Ahhh! October. Best month of the year, as far as I’m concerned. At least it is if you live in the Deep South. The heat and humidity of summer finally breaks, beckoning even the most climate-control-loving indoor enthusiasts into the open air. It was a month made for camping, so this past weekend, we headed for the oaky woods of Georgia with a few friends and pitched some tents by a lake. I packed a few simple tools – a small axe, a Sloyd knife, and couple of bent knives – and spent Saturday whittling by the fire.
I love my workshop, but sometimes at the end of a long work session, I gaze at my bench stacked haphazardly with so many complex tools – metal planes with a couple dozen precision-made parts, taper-ground saws, micro-adjustable marking gauges, multiform chisels and gouges all of different shapes and sizes – and I marvel at the hundreds or thousands of hands and minds that coalesced to create this toolkit that allows me to create a simple (or sometimes not-so simple) piece of wooden furniture.
When I carve spoons, the tools are so simple so few that the opposite feeling is invited. One man at a forge could easily make in short order all of the tools that I need to turn a crooked branch to a ladle. I find few things more primally satisfying than taking a few pieces of sharpened steel and a stick of wood and carving something useful and beautiful.
Choosing a branch for spoon-carving is a good way to start any morning. It’s just a walk in the woods with a purpose. The woods around my campsite were filled with oak, hickory, and ash. All of them have large open pores, but I want a close-pored wood for carving spoons (It’s a preference, not a necessity. Some of my favorite spoons are catalpa and sassafras, which have big, open pores but the golden glow of the heartwood makes up for it). Sweetgum and blackgum were plentiful. Both have small pores and are easily carved, but they don’t split well due to interlocking grain so I passed them up (they are pretty homely woods, too, unless your sweetgum has rich reddish brown heartwood, but they don’t develop heartwood until they’re pretty big). I found some chalk maples, too. Maple makes a good spoon but chalk maples (Acer leucoderme) are a species of hard maple, and hard maple is, well, too hard. I prefer red maple for carving. The understory was filled with sparkleberry, and the occasional wild plum, crabapple, and hawthorn. All of these species are perfect for spoon carving. Close-grained and attractive wood.
Crooks always yield interesting shapes, and sparkleberry always has plenty of crooks. Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) is a species of blueberry, and one of the few that reaches the size of a small tree. I’ve carved it before – the wood is hard and dense and honestly one of the tougher woods I’ve ever used – probably close to hard maple or yellow birch in hardness – but it has a lovely pink color that makes it completely worthwhile. Since it was the most plentiful, it was the easiest to find a branch that was worth carving.
The grain of this branch was particularly sinuous, so I took care to follow the grain perfectly. Not only does this result in the strongest spoon, it also creates an eye-catching shape. It’s slower going than carving straight-grained wood, but I love the end result.
I have never left the pith (the very center of the branch) in a spoon before, but for this spoon, it was too eye-catching to whittle it away. It’s wide and bright red and completely solid. I took special care to leave it on the underside of the handle. Sparkleberry has an eye-catching ray fleck as well, somewhere between maple and sycamore.
After I finished up the big serving spoon, my friend (a coffee aficionado) mentioned that he could use a replacement for his plastic coffee scoop. So I took a straight-grained section of wood and tried to carve something that was more worthy of his prized Guatemalan java beans.
This trip wasn’t all about woodworking, though. We still found plenty of time for hammock nonsense,
Cooking over an open fire,
And enjoying the sunset by the lake.