Sylva Spoon

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

My Design Process

Thomas Bartlett3 Comments
Design process

The Purpose

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.


Spoons mainly made by people other than myself

Spoons mainly made by people other than myself

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.

Woodwork and design

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.

The Design

Drawing cup designs

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.

The Wood

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.

Marie Kondo and Objects That Spark Joy

Thomas BartlettComment
Marie Kondo -  source

Marie Kondo - source

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.

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful
— William Morris

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.

At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort. I could consider a spatula used to cook my eggs with the wonder and mindful appreciation you’d afford a sculpture; someone had to invent it, many human hands and earthly resources helped get it to me, and now I use it every day.
— Margaret Dilloway ( )

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.

Wooden mug

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.

Council Tools Camp Carver

Thomas BartlettComment
Camp Carve Axe

Council Tools asked me to preview their newest axe, the Camp-Carver. It’s been designed as a camp axe that can also tackle green woodworking tasks. They sent an early production model for me to see how well it works as a carving axe, and to provide feedback for improvements. They’ve got a few bushcrafters looking into its camp functionality. I don’t often find myself having to strike ferro-rods or build shelters in my workshop, so I’ll just stick to talking about what I know.

For a carving axe it’s got quite a long handle, 40cm (15 ¾”) and an overall weight of about 950 grams (almost 2.2lbs). The cutting edge has a nice curve and is 9.5cm (3 ¾”) long. Out of the box it had a slight convex secondary bevel. This makes a stronger edge for performing tasks like felling or splitting. When carving we want a single bevel that runs straight to the edge. This lets us use that bevel as a guide for accuracy. We can lay the bevel flat against the wood and know that the edge with start to engage with the wood. A secondary bevel lifts the cutting edge away from the wood, making it harder to know at what angle the edge will start to bite. A secondary bevel naturally occurs after a lot of stropping, so removing one is a common enough task and didn’t take too long.

Camp Carve Axe

I’ve axed out about half a dozen spoons with it. It’s a nice axe. I’ve always maintained that any hatchet with a narrow bit and a sharp edge can be used for carving. While this axe wasn’t designed with carving solely in mind, carving is one of its intended uses. A feature I really like in my carving axes is having a bearded head. For delicate, fine control you want to hold the handle as close to the axe head as possible. With a bearded axe, this puts your hand directly behind the cutting edge. You can now use your sense of proprioception. With your hand directly behind the cutting edge of the axe you have a better idea of where the edge will land.

Another feature I like in a carving axe is a curved edge. The best way to get a clean surface when carving with an axe is to have a good slicing action. The curved shape helps with these slicing cuts. The curve puts a smaller surface area in contact with the wood, increasing its cutting force. The Camp-Carve curve is pretty much the same as my Hans Karlsson Sloyd axe, which makes it easier for me switching between the two. Not sure where this is coming from, but I feel that for the weight of the axe, I’d like a slightly longer cutting edge. The Camp-Carve is 250 grams heavier (almost 9oz) heavier than the Hans Karlsson, but with almost the same edge length. It’s how I feel, but I’m struggling to come up with a proper rationalisation for why.

Camp Carve Axe

The slightly longer handle requires a little getting used to. I don’t know if it poses an actual issue or if I’m just accustomed to the shorter handle length of my other axes. A too long handle is certainly a hindrance in a carving axe. It gets in the way. A longer handle that’s just the right (wrong?) length will hit your body, throwing off the accuracy of your strikes. This wasn’t the case for me, but this is something that will be different for different people. This is purely personal, but I’d also like a slightly thicker handle, with more of a curve to it. I’m far too lazy to ever replace a perfectly functional handle. Unfortunately they’ve done a great job with the grain orientation of the hickory handle so it probably won’t be failing anytime soon.

I got into green woodworking by making a lot of pointy sticks as a child. In my early twenties I got back into camping and wanted to make more than just pointy sticks. That was my entry into green woodworking. I had a Swiss Army Knife, quickly upgraded to a Mora Clipper for most of my initial carving. Many, many blisters and aching muscles later I added the Gransfors Wildlife hatchet to my tools. I picked that axe because it’s a nifty little carver but it was designed as  packable camping hatchet. Here in the US, where some parks let you cut dead standing wood, adding an axe to your pack is fairly common. I’ve done very little dispersed camping here, and I didn’t bring any of my fancy $250 carving axes with me. I brought along my slightly more beat up Gransfors for handling a variety of camp tasks, as well as a little spoon carving. An axe that can carve and do tasks around a campground is a nice mix.

