My partner is a coppice worker and creates the most beautiful benches, gates and buildings from locally sourced timber. I am always amazed at the beauty of such things and usually slightly jealous that he gets to work with such natural materials and make such lovely items from nature. Luckily I have discovered a way to follow in his footsteps, albeit on a smaller scale ... I have found the craft of spoon carving.
Every household needs spoons, they are used daily for preparing and eating meals. So spoon carving is a brilliant way to get into wood working, as well as crafting something beautiful for your home that you enjoyed making and it is also an antidote to the world of plastic ... a step towards sustainable living. With the right tools and very little experience, spoon carving is something you could probably pick up yourself. My partner and I decided, however, to spend a day in the woods on a spoon-carving course. Not only does this reinforce the skills needed to handle carving knives safely and efficiently, we also love the fact that attending an informal low-cost course like this helps support local woodsmen and green woodworkers who are at the forefront of sustainable local woodland management.
It was a beautiful day in one of our local Sussex woodlands, surrounded by an area of sweet chestnut coppice, beautifully green and vibrant, and alive with the season's early regrowth. Richard of Green Wood Creations, a local coppice worker, was teaching the course from his caravan. Not only does he live in the woodland, he lives in harmony with it, meaning he is best placed to manage the area for the landowner. I love seeing a coppice worker's home peeking through the trees, the smell of the smoke drifting past and watching it twist from the fire into the sky between the branches. There were five others on the course, so the day was mixed with laughter, story-telling and by the end, many a sore thumb. To top off the whole experience, we even made our own pizzas, using Rich's homemade outdoor pizza oven to cook our delicious lunch.
First we were shown how to turn a piece of timber into a spoon blank. Although time limitations meant we couldn't have a go at this stage ourselves, it looked fairly simple if you know how to use an axe safely. Limbs and branches are good to use as they are generally smaller than whole trunks, although special attention is required when selecting your 'blank' as knotty or twisted pieces will make the carving process very difficult. We used birch in the round, which was then split or 'cleft' in half to give a piece of wood about 23cm (9in) long and 7.5cm (3in) across. This was then made easier to work with by chipping off the rounded side of the wood, to leave a flat rectangle. Other suitable commonly found species for spoon carving include beech and sycamore. If it is your first time spoon carving, you may want to draw a blank of a spoon onto your piece of wood to give you some guidelines. You can then use the axe and a series of 'stop cuts' to transform the blank from a large chunk of wood into a more manageable piece. Stop cuts are simply small cuts made with a saw in strategic places to stop your axe splitting the area of wood that is to become your spoon when roughing out the blank.
Once our blanks were prepared we all sat on logs in the beautiful sunshine and were shown how to carve. To carve the bowl of the spoon, a knife with a curved blade, known as a 'crook' or 'spoon' knife is needed and for the rest of the spoon, a straight carving knife is all that is required. They need to be sharp, which means you have to be very careful. I managed to finish the day without any cuts but a few others did go home with a plaster to go with their newly crafted spoon. We were taught with the straight blade first, using different strokes so that we would always work with the grain. This gives smooth, efficient, controlled cuts and reduces the risk of the knife cutting you. It is a brilliant feeling when you can neatly slice away layers of wood, watching the spoon start to take shape. Make sure to work with your hands, tools and wood to the left or right of your legs and not in between them because there are arteries in your thighs that you do not want to cut. It is easy to get carried away with the carving, so be careful not to make the neck of the spoon too narrow or thin that it will snap. If you want a flatter handle it has to be wider to keep it strong and if you want a narrower handle it needs to have more depth.
Before we knew it, lunchtime had arrived and we each got to roll out the pizza dough and top it with a delicious array of cheese, chillies and greens. The outdoor pizza oven had been burning away all morning so it was nice and hot, cooking the pizzas in just a few minutes.
After the perfect woodland lunch it was time for carving the bowl of the spoon, which I was eager to try. At first it was difficult to keep my thumb out of the way of the blade. I couldn't hold the spoon with my thumb under the bowl and it kept creeping up to the edge, which was right in the line of the knife blade. But once you have carved some depth, the knife stays in the bowl and your thumb is a lot safer. You could try using the straight blade to get some depth before using the crook knife. This should give the blade of the crook knife more purchase on the wood and help avoid it slipping off into your thumb. The simple scooping motion across the grain is so satisfying. I could have sat there all day shaving off layers of pale smooth birch.
Sitting in the warm dappled sunlight, surrounded by the chirping of birds and the soft whistle of the wind through the trees was so relaxing it was easy to get lost in the rhythm. I was enjoying myself so much it was a struggle to make myself stop. Rich informed us that 'it's all too easy to keep carving away and end up taking too much off, leaving you with a very fragile spoon'. I could easily see why!
Finishing your spoon is a personal preference. If you want a more refined smoother finish you can leave your spoon to dry for a day or two and then sand out the marks left by the carving using 120 grit (or finer) sandpaper. Though oiling is not strictly required, I have applied several coats of raw linseed oil to my spoon to help keep it in tip-top condition. Other oils suitable for finishing spoons include olive oil and nut oil. If using linseed oil make sure you are using it in its raw form and not boiled/processed linseed oil as this contains stabilizers that can be harmful to us.
Our relaxed introduction to spoon carving was thoroughly enjoyable and gave me the confidence to handle sharp carving tools and I've come away with a skill that will be with me forever. It is also a fantastic way to introduce young children to the joys of woodcarving in a safe, relaxing environment. It applies the techniques of woodcarving to something tangible for adults and children alike and is a great basis to go on and learn more skills. It's also a great activity to include at village fetes, summer festivals and garden parties where, I'm sure, your local woodsman or green woodworker would be all too happy to set up shop for a day and pass on their knowledge to willing participants. All that remains now is to wait for some drier weather so I can sit outdoors by a warm fire and carve more spoons and hopefully progress on to salad servers, butter knives and whatever else my permaculture mind can imagine
Rozie Apps is assistant editor at PM and Permanent Publications.
If you are interested in Richard's spoon carving courses, visit www.greenwoodcreations.co.uk £35 for the day, including a delicious homemade pizza for lunch.
There are a wide range of woodcarving tools, books and dvds available from Green Shopping www.green-shopping.co.uk