Creating a stir
Carving a spoon from the branch of a tree is a therapeutic and time-consuming business, finds John Wright as he revisits the ancient art of whittling
HE humble wooden spoon, beloved of every cook in the world, can be bought for a pound or two. Why, then, would anyone wish to spend £100 or so learning how to make one? Wooden spoon-making courses are proving hugely popular, with scores of them filling up every year with enthusiasts eager to learn from the earthy types who have mastered the skills required.
Inspired by a new book—spoon Carving by E. J. Osborne—i resolved to discover why, exactly, people wanted to make spoons. Now, being a man, and one who had spent 30 years behind the furniture-maker’s bench, I wondered how hard it could possibly be. Assuming ‘not very’, I skimmed through the book’s beautifully illustrated pages to get a vague idea of how it was done.
Self-denial seems to be integral to spoonmaking. Only an axe, a knife and a hook-knife are needed and I was banished from bandsaw, lathe and sanding machine. The raw material is also frugal, as it is invariably green (unseasoned) timber. But it does cut easily and costs absolutely nothing.
Armed with two minutes of study and a length of recently felled lilac, I set to work. Furniture makers seldom find use for an axe. However, sharpened to the best edge I could manage, it proved a surprisingly delicate tool and I had the shape of something spoon-like within half an hour.
TThe attempt to refine the proto-spoon with my knife proved more troublesome and I yearned for my spoke-shaves. The smooth, elegant look I had intended seemed to be beyond my capabilities, so I redirected my aim to coarse medieval. Lacking a hookknife, I unearthed my favourite gouge from the shed and, on more familiar territory, soon had a smooth bowl.
The whole thing took me two hours, plus three 15-minute breaks to allow the feeling to come back into my arm. Dave Cockcroft, who runs spoon-making days in Gloucestershire, told me this wasn’t too bad, but that he can make a completely smooth spoon in less than an hour.
My knife had been difficult to use, he informed me, because it was a foraging knife with a double-bevel edge, a single bevel being much preferred as it gives a long, smooth cut. I was rather pleased with this information as it meant I could blame my tools.
Although my spoon (above) wouldn’t win even a runner’s-up prize at a spoon festival (yes, they do exist), I was extremely pleased with it and, more significantly, entranced by the whole process. Professional spoonmakers, such as Messrs Osborne and Cockcroft, speak of the single-minded absorption spoon-making engenders; the simple peace that descends when anyone crafts anything. Dave told me of the quiet patience with which his students tackle their new craft. Few words are spoken because all are engrossed in a difficult but achievable task.
Like amateur dramatics, amateur spoonmaking is for the delight of the participants, not the recipients. However, some spoons are truly beautiful, with an elegance that comes from the skill of the craftsman and the necessary utility of the spoon. Timbers are carefully chosen for colour and grain; line and balance are achieved by the artistic eye and every use for a spoon is explored.
Dave sells his spoons on market stalls and says that people are more likely to buy one after handling it. One elderly gentleman went much further. He was looking for a replacement for his 70-year-old stirring spoon. He tried every likely contender, stirring an imaginary stew and even pretending to scrape off a bit of something that had stuck to the bottom of the imaginary pot. He walked away cradling his selected prize, leaving Dave with a warm glow, but little prospect of any repeat business. Spoon Carving by E. J. Osborne (Quadrille)
‘Armed with two minutes of study and a length of recently felled lilac, I set to work