Spoon Carving

The Process: From Billet to Spoon

Materials Used: 

Hand strength and knife safety are crucial for the hand carving process. For safety, I recommend carving wearing a pair of cut-proof gloves; they drastically reduce the chance for most slip injuries. Maintaining sharp edges on all carving tools is also good shop policy. 

How to source your wood for carving can vary greatly; today there are a wide variety of online woodworking shops that will sell cut logs and billets for carving. This is how I sourced most of my pieces. In period, individuals would have sourced their wood from local forests, leading to natural local variation. As mentioned before, green wood is greatly preferred for the hand carving process because the moisture between the fibers allows for the knife to cut through the material more easily. If you have green wood that you want to store for later use, applying Elmer’s glue or a latex paint on the ends of a cut green wood piece can help to trap the moisture. Period techniques of storing green wood would have included applying beeswax or linseed oil to the ends of wood, or storing the wood outside during the winter to prevent rot. 

After sourcing wood and cutting a log of suitable length, you need to create what’s called a billet: a smaller section of the log, split lengthwise, often into halves or thirds. This is to remove material and form the basic block of wood that you’ll carve the spoon from. Try to create a billet from the log that has one flat surface on which to trace or draw the pattern of the spoon you want to carve. Tracing a pattern helps to keep the desired shape in your mind as you carve, and ensure you don’t remove too much material. 

With the pattern traced, depending on how much material has to be removed from the billet to form the spoon, it can be helpful to use a coping saw to cut out the rough outline of your spoon pattern. Clamp your wood billet in a vise clamp, or otherwise secure the material, and then align the coping saw to saw in a downward motion along the rough tracing of your pattern. The closer you can get your billet to your pattern, creating a spoon ‘blank’ the less material you will have to carve away by hand. 

 The next step in carving the spoon is to use a sloyd knife to begin carving off long strips of wood from the blank. Sloyd comes from the Swedish term Slöjd, which translates to handicrafts; simply put, the sloyd knife is a small hand knife, typically with a blade 2.5 to 4  inches long. This humble knife is the primary tool used in spoon carving, and for a peasant carver may have been the only tool used to create the piece, as well as a multi-purpose knife for general use. The sloyd knife is an essential tool to remove material and begin creating form for any carving handicraft. 

Grip the knife close to the blade, creating a stronger lever of power for your carving. Begin by focusing on forming the handle shape, placing the piece of wood (I’m right handed) over your right thigh, gripping the wood with your left hand. Carve downwards and away from you, pushing the knife into the wood. The goal is to remove long strips of wood in this process, gradually whittling down the billet chunk/blank into the general shape of a gracile handle. The sloyd knife is best used for removing a lot of material. Once the general handle is shaped, you’ll need to switch to a smaller carving knife, and change your grip. Place the knife in your palm so that the blade is pointed towards your thumb and grip it. Use your other hand to grab the spoon handle, using the thumb of this hand to push the knife blade in short strokes. This is the thumb push technique, which allows for more control over short strokes of the knife, for more detailed work; photograph of the technique to the right. 

For the end of the handle, as well as to help form the shape of the spoon bowl, you can use what is called the thumb bypass technique. The thumb of the knife hand is kept out of the path of the blade, but used as a lever to push the material against the blade. The technique is pictured to the right. After forming the handle, the next step is to focus on carving/rounding the back of the bowl of the spoon. You can use the thumb push as well as the thumb bypass techniques to slowly round the back of the piece into a rough bowl shape, removing material from the edges to make a smooth transition to the bowl wall.  At this point in the process, you should have a rough spoon with a rounded bowl shape at the end. 

The next step in carving is to hollow out the bowl of the spoon, which can be accomplished with either a hook knife or with a gouge. Hook knives have rounded blades, which cut in a scooping motion across the face of the spoon bowl. Place the spoon on your knee, slightly tipped away from you to help protect your thumb from the path of the hook knife. Press down with the blade of the hook knife onto the spoon bowl, and then shallowly pass over the material with the blade of the knife. It should be a shallow scooping cut across the wood, removing thin shavings, using the thumb bypass method with the thumb acting as a lever to help provide power. In order to form a symmetrical bowl, you’ll need to adjust your approach/angle of the knife by moving the spoon blank around on your knee. 

When working with hardwoods, particularly with a piece that is dry as opposed to green wood, it can be difficult to scoop out the bowl using a hook knife. Wood gouges can also be used for hollowing the bowl, by placing the spoon blank on a solid surface and creating small scrapes of wood using the rounded metal gouge. This tool can help to apply more force from above on more difficult materials. 

