So I used to live in the UK, where there are about 40 or so native tree species. For the past few years I’ve been living in the Midwest of the United States. The US is home to about 950 native or naturalised tree species. Granted, not all of them live in Wisconsin. That said, the Trees of Wisconsin Field Guide IDs 101 trees and claims most of them are native. So theres a lot of wood out there to carve.
For beginners, this can be a little overwhelming. You can narrow down your selection with the following sweeping statements. Don’t use softwoods (e.g. pines and spruces), don’t use ring porous species (e.g. oaks and ashes). Of course, you can carve a spoon from any wood but diffuse-porous wood tends to work best.
I really like Betula papyrifera. It’s a common, fast growing species, easily identified by it’s white bark. It’s a pioneer species, quickly growing where land has been disturbed. It’s also fairly short lived, so I don’t feel quite so bad when it gets cut down.
For me, the wood is the perfect level of hardness for spoon carving. Easy to shape with hand tools, but tough enough to stand up to use in the kitchen. It has a Janka hardness of 4,000N. (The Janka hardness test measures the force required to embed an 11.28 millimetres (0.444 in) diameter steel ball halfway into a sample of wood. I love weird forms of measurement like that.)
Acer saccharinum is very common here. It hybridises with Red Maple, so it can be hard to tell exactly what you’ve got, especially if you don’t have any leaves available, but either (and any in between) work well.
I love the smell of my workshop when I’ve been chomping through a bunch of maple. It might be my weakness for maple syrup, but the sweet, fresh scent of recently cut maple is my happy place. Come into my workshop unannounced and you might just catch me huffing the recently cut surface of maple like some sort of coke addict.
Silver maple is sometimes called Soft maple. It has a Janka hardness of 3,110N. So it’s softer than birch, but nowhere near woods I’d call soft (basswood (Tilia americana) measures just 1,800N). The name relates either to it’s tendency to lose branches in high winds or as a counter to Sugar maple Acer saccharum, which is also known as Hard maple (6,400N Janka hardness).
All maples have a beautiful grain to them. There’s often a chatoyance to it that catches the light in a subtle way. A lot of the silver maple I’ve worked with will have ripple grain somewhere in it. This adds to the beauty but can be a bit of a bugger to get a nice tool finish.
I was shocked the first time I came across someone cutting down a Prunus serotina. The thing was massive. They can grow over 30 meters (100 ft) tall. Cherry trees I saw back in the UK were rarely over 10 meters (30ft). Things really are bigger in the States.
Black cherry has a lovely pink heartwood that contrasts nicely against the pale cream sapwood. The heartwood will darken over time to a reddish brown, but the contrast against the sapwood tends to stay. The heartwood and sapwood also have a different texture to them when carved. The sapwood feels thicker and more elastic, kind of like carving through plastic. The heartwood feels a lot more brittle. It’s Janka hardness is 4,200N.
Just to show that rules are made to be broken, Juglans nigra is a semi-ring-porous. It’s a very desirable wood, often harvested for veneer and cabinetry. The great thing about spoon carving is that we don’t need the big bits of wood that gets turned into slabs. There’s plenty of material in the crown of the tree. A couple of years ago I got to paw through the crown wood of a locally cut walnut tree. The homeowners had sold the trunk but there was more wood in the crown than I could reasonably use.
Walnut carves real nice (4,500N Janka hardness). The heartwood is a rich dark brown but the sapwood is starkly pale in comparison. I carved a bunch of spoons that were half sapwood, half heartwood and a couple of people asked if I’d glued two species together.
Walnut does has a strong smell, which translates to a bit of flavour when still green. This will diminish over time and be overpowered by something like linseed oil.
My love of applewood probably signifies some sort of deep seated self loathing. It’s the hardest wood on this list (7,700N Janka), full of knots and nearly always has twisted grain. It also doesn’t grow very large so doesn’t work well with my style of production carving. But I just really like it. The light brown colour, subtle difference between the heartwood and sapwood. It’s a quietly beautiful wood. It’s not as shouty as cherry and walnut, warmer than maple and birch. The denseness of the wood results in utensils that feel reassuringly heavy. The complications of knots and twisty grain make any spoon you can tease out feel like a real achievement.
Gabriel Esquivel asked me what books on wood carving, design and function I own. These are a mix of books I’ve inhereted, received as gifts or bought myself. Some I’ve read cover-to-cover several times, others I’ve only read sections. Some links are Associate Links, it doesn’t cost you any extra but I earn a little from qualifying purchases. You certainly don’t need this many books, so check out the links to see if you think they’ll help you in your wood working journey.
Wood & Trees
Tools & Tool Making
Thoughts About Making
If you have any other book recommendations, please let me know in the comments.
