There are some woodworkers that have a broad range of experience with all sorts of tools and can use them skillfully in keeping with their function. I am not one of those.
I am going to tell you about tools that I know nothing about. I am going to give you advice, some of which is based on practices I have yet to try. I am going to mention tools that I have never even held in my hands. And after I do, you are going to come to the realization that, “If this chump can carve a spoon, so can I”.
Some years ago I taught flying lessons. Immediately after completing my training I secured a Flight Instructor position with an FBO at the local airport. The Chief Pilot (who was this really great air show stunt pilot) told me that I would learn more in the first two weeks of teaching than I had learned in the previous year or so of my training. He was right!
I am telling this because something similar is occurring as I gather up information for this spoon collaboration. In the process of researching wood, tools and techniques I am beginning to learn how to carve a spoon. Or at least how it is ‘supposed’ to be done. Now, admittedly, I’ve never had proper training, nor ANY training for that matter, in the use of woodworking tools…. carving or otherwise. I just kind of fumble along and have learned a few things NOT to do, things that make the adrenalin flow and the hair to stand out on the back of my neck.
When you add to this ‘confession’ the multitude of tools available, the differing approaches, the experience of the various participants AND… that each spoon is going to be uniquely designed and carved from different woods, you might get the idea that this is going to a broadly scattered topic. That being said, the best approach is ….do not hesitate to ask any questions unique to your project.
This reminds me of another ‘flying’ story. I was in ‘ground school’ with maybe 35-40 fellow students and the instructor spent quite some time explaining some topic regarding flight calculations. He emphasized that it was important concept to grasp before we moved on. I had no clue what he just talked about and my ears were burning because I seemed to be the only one that didn’t ‘get it’. So I sheepishly raised my hand and asked if he could explain it further (I got embarrassed back in those days). Anyway, he asked the class if there was anyone else that needed to review and every single student shot their hand up in the air. So…. ASK!
Spoon carving has been around for hundreds of years longer than power tools have. So that makes it apparent that a spoon can be carved without the use of power tools. Well, by some people anyway. I hold a lot of respect for those that can take a simple blade and carve a shape, those patient ones that can keep an edge on their knives and chisels. I am 99.973 percent a power carver… so I am going to speak to that first.
There are quite a few manufacturers of power tools these days. Some are of really great quality and reasonably priced. I personally use a Foredom brand rotary tool with a fairly modest collection of burrs and bits. I have owned this tool for maybe 15 years or so without any problems other than loaning it to a fellow that broke the internal flexible shaft, but $30 and I was back in business.
What I have found to be true for me is that the rotary tools are relatively easy to control, they can make (almost) any sort of cut from fine detail to just plain ‘hogging’ out the wood, and are very low maintenance. I seriously believe that if I had to use the regular hand-carving tools, I would not be willing or able to carve the spoons I make. Two reasons for this…. I have no interest in sharpening a tool when I could be carving with it and I think that the hand tools require more control and talent to use. I simply want to take the easiest path from start to finish, and for me, that means rotary tools.
There are two basic types of rotary tools: Those where a bit or burr is connected directly to the motor via a collet or chuck… and those with a flexible shaft connecting the motor to a ‘hand-piece’ which in turn houses the collet. In both cases, the collet or chuck is the apparatus that holds the carving bit secure.
The bits and burrs themselves come in many sizes and shapes for making a variety of cuts, from aggressive to delicate. The more aggressive bits will have a thicker and sturdier shank as there is a tendency to ‘bear down’ with those. The bits that are designed for the finer cuts can be supported by a thinner shank. The shank has to be properly matched to the size of the collet for a secure fit.
It is useful to break down carving with rotary burs into 3 stages (not the 3 stooges). The ROUGHING stage is the place to start after you have cut your spoon blank out on the band saw (or other tool). Roughing requires the heavier bits with the thicker shanks. Some of these remove the wood remarkably fast on softwood… and fairly fast on really hard wood. They can also be used to good effect in removing the top layers of skin.