After hollowing out the bowl of the spoon, the next step is the bane of the woodworker: sanding. In general, use sandpaper from a low grit (such as 150 grit) and work your way up to higher grits, rubbing the sandpaper over the wooden spoon to smooth edges and remove any burrs or roughness. This is a part of the process that can really elevate your spoon; take the time to sand thoroughly and work gradually up to a high grit sandpaper. I usually take my spoons up to 600 or 800 grit, so that the piece feels smooth to the touch in hand. An additional step is optional, but helps to improve finish: burnishing the wood. This means simply rubbing the wooden piece with a hard, smooth surface to smooth the ends of the wood grain after sanding. I use a small rounded piece of quartz, but anything smooth and rounded could work to burnish. 

After sanding and burnishing, the final step to process a carved wooden spoon is to apply a food-safe oil to seal the wood. There are a variety of materials that can be used, but I use several coatings of a food-grade mineral oil, applying liberally to the entire surface area of the spoon and allowing it to dry. Other options include linseed oil, poppy oil, rapeseed oil, or beeswax. For a cooking spoon, I would apply a coating of oil every day for a week, every week for a month, and then once a month for a year to be safe and ensure the quality of the wood. Mineral oil helps to protect the wood, but does need to be reapplied over time, much like a wooden butcher’s block. Linseed oil, another popular option, would have been commonly used in period. I’ve recently switched to using raw linseed oil for finishing wood. 

My Projects: 

For my pieces, the materials selected had more to do with availability than anything else. I don’t have access to naturally growing hardwoods or a bandsaw, so I ordered packages of freshly harvested wood from specialty woodworking shops. I experimented with a few different kinds of woods, starting with the beginner-friendly basswood. This is not a hardwood, and is known for being soft to carve and thus easy for beginners to try their hand. It would not have been available in period.  Instead, lindenwood is referenced as a commonly hand carved wood. After this, I approached more general hardwoods such as elm, walnut, maple, and birch, which would have been naturally occurring in period in Europe. I most enjoyed the pieces in which I traced my intended design onto a blank wooden billet, and then cut out the rough outline myself using a coping saw, creating a piece from a simple chunk of wood. 

Deviations from Period Technique 

The number and quality of carving tools I had available would not likely have been an option for a peasant carver. Instead, all general carving of the handle and back of bowl would have been accomplished with a single sloyd or handicrafts knife. The hollowing of the bowl can be completed with a sloyd knife, although hook knives would have been used in period as well by those with access to the tool. The medieval artisan would not have used a coping saw, and instead would have processed the wood from log to billet to blank using a hand axe. 

The modern woodworker has ready access to a wide variety of sandpapers at various grits; this was not the case in the medieval period. They used a variety of abrasives to smooth wood instead, including fine sand, rottenstone (a soft, weathered limestone), pumice stone,  shave grass (an herb), reeds, or waxed cloth. Modern sandpaper allows woodworkers to achieve much finer finishes than would have likely been possible using period techniques. 

Wood is a natural material, and must be treated in order to prevent rot. Pliny the Elder discussed the use of Amurca, the oil-less by-product in the manufacture of olive oil, and also oils of cedar, larch, juniper and nard-bush to preserve wooden objects from decay. A common oil applied to wood for preservation in the middle ages was linseed oil, which is still used by woodworkers today. Many modern woodworkers use boiled linseed oil, which has been chemically treated to speed up the drying process of the oil. This oil is not food safe for cooking or eating utensils, however, raw linseed oil is food safe and a period treatment; several of my later spoons have been treated with raw linseed oil. Beeswax could also be used on the surface of wood, something I have begun adding to my own pieces, which adds an additional layer of protection as well as improves finish. 

History of Spoon Carving: The Craft

Unlike many arts in the medieval period, the carving of spoons was a craft of the common folk, and created something essential to everyday life for people at all levels of social strata. From the highest noble to the cultivators of the earth, everyone needs a spoon at mealtimes. While specialized artisans may have hawked their wares in larger cities or burgs, the majority of wooden spoons would have been made locally; by the user, someone in their household, or traded for. The nature of wood makes long term preservation of common wooden items in this period difficult; few extant examples of these simple, everyday objects exist to observe. However, based on illuminations and artworks of the period, as well as the archaeological record, one can understand the use and creation of the simple household spoon.

Man has been carving wood well into prehistory; the Shigir Idol, a piece of carved wood dating to 7,500 BCE found in a bog near Kirovgrad, Ukraine demonstrates the heritage of this craft. In addition to several carved figures, offerings including a wooden cup, wooden spoons, and other functional wood items were found. These finds predate the Egyptian pyramids, and indicate the working of wood as both an art form as well as for the production of everyday items. Wood is an easily sourced natural resource, found in a large variety of climes, and can be shaped using simple tools. It is little wonder that man recognized the utility of the material and created techniques to shape it. 

