This is something I was just writing about this morning for my upcoming book about spoon carving. When you are carving two sides of a spoon, one side where you can see the line, and the other side where you would either need to flip the spoon and carve it without seeing the line, or use a different cut to allow you to still see the line, I think it is always better to flip the spoon.
When you make a cut, your body feels a certain way. When you flip the spoon and make the same cut, even though you can't see the line you are cutting, your body still feels the same way and makes the same cut. Which means you end up with mirrored cuts, even though you did one blind.
When you change your cut so that you can see the line you want, you are changing the way it feels to cut to that line. A potato peeler cut on one side of the bowl feels totally different than the hand squeeze cut to trim the other side. And it will show in the form of mismatching curves. The same goes for the sides of the handle. If you keep the spoon face up and do the off side by transferring the knife over between your holding arm and the side of the spoon, not only will you have less power and control, it will feel different.
And that will mean that it will almost certainly come out different.
I keep testing this, certain in some vague way that at a certain point I will have reached a level of skill where this shifts and it doesn't matter how I do the cuts, but it still does. I get better matching curves if I keep my cuts the same from side to side, even if I can't see one of the sides.
Try it and see for yourself.
It's easy, when doing the pull cut, to have the knife at too much of an angle, almost horizontal instead of straight up and down.
This causes your wrist to collapse as you pull towards yourself, which saps most of the power from the cut because now you're using your wrist muscles instead of your back and shoulder.
It also exacerbates carpal tunnel syndrome by pinching the nerve connection that goes through your wrist.
You've been warned. Keep your wrist straight at all times.
One of the simplest but most crucial things to learn when carving spoons is the concept of establishing faces and maintaining them. Instead of thinking of the spoon as a series of curves that all blend into one another, it is much more useful to think of it as a top face, bottom face and an edge, at right angles to these first two, that runs all the way around.
When you are establishing the lines of the spoon and pulling them into focus, avoid the temptation to nibble off the edges, but instead focus on DEFINING these edges. That way, you are being clear about the shape you want and moving towards that at all times. The side edge, in particular, is helpful for allowing you to change the lines of the spoon from the side (the profile view) without altering how it looks from the top or bottom (the plan view). So long as you maintain SOME edge, this will be true.
The goal then, as you carve, is to pull the spoon into refinement by slowly decreasing this side edge step by step, keeping enough of it to make what adjustments might still be needed, and working in sequence: side edge, top face, bottom face, side edge, top face, bottom face. Around and around.
It is by keeping these separate right up until the last moment, when all the curves come together and meet, that you end up with the spoon YOU intended, instead of the spoon that happened to you.
There are times when spoon carving when you need power, and there are times when you need control. There is always a trade off between the two, and you need to be able to place yourself exactly where you need along this spectrum in any number of situations. Sometimes that means choking up on the axe or backing your hand off. Sometimes that means shifting your thumb a half inch up or down the spine of the blade when making a pull cut. Sometimes that means changing the angle of the edge engagement by a fraction of a degree.
All of these things should be in your repertoire.
It's worth remembering that you should be able to make any cut as delicately as you like. If you can't, it means that you don't understand this spectrum and need to spend more time trying to be delicate, figuring out what that means in terms of hand placement and body mechanics.
Similarly, you should be able to be quite powerful, but for obvious reasons I want you to explore this end of the spectrum AFTER you have a firm grasp of what it takes to be delicate. Make sure you understand the ramifications of trying to be powerful, how you might possibly hurt yourself, and take steps to prevent it. Remember that there are no prizes for being powerful, only the prize of not hurting yourself if you do a good job and avoid injury.
Much of the time, you can reduce the amount of power you need by being clever. Make your blanks thinner. Work your way down to your finished form in stages, cycling around to the same cuts two or even three times, each time being more controlled and refined as the width of wood you are trying to cut gets smaller and smaller. Build into the power as you get comfortable with it, and never forget that power carries with it all of the risk.
It's not buying some new tool.
It's not taking a class.
It's not making a template.
It's not even using a plastic bag (although that's a close second).
The easiest thing you can do to improve your spoon carving is to choose better wood.
This sounds obvious, but how many times have you picked up a bit of wood, started working on it, recognized a potential fatal flaw or major issue, and continued working on it anyway? (Everyone's hand is in the air here, including mine).
Wood that has a poorly placed knot. Wood that is too spalted. Wood that is too twisty, wood that has grain tear-out, wood that is too short, wood that is a hard species or is hard because it is too dry.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Somehow we have a culture where it is considered cool to keep going in those moments when really, I think, it should be cool to throw it out, put down the knives and go spend more time getting better wood.
