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Create your own hand-carved spoon as a traditional token of love.

Once upon a time, love and fidelity were pledged with art rather than with words. Rooted in the traditions of Wales, Scandinavia and Brittany, lovespoons were carved as pre-courtship tokens, which if accepted by the young woman in question, would indicate her willingness to be courted. Legend has it that some girls would collect more than one spoon before beginning to think seriously about settling down, presumably measuring her marital choice by carving ability and also the message, or what her suitor had carved. Just imagine young, worthy swains as they laid their hands and hearts bare with a beautiful piece of artistry.

Lovespoons still convey the same sentiments, although nowadays they are used more often to celebrate anniversaries, hristenings, birthdays and weddings. Although traditionally it's the handle that's carved, the bowl is sometimes also festooned-in the shape of a heart, for example.

When planning a piece of treen, the name for a small free-formed carving that isn't going on a lathe, your choice of wood is based on colour, density, grain pattern and availability. Hardwoods are both easier and harder to carve; easier because their dense grain will retain the fine details better than softwoods; harder because your chisels will need to be honed more often. Look for a piece of beech, maple, mahogany, yew or walnut. Fruitwoods-cherry, pear, apple-are also a nice choice, as is lilac. Sometimes you can get what you need by thinning a tree on your property; John and I have successfully negotiated some unique pieces of wood from a company contracted to trim and remove limbs from city trees.

It's best to use green (or wet) wood over dry; it is much easier to carve. If freshly harvested wood isn't an option, choose air dried over kiln dried, again for ease of manipulation. Kiln drying changes the chemical composition of the wood and solidifies its cells.

For our spoon, you're looking for a piece of wood approximately 12" by 4" and 3/4" to 1" thick.

Since wood moves as its moisture content changes (it can twist and crack when exposed to air for even a short time),   try to complete your spoon in one sitting. If you do have to interrupt your work, wrap your carving in a piece of plastic.

  • 1 Sketch a design. See diagram A as a guide, or devise your own design. Use photos, pictures in magazines, etc., for inspiration. Once you are reasonably content with what you've sketched, check it  for balance: does one element overshadow another, or one need to be emphasized by being made larger? Consider the strength of the wood at the junctions between design sections: does an area appear too thin, or short grained, possibly where there is a diagonal line? These are potential snapping points; redesign at this point to avoid heartache later. The last thing to do is draw a line down the centre of your design.
  • 2 Create a plan. On a piece of graph paper, draw a line down the centre,  and mark the spoon's length on it. If your sketch and your plan are of approximately the same dimensions, measure the length and width of each design element and mark these on the graph paper. Otherwise scale up or down as necessary. Create an outside line to cut to, which makes it easier to trim to your inside, final line. Now, draw half your spoon on one side of the line. When you are satisfied, fold the paper along the centre line, and cut the spoon out. When you unfold the paper your spoon will be symmetrical.
  • 3 Complete the plan. Shade the parts where the wood will be removed. If you are doing a Celtic knot, mark the overs with a red dot, and the unders with a blue dot. As you do this, start thinking about the side view of the spoon.
  • 4 On a separate piece of graph paper, lay out the spacing for the design elements once more and draw the spoon from side on, again identifying the overs and unders with coloured dots, and giving the bowl of the spoon a curve. This is the profile view (see diagram B.) If your spoon is destined for display on a wall it is best to keep bowl's back relatively flat. Now you're ready to move from paper to wood. 
  • 5 Transfer the front or top view of the pattern on the wood. There are several ways to do this. The one I find most successful involves carbon paper, but you can use the pinprick or tracing method. If you choose to use carbon paper, first glue the pattern onto a second piece of paper (this also preserves the design for future spoons.)
  • 6 Drill out the waste wood from the centres of the designed elements. Doing this before cutting the spoon out means that you have excess wood to use when clamping the piece to the workbench. Using a jigsaw or coping saw, cut to the inside lines.
  • 7 Using a bandsaw, cut around the outside of the spoon, keeping as close to the line as you are comfortable with. Reserve the scrap. Finish to the line with a jigsaw or coping saw.
  • 8 On the edge of the spoon draw the profile view. Then, fit the spoon back into the shape it was cut from. This will provide a flat surface to slide across the bandsaw table, keeping the work precise and your fingers safe. Cut the spoon's profile out, reserving the scrap. You will attach the scrap temporarily to the bowl of the spoon for ease of grip while cutting out the sides, so try to keep a piece intact. Finish to the lines with a jigsaw or coping saw.

    9 The handwork begins. Using various clamping methods-clamps, vice-plus a non-slip mat on your workbench, begin working your spoon with chisels, gouges, whittling/carving knives, files and sandpaper. If you find clamping the piece difficult you can temporarily hot glue a piece of scrap to the bowl of the spoon to give you a square shape to clamp, and to protect the edges while you're working.
  • 10 Round the edges of each design element. Give hearts a plumpness using variously curved gouges. Remember that the cut may get away from you when working with the grain, so work carefully. The end grain will be harder to shape; be prepared to lean into the tool and push down hard. For crisp corners, make plunge cuts with your chisel or slewed gouge, and then remove the wood between. Shape the bowl of the spoon with gouges. Carve the back and sides too, giving the spoon three dimensions on every face. Surface decoration can be added using punches, printing press dies, or simply nails with their ends nipped off.
  • 11 Think about the final presentation as you near completion. For a folk art finish, leave some chisel and gouge marks. For a fine finish, use progressively finer sandpaper, up to 800 grit, removing all signs of carving tools. Note: Have a leather strop handy to sharpen your blades frequently.
  • 12 Apply a couple coats of oil and, once these are dry, finish off with a coat of beeswax. Consider adding a loop of leather to hang the spoon by.

Present your spoon in a bed of tissue paper, knowing that you are giving a gift of your head, heart, hands-and long tradition.

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