Spoon Carving Axe

If you are in the market for an axe, enjoy camping and/or want to start carving, the Council Tool Camp-Carver is a good choice. I’d also say it’s a pretty good choice for people who are already carving, looking to upgrade from their big box store hatchet. It’s got a lot of the same features as dedicated carving axes with one added bonus: you’ll probably be able to find one. With the rise in popularity of spoon carving and sloyd, many smaller tool makers are struggling to keep up with demand. As an owner of two of the more popular carving axes I think they’re definitely worth waiting for, but if the lack of an axe is holding you back from carving, this is a great option. It would be fantastic if Council Tools decided to come out with a dedicated carving axe (hint hint). For the moment, this is the closest they’ve got in their line up and it’s certainly capable of getting work done.

Vital Statistics from Council Tools:

5160 Steel
Premium Hickory handle
26 oz. Head weight (737 grams)
25 deg. Flat-grind
3.75” Bit length
15.5” Overall length
Hardened poll
90 deg. Spine
Large hatchet eye
NOS Handle design

RRP $135


Thomas BartlettComment

Now the Farmers’ Market has finished, I’ve been able to focus on new products. I’ve been turning end grain cups. I turned my first end grain cups back in February during my apprenticeship. And none since. The main reason is not having the proper tools for end grain turning. I wanted to make my own hooks. That required blacksmithing equipment. I’ve slowly gathered everything I need: a small propane forge, a two pound hammer, tongs, a section of train track for an anvil and some O1 tool steel.

I forged myself nine new hooks. A few bowl hooks and two sets of end grain hooks. Once I had the hooks sharpened, I chucked some wood on the lathe and started turning a cup. It quickly became clear that a few of the hooks just weren’t working. Which is fine. Before this, I only forged two turning hooks from start to finish. Under direct supervision at that. Fortunately I was able to throw the bad hooks back in fire and rework them. I still haven’t quite got them working the way I want. But I’ll get there.

Back when I built my first pole lathe, I was using a set of three hooks I bought from Ben Orford. Turns out the cranked hook works well for end grain hollowing. I still want to make a specialised tool for end grain hollowing, but this works well enough until I have all the factors figured out.

For those of you who follow me on Instagram or Facebook already know some of the problems I’ve been facing. In the past two weeks I’ve turned about a dozen cups. Four have (so far) survived. The first cup I went too thin and cut a hole through the cup wall. While turning the second cup, the hollowing tool caught and twisted inside the cup. This pushed agains the rim, splitting it. It was a small split and I finished the cup anyway. For the practice. In the first week of having the tools I got four cups off the lathe and onto the drying shelf. All of them split while drying.

That was a mildly crushing defeat. Having cups fail on the lathe is entirely down to bad technique. I’m fine with that. It shows, quite clearly, techniques I need to improve. Having them split while drying feels much more avoidable. I’m sure part of it is cup design. I might have left areas too thick, or unevenly thick. Historically, end grain cups tended to have relatively thick bases and . Robin Wood has some great examples in his book The Wooden Bowl. Comparing my failed cups to the 10th century cups examples, they didn’t seem much different. If it wasn’t design, then the cups cracked due to environmental conditions.

I confidently chucked my cups up on the shelf because that’s were I’d been (successfully) drying out bowls. Zero bowl casualties, 100% cup fatalities. Clearly, cups aren’t bowls. After sharing a picture of my cracked bottom (that sounds wrong) I received an outpouring of help from the green woodworking community. A lot of the advice is stuff I kind of know already: put it in a paper bag, surround it in wet wood shavings, basically increase the humidity of the drying environment to slow the movement of moisture out of wood. It was all stuff I didn’t do. So now the cups will be spending a couple of week lounging in a paper bag filled with wood shavings. The fact that the humidity of my workshop is about 70% suggests I still need to work on design as well.

As annoying as failures are, they still represent really important opportunities for learning. My failed turning hooks have shown me how to make better hooks. The cups that failed on the lathe told me what techniques I need to work on. The cups that split while drying were an important reminder that the cups aren’t finished until they’re actually ready for use. Even then they might fail in use, demonstrating more ways to improve.