Although somewhat dependent on the spoon design, I usually begin my carving with one of the coarse carbide-tipped roughing bits, usually the rounded nose. I will either start on the handle or the inside of the bowl. When I first start carving, my pencil lines are still sharp and easy to see. It makes it much easier for me to do the roughing out of the spoon bowl early on and then make shape adjustments from the back of the bowl.
Once I get the basic internal bowl shape, I flip the piece over and start rounding and shaping the back of the bowl. This is not regimented at all. I might start on the back of the spoon bowl and find that the handle is ‘calling’ me so I just go with the flow. But the useful thing here, is to do the roughing before moving on to the smaller bits. And even within the roughing process, you can move from the really coarse bits to the ones that will give you a smoother platform to work from. Not only will it save you work in carving, it saves a lot of time changing out the bits. I also will use my fingers as a ‘caliper’ to determine the general thickness of the bowl before moving on. I have this tendency to think I am getting the bowl too thin, only to discover later that it is still a quarter inch thick. Of course, that is probably better than leaning in the direction of too thin.
Once you have the spoon rough carved, you can move to the second stage of carving. SHAPING the spoon is different than the roughing. You will want to use smaller sized and finer cutting bits in order to ‘relieve’ the shape you intend for your spoon. Let’s say your spoon is going to have a flower carved on the end of the handle. After that shape was roughed out, you can begin to carve in the details such as the edges of the petals, the spaces in between and the center of the flower, all with the shaping bits. Depending on the detail desired and the bits used, you may be ready for sanding after this stage. But in most cases, there will be the finer DETAILING required to give the desired effect.
Choosing the proper bit shape becomes increasingly important the finer detail you are working with. There are so many shapes… and even sub-shapes. You can have cones, inverted cones, rounded cones, etc. I have discovered through countless hours of carving, a surefire way to find the exact right bit shape. All you have to do is try a shape and if that doesn’t work, try a different one…. and if that doesn’t work, try a different shape. This is the only ‘surefire’ way I know of to determine the right bit to work with. Honest! I still don’t know which is the right bit until I find it (and sometimes I don’t). The process goes something like this. Hmmm, that didn’t work… I’ll try this. Nope. Hmmm.. maybe this one, Ooops!, maybe not… ok, this one. Hey, it worked!
Once again, go as far as you can before shifting to the finer bits. But also know that it is quite likely there will be some ‘going back’.
The DETAILING is that tedious part of the carving process that is designed to drive us nuts. I kind of like the idea of just carving a spoon and giving it a big texture! But some designs call for those little details that can really set off a carving. Back when I was watching Jordan’s class on shoe carving, I couldn’t help but wonder how they got all that detail…… even the stitches. So I carve spoons that don’t require so much. Ha! But the smaller and finer bits are designed to make those little bitty shapes, and depending on your patience level, you can achieve that sort of detail using the finer rotary bits. At this point, many of the finer bits will be ruby or diamond covered. They can give an almost sanded look depending on the wood.
The main message though, is to follow the three stages in order. Roughing, shaping and finally detailing. Inside each stage, there are numerous ways to achieve the desired effect. And I encourage you to experiment within each stage.
I have found carving with rotary tools to be relatively safe. If you are careful, watchful and wary, chances are you won’t cut off a finger. BUT, there is one danger in particular that using a rotary tool can present. If your machine cuts in a clockwise direction (some machines can be reversed), there is a strong tendency for the spinning bit to RUN around the edge. That is to say, that as the spinning bit is cutting near the edge in the direction of rotation, the bit wants to FLY around that edge or corner. Chances are, this is where you will be keeping your fingers or your leg. This is the adrenalin pumping, neck hair standing up experience I was referring to earlier. It can be quite disconcerting…. and painful.
The remedy of course, is to avoid carving close to that ‘far edge’ of rotation. The spoon carving can be spun around and that portion can be safely carved on the near side, the side opposite the direction of rotation. As with any other kind of carving, or wood working, it pays to stay ‘present’ and alert. The times I have been startled with this is usually the times when I got complacent. I don’t mean to scare anyone away from rotary, because I believe it is relatively safe. But certainly I would be remiss if I did not stress out this inherent ‘risk’.
