Bob Tinsley shows how to carve a classic design with hand tools.
Bob Tinsley shows how to carve a classic design with hand tools
Welsh lovespoons have a long history, the first verifiable example having been produced in the mid 17th century. In the beginning these spoons were carved by young men of the land hoping to entice a young woman into matrimony by illustrating their skills and their plans for the future. Due to the time and place these spoons were carved with the most common tools available – axe, knife and saw.
As time went on the designs became more elaborate and lovespoon production passed out of the hands of the rural swain and into the hands of professional carvers. With the advent of affordable power tools the designs became even more complex as the time to produce them decreased. Today rotary carving tools made by Skill, Foredom, Weecher, Dremel and many others are ubiquitous and are very versatile, but not everyone has the space to accommodate these tools nor the desire to tolerate the noise or dust their use generates. That would include me. Living on a 28ft sailboat I have no room for most power tools nor even for a vice, so I limit myself to the tools of that 17th century farmer – axe, knife and saw. The only power tool I use is a battery-powered drill for starting piercings. I’ve been carving, off and on, most of my life. I feel that using a power tool takes me away from contact with my material. Wood was once a living, breathing entity, and as such, deserves the respect of thoughtful handling. I use only domestic hardwoods so that I don’t contribute to the depletion of tropical rainforests. By using only hand tools I decrease the carbon footprint of my work. The use of knives, saws and axe keeps me in physical touch with my art. This makes the carving of each lovespoon a unique and intimate act, an act intended to build a bridge between me and the recipient.
Beginning some time in the mid to late 1500s there was a practice among the European royalty of exchanging betrothal spoons, which were typically made of silver and were highly decorated. It is speculated that the peasant classes thought this was a splendid idea, so they began to adopt the practice themselves. But since they were peasants, they didn’t have the money to give silver spoons, so they used what they could get cheaply or for free – wood. A young man would carve a spoon that included in the decoration symbols showing his feelings toward his intended. Once he finished the spoon he would present it to his young lady. If she accepted the spoon, that meant his affections were returned, and the formal courtship began. The most commonly included symbol of love is the heart. Dates and initials were also common. The earliest known Welsh lovespoon is in the Welsh Folk Museum at St. Fagan’s in Wales. It is dated 1667.
I don’t use abrasives for any part of the spoon other than the bowl, and I purposely leave tool marks on all my work. I want everyone who sees one of my lovespoons to know, just by looking, that it was made by a human being for a human being. My lovespoons are a product of my passion, love, spirit and philosophy. Like all artists, I leave a bit of my soul behind in each of my pieces. We humans look for things for our homes that we connect with on an emotional level. That’s what makes a house, apartment or shed a home. My goal is to give my clients that connection. Eschewing power tools is certainly not to everyone’s taste, and I do not begrudge anyone the right and pleasure to use any kind of tool they like. However, I find that the virtually exclusive use of hand tools challenges my creativity and makes my carving sessions much more enjoyable. Perhaps you will, too.
DID YOU KNOW
It is common usage among the carvers and aficionados of lovespoons that the word is ‘lovespoons’, and is not divided into two words as is more grammatically correct. The spoon, in all cultures, has been a symbol of plenty, much like the cornucopia. For thousands of years the spoon was the primary eating implement. It thus took on the cachet of domestic wellbeing. If you had a spoon you had the means to feed yourself and others.
Drawings and how to resize them
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1. After you have transferred the pattern to your blank begin roughing out the outline. With woods like basswood (Tilia spp.) I do this with a knife, usually a sloyd pattern with a 50mm-75mm blade. A coping saw would serve as well. I then use a drill to start wood removal in the piercings. Drilling the holes now allows for any tear out on the back to be removed during the thinning process
2. The panel/handle of the spoon needs to be thinned by at least half. I draw a line around the edge at the desired thickness and bevel the back down to the line. The use of a hook knife allows for relatively rapid removal of the excess thickness. The bevelled edge prevents tear out
3. Once you have the panel close to the final thickness, finish flattening the back. I use a modified farrier’s knife as a one-handed drawknife. You could also use a standard drawknife or a block plane. As I don’t have a vice or shave horse I must use tools that allow me to hold the workpiece in one hand
4. With the back of the panel thinned and flattened any tear out from drilling the piercing holes is gone
Top tip: If you make a mistake, don’t worry. Designs are merely guidelines. Most of the time it takes very little effort to convert a mistake into a design modification. This attitude will make the process a lot easier.
