So, you want to make something with wood but haven’t done much work without using power tools. What can you make? Where do you start? Where do you get the wood?
These are all great questions—and ones I asked myself when I started hand-carving several years ago. Since then, I have carved dozens of different types of spoons and similar objects and learned something from each and every one.
The tools you’ll need
I have carved both dry and greenwood. Dry wood is great to use with power tools but greenwood carves much smoother and better by hand. So that’s what we’ll use. You will only need a couple of very simple and affordable tools to get started— a carving ax, a sloyd 106 knife, and a hook knife. Don’t worry if you don’t want to buy a special ax for a first-time project, a simple hatchet will work. A carving ax just makes it easier. The same is true for the sloyd 106 knife. If you have a sharp knife with a straight edge this will work, just make sure it is very sharp—like, able-to-shave-hair sharp!
Picking out greenwood
Your tools are sorted. Now you need greenwood. And it turns out you can’t just go to one of the big box stores like Lowes or Home Depot to pick some up. They don’t sell it. So, where can you find greenwood? Well, if you have access to a wooded area you can usually find a small tree to cut down—or strategically remove a limb. You could also call your local forestry service office and see if they have cut down any fruit or nut trees. A long time ago, I put the word out to several friends that I was looking for cherry or walnut trees that had been recently cut down. It’s amazing what casting a net like that has done. I get calls or texts about once a month asking if I need any wood because somebody knows someone who needs to get rid of a recently cut tree.
Now before you go Paul Bunyan on the trees, it’s important to find the right type. Look for hardwood trees. Their grain is very tight which is important because you don’t want your spoon to taste like what you just cooked. This can happen with looser grains that absorb oils and spices. The most common wood used for spoons is fruit and nut trees. Cherry and walnut are usually prized trees due to their beauty, tight grain pattern, and ease of carving. Luckily for us, these trees grow natively in Arkansas and are fairly easy to find. Now, let’s start carving!
Prep your wood
Chop your wood into smaller pieces. The size will all depend on how large of a spoon you want to carve. I chose a long-handled teaspoon. This is one of my favorite spoons to use in the kitchen. It’s long enough and has a small enough bowl to get deep in jars and also works great to get into the corners of pots and pans when cooking. I use it in almost everything I cook.
After you cut your wood down to the general size you want, use your ax to cut a flat plane that you can sketch on. Draw the shape of your spoon with a pencil then trace the final shape with a Sharpie. Use a straightedge or ruler to create the long handle part. Some woodgrain will have waves in it which can cause your spoon handle to wave, too. Proper lines will help keep your spoon handle straight and strong.
Roughout the blank
Use your ax to roughly cut out the blank. Make sure it’s as sharp as your carving knife and be careful as you may need to swing close to your fingers. Make solid, confident swings with your ax using your wrist. Carve the general shape of your spoon, making sure to go around the bowl of the spoon and as close to the lines as you can. At this point, you don’t want to worry about the shoulders of the spoon, where the bowl connects with the handle. You just want the general shape of the spoon. After you have the shape of the spoon, it should have a very oval look to it.
Create a stop cut
Draw a line just below the shoulder, perpendicular to the handle and use a small handsaw to cut it. Stop just shy of your shoulder handle. This is called a stop cut. It’s purpose is to prevent you from cutting too far when you are chopping toward the bowl. Often when cutting with an ax, especially a thicker ax like a hatchet, the wood will crack further than the blade and this cut stops the crack from going into the bowl of the spoon.
Clean up your rough-cut
Clean the handle by putting the bowl down on your carving surface and chopping toward the bowl. After you get close to the lines, flip the spoon over and clean the bowl up from that side. Be very careful in this part since you will be holding the bowl of the spoon while you chop, it can be very nerve-wracking. Just be confident—and careful. Your spoon should now start to look like an actual spoon and not just a cave drawing on a piece of wood.
Don’t go running to your family to show off just yet, you’re not done! Now comes the fun part. Go find a seat somewhere, preferably outside unless you like sweeping, and bring your carving knives.
I like to start with my hook knife and carve the bowl of the spoon first. Do this by making small cuts, starting from the inside of your line and twisting your wrist in, towards the middle of the spoon. Don’t worry if your cuts are very shallow, they will get deeper and easier as you go. Go all the way around the bowl once before taking another pass. Be very careful at the top and bottom because the grain will want to pull up. If this happens, stop cutting in that direction and go across the grain to cut it off.
Carving the bowl
Now you can start scooping out the rest of the bowl. What I like to do is start on one side and make several passes. This will cause an indention in the bowl that hopefully goes just past the middle of the spoon. After a few passes on one side, go to the other side and do the same thing, stopping when you get both sides level. Continue going back and forth until you get the bowl to the depth you want. I prefer a shallow bowl for most of my spoons but that’s my personal preference.
Shaping the back, shoulders, and handle
After the inside of your bowl is done switch to your Sloyd 106 or other straight edge knife and start shaping the back. This can take a little time but go slowly and try to keep both sides as symmetrical as possible. Don’t just carve with the grain. I usually round the back of the spoon by carving across the grain.
Now that the head of the spoon is done, or close to it at least, start working on the handle. If your handle is not wide, remember to keep it thick for strength. If it’s too thin, it may break. I always carve the shoulders of the spoon last because this is part of the final shaping and it’s easier to make the shoulders match at this stage.
