Spoon and Utensil Making Basics
Most people are familiar with the general process needed to create a jewelry box, side table or other typical piece of woodwork. Straight lines are common, the workpieces are large enough to easily manipulate while machining and the tools and techniques are those they’ve used many times before.
This isn’t the case when making a spoon or utensil, though. Different tools and techniques make up a healthy portion of creating one of these objects, as they are much smaller and curvier than pieces of furniture. This may throw people off at first, but once they’ve learned a few of the techniques associated with spoon and utensil making, they will be ready for action.
When Brown wants a simple-looking spoon, he makes sure to draw the top view of the spoon onto a quarter-cut surface. This produces very straight grain in the bowl of the spoon. Orienting the grain at 90° to this will leave you with a circular pattern in the bowl, which is also attractive.
How to Hollow
Removing the material to create the bowl is a slightly tricky part of making a spoon, and there are many ways to approach this. From traditional to modern, hand tools to power tools, there’s an option for everyone.
If you’re going to start making spoons and utensils once in a while, it’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with their parts. Once you start looking online for inspiration, you may find other folks talking about the bowl of a spoon or the spine of a knife. Understanding these terms will go a long way in helping you fine tune your hobby.
Sizing a utensil
Like woodworkers, spoons come in many different shapes and sizes. There isn’t really a wrong size to make a spoon. All you have to do is rename the spoon and it automatically becomes the correct size. Thought you were aiming for something to stir your pasta, but ended up with a tiny 4″ long spoon? No problem. You were just working on a tasting spoon, that’s all. Now you know. You can easily get vague measurements from one of your metal spoons, but don’t be afraid to push the envelope and go rogue.
You will find certain dimensions of a spoon or utensil should be fairly accurate and well thought out for it to work properly. For instance, the rim of a small tasting spoon will need to be on the thin side, as it will be easier to use. Conversely, a large stirring or serving spoon handle needs to be strong and have a thick neck so it doesn’t break. This is the same with a fork or knife.
The material – wet vs. dry
There are pros and cons to using green (freshly cut) or dried wood for making utensils. The main pro to using greenwood is that it’s easier to cut with a knife. When wood dries out it becomes harder, making it more difficult to cut through. People who work with greenwood tend to use simple tools, like knives, to do a lot of the work. I think it’s safe to say folks who are serious about carving spoons generally opt for greenwood. On the downside, greenwood isn’t often easy to get hold of, especially if you live in a city.
If you select dry wood to carve a spoon from, it’s likely going to be best to use tools most woodworkers are more familiar with. Hand tools will get a lot of use with dried wood, while machines like sanders and bandsaws are also used to remove waste quickly. This isn’t to say you can’t use a knife on dried wood, especially if it’s nice and sharp. To each, their own.
A small downside of greenwood is the increased chance of the object developing cracks, or twisting more than you’d like, as it dries. One way to protect against this is to ensure it isn’t left in an area that will cause it to dry out too quickly. Never place the item in front of a heat register, in direct sunlight or in a breezy area. It’s a good idea to wrap it in some fabric between carving sessions (if you carve slowly), or once it’s carved, in order to dry. The porous nature of the fabric will allow some moisture to escape, but not too quickly.
The material – species
A piece of closed-grain hardwood is usually my preference for spoons that will actually get used. They’re strong enough to resist breakage and are less likely to harbor bacteria in their pores. An even-grained wood also carves more evenly, as a blade edge isn’t having to deal with softer and harder areas of wood as you work, which causes the blade to jump around a bit.
Most maple is great. Black cherry and black walnut both have high style points, though they’re a bit softer, but definitely not too soft to use, though. Birch and beech are both great options, as they are strong and have a closed grain. Poplar is nice for a beginner, as it’s softer. I’m sure there are many other woods in your backyard that would make great spoons. Just consider the pros and cons of the wood before you select one for your spoon.
The material – grain
Grain should be considered when selecting a piece of wood for a spoon or utensil. I prefer a simple look for the grain in my spoons and tend to orient a spoon so the top view of the spoon is drawn onto quarter-cut grain. This results in a very simple grain pattern in the finished spoon. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with orienting the grain 90° to this, as that will help produce a circular pattern in the bowl when the spoon is finished.
Including a mixture of sapwood and heartwood into a utensil is often a great approach. It adds some visual contrast, and reminds the user the material the utensil is made of came from what once was a living tree.
Figured wood grain can be wonderful, but if it’s too heavy it can distract from a small, simple object like a spoon. Some grain features, like a knot, can even weaken a spoon or utensil. They’re also harder to work with hand tools.
An easy first step
If this is your first spoon, or you’re tackling a new or wild style of spoon, grab a piece of pine, spruce or basswood to practice with. You don’t even need to complete the spoon, but once you have the spoon roughed out in three dimensions you will have a much better idea regarding shape, style and any unique design characteristics.
Hollowing out the bowl
I think most woodworkers would have little problem cutting a spoon out and shaping the handle and exterior of the bowl. But when it came to hollowing out the bowl, they would likely scratch their heads a bit. Woodworkers rarely have to hollow anything out. Even turners, who use a completely different process, might take a moment to pause and consider options. The truth is, there are a number of options and which one is best for you is impossible for me to say.
