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How to start carving wooden spoons safely and sustainably

Carving can be exasperating and (extremely) dangerous without the correct tools and techniques. But don’t worry, this article will tell you everything that you need to get started, how to do so safely, and how to do so while supporting small and local businesses.

I’ve been working with wood and power tools for most of my life. But my introduction to hand tools and carving is very recent. My partner’s father gave me his set of spoon carving tools about six months ago after a discussion of how much I missed making things with my hands. We had been traveling all over France deciding whether we wanted to live there, and I had only recently moved from the states, so my carpentry tools had not made their way over the pond.

I was both enamored and fearful of the knives he gave me. A straight knife and two crook knives—curved blades for carving concave shapes—with unbelievably sharp blades, they had to be handled with care. The other, and most important, thing he gave me was a book called The Urban Woodsman by Max Bainbridge.

Photo and styling by Dean & Jeska Hearne

Wood carving is not an activity for anyone with a fear of pain or blood

There is no truly safe way to cut a very sharp knife through a very dense material like slow growing hardwood. But Max does a very good job, in both words and photographs, of outlining some of the ways to safely hold and use sharp knives to avoid harming yourself. You can purchase his book from your local bookshop (in the UK or US) by clicking the link or image above. (Please support your local bookshop rather than Amazon!) Before you even buy knives, I suggest you start with this book.

Even with Max’s assistance, I regularly ended up with small cuts on my fingers and thumbs (and still do). My primary mistake was wanting to move quickly. I am the type of person who has very high expectations for how quickly I should be able to master a skill (often totally illogical expectations) so I ended up doing things that Max would have explicitly disapproved of. Even though I am, at the same time, a very careful person, I honestly think I was lucky not to have injured myself worse.

It cannot be overstated how important and vulnerable your hands are. There are so, so many tendons and other vital connections running through your hands that, if harmed, will put you completely out of order as a functioning human being for long periods of time. In the past, I have broken both of my thumbs, been in full thumb/wrist casts for long periods of time, and also had a family member nearly lose both of their thumbs in a freak accident. From too much experience, I can confidently say that rehabilitating your hands is one of the longest recovery processes, so purely and simply…

DO NOT TAKE RISKS WITH YOUR HANDS AND SHARP KNIVES!

Now that I’ve covered that, we can discuss tools.

Workshop
Some of my tools laid out on my (past) workbench in Bretagne, France.

Firstly, strong coffee (you’ve already got this covered, Gavin). I’m obviously joking, but I do really enjoy the ritual of taking a strong cup of coffee with me when I go into the workshop to carve. The only troubles I find are that a) the coffee goes cold because I get completely lost in the piece I am carving and b) I end up drinking a lot of wood shavings.

But more seriously, tools are important, and the best tool is a sharp tool. If you’re going to get started carving, I suggest that you first learn how to properly and safely sharpen a blade. Start with this kit and your kitchen knives. Most people have never sharpened their kitchen knives, or only ever done so with poorly designed ceramic sharpeners where you just pull the blade through it. But a quick job does not a sharp blade make.

Learn to sharpen a blade slowly and safely, before you invest in good knives

The strop and slip set, complete solution by Sean Hellman is the most thorough sharpening and stropping kit I have been able to find (and is locally produced in the UK). It contains everything you could need in order to take a very damaged blade and make it new again. And starting out, you will inevitably damage your blades, so invest in the right tools early. Sharpening kitchen knives is the same as sharpening wood carving knives, the primary difference being a slightly different angle in the blade, so here is a good video about how to sharpen your carving knives which will be just as relevant for any other type of knife.

An antique hatchet I started carving with which has since been dedicated to splitting. An oak mallet to safely hit the back of it.

The keys to a sharp knife are a) take your time, mistakes are made when you rush, b) always maintain the angle that was honed into the blade originally, and c) always push the blade away from you with the sharp edge facing toward you, or, always pull the blade toward you with the sharp edge facing away from you.

A sharp knife is a safe knife because you don’t have to put as much force behind it to make a safe cut. The worst injuries are almost always because of a dull knife, with far too much force behind it, slipping from the cutting material and hurtling into a place it shouldn’t be.

Protect yourself first, and then your tools

Once you’ve learned to create a sharp blade, you must protect it! Sharp blades are easily damaged even if they are made of dense carbon steel. A well-sharpened blade could likely be measured at its cutting surface in microns, so any time that edge hits against a surface that is harder than it (or even a softer surface but with a lot of force), it is going to dull.

