Sylva Spoon

The Secrets Of A Good Finish

Thomas BartlettComment
  A trio of white oak bowls drying.

A trio of white oak bowls drying.

Wood is a lot easier to work with hand tools while it is still green (unseasoned). However the wood needs to be left to dry before a smooth surface can be left with the tools. By letting the wood dry and going over the entire surface once again with sharp tools you get an smooth but textured finish that does not require sanding. 

The high moisture content of green wood makes the fibres softer. This is one reason why splinters aren't an issue when working with green wood. These soft fibres are easier to cut with human-powered tools, so most of the material is best removed while the moisture content is high. 

During carving these soft fibres bend and get compressed down. When the wood dries they rise up and a previously smooth surface becomes slightly fuzzy. If you want a great tool-finish to the wood, you need to go over the surface again once it has dried. 

As wood dries, it shrinks and warps. Some woods shrink more than others, but they will all move while drying, You need to take this into account. For bowls I tend to leave a little extra material on the bottom so a flat surface can be created after drying. 

This shrinking can also lead to cracks. Cracks develop when one part of the material shrinks quicker than another and the material cannot move with it. There are two things to do to prevent cracks.
One: slow the drying process. Put the piece you're working on in a plastic or paper bag and seal it shut. Plastic will prevent any moisture from escaping, while paper will let the wood dry, albeit slowly. You can also place it in wood shavings. Try to keep it out of drafts, as air movement is the biggest factor in drying out wood.  
Two: Carve it to an even thickness. Thin areas of wood will dry quicker and move more easily than thick areas of wood. The transition points between thick and thin is where tension will build between the wood fibres. If you're not going to work on a piece for a several hours or more, try and ensure you finish at a point where it is evenly thick. If you can't do this, use a plastic bag to seal in the moisture. 

Dry wood, carved with sharp tools, has a smooth surface that stays smooth. It has facets and textures. The tools marks show the decisions made by the craftsperson. Each cut remains. It gives wood a personality I find lacking in sanded work. 

The Only Way To Improve

Thomas Bartlett2 Comments

The Importance of Repetition

 Maple spatulas axed out.

Maple spatulas axed out.

"100 more and it should be nice and easy" - Yoav Elkayam 

Repetition is the only way to improve a skill. It's how we learn language as a baby. It's how we get good at throwing a ball. Green woodworking is no different. Repetition and focus develops skill. It builds muscle memory. Repetition allows us to know when something 'feels' right. 

In so many different crafts, people advance their skills by relentlessly repeating the same form over and over again. Green woodworking used to be the same. Repetition leads to efficiency. Efficiency leads to quicker production time, which leads to lower production costs. 

With the rise of green woodworking as a hobby, this kind of repetition is becoming rare. I have no problem with casual carvers making something different each time. But if a form is never repeated, you won't discover if it can be improved. Production carving, the repeated carving of the same item, greatly encourages a focus on repetition.

Production carving is all about understanding the efficiency that repetition can provide. It breaks down a complex task into simple functions. When I make utensils from straight grain wood I never carve a single item, start to finish, in one go. I always break it down into smaller steps. 

In the fantastic book 'Swedish Carving Techniques' Willie Sundqvist describes 11 different knife grips:

  • The forehand grip
  • The chest-lever grip
  • The simple pull stroke
  • The reinforced pull grip
  • The draw grip
  • The thumb-joint grip
  • The modified thumb-joint grip
  • The reinforced thumb-joint grip
  • The thumb-push stroke
  • The wrist grip toward the body
  • The wrist grip toward the opposite hand

Eleven different techniques, for just the knife! Constantly switching grips can lead to inefficiency and mistakes. I focus on one technique and use it repeatedly. I will split a round into sections and on each of those sections perform one kind of cut. I will use that cut to shape a section of that piece. When that piece is ready for a different cut, I set it aside and use the same technique to get another section of wood to the same point.  

 American sycamore split and ready for carving

American sycamore split and ready for carving

 Butter spreaders ready for some drying time.

Butter spreaders ready for some drying time.

By just focusing on one technique I can really concentrate on getting it right. Any insights on how to better perform that cut can be immediately applied to the next item. And the next one. This also helps with consistency. By performing the same cut, in the same way, it is easier to ensure one item is like another. I challenge you to carve two identical items. It takes great skill to do so. 

That said, I rarely strive for the items to be 100% identical. Wood, even from within the same log, can vary quite dramatically in colour and grain. The nature of handmade items is that each one is unique, and the slight variances between them is what makes them interesting. But if shapes vary too much, then it's often a sign that I'm failing to apply the technique consistently.  

Repetition is the only way to learn. Through repetition we gain confidence and skill. By making the same item over and over we learn techniques that can be applied to other forms. When it comes to carving one-off items, often using uniquely shaped or patterned wood, we then have the skill set already developed to ensure that special piece does not go to waste.  




Made for People or Made for Machines?

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment

The Danger of Replicating Industrial Productions

My carved butter knives have a wide variety of shapes and sizes. And there still exists a huge range of designs I haven't tried. This week I started a batch of them, and carved them all to a shape I haven't tried before, but one that's probably quite familiar to you all. 

I carved these to look like the table knives you probably have at home. My main motivation behind this was that the spreaders I've made in the past were more Scandinavian-style (smor kniv), and people at craft shows didn't really know what they were. So I thought I'd make some they're more likely to recognise. 

However this got me thinking about a line I read in Bill Coperthwaite's book 'A Handmade Life'

"For instance, machines can be used to create any form of chair we like, but commercial interests can make more chairs (and more money) if the simplest design for the machines is chosen for production"

The butter knives most of us have at home are likely to be mass produced, and I don't know if the shape and design of them has been influenced by what is easiest for the industry to produce. I suppose then, what I should do is create a series of different shapes and test to see what shape actually works best. 

The downside I've found to offering people designs that vary from the norm is that the general public often don't recognise them for what they are. At the craft fairs I've sold at in Wisconsin many people have asked about the butter spreaders, wondering what they are, and what they can be used for. As someone looking to sell their work, having to explain the function of an item will probably result in fewer sales. But does that mean I should offer less well-designed products, just because that's what people are used to?