Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Spoon

In late October, I rode my bike from central Pennsylvania to southern, southern Virginia where my parents own a farm.  They are in the process of renovating the farmhouse that sits on the property and I traveled down in order to assist.  I've spent the past two weeks patching and sanding and painting and putting up molding and all of the sorts of things that you do to old houses to give them new life.  Yesterday, as I finished a couple of hours of scraping 50 year old carpet glue off of a staircase, I decided to take a little break.  An aside if you will.  I was going to make a spoon.

A spoon?  Yeah, I'll bet you didn't see that one coming.  Well, if you know me or you've read enough of my ditherings, you already know that logical transitions aren't my strong suit.  But let me explain myself...

Just about everyone at some point in their life, be it as a child or an adult, thinks to themselves, "Wouldn't it be great to just go off in the woods and build a cabin and live there and forget about the 2012 election/terrorism/my 401k?"  You can silently muse about this, but once you voice it aloud, your mother/husband/rabbi quickly tells you that this is not possible.  And that's precisely when (hopefully) you also hear about Dick Proenneke.  Dick was dropped off at a lake in the interior of Alaska in 1968 where he went about building a cabin by hand, alone.  He also constructed much of the other items necessary for daily living out of natural materials or castoff packaging.  Proenneke would live by himself in the cabin for about 30 years (aside from occasional visits from a float plane and a couple of trips back to the lower 48 to see family).  Whilst he went about all of this, he filmed himself and kept a lengthy journal which were the basis for the documentary Alone in the Wilderness.

Whenever I am hanging out with my friend Ieva, conversation begins with a normal discussion of how things are going and how much we have or have not been climbing/biking/running.  With pleasantries aside, we switch to the important stuff: building cabins, goats, sewing your own clothing, persistence hunting, etc.  About a month ago, we got together in order to watch Alone in the Wilderness as I had still never seen it.  Upon watching it, I felt like all of life's troubles were washed away.  I knew what to do with myself.  To seal the deal, we also watched the sequel, Alone in the Wilderness II.  Ieva and I were understandably excited to go out and immediately build a cabin, but we let logic prevail and decided to start with something simpler: making a wooden spoon.

In Alone in the Wilderness II, Proenneke shows the process of making a spoon.  As he is a superb craftsman, he makes it look really easy.  Also they edit out all of the laborious parts to shorten the footage.  We felt like this gave us some idea of what was going on and set about finding the necessary tools.  One implement called for is a gouge (a rounded chisel) and Ieva and I went to two different hardware stores and searched around town, but couldn't find this specialty tool.  The effort sort of lost steam at that point.  My father is a devout woodworker so I asked him to locate a gouge for me while I was bicycling down to the farm.  When I arrived, a gouge was awaiting me and I thus had the tools I needed.  So, without further adieu, I give you the process for making a wooden spoon by hand.
Select a young tree that is slightly bigger in diameter than how wide you want to make your overall spoon.  Chop it down.  I don't have my copy of The Foxfire Book on me but it has a good discussion of what wood to use for what purpose.  I selected an oak because there were a lot of oak around.  (Before anyone decries me for cutting down a healthy tree instead of using deadfall, you should know that "green" wood is much easier to cut and shape.  You can now return to reading this post inside of your house made of 2x4s.)

Next, "limb" the tree.  That is, cut the protruding limbs off of the trunk.  I really like to use the Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe for this.  Its large enough to fell a tree and limb it and light enough to use for small shaping functions later in the process.  During all of this cutting, be EXTREMELY CAREFUL that you do not cut your foot, leg, hand, fingers, etc.  You can do a lot of damage with a sharp axe.  And then as Gem says in The Town, "there goes college soccer".

Haul your tree trunk out of the woods to your cabin/yurt/commune and put it up on sawhorses.  Okay, Dick Proenneke would have used a tripod made of other tree sections, but I didn't want to make my parents apoplectic by cutting down the entire forest.  Get yourself a carpenter's saw.

Cut a blank for your spoon.  It should be relatively straight and free of large knots.  You want it to be a bit longer than your desired spoon length and a touch wider.  This blank that was about 20 inches long and 3 inches in diameter yielded a finished spoon of 12"x2".

Flatten one side of the blank with your axe.  A small hatchet could make this easier (and perhaps safer).

Continue by flattening the other side taking care to try and make the sides parallel.

Draw the outline in pencil of your overall spoon shape and the area where the "bowl" or concave portion should be.

Begin cutting out the bowl of the spoon using a gouge.  I was using a #7 sweep 3/8" gouge which is good for small and medium sized spoons.  For a larger "serving" sized spoon I might use a wider gouge.

Continue chiseling until you have the concavity as deep as necessary.  Don't worry about how thick the "walls" of the spoon are at this point.

With your axe, now rough out the top profile of the spoon around the bowl and along the length of the handle.

