From Branches To Spoons — Notes on the skills and art of spoon carving

Competency in basic skills is a key component of moving from our dysfunctional status quo to a future of thriving on one planet’s worth of resources (one planet thriving). Making anything with your hands can represent a way to build an overlapping set of competencies that may make other forms of making easier. Building relationships and community are two social technologies necessary for one planet thriving that spoon carving can facilitate.

Hand carving spoons is partly about relationships, between people, generations, hands, and wood. For a story involving a lineage from Gandhi to Richard Gregg to Scott Nearing to Bill Coperthwaite to Peter Forbes, see this article.

This article is about how to carve spoons from green wood. Green wood is not dry and thus is easier to carve. For more detail, see this article on green wood.

Tools

Axe: Robin Wood has a good carving axe for about $80 (review; also has a cool sheath and author offers to share template). I made a sheath for my Robin Wood axe that works well. Robin Wood also had a starter tool set that includes a hook knife, Mora knife, and the axe. More expensive versions of a carving axe include the Svante Djarv Little Viking ($240) and the Gransfors Bruks carving axe ($300). Robin Wood compares his axe to the Gransfors bruks carving axe and wildlife hatchet in this review.

Knife: Robin Wood recommends the Mora wood carving knife. I like this life a lot. My only objection is the sheath. Sometimes the knife falls out of it when I’m carrying it around in my hand and this can result in damage to the blade and/or injury. Good tools, and some more related to different types of carving can be found here.

Good tutorial on spoon carving. Also, see the very end of Robin Wood’s axe sharpening tutorial to see his approach to carving a spoon blank that is ready for the finer knife work.

A good and long tutorial focusing on how to make a kuksa mug. Includes many aspects of carving, including  tools, wood selection, axe work, drying, cracking, and finishing. Nice time-stamped index so you can easily access the part of the video most relevant to you.

 

Drying the wood

Green wood needs to dry out. As it dries, it can crack and split. To prevent this, try to carve all parts of your piece so they are of equal thickness. Then, place the piece with a few handfuls of wood chips from your carving into a paper bag so the piece is covered above and below, close the bag, and place it someplace out of the sun. The goal is to slow down the drying process. Weigh the piece every day or so. When it stops losing weight (because it is losing water), it is dry. 

Finishing: What oil to use?

First, it is not nessary to finish pieces with oil. But, if you prefer the look, the short answer is to use walnut oil or raw (not “boiled”), food-grade linseed/flax seed oil as advised by Robin Wood. Cold-pressed Swedish linseed oil is supposed to be best and dries (polymerizes) faster than more southern oil (months or years to dry).

Three things affect drying time: thickness of application (thinner is better), sunlight (more is better), heat (longer is better). (1) Thinner is better: wipe on with hands and then wipe off (will be dry in weeks). Then, build up other thin layers on top once previous layer is dry. (2) Oleac acid (a component in linseed oil) dries slowest but much faster in sunshine (UV light) compared to lineac acid (another component in linseed oil) that dries much faster than oleac acid. Linseed oil will dry clearer (less yellowed) in the sunlight. Squirrels love the smell so you have to protect your items if outside. (3) Heat also helps the polymerization process so put spoon in oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees celsius) for an hour to get it started or overnight for complete curing (rather than waiting weeks).

Mucilage in linseed oil is what yellows the oil. So, reducing the mucilage in the oil will lead to a clearer finish. Some people refine their oil to reduce the mucilage present. This process is discussed by Don Nalezyty in the video below around 18:00 minutes. This refinement will also reduce drying time of the oil.

Be careful of rags used to work with linseed oil as the oil oxidizes, a chemical process that creates heat, and can, under specific conditions (pile of rags, warm environment), create a fire through spontaneous combustion. Store in a metal container or burn the rags or paper towels when done.

Sharpening

Robin Wood also has a good set of tutorials on sharpening and maintaining. He uses a variety of tools, including wet stones. However, his preference is pressure sensative adhesive (PSA) wet/dry sandpaper in 800, 1200, and 2500 grits attached to 100 mm wide, medium density fibreboard (MDF). He finishes the axe with Autosol Metal Polish spread onto a piece of MDF. It’s actually somewhat difficult to find the sandpaper they use but an email to the Woods clarified that they buy it at Axminster plus the suggestion that spray adhesive can work well with regular wet/dry sandpaper.

Paul Sellers’ take on how fine a grit is needed to sharpen your tools. He makes the point that 250 grit is sufficient for what he does. However, in practice, he uses 3″x 8″ diamond plates in 250 (coarse), 600 (fine), and 1200 (super-fine) grit. He recommends EZE Lap and DMT stones only.

Inspirational carving from Grinling Gibbons.

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