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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
- Cutting the scraps to size and shape.
- Sanding and finishing each piece.
- Drilling the hole in the back to receive the magnet.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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