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The Literary Workshop Blog

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Making what I need with my hands.
Updated: 59 min 28 sec ago

A Kitchen Essential: The “Staked” Stool

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 7:52am

I don’t remember much of the furniture I grew up with, but one small piece stands out in my memory.  It was a small, oak footstool, which was kicked around my parents’ kitchen for years (sometimes literally).  I believe that it was made by some friends who were into woodworking at the time.  They made a batch of them to sell, and my parents bought one.  It’s survived several decades of heavy use in their house, so when I first began working wood, one of my first projects was a similar kitchen stool.

My resources were limited, and so was my skill set.  The original stool, which I built 10 years ago, was made entirely from pine.  I was not at all confident in my mortise-and-tenon joints, so I ended up just dovetailing the legs into the sides.

Dovetailed Footstool Texas

That stool stood up for five years, but eventually the legs all came loose.  By that time I had the tools to make tapered tenons, so I ended up cutting the stool’s top shorter, boring angled mortises, and installing new legs, also made from pine.

That version of the stool lasted five more years.  But even though I had reinforced the pine top with battens underneath, the whole thing finally split in half.  It was clearly time to replace this old stool with something more substantial.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

This is the rebuilt and re-broken stool, standing atop the pieces that will become its replacement.

In theory, there was nothing wrong with the rebuilt stool’s construction.  The only problem is that construction-grade pine is not a good material for the seat.  The open grain in the mortises doesn’t take glue well, and the wood is too easy to split.

An ideal replacement would have a hardwood top, preferably made from a close-grained hardwood, and legs made of a tough hardwood appropriate to the task.  I had no wood thick and wide enough for the top, though.  After considering the wood I did have on hand, I opted for a laminated cherry top and red oak legs.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The cherry wood is a story in itself.  I had several boards that I had gotten for free out of a pile of junk lumber.  They had a lot of bug holes, and the ends were rotted–which is why they were free!  But each one had a little sound wood inside.  It took all the good wood from two of these 6′ boards to make one top for a stool.

As I cut into the cherry, I had a minimum length in mind (11″), but I was able to cut a few pieces longer (up to 12″), just in case I needed to cut around defects later on.  As I looked at my collection of wood strips, though, I found that I could place the longest ones in the middle and the shortest at the end, which would allow the ends of the top to be curved instead of straight.  There’s no functional advantage to curved ends, but they will look nicer.

The wood strips were pretty rough when I brought them into the shop.  I oriented all the worst edges in one direction (see photo above), which would be the bottom.  Then I planed the other three sides.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Even nasty looking lumber can clean up nicely.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Lots of glue and an overnight clamp-up later, I had a top.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

While top was in the clamps, I turned my attention to the legs.  I selected some straight-grained red oak I had stashed away for just such an occasion.  The oak came from a neighbor’s tree, which was taken down a while ago.  I had sawn up a few pieces to about 1 1/2″ square, expecting to eventually build some kind of a stool or chair.  I cut four billets to about 12″ long.  That allowed me plenty of leeway to eventually trim either end to final length.  The stool itself will end up 10 1/2″ tall.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I planed them roughly square, but there was no reason to obsess over making them identical in thickness.  What’s the final thickness of the legs?  I have no idea.  Somewhere a little under the 1 1/2″ they started out as.  But it really doesn’t matter.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I set them in cradles to plane the square pieces down to octagons.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I love how the oak shavings pile up on the windowsill beside my bench.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I marked the approximate center of each leg with a Forstner bit the same width as the small end of the tapered tenon cutter–in this case 1/2″.  I have a tapered tenon cutter (essentially a giant pencil sharpener) that allows me to shave down a perfect tenon.  First, however, it is necessary to roughly shape a taper on the end of the leg before cutting it to final shape with the tenon cutter.

