Spoon carving is an immensely popular pastime these days. It has a pretty steep learning curve, but with a few good tips and some practice, you’ll be carving your own spoons in no time.
Another Craftsy author has already posted a piece on carving spoons from dry material. This portion of this series will focus on sharpening your tools, which, for green turning are basically a straight knife (learn how to sharpen it here), a hook knife and a hatchet.
A word on safety before we begin: Keep in mind your tools should be razor sharp. Never exert force where the blade has potential to slip and run into flesh. Always pay attention to where your blade is and where it could end up. Never cut toward yourself. When using the hatchet, make sure you position your body (especially your legs) to the side of the arc of the blade so if you miss or if your wood splits unexpectedly, the hatchet will not end up in your leg. When rough shaping the spoon with the hatchet, always pay attention to where your fingers are. Never chop less than 3 to 4 inches away from your fingers.
What do I need?
My first obstacle was learning how to properly sharpen the tools I would use to carve. This being a mobile craft for me, I wanted to use as few tools as possible. After a few lessons and a bit of practice, I can now turn a fallen branch into a spoon (granted not every spoon is photo worthy) using only three tools: A vintage hatchet, a Mora straight blade knife, and a Mora hook knife purchased at bargain prices on Amazon.com (though I plan to upgrade them to Orford knives soon, and I’d highly recommend going straight for the Orford knives and save yourself the money and trouble of upgrading later).
Once you’ve done the rough shaping of your spoon with the hatchet and knives, you can then move on to a series of rasps, files, and/or sandpaper to further refine your design and make it as smooth and pretty as you like, but after some practice, you should be able to make a perfectly fine spoon using just the three tools mentioned above.
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- Green tree limb 3-4” in diameter, 12”long (green meaning it is fresh and hasn’t had time to dry out)
- Straight blade knife
- Hook (also called crook) knife
- Course, medium, fine sharpening water, oil or diamond stones or wooden paddles with 400, 600, 800, 1000 and greater sandpaper grits.
- Leather strop and polishing paste
- Tree stump or strong, sturdy surface for chopping
- Sharpening tools: stones, sandpaper, etc
- Sandpaper (for finish sanding): 150,220,320,400 grits
- Finishing oil: flax seed oil, walnut oil, mineral oil or beeswax
Step 1: Sharpen your tools
Though this may seem counter intuitive, having sharp tools is actually far safer than using dull tools. With dull tools, you have to use excess force to make them cut, which takes away control and predictability. When using great force to push a dull blade through a cut, it is more likely that your blade will slip and end up causing severe injury. Unless you are buying very high-end, boutique-quality tools, you will need to sharpen your carving tools as soon as you open the box. This is a lesson I have to go over and over with most beginner woodworkers because they assume (and who can blame them?) that their tools are sharp the moment they open the box. This is almost never the case. Truly sharp, for this type of woodworking, is shave sharp — your axe and your knives need to be sharp enough to shave your arm hair. As with all sharpening tasks, for every woodworker there are ten ways of doing it, but the following methods have served me well so far.
Sharpen your axe
The initial sharpening of your axe can be a very daunting task, especially depending on what condition it is currently in. It takes a lot of words to explain a fairly straightforward process, so please bear with me.
If you’ve got a vintage axe, I can almost guarantee the bevel needs to be re-ground. Even if it’s new, check for visible chips or unevenness along the bevel and the tip. If there are any irregularities or chips, you won’t be able to achieve a truly sharp edge.
For carving, you want the point of your axe to meet at about a 25- to 30-degree angle. A nice sharp file used at a consistent angle (cutting pressure only on the push stroke) is what I’d recommend to reestablish a proper bevel and to even out chips or other irregularities along the tip of the blade. I use vintage “New Old Stock” American-made files whenever I can find them, or buy quality Italian (Corradi) files when I can’t. Using a file forces you to move across the bevel slowly, examining your progress after each stroke.
If the tip is really chipped or the bevel very uneven and you feel confident you’ll be able to ensure a steady, consistent grind using power tools, I’ve had great success using a bench grinder, a belt sander, an oscillating palm sander and an angle grinder to remove a lot of material quickly. Use a steady hand, a light touch and be very careful not to overheat the blade of the axe, because doing so will ruin the temper of the steel and make it impossible to achieve or retain a sharp edge.
Once your bevel is close to ready, fill in the entire shiny part with black permanent marker. It helps if you get the really wide tipped markers. Let the ink dry. You’ll use this as a guide to see from where you are removing material. Lay the course side of your waterstone, oil stone, diamond stone or sandpaper-clad paddle (referred to as the “stone”) on top of the head of the axe, using the wide bit where the handle is attached to the axe head as a general guide for your sharpening angle. Lift the stone slightly off the back and use the stone to make circular motions around the back of the bevel.
Keep in mind through the whole sharpening process you always want to be cutting away from the bevel (you are pushing the stone towards the tip, not drawing it back over the tip). You’ll see at first, using the wide bit of the axe head as your initial guide, only the back of the black pen marks are removed. As the pen marks are removed, continually increase the angle of your stone as you are pushing it in circles across the bevel until the last bit of marker is removed at the very tip of the axe.
Once the last of the marker is gone, stop raising the stone. When you reach the tip of the axe, switch to straight strokes with the stone, bevel to tip, using a pushing motion. If you need to re-apply marker a few times during this process to ensure you’re cutting across the whole bevel with each stroke, not just at the back or the tip, please do. It takes a while to get the hang of this motion. When your bevel is properly established, you should be able to remove the marker from the entire tool with one single stroke of the stone.
Flip the axe over and use the same method on the other side. If you are ambidextrous like me, just reverse the process you used on the other side. If not, cradle the head of the axe in the crook of your arm with the handle pointing out and use your dominant hand to sharpen the other side of the axe head as described above. If your hand gets tired holding the axe handle away from your body, take a seat and rest the handle on your carving stump as you sharpen.
When you have a perfect bevel reestablished and chip-less axe tip on either side, Recolor both edges with permanent marker, then move up the grits from your coarsest to finest stone, flipping the axe and replacing your marker lines with each grit. If you’ve done it right, it should take only a few strokes with each subsequent stone to remove all the marker and the scratch patterns left behind by the former grit. I recommend you move up at least to 1000 grit or a “fine” stone. I go to 8000 grit. By using the fine stone, you are refining the cutting edge and making it more durable.
Finally, use a strop, a piece of leather pasted on a scrap of wood with polishing paste applied to it, to finish your edge. Use several strokes pushing toward the tip of your blade, just as you did with your stones, not pulling toward it, to finish your edge. If you’ve done it right, your entire bevel will have a mirror polish and the axe head should be able to effortlessly shave a tuft of arm hair or slice a sheet of paper.
Stay tuned for an tutorial on hook knife sharpening, and then on to green carving!