5. The above three pics show what the side profile should look like at this point. Now it is time to start making it look like a spoon. The stem of the spoon should slope down from the front surface of the panel to a point at the back of the bowl where it joins the stem. I generally cut a trench at this point with a hook knife to the desired level and cut down to it from each direction. A saw kerf would work just as well. The tip of the spoon bowl should be at the same level as the front of the panel. Place a tablespoon face down on a table and look at it from the side. This will help you visualise the proper profile. This photo shows the side profile almost complete. The stem should be the same thickness as the panel all the way to where it joins the bowl. The back of the bowl should slope up from the deepest part to the tip. I refine the shape of the tip as I round the back from side to side
6. When drilling the holes for the piercings I also drill 1/16in diameter holes as near as possible to the apex of acute angles where I will be carving against the grain. This allows me to insert the point of a knife and carve away from the apex with the grain, minimising the amount of carving I have to do against the grain to get a sharp, clean corner
7. Using a knife with a thin, stiff blade, make stop cuts connecting the holes within a piercing. By cutting back to these stop cuts you can remove the remaining wood quickly
8. Placing those small holes at the apex of the acute angles makes achieving a clean, sharp corner much easier. At this point the stem of the spoon should be left a little thicker than what you intend to be the final size. Rough hollowing the bowl will require some degree of force that might snap the stem if it were taken to its final dimension
9. I have made stop cuts from the large hole into each of the apexes of the diamond. No small holes were needed at the lateral apexes because you will be carving with the grain in both directions
10. This photo shows the initial cuts for removing the waste wood between the arms of the rosette
11. This photo illustrates a couple of ways to add visual interest to the panel. A completely flat surface aside from the piercings would be boring. By creating different levels by chamfering the edges of some of the piercings and giving some contour to the linear elements such as the arms of the rosette and the knot you give the eye places to play
Top tip: A farrier’s knife, properly sharpened, makes a functional planing tool. I got the idea from a knife, called a mocotaugan, used by many Native American tribes. It is held with the palm of the hand facing up and the blade extending from the bottom of the hand. The blade is angled to the wood to create a slicing action and pulled back towards the body.
12. Now start contouring the bowl. Start with the back and take it to about 95% finished before hollowing the front. Start from the centreline and round down to the edges. Alternate sides frequently to make the contours symmetrical
13. Pay attention to grain direction. The deepest, widest part of the bowl is the demarcation line between cutting toward the tip and cutting toward the back. Always try to leave an extension of the stem as a keel on the back of the bowl. This will strengthen the stem/bowl junction
14. To avoid an unbalanced final product, skip around carving different sections of the spoon rather than begin at one end and finish at the other. The piercings in the triquetra are fairly small. A very narrow, straight blade, what I call a keyhole blade, helps to clean them out. As with all Celtic knots the overs and unders should alternate. Make shallow cuts at each junction to make sure you have the sequence right before you cut to the final depth
15. Save the borders for the last operation on the panel. The points of the triangles, especially in basswood, can be a bit fragile. The best knife for this task should have a straight spine and an edge with very little belly near the point. Insert the point at the apex of the triangle and rock the blade downward along one side, pivoting the knife around its point. Make a shallow cut. Now repeat the cut using the same technique along the other side
16. Turn the blade so that the lower bevel is parallel to the panel surface and slide it into the wood until the point reaches the apex. Rotate the blade around the point and the chip will pop out
17. Work your way around the entire border
18. The hollowing can be done with a single hook knife. Make your rough cuts across the grain. The finishing cuts should be made with the grain taking small, thin shavings. To gauge the depth, stop after several cuts and use your fingers as callipers
19. When happy with the bowl finish, refine the stem and the keel where it wraps under the bowl
20. At this point the spoon is ready for finishing. I am not a big fan of sanding, preferring an edge finish followed by burnishing. I find the process of sanding dirty and boring. Unfortunately some woods demand it. Basswood is usually one of those. Sand the panel stem with 220 grit abrasive and the bowl down to 800 grit, as a highly finished bowl is traditional. After the sanding apply your preferred finish. I use food-grade walnut oil – but use an alternative if you are worried about nut allergies – for its polymerising properties. The oil provides a light amber tint to the normally white wood and brings out the grain, lending a very attractive finish