Friday, January 27, 2012

Fun Quill Spoon - LONG

WARNING - This is going to be a LONG entry, full of lots of potentially boring details! I just know I've been curious about all these things, so I'm not going to hold back this time. I'm not kidding - it'll be REALLY detailed in some parts. :)
Recently, I completed a very fun commission with a writing theme. It occurred to me about half-way through that it might have been a good example to document the process, for any carvers out there, or anyone else who might be really curious about the process. So, by the time I started taking pictures, I'd already made several of the usual 3-dimensional decisions, but I could still show a little bit of how much wood there was to remove, along with the finishing process. I'll try to remember to record the whole process better on something else, soon!
Anyway, here's where we start - I've already carved pretty much all the detail on the front: I've cut away about 1/8" or more from the front of the feather (including tapering it towards the back from bottom to top) to make room for the flowers. Then I carved the detail of the flowers, including cutting away a little from the top of the bowl, and roughly shaping the bowl, to allow the daffodil to overlap the bowl on the front, and fit around it a bit on the back. Oh - and in case you're curious, those are my 3 favorite tools (Pfeil - Swiss Made palm tools: 8mm #5 gouge, 8mm skew, and 3mm #5 gouge) and my kevlar carving glove. That goes on my left (holding) hand, so I don't stab myself.
So, the front is mostly carved. But, then, here's the back...
First, I decided to cut away on one side of the quill. One very interesting challenge unique to this spoon was making that quill be in about the same place on both the front and back of the feather, since I can't see both sides at once. It might have been easier if I'd just made reference marks and used measuring tools, but that would have felt too technical for me. I wanted to keep the "art" in it, so the closest thing to measuring tools that I used were my eyes and my fingers. I'll show a picture of that later, once it's further along. Here, though, gives you an impression of how much wood I was still taking away. Also, you may have noticed all the little black marks and streaks throughout the wood. I don't think they're spalting - I think they're rosin. Either way, they are natural little surprises in the wood. Sometimes, they create some weaknesses or voids - notice the round black spot near the middle of the back of the sunflower. I'll see if I can take the feather down thin enough to remove that. You never know what you'll find, though, so you just go with it.
Oh - also - Note, since I already had details and shaping on the front, I wanted to give it a little extra support, so I put a folded-up soft, cushiony cloth under it, so nothing would break.
And here we are, below that round rosin void, with some new streaks of rosin showing on the back, but at least the void did, in fact, stop.

That all took a few hours. (Cherry is kinda hard, thus all the very thin chips you see.) Then, it's time to start on the other side...

Then I got a little distracted, and decided I should shape the end of the quill. Which brings up another challenge I've been facing from the start: being careful holding the spoon to carve it, without breaking off any of the tiny little points. I didn't want to make that fine point on the end of the quill until I was done with the rough work near-by. So... here's the quill...

Back to shaping that other side of the back of the feather... Once I began, I decided that perhaps I should also start taking the quill down to size - there was really no reason to struggle with taking away all the wood just on one side of it, when it would be easier to just take everything down to a thickness of just the quill, and then thin the feather further on that side of the quill...
Didn't take down the quill all the way before getting back to this side of the feather. Anyway... getting there...
Now, It's time to also start shaping the quill, and making sure it's in the same place, and same size on the back as on the front ... tough to get a picture because, well, it's tough to even see!
That side was still a little thick, but instead of carving more from the back, I wanted to give the feather more shape, so I carved away a bit more from the front.

Then, to think about size... here's what it is now, with both sides of the feather carved away (I made sure to make it thicker than it would eventually need to be).
Then, a little thinner, but not rounded/shaped yet...
Then I did shape the quill by rounding it off, and kept checking to make sure it seems to be in the right place, and right size... here it is from the side, too.