For one insane moment I considered sawing the taper down–eight cuts on four legs.  Then I came to my senses and reached for my drawknife.  I marked 1″ below the tenon cutter’s length and started with the drawknife.  Although the tenon cutter makes an accurate cut, it can be slow going.  If the workpiece is just a little too thick, the tenon cutter stops cutting, and then it’s necessary to remove more stock with spokeshave before continuing with the tenon cutter.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Eventually I got them all cut.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The next day, I turned my attention back to the top.  The glue was dry, and the top was ready to be planed.  This is the “good” side, which will be the visible top.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Planing across the grain with a jack plane quickly leveled out the slab.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

A smoothing plane with the grain leaves everything flat and silky smooth.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Viewing a planed surface with raking light helps identify any irregularities.  I know I’m going overboard here, though.  This surface is going to be stood on regularly, so it’s not necessary to make everything precisely flat and smooth.  But a smooth surface is less likely to collect grime and easier to clean than a rough surface.

Plus, cherry is fun to plane.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Next I cut a gentle curve on each end.  Marking out the curve was easy.  To mark this kind of curve, I’ve seen woodworkers rig up some kind of trammel or pencil-and-string apparatus.  But it’s not necessary to draw a geometrically-precise curve.  Your arm will do nicely.  Your elbow is the pivot point.  Place it in line with the center of the workpiece.  Then hold the pencil and swing your arm from side to side.  The result is as fair a curve as you could want on a stool.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The only really tricky part of this whole build is boring the holes at the correct angle.  Set a bevel gauge to a pleasing angle (I used one of the legs on the original stool) and eyeball the rest. If I do this much more, I’ll make myself an angle-gauge that will stand up easier.  I kept knocking the bevel gauge over.

I did have to double-check that I was boring the correct angle on the correct side.  The last time I did this, I bored the holes backwards, and the bottom instantly became the top.

Actually, boring at the correct angle isn’t the hard part.  It’s reaming the holes at the correct angle that is difficult.  At least with the auger bit, once you’ve established the correct angle with a few turns of the brace, the bit will keep going at pretty much the same angle you started with.  The reamer, however, can be tilted in many different directions at any time, so you have to repeatedly check your angle every few turns.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Even with repeated checking, the angles are visibly different from each other.  Oh well.  They’re not far enough off to affect the stool in use.

Also, as you approach the final depth with the reamer, test-fit the leg frequently.  Once the top of the leg pokes up through the top, it’s time to stop reaming.  Mark the hole and the leg so you make sure you don’t get them mixed up later.

Now, as tempting as it would be to just glue up the legs now, it is best to do all the shaping and trimming work on the top before inserting the legs.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

First, I eased the edges just a little all around the underside of the top.  It gives the whole piece a lighter look.  I used a plane and spokeshave to relieve all the sharp edges.  You don’t want a sharp corner when you inevitably bash your shin against it while carrying dishes through the kitchen.

I also found just a few old bug holes and one little soft spot on the end that needed attention.  I saturated the soft spot with thin superglue, which will stabilize the wood.  I filled the bug holes with sawdust and dripped superglue onto them, too.  After drying the superglue with a hairdryer, I used a card scraper to remove the excess glue, leaving a perfectly smooth, filled void.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Once the top is shaped, trimmed, and smoothed, it’s time to get ready to install the legs.  I find that legs like this will tend to work loose if they aren’t secured somehow, so I decided to wedge the tenons.  Here’s how:

  1. Make the wedges the same width as the top of the mortise. Give them an aggressive taper–not too low an angle!  Use a tough, seasoned wood like oak or hickory.  These are pecan, also a tough wood.
  2. Insert the legs and mark a line across the grain of the top.  With the tenon saw, cut a kerf in the top of each leg to a depth of about 1″.  You just need the kerfs deep enough to allow the very top of the tenon to expand and lock the leg into the mortise.
  3. Use a half-round file or a knife to relieve the tops of the mortises, just on the end-grain.  That way, when you drive the wedges in, the tops of the tenons will have space to expand, creating a reversed taper and locking the legs in place.
  4. Place clamps across the top to prevent the top from splitting as you drive the tenons in.  This is a nice time to call in a little shop assistant to help.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Dinner was almost ready.  Once the smaller kids were done setting the table, they each came over to help insert the legs into the mortises.  We slathered the tenons with lots of wood glue, rotated them in the mortises until the whole surface was coated, and then pressed them in.  I had marked the inside of each leg so I got the best grain oriented to the outside.  Finally, we tapped each leg home with a mallet.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Before sitting down to dinner, we flipped the stool over and drove in the wedges.  Wedging tenons is a tricky thing.  If you don’t drive the wedges in deep enough, the wedging action won’t happen.  But drive a wedge in too hard, and you risk breaking it off inside the slot.  (If that does happen, about the only thing to do is to quickly cut another wedge with a blunt tip and try to drive it in on top of the broken one.  Sometimes it works.)  Just tap the wedge firmly until it stops.  If you’re paying attention, you’ll feel it stop.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I let the glue dry overnight, then sawed off the tops of the wedges and planed everything flush.

On a stool like this, there are two potentially weak places, so it pays to reinforce each one.  The first is the joints, which can work loose over time.  Which is why I wedged the tenons.  The other potential weak spot is the top itself.  The long grain between the legs is unsupported and could possibly split in half if, say, somebody jumped and landed hard on the middle of the stool.  So as one final piece of insurance, I nailed two battens underneath the top.  For the battens, I selected a wood that is strong along the grain but fairly lightweight: southern yellow pine.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Although these battens will be mostly unseen, I still took the time to plane them smooth and chamfer the edges.  Not only will this make picking up the stool easier on the fingers, but it lends just a little bit of grace to what is otherwise a very plain design.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

What are the dimensions of the battens?  I don’t know, really.  Probably about 3/8″ thick and 1 1/2″ wide, more or less.  What is more important is that they are flat sawn or rift sawn, not quartersawn.  When nailing battens like this in place, the nails will hold better (and be less likely to split to wood) if they punch through the growth rings rather than between them.

I used cut nails, which require a pilot hole but hold very firmly.  With a good pilot hole, you can pound in these nails perilously close to the ends of the battens without splitting them.  I placed the battens as far apart as I could, which ended up being right up against the legs.

The last major step is to cut off the bottoms of the legs so the stool won’t wobble.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The easiest way is to place the stool on a relatively flat surface (such as the top of your workbench) and use something of the right thickness as a gauge to mark around each leg with a pencil.  The end of my bevel gauge happened to be just right.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The only difficult part of this operation is holding the work steady as you cut the legs to length.  It seems that however you hold them, the other legs are in the way of your handsaw.  Well, so be it.  Saw carefully, and try not to hit the other legs as you do so.

Just saw to your pencil lines, and don’t worry about being any more accurate than that.  You could try to get the bottom of each leg precisely co-planar so the stool will sit perfectly on a perfectly flat surface.  But that’s pointless because your floors aren’t that flat.  As long as you get everything close enough, the stool’s top and legs will flex a little as you stand on it, and it won’t wobble in use.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The last shaping job to do is to relieve the sharp edges around the bottoms of the legs.  Chamfering those edges will make the legs less likely to splinter on the ends.  I used a spokeshave, but you could use a sanding block and sandpaper just as easily.

And now, here it is, the finished product:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The final dimensions are 10 1/2″ tall, 11 1/2″ wide, and 9 1/2″ deep.

Now to apply a quick finish to bring out the colors and make the inevitable dirt a little easier to clean off.

I applied some homemade Danish oil (equal parts polyurethane, safflower oil, and mineral spirits), using a couple heavy coats on the top especially.  After letting it dry for a day in front of a fan, it was ready to use.

Here’s a shot of the underside now that everything is finished:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

And the completed stool:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Now that it’s done, I’m thinking it’s almost too pretty to use.

Almost.

