Sylva Spoon

Kalthoff Axe

Thomas BartlettComment

So this turned up in the mail the other day.

Kalthoff axe and sharpening stone

I got myself a wonderful little axe from Kalthoff Axes. I've already got some Karlsson Tools axes, a Svante Djarv Little Viking and a Granfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet. They're all great axes, I got myself a Kalthoff axe not just because axes are cool but because I really like what Kalthoff Axes are doing.

From left to right: Kalthoff, Hans Karlsson (HK), Gransfors Bruks, Svante Djarv (SD)

From left to right: Kalthoff, Hans Karlsson (HK), Gransfors Bruks, Svante Djarv (SD)

As a maker of things, it’s great to see such a deep focus on a singular product. They just makes axes. Not a range of axes. Just one style. And Julia knows axes. Like really knows them. She’s done a TEDx talk about axes. She learnt forging at Granfors Bruk and was CEO of Wetterlings until she decided to go off and make her own axes.

Trawling through the Kalthoff instagram account it looks like this carving axe went through about a year of prototyping and testing before its launch in Fall 2018. The prototypes got serious testing from Beth Moen, the lead teacher in wood at Sätergläntans Institute for Slöjd and ambassador for Morakniv. After release the axes got further testing by Peter Follansbee, Jonas Als and my teacher, Jarrod Dahl. Heavy hitters in the world of green woodworking and hand tool use.

So far, I've only carved 15-20 spoons with it, so still early days for me. First impressions are certainly good. The handle is comfortable, the leather sheath feels solid and the important metal part at the end of the handle slices wood. It feels like it'll be an excellent spoon carver.


It’s overall weight is about 685 grams, a smidge lighter than my other axes (700g HK, 780g SD). The texture of the handle is nice and grippy. It’s an ever-so-slightly shorter handle than the others. With these light-weight carving axes I’m rarely gripping near the knob of the shaft (insert penis joke here), so a shorter handle isn’t much of an issue. Most of the time I’m gripping around the belly of the handle.
The cutting edge isn’t as far from the neck of the axe. Thanks to our sense of proprioception (knowing where our body parts are in relation to themselves), this makes it easier to be more accurate with your cuts when your hand is tucked up behind the beard of the axe.

Kalthoff Axe Head

My one gripe is that the space between the beard and the handle gets a little tight for my sausage fingers. A slight adjustment to my grip makes it work, so really this is probably an issue with my technique rather than the function of the axe. I need to change the way I adjust my grip when using the Kalthoff compared to how I use my other axes. Embarrassingly, for the first few uses I had struggled to put the sheath back on, but that’s entirely down to me failing at a basic life task.

Good grain orientation in the handle

Good grain orientation in the handle

Thin bit and even bevels

I’ve already started recommending this axe to my students. The HK and SD axes are great, and also get a recommendation, but because Kalthoff is currently making axes to order, you can guarantee getting one. It took about 10 weeks from clicking ‘Buy’ to the axe arriving on my doorstep. Mind you, now that I’ve written this glowing review, I’m sure sales will explode for Kalthoff and they might have to change their business model with the flood of orders sure to come their way. If you’re in the market for a new carving axe, be sure to get in there quick.

Maybe I’m overestimating my influence. Then again, I am kind of a big deal.


Kalthoff Axe vital statistics:

Axe head weight: 550 gram / 1.2 pound
Handle: 300 mm / 12 inch long
Edge: Long and curved 100 mm / 3.9 inch
Bevel: 32 degree flat
Blade: 130 mm / 5.1 inch long with carving cavity
Neck: 55 mm / 2.2 inch long
Steel: Swedish steel. Alloyed with carbon, molybdenum, chrome, and vanadium
Forging: Die forged in hammer press
Heat treatment, edge: Kalthoff slow hardening to 57 HRC
Steel finish: Rust proof oil
Wood: Swedish ash, grown in Skåne
Grain alignment: Standing grain with +/- 45% variation
Wood moisture: Axe assembled with handle and wedge furniture dry at 8–10% moisture level
Handle finish: Raw linseed oil
Leather: Vegetable tanned cow hides, bordeaux shade

If this review has you interested in learning more about carving axes, on October 27th I’ll be hold a class in Madison, WI all about how to carve with an axe and knife. More details here. I’ll have all my axes with me so you can try them out before getting one yourself.

Autumn Colours

Thomas BartlettComment

In the Northern Hemisphere, September 23rd is the official start of Autumn. Nature has lots of ways to show us that a new season is upon us. Blackberries ripen on the vine, starlings murmurate in the evenings and morning frosts coat the ground. The most iconic sign of Autumn comes from the senescence of tree leaves.

Senescence just refers to the failing of biological processes, linked to ageing. Most hardwoods are deciduous - they will drop their leaves in winter. As always in nature, there are exceptions: holm oak and holly are examples of hardwoods that keep their leaves while larch and dawn redwood are conifers that drop their needles. Trees drop their leaves because it’s easier for them to regrow them than to produce leaves that can withstand the extreme cold of winter. There are also deciduous hardwoods, such as oak and beech, that keep hold onto their dead leaves (known as marcescence). These dry leaves are thought to deter herbivores from eating the more nutritious twigs and buds.

Trees drop their leaves because it’s easier for them to regrow them than to produce leaves that can withstand the extreme cold of winter. Changes in temperature and the length of daylight trigger this process. With less daylight available, leaves find it harder to produce chlorophylls. These proteins responsible for photosynthesis absorb mostly blue and red light. Green light is absorbed the least of all, being reflected back as the colour we see during the Spring and Summer. As the green reflecting chlorophyll is reabsorbed into the tree, previously hidden pigments are revealed. Xanthophylls show up as yellow or brown and carotenes (from the Latin word for ‘carrot’) create oranges and reds. The sugars that remain in the leaves produce anthocyanins. Depending on the pH these can be red, purple or even blue. For truly spectacular colours, this process needs warm, bright days and cold nights.

Photo by  Chris Lawton  on  Unsplash

The actual fall of Fall begins at the base of the leaf stalk (petiole) where a barrier (abscission zone) is created between the petiole and the branch. On the branch side, a protective layer of cork is formed. Trees then either use enzymes to break down the cell walls connecting the petiole to the branch or will fill cells in the abscission zone with water until they burst. The seasonal timing of when leaves actually fall is highly dependent on local conditions. If it’s windy, leaves are likely to drop earlier in the abscission process.

5 Best Trees for Spoon Carving

Thomas BartlettComment

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.

Paper Birch

Birch crook spoons

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.)

Silver Maple


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.

Black Cherry

black cherry teaspoons

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.

Black Walnut

Axe and walnut spoon

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.


View this post on Instagram

Loving this apple wood. Such great colours!

A post shared by Tom Bartlett (@sylva_spoon) on

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.

41 Wood Carving and Design Books

Thomas Bartlett2 Comments

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.

Axe books woodworking