So here we are, now, pretty much done with the carving, getting ready to start the sanding.
Now, I know it's really not a good idea to do any carving after you have begun sanding, because grit from the sandpaper may get stuck in the wood, and that will tear up the sharp edge of carving tools. But I'll tell you the truth: I do it anyway, here and there. Mostly in tight corners and nooks and crannies in the carving. Anyway - here are a couple pictures before sanding:

I started sanding with 120 grit. I have these rolls of sticky-backed sandpaper up to 400 grit that I get at the Woodworking Show they have every year at the fairgrounds. It's got a nice, quality, even grit, and is a convenient size to cut off about 1" strips, and fold them in half to use for sanding. The corners, that way, are usually sturdy enough to get into tight crevices, and if not, I can roll this into a cone with a point, also good for getting into tight spots.  Sometimes I start with 80, but that is very rough, and really makes deep scratches, and I didn't think this one was carved so roughly that it really  needed that much. Note - with every grit I go through, I'm going to have to get into all those little nooks around and on the edge of every part of the spoon, including every single petal of that confounded sunflower.....
So, anyway - here's a little bit of sanding...

More sanding... especially in the bowl, which has its own challenges...
About those challenges.... all sanding is taking way at least a little more wood, and with the lower grits, that means you're actually still shaping the carving ever-so-slightly. Around the bowl, this is important because you want to make sure of a few things. For one, you can really see better if the bowl is symmetrical. (something you can only eye-ball, and can be a little tricky, with the grain there to distract you). So you want to keep that symmetry - and that's one of those places I might end up carving a little after I've sanded. Along with that, you have to be sure nothing in the bowl is too thin, so you don't poke through. Like the quill on the front and back of the feather, you could use tools (like calipers) to make sure you have the thickness you want, or just use your fingers. I use my fingers. I also periodically hold the spoon up to a light to see if I can see through it, if I suspect I might be getting too thin.
Next, around the front edge of the bowl of the spoon, I like the outside and inside to come to a sharp edge. As with any sharp / beveled edge, you have to not only pay attention to both sides, but you have to make sure you don't change the SHAPE of the edge - if it's straight, you want it to remain straight. Note, I didn't carve the edge to a point - I left it a little flat on the actual edge. Then, I sand it to the fine edge. If you get too aggressive on either the inside or the outside, though, then not only do you change the edge line from the side view, but since this is a bowl, and that top edge is the widest point of the bowl, you also change the shape of the bowl from the front. (so, instead of that nice, egg or oval shape, you get a kind of warbley egg or oval shape.) You want all the lines to look natural, smooth, and regular... not warbled, as though they were drawn with an unsteady hand. Here are a couple more pictures to reference all this...
In this one, see how there's a little flat edge still on the front, and a little bit of warbled edge on the lower side? I'm going to keep that flat towards the top of the bowl (left in this picture), but will eventually sharpen up the edge around the rest of it)
Here, it's a little better, but still not quite smooth, and not quite a sharp edge...
Now here, I'm pretty much done with that first level of sanding all over the spoon. Note, now the bowl looks pretty symmetrical, and apart from the top (left, in this picture) of the bowl, the edge is now pretty thin. Remember - don't let those different colors in the wood throw you off...
This challenge around any edges where both the front and back meet (like the bowl, and actually most of the feather) remains through all remaining grits of sandpaper (though the risk of mis-shaping things does diminish as the grit gets finer, especially after about 600 grit).
Another challenge that actually increases throughout the sanding process is that you want to make sure not to break the spoon! All those fine little points are difficult to hold, and when you're quickly rubbing the near those points or delicate parts with sandpaper, it would be easy to accidentally break them. So, you have to just be extremely aware and in control of what you're doing - not pressing too hard, not holding too hard, avoiding any catches or snags, etc...

Now, a little talk about finishing. A lot of people only carve out of basswood, which is much much softer than cherry, and generally can't be brought to as nice a polish as something like cherry. So, with basswood, many people don't  sand much beyond 320 or sometimes even less. (Granted, some people don't sand their carvings at all, but that's a little bit of a different style of carving. Sanding is generally considered an important step on lovespoons.) Anyway... I digress...
I, however, rarely carve out of basswood. It's usually too weak for most of my designs. Here's what I do. Like I said before, I start at either 80 or 120. This usually takes by far the longest of all the sanding steps. Then, I use each grit of sandpaper I have, making sure to remove any scratches left behind by the previous grit before moving on to the next grit. I think I go 120, 180, 220, maybe 320 (I think I'm out right now), 400, then 600, and at this point I do something before continuing. Up to this point, between each grit, I like to brush away the dust - I have a soft, ordinary 2" paint brush (like you'd use to paint trim around a door) that I use. It's stiff enough to get into the nooks & crannies, but soft enough not to be abrasive. Also, around 400 or 600, you don't see dust so much as you sand - instead, you start to see a satiny/shiny finish on the wood. It's at this point that I stop, and run the piece under the water faucet, making sure to get all the surfaces wet. This brings up the fibers in the wood. It dries in a few minutes, and then I repeat that last grit I used - usually 600 or 800. (I'm out of 800 right now, though, so I just skip 800.) Depending on the wood, I might repeat this wet, dry and re-sand process. The aim is for it to be pretty much as smooth when after you've wet it as it was before - no more little fibers trying to stand up. So, here's this spoon at about 600 grit, still a little wet, but this time smooth...