The very first thing I start thinking about is the intended purpose of an object. The shape, size and material choice for an object changes dramatically depending on the function of an object. Is a spoon for eating or cooking with? Is a bowl for serving food or drinking? Is a cup for hot or cold drinks? Setting out just trying to make a spoon, a bowl or cup will often result in an inferior product. Function dictates the form.
I own a lot of woodenware made by other people. I read books on craft, design and making. I’ve hung out with and carved alongside many makers. I follow them on Instagram and currently have about 1,300 images of spoons, 350 images of hewn bowls and 200 images of turned work saved on Pinterest pages.
It’s incredibly important to have broad understanding of shapes and forms that not only work, but are aesthetically pleasing too. Be comfortable with finding a design you like and copying it. Craft has a long tradition of copying designs as a way for makers to better understand how to make different shapes and forms. I am always conscious in the copying; trying to make it as exact to the original as possible. I’m copying that work because there’s something about it that caught my interest. Trying to ‘make it my own’ too soon risks missing the piece of the puzzle that interested me. If I decide to share this work, it’s essential to cite the sources.
Building up a broad knowledge base of shape and form took time. It’s an ongoing process that really has no end, but I feel that I now have a good understanding of what might work without having to do as much research into existing vessels and utensils that fill the function I’m trying to perform.
With a new product I usually start with drawing out designs. It’s a lot quicker to sketch out a shape to get a rough understanding of how it looks than to carve a piece and then judge it. I tend to do a lot of sketches to narrow in on a form I think might work. No guarantee it will work, as translating a 2-D sketch into a 3-D object is a big jump. With the sketches I usually have a shape or design feature in mind already. Sketching allows me to see what works and what can be improved. Perhaps the handle of a spoon looks good but the width of the bowl needs tweaking. I can copy over the elements I think work and adjust those that don’t.
I can’t make something if I don’t have the right material for it. Some objects, like bowls, require wood of a certain diameter. Other objects, like ladles, need wood of a certain shape. I’m fortunate to know a couple of local tree surgeons as well as local friends tipping me off about available wood. As much as possible I want to select the right piece of wood for the work I have in mind. Bark inclusions, knots, ring shake - wood has many hidden ways to interrupt our plans. Instead of trying to make a stubborn piece work, these days I’d much rather discard it and find a more cooperative section of wood to work with.
I have yet to watch an episode of Tidying Up , but the internet is awash with articles about Marie Kondo and her efforts in encouraging people to clear clutter from their lives. From what I understand, the ‘KonMari’ method is to only keep the things that spark joy.
I think that’s a wonderful idea. My wife and I are lucky enough to live in a home that, by U.S. standards, is sparsely filled. We don’t have a lot of stuff. A big part of that is thanks to the traveling we did in our twenties. Spending a few years living out of backpacks, the sum total of goods we could own was at the behest of airline luggage restrictions. That was especially true of when I moved to the States. I brought 30kg (66lbs) of possessions with me. Being forced to pare down my possessions like that ended up with me only bringing the possessions that sparked joy. Pretty much all of the possessions that weren’t strictly practical were handmade.
I thoroughly believe that handmade objects have a special way of sparking joy in our lives. The object connects the user to the maker. Humans are social creatures, so that connectivity is appealing. As I understand it, part of the KonMari method is thanking objects for the service they provide. This has its roots in the Shinto religion. Inanimate objects can have spirits (kami) and objects can gain a soul through service.
As someone who makes objects for use, designing them to provide fruitful service, I know I put a little bit of myself in everything I make. I’ve heard many other makers talk about their own craft in a similar way. We take a shapeless raw material: clay, yarn, wood or steel, and through our own skill and diligence shape it into something that will be useful. It’s not an easy task. Nearly everyone I’ve met responds positively to handmade objects. We all admire the skill good craft requires. Often the results are beautiful. But they also have to be useful for them to properly provide service to us.
I’m a maker of objects. I’m also concerned about living lightly on the planet. There are times these two parts of me feel close to coming into conflict with each other. I love making things out of wood. The tactile pleasure of using hand tools to slowly reveal a beautiful object sparks joy in me. Ensuring that the object is functional assures me that those who buy my work will find joy in them too. I also find that using wood, especially that from urban trees, puts my mind at ease about the lifecycle of my products. When they cease to spark joy they can be easily returned to nature.
I think we can all learn from the lessons that Marie Kondo is trying to teach us. We have a short time here on Earth, so it seems a pity to spend it surrounded by objects we only feel lukewarm about. We all understand what it means for an object to spark joy. It might be a favourite wool jumper that fits just right, or a coffee cup given as a gift that evokes happy memories. Whatever it is, we can use that knowledge to add things to our lives that we can be confident will be a joy to use.