The Simplicity of Spoons
We've been interacting with them since we thought they were food-laden aeroplanes dive bombing our mouths. They're one of the first tools we use, and we continue to use them throughout our lives, not given them a second thought.
At first glance, a spoon is an incredibly simple object. Wikipedia describes a spoon thusly:
"A spoon is a utensil consisting of a small shallow bowl, oval or round, at the end of a handle."
Simples. Not much more to it than that surely?
The Impossibility of a Perfect Spoon
"Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence"
- Vince Lombardi
Based on the above definition one would think that making a wooden spoon would be pretty simple. Especially since it only takes a few basic tools to carve a spoon.
However, that's not taking into account all the different kinds of spoons out there. Do you want to make a coffee scoop, ladle, cooking spoon, serving spoon, dessert spoon, soup spoon, teaspoon, shamoji, salt spoon or cawl spoon?
In Wille Sundqvist's seminal book 'Swedish Carving Techniques' (which I thoroughly recommend anyone with an interest in craft reads) on page 96 is a diagram that should give an indication of the complexity inherent in chasing the perfect spoon.
On the left is a poorly thought out eating spoon, with six errors highlighted. The spoon on the right is a much improved design, and Wille gives 12 reasons why the indicated areas are carved as they are.
From a spoon just being a bowl with a handle attached, we how have 18 different points to consider. And that's just an eating spoon. Different functions require different considerations. That said however, an eating spoon is perhaps the most difficult of all the spoon types to carve well.
While wooden cooking spoons can still be found in pretty much all kitchens, wooden eating spoons seem to have fallen out of fashion. I love using them because I enjoy the everyday connection to nature they give me. They're quieter than metal spoons and are handmade, making me feel connected to a wider world of people who carve things. Part of what makes them so difficult to perfect is that not only do they have to pick up food well, but they also have to deliver it to your mouth. When you stick a spoon in your mouth it's interacting with the most nerve-dense part of your body: the lips. These are going to pick up on any unevenness, grain tear-out, sharp edges or other possible defects.
Design is about planning out the creation of an object (or system). You need to think about what the intended function is. Considering style and aesthetic is also vital. Finally I believe it is important to consider the potential environmental and societal impact of that object.
Wooden spoons are a fantastic medium for exploring design fundamentals. Anyone can hack out a bowl at the end of a handle but what do you want to do with it once it's done? Spoons have very clear functions, but using a natural material like wood can make it challenging to meet those functional needs. You need to pick a piece of wood that can do what you need it to do. Perhaps the grain of the wood follows the shape you want. Have you considered knots in the wood? These are potential weak spots, but could also be incorporated into the design to add visual appeal.
The look of a spoon is also important. Highly functional items tend to have a beauty of their own, but there are things you can do to make them look even better. If the wood has a sapwood that is a very different colour to the heartwood then how you orient the spoon within the wood can lead to different visual effects
If the handle has a large flat section and relatively plain grain this can be enhanced with decorations. This doesn't change the function, but can make it look more appealing.
Working with a natural material like wood automatically lends itself to environmental considerations. All of the wood I use is given to me by tree surgeons in my local community. It's wood from trees that were already being cut down. By taking that wood and shaping it into an object that will be used for years to come not only am I helping people appreciate the joy trees can bring, but I am also helping to lock away carbon that would have entered the atmosphere through burning the wood (the fate of many urban trees).
The societal impacts of a spoon also deserve some consideration. Linked to function, is the handle shaped in a way that people with arthritis could use it? A slightly chunkier handle and smaller bowl is easier for children to grip and use. A larger serving or cooking spoon could encourage people to cook more for friends. Cooking and eating is a fundamental way we connect with each other, and the utensils involved should enhance that societal experience, not hinder it.
While this example isn't made from wood, it shows what happens when the societal impact of a spoon is taken into serious consideration.
On the surface, spoons are incredibly simple, but this simplicity hides the complexity of designing and creating a beautiful, functional item that is enjoyable to use.
It takes a lot of thought, attention to detail and skill to create a wooden spoon that works well.
Go into your kitchen and find a utensil that you use all the time. What makes it work well? What would you change to improve it? Could it be made more aesthetically pleasing? Let us know in the comments below.