If you’re a traditionalist, you’re likely leaning towards greenwood and a hook knife. Hook knives, also known as spoon knives, are commonly used to hollow out the bowl of a spoon, as they’re curved to create a recess in the wood. If you’re a carver, and have a wide selection of curved, sharp gouges, that’s likely where you should start. A power tool junkie may cast their eye towards their router and any round-bottom bits they have.
Even using a Forstner drill bit will help remove material quickly; then you can continue shaping the bowl with other methods. If you’re making a spoon with a really deep bowl, you can bore holes to a certain depth using a small drill bit, then use other tools (a carving gouge, for instance) to remove the material down to the bottoms of the holes. Another technique that’s becoming more popular these days is power carving. Companies like Arbortech and Kutzall have power carving attachments to help you hollow a spoon’s bowl.
Arbortech Ball Gouge
Removing a lot of material, deep down into a large spoon or ladle, isn’t an easy task with hand tools. One item that will quickly and easily create a deep bowl in a utensil is the Arbortech Ball Gouge. As the name implies, it will also create the hollow common in many wooden spoons. Once connected to an angle grinder the gouge can be used to protrude into the workpiece, shaping a concave area wherever needed. Even undercutting is possible, and can help create a ladle with a large volume. The Ball Gouge can also be used to create 3D shapes and texture on wood panels for furniture. ArbortechTools.com
Using a template
A template is a great way to make multiple utensils look similar. It’s also a good way to keep a utensil symmetrical. Having said that, if you’re only making a few items, or if they aren’t going to be symmetrical anyways, I wouldn’t worry about a template.
Making a template out of a thin sheetgood, such as 1/8″ or 1/4″ plywood or Masonite, is a good approach, though printing paper templates can also work nicely. Pasting the paper directly onto the faces of the wood blank with a spray adhesive allows you to cut along the printed line. You can also go back in a year and re-create many more utensils to match the initial batch you made.
If you enjoy using a rotary tool, you’ll love using Kutzall burrs to remove material to form the bowl of a wooden spoon. With a wide range of shapes and sizes, there’s something for everyone. A “ball nose” or “sphere” shaped burr is probably the best option for spoon making, though they will come in handy in other shop situations. Kutzall’s “Extreme” series is great for rough stock removal, while their “Original” series is an excellent choice for smoothing rough surfaces. Kutzall.com
The vast majority of finishes become food-safe once they’ve fully cured, though people do tend to select a finish that’s more on the natural side when finishing items that will go in their mouth or touch their food. Surprisingly, when I’m selecting a finish it’s more about how the finish affects the look of the wood, and how well it will stand up to whatever is thrown at it over its lifetime, that influences my decision. I certainly don’t want to consume unhealthy finishes, but unless I’m going to use a spoon to mix a lot of hot ingredients (like a spoon for mixing a stir fry or chili, for example), or I will be regularly using it to eat from directly (that’s never been the case for me), the question of health is actually a bit lower on my list.
Generally speaking, most folks use a penetrating finish over a film-forming finish on functional utensils. A film finish looks great at first, but will develop cracks and eventually chip off. A penetrating finish will soak into the wood, and help protect the spoon from the inside, as well as help the outside of the spoon look nice.
Although oils that don’t dry (walnut, vegetable, mineral, etc.) are often used to finish a wooden spoon or utensil, I prefer not to go this route. Because some oils don’t dry, they may always feel a bit wet, and they could also impart a taste in the food you’re preparing with the utensil. Some of them can also go rancid and start to smell after a while.
Using a natural oil like tung or linseed is a common approach to finishing a utensil. I’ve also used OSMO products, as well as a few products from the “Tried & True” line of finishes from Lee Valley. When a spoon I make is for dry ingredients I sometimes use shellac to apply a few very light coats, often on top of an oil. The shellac adds a very thin film and a nice sheen to the wood, while also protecting the wood. Shellac is also food-safe.
I’ve heard of many serious utensil makers soaking their freshly carved spoons in a house mixture of oils. The reason for this is the finish will soak well into the wood, and when it dries will provide a high level of protection. I’ve never felt the need to go this far.
There are also many spoon carvers out there who don’t apply any finish to their spoons. The wood will discolour, and may even develop small checks easier, but it’s a natural process some spoon makers prefer.
Whatever finish you use on your next utensil, give it ample time to fully dry before using it. It will stand up to wear and tear much better, and will provide longer service to you.
Don’t let a wooden spoon or utensil sit in water. It’s completely fine to get them wet, but allowing them to sit in water will cause more small cracks to develop. The finish also deteriorates and the wood turns a greyish colour. Hand washing a wooden utensil with mild soap and warm water, then drying it off, is the best long-term approach to keeping your utensil looking new.
After a while, you will likely want to add another coat or two of finish to rejuvenate its appearance, but that’s up to you. You may also like the patina it develops, and want to leave it alone.