It’s very hard for me to explain exactly what they should look like because each spoon will be a little different. You will know when it’s right because it will look and feel right to you. After you get the shoulders right go over the top of the spoon and clean it up. This will cut off all your markings so be sure you’re happy with how it looks because everything from here will be freehand. Make sure to leave a little bit of beefiness to your spoon because it is going to have to dry before you’re finished. Now cut your handle to the length.
Dry your spoon
There are many different ways to dry your spoon. The most common way that people do this is to wrap it in some old newspaper or paper towels and leave it in a dry area that doesn’t get direct sunlight. You will leave your spoon wrapped up for a few days, change the paper every day or two, or it might grow mold. How long you leave it depends on how green your wood is. The greener the wood the longer you’re going to have to leave it. There are several other ways to dry your spoon but this is the tried and true method. I have had mixed success with some of the other ways.
If you are in a hurry to finish your spoon you can bake it in your oven at 110° for 7-10 hours but make sure to check on it frequently. You don’t want it to burn. If the wood you are using is a little on the dry side and you don’t want to wait you can either boil or microwave your spoon.
I know it seems counterintuitive but boiling works very well. The heat from the boiling water weakens the cell structure inside the wood and allows the water to be pulled out of the wood. You will still need to let it dry for a day or more but it will shave off several days. The last way, and my go-to if I’m in a hurry, is to microwave your spoon. You need to be very careful and watch the spoon the entire time. Place the spoon in the microwave and set the power to 10-20 percent power. Microwave at this setting for about 20-30 seconds and then check it. If it starts to steam heavily while it’s inside, stop the microwave and let it cool off. Do this three or four times and then give your spoon a couple of hours to fully cool off. After several rotations, your spoon should be dry. Once again it will all depend on how green it was when you started.
To tell if your spoon is dry, tap it on the back of a knife or other metal object. If you hear a sharp crack you should be good. If it sounds more like a dull thud then it’s still got a high moisture content and needs to dry out more.
You’re almost there now. All that’s left is finishing cuts, sanding if you want, and applying a finish. When your spoon dries, it may warp or crack a little bit. This happens more often when you fast dry it. As the wood dries, more moisture escapes from the end grain than the long sides of the grain. This means that the middle of the wood dries more slowly than the ends and can cause the wood to crack or warp. Don’t worry though, we left it big for just this reason.
Now try to carve all the cracks and straighten out any waves. If you have a crack that goes all the way through the bowl of your spoon, don’t toss it aside. You can make it into a slotted spoon—just make sure you tell everyone that was your intention all along. After all, some spoons are made to strain liquids, not hold them.
If you’re happy with the shape of your spoon, you can sand it if you want. Some people like a smooth spoon while others prefer a more rustic appearance. The one thing you really need to make sure of is that there are no snags. You should be able to run your hands over it in any direction and not get a splinter. If your knives are properly sharp you should be able to do this without sandpaper.
Finishing your spoon
Now I’ll bet you’re wondering how you’re supposed to finish your spoon. I mean you can’t just go rubbing polyurethane on it, right? What about olive oil? Well, settle down I’m gonna tell you.
Here’s why you don’t want to use polyurethane on your spoon. While the FDA says that every commercially sold finish is considered food safe if you let it fully dry, what they don’t say is that it can sometimes take months or years for some of these finishes to become fully dry. Nobody wants to wait that long.
What most carvers prefer to use are different natural oils. Not all are created equal though. Don’t just douse your spoon in olive oil because after a few weeks it will turn rancid and smell like rotting olives. The most common oils that people use are mineral oil, walnut oil, and tung oil. Walnut oil is my personal go-to for spoons. It dries and creates a hard shell around the spoon and looks fantastic. The downside of walnut oil is that if you don’t use and wash your spoon often, it will start to feel a little sticky. Tung oil is a very popular choice as well but takes several days for each coat to fully dry—and you really need 6 or 7 layers.
Mineral oil is the most popular—and cheapest—choice. There are a couple of different ways to apply it. You can coat the spoon with a heavy coat of oil, give it a couple of hours to dry, and just wipe off any excess. This works great. The only problem with this application is that mineral oil will never fully dry and if you are using your spoon with dry ingredients, like flour, it will stick to the spoon a little bit and also pull some of the oil off which means you will have to reapply it more often. It’s not a big deal but some people don’t like that much maintenance.
You can use mineral oil is to make a simple “wood butter” with beeswax. I usually heat my spoons up for 5 or 10 seconds in the microwave or leave them outside to get warm before applying the butter. After the spoon is warm just lather it up and rub the butter in. The heat will the wood butter and allow it to soak into the wood. The wax adds a little bit of a protective coating to your spoon. This is how I seal and finish all of my spoons, but there is a multitude of ways to accomplish this. Research and practice will lead you to your favored method.
Well, there it is, your very own spoon, carved by you from a tree. Few people can say they have carved a useful object from a tree using only hand tools. It’s a pretty impressive accomplishment. Leave a comment below with a picture of the spoon you carved, I would love to see what you made.
Adam Kittrell is the Wood and Metal Shop Foreman at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. He has been working in and around shops since middle school and has only cut his fingers on a saw once. His shop teachers would be proud.