This hand-made set of chopsticks will make a great non-traditional gift for the sushi-lover on your Christmas list.
If you’re anything like me you’re always looking for a simple, unique holiday gift to make for friends and relatives. There are lots of projects that play a Christmas carol, hang on a tree, or involve Santa Claus, but this one does none of those things. Although sushi isn’t a Christmas staple (though I think it should be), your gift will transcend the holiday and be enjoyed all year round.
Making chopsticks is a great way to use some of that exotic wood you’ve been hoarding. With a little planning, you can use off-cuts from different projects. Dense, non-porous woods work best, with straight grained stock. Hard maple, rosewood, African blackwood and jatoba are some of my favourites. Don’t go any softer than black cherry, or the chopsticks will flex while in use and feel like a cheap set of disposable ones. If you really want to get fancy you can laminate a number of species together.
Mark your blanks
This step is essential for ensuring that your sticks stay even while shaping.
Shape the tip
Gradually work the tip of the stick down to an octagon shape. Pay close attention to the layout lines to guide you.
Use a sharp knife to adorn your sticks with a simple carved pattern.
Jazz it up
Using a thin-kerf handsaw, make some slits at the end of your stick and glue in some contrasting veneer.
Size and Style of Chopsticks
When settling on a size it’s a good idea to have a look at different chopsticks and see how they feel while you use them. A slight change in length or thickness will affect how they feel in your hands. The chopsticks I make are usually 10″ long and start from stock that is just over ¼” in width and thickness. There are also different styles, depending on the country of origin. Chinese chopsticks are square in cross-section, where they are held, and taper to a round, blunt tip. These are the style I like. Japanese chopsticks are usually shorter than Chinese ones and taper to a pointed tip. There are also slight variations in Vietnamese and Korean chopsticks.
Put Your Hand Tools to Use
This is largely a hand-tool project and you can do it entirely with hand tools if you prefer. I use some power to help break out the stock and bring it to rough size, then turn to hand tools to shape the chopsticks. Joint and plane the stock to just over ¼” thick, then rip the strips to width on the table saw. From this point forward it’s hand tools. Cut the strips to finished length. Draw two lines in a ‘+’ shape on the tip of the chopstick that divides the end into equal quarters. Extend each line up the side about 2″. These lines will give you reference points as you shape the chopsticks. Also put a line about 4″ away from the handle end and extend it around all four sides. This line indicates the division between the start of the taper and the square handle end.
Use your block plane to create a tapered chamfer on the four corners of the tip. The tapered chamfer should start just after the 4″ line and deepen as it nears the tip. The goal is to end up with an octagon on the end of the chopstick. With the block plane, remove about 1/32″ of material on each of the eight faces that make up the tip. At this stage the octagon should still be there, and be about 1/16″ smaller. Take a couple of light passes on the eight edges, slightly reducing the diameter and rounding the tip. While doing this, ensure the ‘+’ is still centered on the tip. By now the lines that extend 2″ from the tip have been removed, but the 4″ line and the ‘+’ on the end of the tip are both still there. Now that the tapered tip is shaped lightly, chamfer the four corners of the handle.
Refine and smooth the shape of the tip and the handle with a sanding block.
The cross-section of the tip is round while the cross-section of the handle is mainly square. Ease the sharp edges on both ends and remove the ‘+’. Finish sand to a fine grit. Although you could finish here, I like to add a bit of ornamentation to the handle. A sharp knife can be used to create some notches or a piece of contrasting veneer can be inserted into a saw kerf. Even relief carving could be used. Search the Internet for ideas of what you can do to dress your sticks up. You’ll be amazed by what you find.
A Place to Rest
Traditionally, the tips of chopsticks sit on a chopstick rest to keep the tips of the chopsticks off the table; the table stays clean and the chopsticks don’t pick up anything from the table that eventually makes its way into your mouth. These little objects can be made from just about any small scrap of wood. As for design, as long as the chopsticks will not roll off the rest while in use you have achieved your goal.
A Safe Finish
Because these chopsticks will be coming into contact with food you want a finish that’s non-toxic. There are many choices, but I choose 100% pure Tung Oil from Lee Valley. Apply the first coat very liberally. After 30 minutes re-apply the oil to any end grain or other areas that sucked up a lot of the finish. Let it dry thoroughly – for some oils that’s a day or more. Before you apply each additional coat lightly abrade the surface with 0000 steel wool and apply coats of oil until you’re pleased with the finish. Ideally, it’s nice to re-apply a coat every year or two to freshen the look and renew stain and water protection, but that will be up to the lucky owner.
With a bit of practice you will be turning out chopsticks by the dozen, all just in time for Christmas. The first pair will take a fair bit of time, but once you get the hang of it they move along pretty smoothly. For a nice presentation you can wrap a strip of hand-made paper around the chopsticks to keep them in pairs. If you want to go that extra mile for someone special, and you have the foresight to start your holiday production line soon enough, make a small box to fit your handcrafted chopsticks.