Although I have never experimented with it, it seems that if you are left-handed the rotation ‘problem’ would be reversed. Meaning, that the ‘clockwise’ rotation of the bit held in the left hand would now present the same problem on the ‘near’ side of the piece.
And one more caution…. with rotary tools the wood bits and dust will fly up into the air. As you change the angle of your carving tool, the debris can be thrown directly towards your attentive face. And if you carve outside like I do, the wind can have the tendency to ‘blind’ side you with a sudden gust carrying all sorts of debris towards your eyes. Protective lens are GOOD.
Some of these machines turn at a variable speed while others are preset at a certain speed. Some are moderately fast, while others are extremely fast! I think one of the most useful features to consider, regardless of your choice in rotary machines, is a variable speed foot control…. like the ones you see on sewing machines (rheostat). With the motor plugged into one of these, you have FULL control over the speed (with your foot) while leaving both hands free to secure and manipulate the piece you are carving on. Even the variable speed tools benefit from this device. After a very short while, you find yourself controlling the speed exactly the way you want it…. and without even giving it thought. The beauty is that you can give 100% of your attention to the ‘piece at hand’ and not be distracted by having to manually make any speed adjustments. And of course, this adds to the safety of your machine.
I do not have access to the shop just now or I would show you my modest collection of burs and bits. You would probably think…. “Is that all he has?” But since I can’t get over there just now, I am going to post a link leading to Jordan’s previous post on this subject. I know that’s cheating but it will be to your benefit. He has about 5 times more bits than me and does a great job of classifying their use.
Also, if you are considering using rotary, you should check out the following article. Very comprehensive regarding bit availability and selection. The only problem I see with it is that it makes me envious to have some of those bits.
I want one. I have never seen one of these operate, other than a video, but I really think they would be a great tool to have in the arsenal. Although, fairly large for spoon carving, there are some cuts that I would imagine they excel at. Namely, those fine V-cuts that give a crisp edge to a carving. I usually try to achieve this effect with a file… and never succeed. Also, with a bent gouge, I can see this as being a great tool for hollowing the spoon bowl, especially if the spoon blank is secured to a bench via a vice or clamp.
If I were carving a lot of the larger functional spoons, I would definitely want to check this out for clearing the inside and rounding off the back of the spoon bowl. I can imagine with a little practice, these could be very fast to work with.
The ONLY thing I really know about hand tools is to make sure you keep them Sharp! They even taught us that back in the orphanage. The farm boss (everybody called him ‘Horse’) would scoff in that high-pitched voice of his, at any one of us that tried hacking through bailing twine or a stick with a dull pocket knife. He’d pull his knife out and deftly sliced through whatever it was and he say something like, “You boys are going to get yourselves hurt with that dull blade. Might as well be using a saw.”
I wasn’t good at sharpening tools back then… and I’m still not. But if you are going to go the hand tool route, keep it sharp. Now you officially know all I know about hand tools for spoon carving.
Change of direction here………..
My intent when I began researching this section on carving knives was to organize and group them into neat little categories that would simplify explanation. What I discovered after several hours of scouring the internet… is that there are innumerable types of blades, sizes, uses, handle types, differing metals, etc. etc.! While the rotary bits can be sub-divided easily enough, there seems to be as many blades and blade shapes as makers. And there are a LOT of them! And that is all good if you go looking for a usable tool. But in trying to categorizing them, I found it exasperating.
What did happen during the hours spent searching was that I discovered that exactly what I wanted to say…. was already said… and said well. So, in one way, this may seem like a cop-out, but I am attaching some OUTSTANDING links I encountered. I am doing this simply because I can not improve upon these articles. My intent was to gather together the information and make it user friendly, but if you click on the following links, you will gain much from it. I did.
The first two links are from knife makers, and although this is NOT an endorsement for their tools (although I have read many, many positive reviews on both sellers), I have to say I am very impressed not only with their knowledge of the blades, but also their ability to share it.
The following two tutorials will only add to what has already been said about carving a spoon. I set out to inspire you guys and ended up spending hours myself with my head buried in the computer. I’m chomping at the bit to get back in the shop.
-- I just got done cutting three boards and all four of them were too short. (true story)