Most quality carving knives come with sheathes to protect them from hitting against your other tools, but if not, you should buy (or make) sheathes for them immediately. Another good practice is to keep all of your tools in a heavy canvas tool roll. This is my favorite tool roll, from a UK importer of handmade Japanese tools called Niwaki. They are very strict about the quality of the materials that they sell, and though they are not made locally (nearly everything they sell is from Japan), you are still supporting small makers in other parts of the world. While you’re visiting Niwaki, also pick up their apron, which is made from the exact same heavy-duty canvas as the tool roll, and comes with strengthened leather tool pockets to protect them from sharp tools (though never put an unsheathed knife in your pocket!).

My Niwaki tool roll with many tools inside.

Finally, and most importantly, pick up a pair of high quality cut-resistant gloves. You’ll rarely see woodcarvers wearing them as it is very helpful to be able to feel the thickness of the wood you are working with, but it is entirely worth the time it takes to take your glove off and feel the wood, or to make an error that ruins the spoon you are working on, rather than end up slicing part of your hand. Don’t be stupid or proud, always use the proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

Toxic masculinity is not cool. Having properly working hands for the rest of your life is cool.

A proper set of tools, aka, the fun part

In case I haven’t been clear enough, if you can’t afford all of the safety gear listed above, then you cannot afford the tools. There is no world in which you should take a shortcut and only buy the (very dangerous) tools without also buying all of the proper PPE. Period. Got it? Good.

Now, I seriously geek out over gear. Ever since my sister got me into camping and backpacking years ago, I’ve become progressively more obsessed with finding the right gear for the right job. Proper tools truly make a difference in the experience of doing an activity well, and creating something with your hands is no different. To get started on your first spoon, you’re going to need a minimum of three tools:

  • A straight knife
  • A hook knife
  • A hatchet

There are loads of options out there, and I suggest you take the time to find a local maker with a good reputation for quality tools. But if you want to get started for less money, there are a few larger companies that absolutely will not do you wrong. Morakniv are a Swedish company with a long history of knife making. They are probably the most common carving knives you will find in Europe, and for good reason: they work well. There are two straight knives that you can start with, a shorter and a longer one, but I would suggest the longer (having actually started with the shorter) one. The Morakniv 106 straight knife is a solid wood carving knife that will last a lifetime. Though the grip isn’t as ergonomic as some of the knives from smaller makers, to start, you won’t be doing hours and hours of carving at a time, so it will do. Plus, many local carvers and companies will carry Mora knives, so you can still support local while spending less.

My Morakniv 162 hook knife sitting in an end grain bowl. A great example of an improper tool for the job. Use chisels and a wooden mallet on end grain to save your wrists!

The reason I would suggest the 106 (longer) over the 120 (shorter) is because the longer tapered blade will give you more precision in the long run, and is perfectly capable of doing all of the jobs the 120 can do. I’m not sure why they offer both, really, I guess it is just preference (or maybe to reduce the intimidating scale of a long knife).

Mora also makes a solid hook knife that can be used by both right and left handed people. The Morakniv 162 double edge hook knife is perfect for starting out. It comes with a sheath (like their straight knives) and can be maintained well with the round slips and strops from the Sean Hellman kit. You won’t be carving really tiny spoons with it, but you’re likely going to want to work on larger projects at the beginning anyway. The downfall of the 162 is that its handle is really short. I have found over time that I would much prefer a longer handle for my bowl carving tools so that I put less stress on my wrists. I also personally prefer full loops rather than open hooks, because it allows me to place a thumb on the back of the blade safely. If you want to invest a lot early (I suggest you don’t, unused tools are sad tools), then have a look at ForgedChisel on Etsy. They make a really solid circular scorp (full circle knife) with a long handle, as well as a tear-drop scorp (though sadly with a short handle).

Finally, you want a high quality hatchet. The hatchet is used to make the spoon “blank,” basically the rough shape of the spoon. For splitting wood, you should just use any old hatchet, it doesn’t even have to be sharp! But for the actual carving process, you are going to need a dedicated, specifically right or left handed hatchet. The best maker of hatchets, as most people would tell you, is Granfors Bruk, another Swedish company that has been hand forging axes for hundreds of years. They still hand forge their axes (though using some modern machinery). Each axe is even marked with the makers initials, so you truly know that the quality of your axe is traceable.