Trash –> Treasure, or New Spoons from Old Furniture

Sat, 02/10/2018 - 2:38pm

When I sell my spoons and spatulas at craft markets, people always ask me, “Where do you get the wood?”  I often laugh because, truth be told, practically ever piece of wood has a story behind it.  More often than not, I don’t really find the wood; the wood finds me.  This is the story of one such wood-finding event, which happened just last month.

We were pulling up to the house when we spotted two old dressers that somebody had dropped off in the neighborhood trash pile across the street.  (It’s the spot where we dump yard waste for weekly pickup by the trash truck.)  They looked pretty rough from a distance, but we decided they might be worth a closer look.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Upon first inspection, the dressers were indeed trash.  The veneer was peeling off of every visible surface, and some of the edges and feet were rotted–evidently from being exposed to standing water.  The hardware was gone, too.  If I were a furniture restoration guy, I probably would have passed these up as lost causes.

However, old furniture often contains good-quality hardwood that is excellent for spoon making, so I put on my work gloves, grabbed my crowbar and claw hammer, and started pulling them apart.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

A number of the drawers were stuck, so I began by removing the plywood backs so I could push the drawers out from the back.  What I saw was encouraging.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Although the insides smelled pretty musty, the construction was nearly all solid wood.  The only plywood parts were the backs and the drawer bottoms.  And all the drawer sides and backs were solid mahogany, much of it with very pretty figure.  (More on that below!)

As I took the dressers apart, I began to get a sense of their age.  The machine-cut dovetails and mahogany-veneered case indicates mid-twentieth century construction.  They were nice dressers in their time–not the fanciest you could buy, but well built and attractive.  It’s a shame that they were neglected and allowed to get to this state in the first place.

After about an hour, I had disassembled both dressers entirely, picked out the pieces that might yield useful lumber, and discarded the rest.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

I carried home two dresser tops (both laminated oak), four dresser sides (all laminated poplar), a bunch of mahogany-veneered plywood (from the drawer bottoms), and quite a few drawer blades (the horizontal pieces that separate the drawers).

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Not to mention a whole pile of pre-finished 1/2″ thick mahogany boards in various lengths and widths.  I think I’ll be making some pencil boxes and jewelry boxes soon!

But I’m mainly here for spoon wood, so on to the less-superficially-attractive stuff!  The sides and drawer blades had the best spoon wood: soft maple and poplar.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

But before I could start cutting spoons and spatulas out of this wood, I had to work carefully to remove all the nails and screws I could find.  I also pried off as much of the veneer as possible.

The next step was to bring out my templates and start deciding on the best uses for each piece.  Ideally, I would get a good mix of spoons and spatulas out of this pile of wood, but the nature of the material often dictates what I can and can’t do with it.  Looking at every piece from every side, I had to work around mortises, screw holes, and rot–all the while paying attention to grain direction.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

In many cases, I found I could nest different utensils within the same board.  It became a Tetris-like game of optimizing the placement of each utensil on each piece of wood.  Often it took me working through several possible configurations to get the most out of each piece.

Once I had the shapes laid out, I sawed each workpiece to length with a hand saw.  Then I sawed out the rough shape of each utensil on the bandsaw.  With each cut, I was careful to watch for stray hardware like embedded nails and other mortal enemies of saw teeth.

Back at my workbench, I went to work on some of the poplar.  This is tulip poplar, which has a light yellow sapwood but distinctively green heartwood.  The wood was very dry, but poplar works quite easily with hand tools, and in short order I was able to make some spoons and spatulas.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

The green color is entirely natural.  I think the shavings look like that vegetable-pasta that we sometimes have for dinner–except this has extra fiber.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

I did end up having to discard a few blanks because of flaws that only became apparent once I started carving, but much of the wood has turned out to be very useful.  So while I was sad to witness the end of what was once some nice furniture, I am happy to give some of the wood a new lease on life.

