by Learning Lead – Segen Mehreteab

Abbey in the forest. Photo taken by Segen Mehreteab.

Greetings everyone, happy fall!

Though, I will openly admit that fall isn’t my favourite season. Shorter and cooler days are tough and anticipate winter, but it feels like a worthy compromise for the holidays and beautiful colours of leaves changing. I have had a really exciting time learning more about trees, different woods and their properties. A really lovely book that I have been reading that has been helping me deepen my relationship to nature is called ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is an Indigenous (Potawatomi) naturalist and scientist, who writes about traditional Indigenous knowledge and finding meaningful ways to connect to Nature. A large part of my journey with the Cautious Optimist has been about finding better ways of being in Nature, skill building as well as actively changing my perspective. 

Wood in the freezer. Photos by Segen Mehreteab.

Since Abbey and I’s early summer forage for wood, I was able to find wood that really excited me from an old birch tree. The log had already fallen (no need to cut from a living tree, the forest floor has so many opportunities!) and I used my handsaw to cut a piece that was as long as I wanted the spoon to be. I learned that green wood (wood that is freshly cut/ has a majority of its water content) is unstable to work with because its moisture content is changing over time, making it susceptible to cracking. I hadn’t planned on carving the spoon immediately, and so to shield it from the high summer heat, I had learned I could store the wood in my freezer.

When I was ready to start, I began by splitting the wood and removing the inner pith, the moist internal fibers of the wood. After that, I shaped out the spoon with a pencil using the natural curve of the wood. It felt so exciting to see it come to life, even at this early stage. It was important for me to consider what the spoons’ primary use would be, as it would influence how I shaped it and wanted to create it. I decided to make a spoon that could be used for serving, which meant making room for a larger bowl. 

There are so many tools that one could use to carve their spoon or other woodworking projects. Tools that I found helpful when creating my spoon follow.

Hand axe

Hand axe. Photo by Segen Mehreteab.

This helped me remove the majority of the wood to get the spoon to a size that I could start carving with. I will admit, it was both empowering and horrifying to use the axe because I worried I would completely ruin the wood. Using a ‘mallet’ of sorts to help cut off wood without having to come down with the axe from a distance helped quite a bit. Though it is important to know that the axe won’t help you get a refined spoon- that is where the next two tools come in. 

Hook knife

This helped me create the inner bowl of the spoon. You can find hook knives that suit right handed or left handed use (there are also double bladed hook knives) largely anywhere online or in store. Ensuring the knife is sharp is one of the most important things, but working with green wood is easier and means you can have more leeway.

Hook knife. Photo by Segen Mehreteab.

Straight knife

Straight knife. Photo by Segen Mehreteab.

This helped me to carve away a majority of the wood, the handle, outside of the bowl, etc. There are a few ways to hold this knife to get the results you want, such as: gripping the handle and cutting away from you for power cuts that remove more wood, thumb pressed against the back of the blade for more precise wood removal like around the bowl, and paring cuts where you can cut smaller slices of wood by pulling the blade towards yourself.   

In carving my spoon, I realized going with the grain is essential. I also learned that it was challenging to find which cut would work where, and there was an initial near constant worry that I would remove a critical piece of wood (especially when I was using the axe!) but I soon discovered there was a natural flow to how I would work the wood, and it felt liberating. I am still working on carving out the bowl of the spoon and finishing the handle and edge of the spoon, which makes the spoon a little bit of a mystery at the moment. But, I am looking forward to sanding and learning how to finish the spoon so that it has longevity, and add any final details so it can be preserved and used in whichever way! 

Tips & tricks

So, as I embark on the next part of my journey with spoon finishes, some of the tips I have learned from this part:

  1. If using green wood, carve soon after harvesting to avoid cracking as moisture evaporates. If not, find a way to preserve it until you can carve  
  2. Use a pencil to outline the shape of your spoon. Safely use an axe to remove the bulk of the wood around this shape
  3. Begin carving! Straight knife and hook knife will do for a simple spoon project. 
  4. Remember- you can’t put wood back but you can always take more off. Carve carefully!