Chunks of spalted cherry waiting to become spoon blanks. I cut them locally from a small wood near where we were staying in Somerset, UK.

This is a seriously expensive piece of kit, and there are certainly ways around spending this much, but it will also be a tool that will last a lifetime, and a purchase that supports a dying art, so think carefully before buying a much less capable hatchet. The small carving hatchet by Granfors Bruk is what I use to carve my blanks. At €174, it’s an investment, but you may also be able to find it at a lesser price by checking their retailers page. I bought mine from Greenwood Direct Ltd., just outside of Bath, UK, and paid a good amount less, plus supported a local business in the process.

Now, the bevel on the hatchet is important. If you’re right-handed I would suggest the right-bevel, or 473RH. If you’re left-handed I would suggest the left-bevel, or 473RV. The reason for this is because a single-beveled blade allows you to cut at a much steeper angle, as this video explains well. But, if you would really like to be able to work with both hands, or want to have a more multi-purpose hatchet, you can go with the double-bevel version, or 473R. You just won’t be able to get as precise of cuts as you will with a single-beveled hatchet.

That’s it. That’s all you need. Yes, it is an investment, and like I said, you can avoid the super expensive hatchet at the beginning. You can even buy spoon blanks from people on Etsy if you want to get a feel for the carving aspect before putting money into the hatchet! But honestly, the joy of spoon carving, for me at least, does not come from just the process of carving. Most of the joy for me comes from the shock and satisfaction of making something useful from a piece of wood that would have otherwise been left to turn back into compost, or from a branch that you kindly take from a tree in a sustainable way.

The feeling of using a spoon, that you carved yourself, from a tree in your backyard that took probably fifty or more years to produce that wood, is something very special. That is the true magic of spoon carving. So, I do suggest you make the full investment rather than buying blanks from someone else, as you lose the connection to nature when you aren’t collecting the wood yourself.

Cutting rounds with my Bakuma Hunter folding hand saw from Niwaki.

And for that reason, there is one more bonus tool I will tell you about (though is not necessary). An everyday bow saw will do, but Niwaki stocks a really wonderful folding hand saw called a Bakuma Hunter. It is a solid quality saw that folds up into a leather holster that attaches to your belt (make sure you pay the extra bit for the holster). I keep mine in my car at all times just in case I drive past a nice looking fallen limb!

I can’t overstate the joy of making a useful tool from found wood, or from sustainably pollarded wood, so if you’re going to start carving, do it right and get out into the natural world! I am a firm believer that you should be as connected to your materials as you can possibly be, and these tools will help you do that.

Finally, a cliché: practice, practice, practice

There is no other way. Read the book, find other books, watch tons of YouTube videos, but most importantly: practice. You’re bound to psyche yourself out and have too high of expectations if you watch too many videos at the beginning. So learn enough to absolutely nail the safety practices, and then go and teach yourself from there. You don’t develop style from copying others, you develop it by making mistakes and naturally doing things you may not have done if you followed the step-by-step processes you will find on the internet.

Wavy spalted oak scoop | No. 108
You don’t end up with work like this by following tutorials.

If I did what others did, I would only be carving dry wood and drawing out my work every time before starting. That is certainly a style, and many people make beautiful work that way, but I find that if you try to make wooden objects too perfect, then you completely lose the connection to nature and the soil.

If there is one thing we need today, it is a re-connection to nature and to soil. In the relatively short time time since the industrial revolution, and especially in the even shorter period since the 1940’s when commercial tilling and industrial chemical spraying became popular, we have lost one third of our planet’s viable topsoil. That is not just alarming, it is terrifying. And if we are going to do anything about it, we need to plant more trees, not cut them down.

So, my number one piece of advice to get started in spoon carving?

Be safe, practice, and don’t use wood from any sources other than local, regeneratively managed woodlands, or wood that you safely pollard yourself from healthy, living trees in your own backyard.

Get outside and connect with nature!

Thank you for reading

I hope this gives you some good insight into how to get started carving spoons (or anything else you feel like making). Make sure you do so safely, and take the time to practice. Before you know if you’ll be opening your own Etsy shop and selling your unique work to people all over the world!

I hope you enjoy hearing from us. You can support our small, sustainable business by buying one of our unique items or by signing up for our newsletter below! And don’t forget to talk to your friends about how to live a more sustainable and local life.

—Nick


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