 

How to Make Refrigerator Magnets from Wood Scraps

Sun, 01/07/2018 - 5:30pm

Some wood scraps are just too pretty to throw away.  For example, the briar wood burl from which I make tobacco pipes has beautiful flame-grain, and some even has eye-catching natural edges.  So every time I make a pipe, I set aside a few of the biggest off-cuts to turn into refrigerator magnets.  Here are some of the magnets I’ve made for my own refrigerator:

Briar Fridge Magnets 1-2015 - - 3

You don’t have to use briar wood for this kind of project–you can use any little scrap of wood with grain patterns that are too interesting to throw away.  Wood that is spalted, curly, or otherwise figured will work very well.  The simple process involves four steps:

  1. Cutting the scraps to size and shape.
  2. Sanding and finishing each piece.
  3. Drilling the hole in the back to receive the magnet.
  4. Affixing the magnet.

Even if you don’t have all the tools in the pictures that follow, you can make your own magnets with just a few, simple tools, which include a sharp handsaw, a drill, and sandpaper in several grits.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Shaping

Cutting pieces of wood this small really should not be attempted on a power saw.  I use a sharp handsaw and a bench hook (the platform device pictured below) to cut the pieces to shape.  Theoretically, any size will do, but I find that it’s best to cut pieces to between 3/8″ and 5/8″ thick, and to make each piece between 1″ and 1.5″ wide/high.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 4

You can now go directly to sanding in order to remove all the saw marks, but it’s faster to start with a sharp handplane if you have one.  Holding pieces this small can be a challenge.  I use a handscrew clamped to my workbench to hold each piece for planing.  Smooth down the front and each side.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 3

It can be difficult to cut such small pieces to precise right angles, so I often use my shooting board to trim each piece square.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 1

A shooting board is a platform that allows a handplane to be used on its side to trim a piece of wood to a precise right angle.  They’re not difficult to construct and are very handy in the wood shop.

Step 2: Sanding and Finishing

If you’re using wood scraps from your own scrap bin, you probably already have a good idea about what kind of finish will best accentuate the grain of the wood you are using.  You may want to use an oil finish to “pop” the grain, or you may just want to apply a clear coat of lacquer or polyurethane.  In any case, remember that these pieces of wood will be handled and looked at closely, so it’s worth the trouble to sand through several grits of sandpaper in order to achieve a smooth texture.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

For briar wood, the grain pattern shows up best when you apply a dark stain and then lightly sand it back.  For these magnets, I sanded through 150, 220, and 320 grits.  Then I used a dark red stain and sanded to 400 grit.  It is easiest to sand small workpieces by laying the sandpaper down on a flat surface and rubbing the wood back and forth on it.  For detail work, I like to use a foam-backed emery board (with sandpaper wrapped around it once the original grit wears off).

One little time-saving hint: you don’t have to finish the edges if you don’t want to.  I sand the edges to 220 and dye them black with some black leather dye (a black Sharpie marker would also work).  Not only does it save me the trouble of sanding through the grits, but the dark edges provide a visual “frame” that draws attention to the grain.  On some taller pieces, I orient the workpiece so the natural, “live edge” is on the top.  I stain the live edge black and stain the edges a contrasting color.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

It pays to consider the grain patterns when cutting out your workpieces.  You want grain that is not only attractive but that is accentuated by the shape you cut the piece into.  As you can see, it need not be a square or a rectangle.  If the grain suggests a circle, an oval, or even an ice cream cone shape, then do it!

 

After staining and sanding, I finish my briar magnets with Danish Oil, which I let dry for a couple hours before buffing by hand to a low luster.