Then draw the side profile of the spoon in pencil and then rough it out again with your axe.  Leave the "walls" of the concavity thick still.  Trying to shave too closely with the axe at this point can ruin your whole project.

Next, step in side.  Cozy up to the fire.  Put on some NPR or some folk music.  Make yourself a mug of tea.  And get out your hunting knife.  I suppose you could use some sort of carving knife, but that's just unnecessary baggage when you're taking a float plane in to your homesite.  Start slowly whittling the spoon towards its final form.  Go slowly.  Use your index finger and thumb as "calipers" to gauge how thin you're making the bowl of the spoon.

After you've gotten it to where you're happy with it, break out some sandpaper and smooth out the surfaces of the spoon.  Yes, Dick had sandpaper with him.  I found that it was ineffective to sand the wood while it was still quite "green" and damp, so I am letting it season and dry for a few days before giving it a proper sanding.

And voila!  You have a fully functional spoon that you made with your own hands.  Proenneke finished his spoons with shellac or varnish or something that I cannot recall.  I'm fairly sure that the health industry would frown upon that these days.  My friend Lauren teaches youth in the outdoors and occasionally they make spoons as an activity.  She said that they finish them with a cooking oil.  Makes sense to me.  Once this gets its final sanding, I'll rub a light coat of olive oil on the spoon to protect the wood.

For my first attempt ever at making a spoon by hand, I think it turned out pretty well.  I believe the scoop portion of the spoon should be deeper and the walls should be thinner.  I was a bit timid with the chisel and later whittling as I didn't want to make them too thin and ruin the spoon.  Rome wasn't built in a day and even Dick Proenneke probably didn't make a perfect spoon the first time.  But, this first one is perfect for putting dollops of sourdough batter on your cast iron fry pan to make pancakes, as Dick would do.  I believe that my friend Liz, upon hearing of Ieva and my intentions to make spoons, laid claim to the first one that I made. Hopefully she'll put it to good use.  Kindling is not a "good use".

If you've read this far, you probably need no justification on why you should make a spoon.  But there's probably someone out there thinking "Why waste your time?"  It was fun.  I hate eating with plastic.  It's rewarding to actually make something in this day and age.  Or in the words of the cashier at the consignment shop in Mount Joy, PA who rang me out for a Foxfire book and a guide on bowmaking, "the way the world's heading these days, you're gonna need to know this stuff".  In either case, I hope that you enjoyed the step-by-step explanation and are perhaps inspired to make something yourself!


  1. I read that whole thing in Dick Proenneke's voice. Nice spoon, Tom!

    1. Were you wearing a flannel shirt though?

    2. No fair, that guess has an 86% chance of being correct.

  2. Dude this is awesome. Can I call you spoon man? I have one suggestion. Do not use olive oil. I learned this the hard way with a cutting board once. Olive oil and most other "cooking oils" will go rancid and make the spoon taste terrible. Mineral Oil (made of minerals I guess??_ is the best stuff to use on wood that comes into contact with food.


    1. Nobody likes rancid spoons, huh? Thanks for the good advice, Aaron!

      p.s. You can call me whatever you like except late for supper.

  3. I remember growing up watching Alone in the Wilderness on PBS with my Dad, in awe. I'm sort of surprised that you've only seen it recently. What's the hunting knife Tom? I've been in the market for one.

    1. Yeah, folks had told me about the movie for years and I kept meaning to watch it. Glad I finally did! The knife is from Benchmade, but it looks like it has been since discontinued.


      I bought it at this little hole-in-the-wall knife shop in Salt Lake City with George several years ago. I always prefer to get just a plain straight blade because they're easier for me to sharpen by hand (as opposed to a 1/2 serrated blade or something). What are you planning? Apparently Cat in Steamboat drew an elk tag. You should go with her.

    2. Yea. Two of the guys I work with got a couple of tags for this neck of the woods. Elk are everywhere round these parts as you might remember.

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  5. Awesome stuff, Tom. I will be back. If you have the time, check out Tohner Jackson's site: One Tree Woodworks. Kindred spirit and so on.

    Where's your dog?


  6. Hi Tom,

    We've never actually met but we've both worked in the outdoor industry in PA in our pasts. Doug Reilley and Peter Swift turned me onto your blog since I am leaving on a bicycle wander around the US in a few weeks. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and I had the same experience regarding Dick Proenneke. Even more, I also learned how to make wooden spoons last year after seeing "Alone in the Wilderness" and I happen to be living in Mount Joy, PA (until I leave for my trip) and shop at the consignments shop here. Nice to meet a fellow wanderer.


    1. That is an awesome number of things we have in common with one another! I'll bet we may have run into one another at a trade show in NJ at some point. Either way, our paths will cross at some point!

      Have a terrific time riding across/around/through the country. I am sure that you will love it!