Maybe you need to search more. Maybe you need to cut down a tree. Maybe you need to befriend an arborist. Maybe you flat out need to buy it. But better wood will always pay you back many fold for the effort of getting it. And you can do that no, immediately. You don't need to earn the skill of having better quality wood. You just need to recognize that it is worth your time and perhaps money to procure some.
If you can, curate a selection of wood, because if you are aging it in the log, they will be best at different times depending on the diameter and length and when they were cut. Keep it outside, in the shade if possible, in as long a length as you can handle. If you are buying wood from someone, try to make sure they are someone with access to a whole lot so you aren't getting their dregs. Keep it wrapped in plastic in the freezer.
This is the easiest thing you can do to improve your game. You can do it now. You can invest the time without needing more skill. But it will magically feel like all of a sudden you got a lot more skilled.
This is a hard truth to swallow, and honestly there's only so much I can take. But to the extent that I am willing, time sharpening is always time well spent.
Even (or especially) when you don't feel like you know what you're doing enough to not mess up your tools.
Now I get it. You buy a very expensive knife, and it's WAY sharper than you can think about making it. So you don't sharpen, and it gets worse and worse, but slowly, and it's still better than you think you could make it. So you don't touch it.
What's the game plan here? Is the plan really to buy an expensive knife and then use it until it's dull, and then what? Buy another knife?
I know what I'm talking about because that's exactly what I did with Mora 106s for several years. And for me at the time, that was an expensive knife.
But sooner or later you have to get into the pool and swim, and it might as well be now. So yes, maybe buy a cheaper knife to practice on, but PRACTICE. And recognize that eventually you are going to HAVE to sharpen your expensive knife. And in fact, the longer you leave it, the more difficult that becomes.
If it helps, I have a number of sharpening and stropping videos on my IGTV channel on my instagram feed. Start there. Watch all of them, write down what you are going to do, what you need to pay attention to, what supplies you need to do it right. Once you have the process in your mind well enough that you can articulate it, and you have all the things you need to begin, watch those videos one more time.
And then jump in. You've got to swim sooner or later.
I'm at the section in my book today where I'm trying to start writing about the process of actually putting knife to wood. And I keep being interrupted.
Even after close to a hundred pages of information about wood selection, axing, tool choice, sharpening and so much more, I keep finding myself needing to explain another thing before we begin, and another thing. It is making me realize that so much of the expertise that makes carving fun (as well as safe) has nothing to do with the actual process of pushing a blade through wood.
Here are just the three that I found myself writing about this morning:
Use a plastic bag religiously to keep your blank from drying out.
Sheath your tools at every opportunity.
Don't worry about making your blanks accurate to the outline, but work hard to achieve the right delicacy.
I'm sure tomorrow I'll have even more that I feel the need to talk about before I describe how to do a hand squeeze cut. But that's the truth of the thing: it is 25% technique, 75% recognizing these other factors.
The good news is that these other factors are ideas that can be articulated and internalized, often much more easily than technique.
Good morning. This is the start of a new project, using this blog to establish an ongoing learning resource for spoon carvers, an apprenticeship of sorts. My plan is to do a post every day that I am working on my book, which is generally five days a week. They will be short, just a few minutes to read, and will be designed to give you something to take to your spoon carving practice to make it better. If this sounds like something you would enjoy getting in your email each day, there is a subscribe button on the homepage of this website. If you ever have questions or thoughts you'd like to share, please feel free to send me an email or a DM through Instagram, but if you're willing to make the conversation public, that would allow it to help other people and the best place to do it would simply be to make it as a comment on one of my most recent posts on Instagram, where I will almost certainly see it in a timely manner. Let us begin.
The place I want to start this is the place we always start anything, which is to assess our situation. This will be different for each of us. For some, you will have been carving for years, for some you will be just starting or just thinking about starting. Some of you are looking to buy tools and wondering what you should get and what you can afford. Some of you have tools already and are wondering if they are holding you back. Or know that they are holding you back, or know that a lack of skill or understanding around sharpening or some other factor is holding you back.
It will be different for each of us. But the best thing to do is to take stock of where you are and to ask yourself what you want, what you need to make that happen, and what time and money you are willing to spend to get there. The answers to these questions will show you what path you should take. Maybe it's buying the cheapest thing possible to dip your toe. Maybe it's upgrading some tool that you know is holding you back. Maybe it's putting more effort into getting better quality wood. Maybe it's investing more time into teaching yourself how to properly sharpen the tools you have. Maybe it's committing more time to actually practicing carving.
Usually, we know what we need to do in any moment, if we take the time to do this. But often we are stuck because we have hit a roadblock and stalled out. So this is me, telling you to start up your engines again, figure out the path through or around your particular obstacle, and get moving.
I'll see you tomorrow.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.