In our household, getting out the good tableware often means getting out woodenware. I have been a woodworker for over 35 years now, and making spoons has been part of my work since the early 1980s. I learned how to make furniture from “green” wood; splitting the pieces from a tree shaping them into furniture parts. This meant no trip to the lumber yard for me, but lots of time searching through wood piles, log yards, and the woods. That’s where the spoons are.
Most of the spoons in our house once grew on trees. When you learn to see the best forms of wooden spoons, you find that they aren’t the dull, uninspiring, straight-grained things at the dollar store. They are lively shapes, coaxed from branches and stems that were picked out of woodpiles, gleaned from tree prunings, and otherwise collected along the way. Once your eyes are tuned to the shapes, you see spoon wood on every drive you take. Put the word out, and people will remember you when they are removing or pruning trees and if they bring you wood, return the favor by making them a spoon—soon you’ll have so much spoon wood, you’ll dream of spoon shapes.
I learned spoon carving from Wille and Jogge Sundqvist, a father-and-son team from northernSweden. I met them both at Country Workshops, a school for traditional woodworking in Marshall, N.C., run by Drew Langsner. These three men, Wille, Jogge, and Drew, taught me most of what I know about spoon design and execution. I begin with a short section of “green” wood, timber that is freshly felled and therefore contains a great deal of moisture. Working with a small hatchet and a couple of specialized knives, I work with the shape of the wood to create the best spoon that particular branch has to offer. There are many considerations; thick here, thin there. Strength needs to be maintained or the spoon will break in use, so I learned to make a sturdy narrow stem that connects the spoon’s bowl to the handle. The handle itself is usually flatter and increased in width for comfort handling the spoon. Each element plays its part and has its own design considerations.
A handmade spoon can be quite thin, almost to the point of translucence in some woods. Righty’s, lefty’s, stirring spoons, serving spoons, eating spoons—once you get going, make room because your house will fill with spoons right quick. My favorite wood is apple; very hard when dry but easily cut when fresh. It often grows in what we call “crooks”; the junction where one limb meets another or a limb-to-trunk connection. These are ideal for many spoon forms because the spoon carver can exploit the flowing grain from one element to the other to achieve a nice curved shape. By following the grain of this “crook” shape, the strength of the tree’s fiber is maintained. Straight lines are an anathema in spoon design. Cherry and birch are also ideal woods for carving spoons, but other spoon carvers have different favorites. One thing about spoon carving is that you can try lots of different local woods to see how you like them, I’ve used lilac, rhododendron, maple, butternut, dogwood and others. Some work better than others, but it costs nothing to try them.
I finish my spoons with food-grade flax oil; walnut oil is a good choice too. The worst thing you can do with a handmade spoon is to not use it, the more you use it, the better it feels and looks. They develop a nice patina over the years and the colors will change with time. Some spoons will work better than others, and using them helps you carve the next one—you learn that this shape feels better here, that one better there.
Spoon carving is undergoing a surge in popularity these days. Part of its appeal is the small tool kit and the fact that you don’t need a dedicated workshop for it. Once you figure out where to do the hatchet work, the knife work can be done in a wide variety of locations. I used to carve at the playground when my kids were little. It was already covered with wood chips, so I didn’t even have to clean up! Depending on where you live, folks might get a little uneasy when you pull out a knife, but once they see a wooden spoon emerge from your work, they’ll come around.
Another appeal is that it’s quiet work, in many ways it makes me think of knitting. My wife is a knitter, and her work and mine compliment each other well. I typically hew the rough shape outside in the yard, working up several spoon blanks at a time. Then they each come along in fits and starts. I keep a basket filled with my knives and spoons-in-progress, and it comes out in the evening when other chores are done and it’s time for some quiet conversation. The sounds of the knives slicing wood and chips hitting the floor mingle with the click-click of knitting needles. These sounds are the punctuation of our evenings.
We have favorite spoons in the kitchen, some for cooking, some for serving, and some for eating. Using these spoons is a different tactile experience from using mass-produced spoons; just like the difference between a factory-made sweater and one hand-made by a knitter. Really there are so many parallels; in the kitchen, pottery also comes to mind. I don’t live under the delusion that we can have everything in our house made by hand, but we do try to have as much of our “material culture” handmade as is feasible. Our house has a mish-
mash of plates, cups, and bowls (wood and ceramic). No two are alike; but all have their story, I think our culture needs that now (I know I do anyway). A reminder of the connection between people and natural materials each time we sit down together: “I remember this tree…”
Peter Follansbee specializes in reproductions of 17th-century oak furniture, the use of hand woodworking tools, carving wooden spoons and bowls—and other pursuits involving hardwoods “riven” or split from a log.
Related Article: Bringing Craft to the Table by Lisa Howard.
I’m going to admit something here. Although I have been both a potter and gallery owner representing dozens of studio ceramists for 20 years, I don’t own matching dinnerware…