There are always things in life we wish in hindsight we had known. Things we learn eventually (if ever) and then hopefully pass along to others, ideally earlier than when we learned them. That is what I will attempt to do with spoons.
I would like to share some things I have picked up along the way - not as an expert or master carver, but as a fellow beginner lucky enough to have a good number of informational resources at my disposal. If anything I share isn’t clear, or if you have a different tool, technique, perspective, etc. then please share it! While there are some purists out there (always a knife finish/never sand, hand tools only, only green wood, etc.) we will work to keep this a judgement free zone :)
My goal is to create a chronological series of posts on spoon carving, from picking wood to finishing a spoon, that answer some of the questions I didn’t even know to ask, often until after I needed to know. Hopefully they can help some other folks out there as well!
And to start...
Choosing what wood to carve (spoons or anything) is an important question which has implications down the road as you begin carving. It is easy to get lost in the wide range of local and “exotic” woods out there, or trying to figure out why hardwoods can be soft and softwoods can be, well, hard. One key question to think about early on is: to Green or not to Green?
Many carvers work with green wood - that is wood still fresh enough from off a tree to not have dried significantly. It retains a higher amount of moisture, and for us that means two key things - it carves much easier than seasoned, or dry, wood (yay) and it will likely crack while drying out (boo). The converse is also true, carving dry wood is usually harder (literally, boo) but wood that has already dried won’t check or crack after you begin carving (yay).
For those just starting, green wood might be better to learn and practice carving on. You can make cuts much easier and get good at safely using a number of different techniques. You can also use dried wood that is easier to carve, like basswood, generally seen as the easiest wood to carve (Subtle plug - Tools for Working Wood sells a variety of basswood carving stock). And the reality is that you will likely be doing a bit of both. Carving a green wood is started while the wood is green and then finished when it has dried. And the skills involved with both sharpening tools and stabilizing green wood so it doesn’t crack while during are both important to know.
Which wood is best to carve?
Again, most folks will say green wood, and that like so many things is personal preference. Pretty much any wood can technically be carved, but here are a few key factors to consider:
Softwoods or hardwoods - for spoons and bowls, hardwoods are often a better choice for spoons and bowls as the grain is less porous.
Ease of carving - depending on the grain of the wood, how many knots there are, whether it is green or seasoned, will all make a difference in how easy it is to carve. Try to play with as many different woods as you can get your hands on and learn what you like to carve most.
Aesthetics - how does it look? Is the grain mostly straight lines or crazy figures and swirls? What color is it? We will talk later about how to finish your wood (how to protect and color it as you want) so the look might change with the finish. Do a google image search for “burls” to see what is possible in regards to unique and beautiful wood grain. Harder to carve but oh-so-worth-it.
Possible toxicity - very important. If you are not skilled at identifying different woods, you might wind up using something you shouldn’t. Toxic woods can have a variety of negative effects on people, best to start off with what you know, and remember sometimes trees (such as Pine) can have both toxic and non-toxic varieties!
If you want to dive deep into how wood works, check out the stunningly produced book Cut & Dried by Richard Jones
Where to get your wood?
Found wood - To start, you can’t go wrong picking up a branch or stick you find in the woods or on the ground. Most carvers will not take wood from private property without permission, and won’t cut down a live tree limb to carve. But do take advantage of post-storm debris and the like, safely and with permission. And heck, practice on any wood you have lying around. Just remember to try and figure out what the wood is, especially before using it in contact with any food or drink, to make sure it is safe.
Friends with wood - Make friends with your local lumberyard or tree removal service. Have a neighbor taking down or pruning that old maple tree in their yard? Get in on that! Offer them a spoon or two in exchange.
Bought wood - Big box stores will usually have poplar (which I love using, cool colors and easy to carve, even dry) and other good wood to practice on and carve without costing too much. You don’t need a fancy burl off of a 100 year old Oak tree to make beautiful stuff! Through carving groups and other similar folks you can often get spoon blanks for under $10. A blank is a piece of wood already roughly shaped and sized and ready to turn into a spoon. Great to practice on and carve from, and you can usually find harder to get wood not available on your block.
What are your favorite or least favorite woods to carve? What creative (legal) ways do you get wood for carving? Let us know in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next post: What is a spoon blank and how do I make one?!
Join the conversation
I use wood from our trees. We have quite a few. Besides maple, I love the pecan. There’s a black walnut limb that needs to come off as soon as the leaves drop from it later this Autumn. Can’t wait to try it!
Years ago I scored some teak. Makes beautiful spoons, etc.
10/02/2020 Joe Samalin
Elaine - never tried pecan! I know the fruit trees are beautiful. Nothing like waiting anxiously for that one branch to fall....Do you do mostly spoons?
10/02/2020 Joe Samalin
Dan - teak is a great wood. What do you make with it/in general? And the resource you shared is incredible! I had no idea it existed. But put in a wood and see a myriad of native uses. Important info in re to trees and plants, and also for preservation and ideally respect for and protection of indigenous knowledge, culture, and people. Thanks for sharing, and everyone here should check it out (unless you all have already, and I am the only one late to the party.)