The Process: From Billet to Spoon
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.
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.
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.
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.
History of Spoon Carving: The Craft
The Bean Eater by Annibale Carraci, 1585, shows the common man at a meal. The wooden spoon features prominently as a utensil.
Use of the Spoon in Period:
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.
Carraci, Annibale. The Bean Eater. 1585. Oil on Canvas. Galleria Colonna. Rome, Italy.