Step 3: Drill the Hole on the Reverse Side

Up to this point, this project has been all about aesthetics.  Now it’s time to deal with mechanics.  You could just glue a magnet onto the back of each piece and be done with it, but I find it more effective to drill a very shallow hole and recess the magnet in the back just a little.  Not only does it ensure proper placement of each magnet, but it also increases the available glue surface and provides a little mechanical security for the magnet.  Run your drill at a fairly low speed if possible, and as soon as the bit starts to bite, stop.  Your hole need not be any deeper than 1/8″.  When installed, the magnet should stand just proud of the surface of the wood.  In use, this will make it easy for you to remove the magnets from your refrigerator.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

Before we go further, let’s talk about these magnets for a minute.  The magnets that I’m using are rare-earth magnets, which I get from Lee Valley. If you’ve never used rare-earth magnets, you will be shocked at how strong even a small one can be.  A 3/8″ diameter magnet can easily hold five or six sheets of paper on your fridge.  I buy a “sampler pack” with several different sizes of disks and rods.  (Warning: rare-earth magnets can be dangerous or even fatal if swallowed. Do not let small children play with them!)  Bought this way, they are about $0.50 apiece.  Bought individually, they run about a dollar apiece.  I especially like to use the rod magnets (1/4″ diameter by 1/4″ or 1/2″ tall) and the medium-sized circular magnets (1/8″ thick by either 3/8″ or 1/2″ diameter).

I use a drill with an appropriate-sized bit to bore the very-shallow hole in the back-side of each workpiece.  Most need only one magnet, but you can also insert three of the very smallest magnets (1/8″ disks) into a bigger workpiece for extra holding power.

Step 4: Affix the Magnets

Unlike a lot of conventional magnets, rare-earth magnets are “reversible.”  That is, either side will stick firmly to a metal surface.  However, one side is still a little stronger than the other and will hold more firmly.  In the kinds of magnets I use, the “back” or weaker side is marked with a faint, red dot.  If your magnets aren’t marked, a little experimentation will tell you which side should face out.

Because these magnets are so strong, you must use a very strong glue, or else the first time you try to pull the magnet off your fridge, the wood part may come off in your hand, leaving the magnet itself sticking tightly to the metal surface.  I highly recommend a good, 2-part epoxy.  The ones with the longest cure-times are the strongest when fully cured, so skip the “quick-set” kind and go straight for the 24-hour cure time.  (I have successfully used JB-Weld epoxy, but be warned that this epoxy is slightly metallic and can be difficult to spread on the magnets.)  Mix up the epoxy according to the directions, apply a generous amount to each hole, and carefully insert each magnet.  Then leave them alone to let the glue cure completely.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

In the photo above, notice that the magnets are spaced out on the workbench.  If you cluster them together too closely before the glue is cured, sometimes the rare-earth magnets will be attracted to each other and will be pulled out of the glue before it has had a chance to set.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

Once the glue and the finish are dry, it’s time to put them up on the fridge–or on whatever metal surface you like.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

This is one of the best uses for small scraps of figured wood that I have ever come across.  And every time I hang my kids’ artwork on the fridge, I’m glad I took the time to make these very special magnets.


Tagged: briar, briar wood, epoxy, fridge magnet, magnet, magnets, rare-earth magnet, refrigerator magnet, saving wood scraps, using wood scraps

My Love-Hate Relationship with Spoon Carving Templates

Sun, 12/31/2017 - 12:47pm

I don’t remember exactly when I began to use templates to lay out my wooden spoons and spatulas, but after I had made my first dozen or so wooden spoons, I hit upon a couple of spoon shapes that just “worked” for me.  There were two of them, and they were comfortable to hold and convenient to use.  So every time I went to make another wooden spoon, I grabbed those spoons from my own kitchen and traced them out onto my workpiece.

Eventually I got tired of running to the kitchen every time I made a spoon, so I endeavored to make some templates out of some scraps of seasoned pine.  Over the course of a couple years, I made templates for two kinds of spoon and two kinds of spatulas.  It took a couple of tries to get each of the templates just right, but once I did, they worked.

And worked.

And worked.

I’ve been using some of these templates for 7 years now.  I’ve made dozens and dozens of utensils from these templates, and they sell reliably at markets.

But a couple months ago, I was making yet another batch of spoons for an upcoming holiday market.  I was in the middle of shaping yet another spoon and thought, “If I have to make one more spoon following these exact same lines, I’m going to scream!”

