. I take it with me when I walk or work in the woods and I use it with wedges at my bench. Perhaps we will have time to see some of that in the upcoming videos and blog on this one important aspect of carving wooden utensils.
As we prepare to move through this series I will be using the traditional joiner’s workbench I have used all of my life, but we will also take a trip into the woodlands surrounding Penrhyn Castle for both filming and photography. Stick around and learn a variety of methods using gouges and axes, froes and beetles, scrapers,knives, mallets and more. Some methods you will have to decide with regards to young people in your charge and their safety. I will endeavour to give safe practices and will be willing to take criticism by anyone who sees me doing something wrong or that might endanger others. This will be a safe course for woodworkers of all skill levels.