Spoon carving at the Driftless Folk School

Last year at about this time, my sister and I took a class on sweet grass basketry at the North House Folk School. This learning vacation together, we took a class on spoon carving at the Driftless Folk School in Viroqua, Wisconsin. I took some pictures as we worked to be able to share.

The class was taught by Terry Beck and Tom Wheeler, in the Driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin (“driftless” refers to glacial activity, or rather lack of glacial activity, which means lovely varied scenery). We started out with safety: “Keep your flesh out the line of travel” summed up the tips. What was most helpful for me to remember was to keep my elbows in, so your torso essentially acts as a stop, as your range of motion is decreased even when using force while carving.

We carved green wood. In the picture below, Tom is using a hatchet to quarter-saw a green log – green is important, it is much easier to carve green wood as wood hardens as it dries. You can carve dry wood, it’s just more work. Cutting the wood in this fashion means getting a section of the log that is more like it’s cut like a pie, rather than a plank.


Here, Tom and Terry both each have essentially a club of wood in their hands. They were working together with Tom holding the piece of wood while Terry was splitting the blank. For more control, Terry placed the hatchet, and used the club to hit the hatchet to create the split.


We went inside the building, and used the hatchet to take off the bark and begin shaping the piece. Rule of thumb: each minute you can spend carving with the hatchet would be equivalent to doing 10 minutes of knife work.


Draw a rough outline of your spoon, and then a small hand saw is used to cut some stops – to hopefully keep you from cutting off the spoon’s handle.


I’m working in sumac, a beautiful wood. Note: sumac, NOT poison sumac!


A little more is done at this point. I’m still using the hatchet. The sharpening on this has been modified. Usually a hatchet has two bevels, one stepping in from another, kind of like a classic barn roof has two angles that meet at the tip. This is more like an A-frame, one shallow, sharp bevel. Also, I am carving holding the hatchet right up at the head, and have my thumb on one side of the head, and my finger on the other.


Still working with the hatchet.


Now I’ve progressed to the sloyd (or slöjd) knife. It a very short, very sharp knife. Slöjd refers to the handcraft tradition in Sweden; here’s a post I wrote about slöjd for the American Craft Council.


Now I’ve begun working on the bowl of the knife with a hook knife. It looks like you imagine, a rather scary looking curved blade that enables scooping out the bowl. You can see that this work isn’t as smooth. Between the picture above and this picture, we went to lunch. An hour of drying, plus a new tool to use, and I had some difficulty. You start carving the bowl by drawing its edge, and then scooping from that edge towards the center.


I have finished carving. I used a rasp, and some cabinet scrapers on the bowl, to smooth out some of my tool marks. These tools aren’t needed though – to carve a spoon, all you truly need is a hatchet, a small handsaw, and the two knives. Sanding or not sanding is a matter of preference. I will be sanding this later this week, and then it will be oiled and cured/hardened for a month before use. When I finish, I will post a picture of the final project with the knives, which I omitted photographing in process (I liked photographing with the hatchet I see!).


Finally, here are some of the other spoons that were carved, the top left three by the instructors.


There aren’t as many places to learn spoon carving as I would think, because it is such an achievable project. This is one day of work, though an experienced craftsman can complete the carving in less than an hour. See if you have a local folk school, or perhaps a Scandinavian store or museum, if you are interested. I recommend it – and the Driftless Folk School and Terry and Tom!

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