I didn’t scream. I held it in. But I did start deviating from my lines here and there, and it felt good.

Varying length, width, and depth a little bit here and there as the wood allows has brought some of the spontaneity back into my spoon making, and that’s a healthy thing when I’m cranking out a batch of spoons for an upcoming market.  But if I depart too far from the template, I will end up with a virtually useless utensil.  A handle that’s only one inch too long or short, a bowl that’s just a half-inch too wide or too narrow, or a neck that’s just 1/8″ too thick or too thin is all that separates a great utensil from a mediocre one.

Let me illustrate.  Take a look at these utensils:

Old Spoons New Spoons 2017

The ones on the left were made “freehand.”  I had a piece of wood in about that size, so I made a spoon or spatula out of it.  Each utensil is functional, but there’s something about each one that makes it a little awkward to use.  Maybe the handle is a bit too long or a bit too short, too thin or too thick.  They’re not bad, but they wouldn’t sell at a market. The two on the right, however, were made from templates, and experience tells me they will sell.  They feel right in the hand.

So for me it’s a delicate balance between varying each piece a little bit and staying within a very narrow range of proportions that fit the ordinary human hand.

A lot of spoon carvers avoid templates entirely.  Some sketch the spoon out freehand on the blank before carving it, while others just go at it with a hatchet and knife and see what comes out.  It can be fun to just “follow the grain,” and people who work without templates or layout lines will often say that they “just let the wood tell me what it wants to be.” The problem with that approach, however, is that all the wood really “wants” to be is a stick.  You have to turn it into a spoon.  And while it is important to work within the limits imposed by the material, you can’t let the material control the process and expect good results.

Another problem with the “let the wood decide what it wants to be” mentality is that, in the end, it’s not the wood that will be using the spoon; it’s a human being.  Although there’s always something of a symbiotic relationship between a woodworker and his or her material, ultimately the human has to be the one in charge.

The results of the “free” method can be anywhere on a spectrum between amazing and useless, with most falling somewhere in the middle–often clustering around “bemusing” and “not quite right.”  And I have two drawers full of my earliest spoons to prove it.  If you’re just making stuff to amuse yourself, then there’s no harm in working spontaneously all the time.  But if you aspire to make an excellent object–something that is both useful and pleasing–and further, if you need to make money by selling those objects (as I do), then you had better lay your work out carefully before you start.


Tagged: carve a wooden spoon, make a wooden spoon, spoon carving, spoon making, template, templates, wood spoon, wooden spoon, wooden spoons

My First Woodworking Project (I think)

Sun, 11/19/2017 - 6:45pm

The other day I was rummaging around in an old box of scraps, and I pulled out a chunk of wood that I had completely forgotten about.

Doorstop 1996

It doesn’t look like much, but I’m pretty sure it’s my first woodworking project (not counting the tree forts I built with my brothers when I was a kid).  It’s a doorstop cut out of a 2X4.

I vaguely recall making this to prop a door open at a local church fellowship hall.  I used only one tool to make it: a circular saw.  Looking at the uneven surface, I recall that the sawblade was small (or I didn’t know how to adjust the depth), so it didn’t cut all the way through the 2X4.  So I cut part the way through it, flipped the workpiece over, and finished the cut from the other side–very unevenly.  I can’t believe I was happy enough with my work to put my name on it, but I must have been.

Doorstop 1996

The only reason I share it here is that it’s the first project I signed and dated.  I was a teenager back then.  I’m pretty sure I “carved” my initials and the year with a flathead screwdriver and a hammer.

It was not exactly an auspicious beginning to my woodworking avocation, but in one respect it was a telling start.  I represents a moment in my life when I looked at problem and came up with a solution that required only the tools and materials I had on hand.  And while I now have a lot more tools and a lot more materials on hand than I used to, this is still the approach that defines much of my work.  Whether it’s a need for a storage crate or a small table or a wooden spoon, I still delight in making what I need with my own hands.


Tagged: door stop, doorstop, signature