Arts & Culture

Spoon Carving with Birch

One of my hobbies is woodworking and I especially like to carve wooden spoons out of birch, a great carving wood. Whoever discovered its usefulness should get some sort of plaque or medal. I grew up in an Alaskan birch forest so whenever I handle it, or smell its peculiar odor, I revert to my childhood.

Finding birch in Southcentral Alaska is not difficult—it’s everywhere. Best for carving are the suckers, shoots and branches because they don’t split like the older wood of the main trunk often does, and they work great for wood turning on a lathe. However, when it comes to nice straight wood suitable for spoon carving, there is nothing like buying some great kiln dried 5/4 birch planks from Poppert Milling in Wasilla for a reasonable price. (www.poppertmilling.com) Their third generation staff is wonderfully helpful in selecting just what you need for any project.

Before hand carving a spoon I first lay the tools out on my homemade traditional workbench. I’m into historical re-enacting so I try to use 19th century tools, technology and techniques. Some of my tools are actual period tools while others are modern reproductions. My basic tools are a coping saw, spokeshaves, a plane, gouges, C clamps, a carver’s mallet, and cabinet scrapers. I have found it is wise to buy the very best tools you can afford. Much better to buy a set of four chisels for $100.00 than a set for $9.99. Click here to subscribe to Last Frontier Magazine!

When I am doing shows for tourists I wear 19th century workman clothes. However, if I’m at home I just wear an 1880’s hat to put myself in the spirit of the project. The smell of birch does the rest. Now I’m in the bubble.

The first step – I find the perfect birch plank and use a template to lay out the pattern. In this case it’s a 14-inch kitchen spoon. Then I use a coping saw to cut out the spoon blank. If in a hurry, I move time along and use a modern bandsaw.

After fastening the blank down on the workbench with C clamps, I cut out the spoon bowl with a bent gouge and carver’s mallet. Wood on wood only. It drives me crazy to see people hitting their wooden handled carving tools with a steel carpenter’s hammer. A bent gouge is my work horse. It’s designed to go below the surface and is shaped to slice the wood, rather than going straight down the grain and splitting it. I suggest starting with a 25 mm bent gouge with a number 7 sweep. A really good gouge costs about $60-$75. Pfeil, from Switzerland, is my favorite brand. They can be found in most high-end woodcraft supply catalogs.

Bowl – The best approach is to start by making a trench down the length of the bowl. Be sure to make a stop cut at each end. Chisel toward the middle to avoid blowing out the end of the spoon. After making a trench about ¼-inch deep, start scooping out from the sides toward the middle with the bent gouge. This can be a bit tricky and takes practice with a careful hand. Just put your shoulder above the gouge and dig it in slightly. After the gouge just starts to cut, pry against the wood using the back side of the tool as a fulcrum. Carefully slice out the wood going across the grain at a slight angle. The wood should come out in a smooth curl. The first tries will not produce much wood, but after the spoon bowl starts to take the shape of the gouge, more will come. After the spoon bowl is roughed out, I put a smooth finish on it with a cabinet scraper.

Now that the spoon bowl is finished on the inside, it’s time to do the outside. Turn it over, clamp it down and use a combination of plane and spokeshaves until the spoon bowl is properly shaped and balanced. Over time I found it is easier to bring the outside to the inside instead of the other way around. You have to destroy a couple of spoons until you learn some of these techniques. Trust me and learn from my mistakes. If you want mistakes, do your own, don’t copy mine.

Handle. This is almost entirely done with spokeshaves. I use a large convex-soled shave to make the curve that transitions from the bowl to the handle. I use a flat-soled shave to do the rest of the handle. I also have two smaller flat-soled shaves to do fine work to lead into the final smoothing.  UCM-320-x-180-bear

Hint: Spokeshaves are kind of tricky to learn to use. Especially the convex-soled one. Don’t push down on them, use them at an angle in order to slice rather than rip. Let the weight do the work. It’s all in the wrist. A small low-angle plane helps out in some places better than a spokeshave.

Final finishing – I use cabinet scrapers; a French curve one and a flat one. I put a small burr on one side and leave the other side square, allowing me to do a coarse and fine scraping. Like spokeshaves, the secret to getting great results from cabinet scrapers is all in the wrist. I never use sandpaper because it clogs the pores in the wood making a good finish more difficult. Also, as an historical purist I happen to know sandpaper was not commercially available in the 19th century.

The next step is the most satisfying. Drill a hole in the end of the handle to add a leather hang up strap. Finally, rub the wooden spoon with a commercial butcher block oil easily found at most big box builders’ stores.

After the oil dries, rub it some more to put a nice slick finish on it. Your body heat with a little friction is perfect. Your spoon is now ready to be used as a great gift at Christmas or other times. I have a goodly supply of spoons to use as instant gifts for unforeseen events. Naturally this surplus of spoons is used only after I have provided all the spoons my wife can use.

Care and feeding – Wooden spoons such as these are not dishwasher friendly. Wash with a cloth and warm water. If the wood dries out re-oil it with a good grade of vegetable oil if used frequently, or mineral if used only rarely. Over time the grain will rise and give your spoon a soft fuzzy feeling. This is natural. When that happens simply sand it with 400 grit or higher sandpaper. Re-oil and use again.

It is thrilling to making something functional and utilitarian with your own hands in the old style. Consider including a young apprentice. I enjoy sharing spoon making with my grandchildren so they can learn and pass the craft on to future generations. Happy carving!

By Roger Lincoln

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