Learning to carve functional items for eating using wood as a material is a skill that any good woodsman should add to their repertoire early on in their outdoor career. Most of us realise this when we are hungry and tired and suddenly realise that we have no way to eat our food so end up resorting to eating a runny stew off the end of a razor sharp mora knife!
Personally I have been able to carve functional eating items for most of my outdoor life but for the majority of that time they have been just that - functional - but not pretty by any stretch of the imagination. Earlier this year I decided that I wanted to change this and decided to embark on a journey into carving items with pleasing aesthetics as their primary function, being a usable item was very much secondary. The first of these items was to be a cherry spoon with a delicate flat round bowl. Foolishly the wood I selected was very well seasoned and incredibly hard. I persevered through this little project, despite my hands and forearms screaming at me in pain as the small, rarely used muscles in these areas came to life and worked hard to excavate the round bowl and spindly handle from the lump of wood where they were hiding. Somehow, miraculously this particular project finished up exactly how I’d imagined it from the beginning, not only the shape but the orange cherry wood colour was also perfect after I’d sealed the wood with oil.
Subsequent projects would not be quite so easy.
I took a couple of days off from carving after this initial project to assess what I had learned and how I could improve, and also to give my now battered hands a little respite. I took to the internet and trawled through a multitude of Facebook pages for hints and tips, furiously taking down notes on all stages of spoon production, and finally had a look at the tools I was using. Pretty standard stuff, a Gransfors hand hatchet for roughing out, a small Mora 120 wood carving knife, a small spoon knife made by Ben Orford, a sharpening kit and a bit of sandpaper. Pretty much all that anyone needs in terms of equipment for carving small items from wood.
The problem was that I had nowhere convenient to store these tools whilst I was using them or indeed whilst they were in storage. The most common method for storing wood carving tools is the ubiquitous tool roll. After a little research it quickly became apparent that I was struggling to find the perfect tool roll – I either wasn’t happy with the quality, aesthetics or price. But as luck would have it my research coincided with the time that Journeyman Handcraft was starting up, so a couple of messages sent and a brand-new handmade canvas tool roll was on its way to me to aid me on my carving journey.
The roll itself turned out to be a work of art in its own right. It seems silly that a simple roll of canvas with a few slots for tools on the inside can be such an aesthetically pleasing and tactile item. The quality and workmanship of it was honestly a pleasure to look at and this spurred me on to get out to the woods and get carving.
It’s strange how such a simple and basic object can change the efficiency of an activity so easily. A good comparison would be to imagine no one had invented the knife sheath, carrying your knife would become a very challenging task. I was now able to lay my tools out in front of me and have them within quick easy access when I needed them and somewhere to put them when I was switching the tools around for the different sections of the spoons.
Carving the spoons however didn’t get much easier, the first one must have been a fluke, in actual fact carving them seemed to get harder! But, four or five spoons later my hands began to get tougher, calluses formed and muscles got stronger, before long a ‘formula’ was beginning to form for the initial stage of spoon carving before the freer form and artsy stage of finishing them off and making them look appealing. Safe to say I was hooked. Now 8 months on at the time of writing this I can now knock up a decent looking AND functional spoon in a couple of hours.
Though there is still a long way to go in terms of getting my carving skill to where I want it to be the learning curve has been both steep and pleasant, it's easy to lose yourself for hours hunched over a stick turning it into something new and unique. Interestingly since starting to carve spoon after spoon after spoon there has been a marked improvement on my other woodcraft skills, notably making efficient feather sticks and quick effective pot hangers when out in the woods, thus leading to a much easier and more pleasurable outdoor experience, if you enjoy woodcraft I highly recommend improving your carving skills, not just for the pleasure of creating something that is uniquely your own but also for the wider benefits of improving your general woodcraft.
Get out there and chop up some wood!