Here's another, all dried this time, not sure if you can see the little bit of a sheen forming on the wood...

Please note - I'm NOT done sanding.
Now, at this point, I like to put on the first coat of oil (just in case any more little fibers DO decide to appear once it gets wet with the oil). Even though it's clear oil, this REALLY brings out the true color of the wood. I always use Danish oil, which is linseed oil, combined with other ingredients (usually some sort of solvents). I tend to experiment, still, with different brands, as they each have their own recipe. Some have more solvents, causing them to soak into the wood a bit more, and not so much sit on top of the wood, but all intended to help protect the wood from the elements. Then, some hardly soak into the wood at all, mostly sitting on top, and drying almost like a varnish. I like something in between - I don't want the oil to actually make its own surface, but I also don't want it to totally saturate the wood. With some woods, if it gets too saturated, it almost becomes a little more translucent in thin areas than I think wood should be. I want it to look like the wood, but also be well-protected.
For a while now, I'd settled on Deftoil (Deft's Danish oil), as it's a nice, balanced recipe. But, the solvents are pretty stinky (and it gives my husband a headache, unless I do the oiling outside AND leave the spoon outside - I don't like doing any of that in the winter). Also, if I don't get into it regularly, the child-proof lid seals itself on the can, and I can never get a good enough grip on it - it'll sometimes take me hours and bruised hands before I finally get it off. Even though I'm really careful not to get oil on the lip or lid, it still seeps in there somehow, and dries and seals itself shut. So, recently, I came across this Danish oil by a brand called "Tried and True". It doesn't have the petroleum-based solvents, so it doesn't have the toxic fumes. It uses other stuff. Also, it comes in a can, like house paint, so I just pry it off - it doesn't matter if it seals upon itself! So, that's nice. Here's the Tried & True Danish oil:

Then, I use those little, cheap, disposable glue brushes to brush on the oil. I try to sop off all the oil when I'm done with a paper towel - that way it lasts longer, and I can use it several times before I have to throw it away.  Here's our quill spoon, with its first coat of oil.
That is with the oil on it - I make sure to get the oil everywhere, in all the nooks and crannies, and make sure it's all wet - and that the wood hasn't drunk up all of the oil. If the wood does drink it up in places, I brush on a little more oil. I then follow the instructions, which usually say to leave it on like this for 5 or 10 minutes, and then wipe it all off. Again, I pay special attention to all the nooks and crannies, and just like the sandpaper (though still more challenging now), making sure not to snag on any of those pointy tips, and not to break anything. Now, also, I hold it with a paper towel, and also wipe with a paper towel - I don't want to leave any fingerprints in the oil.

At this point, I usually give the oil about a day to dry. Some oils say they only take an hour to dry, some say 8 hours, but in my experience, they all take at least a day to really dry.

Here it is, after 600 grit sanding, and once the first coat of oil is dry.