The Bean Eater by Annibale Carraci, 1585, shows the common man at a meal. The wooden spoon features prominently as a utensil. 

The craft of spoon carving is simple, and can be accomplished with a sharp knife and a suitable piece of wood. Other specialized carving tools can improve the process; these carving tools include scorps, gouges, sloyd knives, adzes, and axes. Carpenters would have had access to a variety of tools, whereas an individual may have simply whittled out a rough-hewn spoon or bowl using only one knife. The craft may be simple, but that is not to say that it is easy. Strong hands, patience, and care with a knife are all required of the carver. However, with ready access to raw materials and the basic tools, as well as the everyday necessity of a spoon as a utensil, the craft of spoon carving was not as specialized a trade and was likely practiced by the common person. It is easy to picture the image of a peasant carving a spoon by the fire during the sedentary months of winter as both a constructive use of time, and for enjoyment.

In my research, I could not find any directions on how to carve spoons, if they existed in writing at all, that have survived to the present. Most hardwoods can be used for spoons, but in order to be carved by hand, the wood should be green. Green wood refers to wood that has been freshly harvested, that has not lost the moisture between its fibers. This moisture softens the fibers, and makes the material easier to carve. Hardwoods that are dry can still be carved, but require more specialized tools such as gouges, and thus wouldn’t have been the preferred choice for material. Some popular woods for spoon carving, native to Europe, include birch, cherry, walnut, chestnut, and ash. Surviving artifacts of other common household goods in this period are made of these same materials. 

Use of the Spoon in Period:

The word " spoon," derived from the Anglo-Saxon spon, a chip, points to wood as the material of which the spoons of our Teutonic ancestors were commonly formed. But in all probability spoons were also made of horn and bone during what is known as the Anglo-Saxon period. There, however, appear to be no sufficient grounds for saying that spoons of metal, or at any rate of the precious metals, were in use to any appreciable extent during this period

In later period, examples of metal spoons begin appearing in the archaeological record, including the 15th century pewter spoon found to the left. These were far from the norm, and represented items that indicated status. Silver spoons were used by nobles, with pewter as a common derivative substitute, however wood and bone were the primary materials for spoons. 

Something that surprised me in my research regarding spoons in the Medieval context was the lack of spoons depicted in use at the table, or in dining scenes. Frequently diners were depicted with only knives at their place settings, cutting off chunks from a central dish and transferring the food to a plate or bowl using the point of the knife. There are exceptions, where spoons are depicted as a part of the utensils, but generally I found spoons to be used in the cooking and serving of food as opposed to a personal utensil in artworks of this time.

Below: An example of spoons as utensils at the table, Lutrell Psalter, 14th Century

St. Elizabeth of Hungary feeding the poor with a spoon, relief on reliquary, 1235. 

A more typical depiction of the spoon would be in the kitchen, during the preparation of food to be served. These were probably similar to ladles or serving spoons, designed to stir and scoop. To the left, a 15th century illumination demonstrates a conventional use of a wooden spoon. More kitchen scenes reinforce this context, making it clear that the wooden spoon was a necessary implement for the preparation of meals. Smaller spoons were also likely used by individuals for pottages and broths, but the general use of the spoon was in the kitchen. There are also numerous depictions of spoons being used to serve food or water to another individual, such as in the relief carved onto the side of a metal reliquary dedicated to St. Elizabeth, which shows her serving food to the poor using a spoon. 

One aspect which might be surprising to modern sensibilities is the communal aspect of eating, particularly among the lower classes. While nobles may eat seated at a table in a hall, many commoners would share a large bowl or kettle of food without individual plates or bowls. Below a kind of outdoor picnic is depicted, in which multiple people dip their personal spoons into a shared bowl. As illustrated, spoons were a necessary utensil for daily life at all levels of society, and served multiple functions for eating, serving, and preparing food. 

Depiction of a woman holding a spoon over a kettle,  from Book of Hours, 1418. 

In a 1586 work, The Book of Trades or Das Standebuch by Jost Amman, the Cook is depicted holding the tools of his trade, including the iconic wooden spoon. These images were supposed to be archetypal representations of individual trades, their environments, and tools; the fact that a spoon is centrally featured is significant and illustrates the everyday necessity of the humble wooden spoon.  

Spoons continued to be manufactured as relative handicrafts until the industrial revolution, when they began to be produced en masse from brass and pewter. A more “typical” example of a common spoon in late period can be found below from the shipwreck of the Mary Rose dating to 1545. 


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Carraci, Annibale. The Bean Eater. 1585. Oil on Canvas. Galleria Colonna. Rome, Italy.