At this point, I have this set of 9 sanding pads by Micro-Mesh, that range from 1500 to 12,000 grit. They are two-sided, and have a cushiony foam core. I think maybe they're meant for finishing pens & such on a lathe. At any rate, they last forever, and are about the only kind of sandpaper I can easily find at these fine grits. I think they're terrific. Anyway, I keep on carefully sanding through the remainder of these grits. Actually, the finer the grit gets, the more quickly the sanding goes, maybe because you're not so much removing scratches and leveling out the surface of the wood after about 600 grit. Instead, you're now doing more polishing or buffing. I'm not sure if there's really even a difference, but I am sure that the finer the grit, the faster it goes.
Just a note - in some cases, the wood doesn't get any more polished after a certain point - like basswood. So in those cases, I may not go all the way to 12,000. If each grit gets shinier, though, then I go on to the next.
12,000 grit sandpaper feels kind of like a smooth eraser or maybe a plastic grocery bag - it's very smooth - doesn't feel abrasive, really. And the finish you get from it really does have quite a pretty shine, you might even call it a gloss.  So, here are some pictures after the 12,000 grit sanding...
At this point, I put on (and wipe off) 3 or 4 more coats of oil. Between these coats, I only wait the amount of time it recommends, because I'm not sanding again, and it's dry enough to accept another coat of oil. After the last coat (when the wood isn't drinking in oil any more at all - it's all just sitting on top of the wood now), I let it dry another day or so. And then, I use beeswax paste. I have an eyeshadow brush I use for this. The paste  wax I like to use is by Briwax, and it's called "Natural Creamed Beeswax.). This has a little bit of those petroleum fumes (it is turpentine and petroleum distillates mixed with beeswax), but it's not bad at all, like the other danish oils I've used, and it doesn't seem to give my husband a headache. Anyway, I brush on a thin coat of this stuff, wait a couple minutes (much like you would with car wax), and then wipe/buff it off, also with paper towels, just like the oil. It's important not to let the wax dry too long (much like with car wax), or it will be more difficult to wipe it off.
I feel like this final step gives the finish kind of a hard shell. I don't know if that's just my imagination, but anyway, that's why I do it. This wax finish, also, seems to be completely hardened and dry after not very long - less than an hour. I've never had any trouble handling the spoon after this point. Well, of course the delicate parts are still only as strong as the wood is, but the finish seems hard and dry.
Here's one more picture, next to one of the pieces of wood I cut away, to give an idea of how much I took away...

So, that was the process of making this spoon. I doubt anyone's bothered to read this far, but there it is, anyway. :) The only thing left was to take a few final pictures, then package up the spoon and send it off to its recipient. Granted, that part had its own challenges. I always tie my spoons to 1/4" poplar boards to keep them secure, then put them in a fabric sleeve to protect them during transport. But this one has that pointy end I didn't want to chip off, and all those little points I didn't want to have snag on anything while it was being unpacked. So, I wrapped tissue paper around the pointy parts, and folded the tissue under the end to protect the points, and I put a piece of foam under the upper half of the spoon so the end point wouldn't be pressed into the poplar backing board. Oh - I use pretty ribbon to tie it to the board, too - why not, right? Here's how it looked, all ready to go into its fabric sleeve.

Then, fabric sleeve... bubble wrap around it (not tight enough to put pressure on it), a little more bubble wrap on top of it, and underneath it, then into the shipping tube it goes, where it fits snugly, but not tight. Then, crumpled paper at each end, end caps on, tape, and lots of  "CAREFUL UNPACKING" notices scribbled all over the outside! And, off it went, and arrived safe & sound, carefully unwrapped, and intact. It's always nice when my customer tells me that it arrived ok, especially with one this potentially fragile.
Oh, and from beginning to end (not including drying time), I think this spoon took about 50  hours or so. 
So, that's the end! Have a nice day, and if you actually read this far, thanks for bearing with me! Now go outside and take a walk or something. Or better yet, go make a spoon! ;)


  1. Whew! I can't believe I read the WHOLE thing! But it was great. This is just the thing those of us learning the art need. I know what a pain in the whatsis it is to stop carving, take pictures, start carving, stop carving, take pictures, and so on. Then there's the actual writing. Thanks for doing this.


  2. HI Laura
    This is a REALLY lovely spoon! I think you can be very proud of yourself! And I'm with Bob...its great that you took the time to document it and let others in on what happened during the whole process from board to beauty!
    Cheers and best wishes,

  3. Thank you so much for sharing the process of creation here. For the words and pictures that all tell how you have come to this gorgeous end result. The recipient must have been thrilled when unpacking his or hers commission. It is a stunning piece of art, showing your skills and craftsmanship. Your work is very inspiring indeed, who knows i might carve my first spoon this weekend???
    Have a nice weekend,