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This article is from Issue 11 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Carving Wooden Bowls & Spoons

Discover the secrets of making treenware — handcrafted bowls and spoons — using only a few hand tools, your carving skills and the wood that grows nearby. 

People have been carving spoons and bowls out of wood for as long as they have had the tools. The very word “spoon” descends from the Anglo-Saxon for “chip of wood.” Up until the Industrial Revolution most people in Europe ate out of wooden bowls with handcarved spoons. There is still the old Welsh tradition of young men making elaborately carved spoons as gifts for their beloved. 

One of the first skills mastered by the hedge carpenter, spoon carving requires only a few simple hand tools and can be practiced almost anywhere there is wood. It is also a great introduction to working with the wood that grows nearby. 

Finding good wood

Traditionally, spoons are carved out of hardwoods for strength and durability. Soft to medium hardwoods such as sassafras, basswood, butternut, catalpa, or mimosa can be worked easily when seasoned, but these woods may be porous. Walnut, red maple and other woods that are a bit harder may also be worth working dry. Very hard woods such as dogwood, persimmon, mulberry, sugar maple, wild cherry, and Osage orange are better carved while still green. This is also true of orchard fruitwoods like peach, plum, pear and apple. Apple is an ideal spoon wood, having the combination of creamy carvability when green, immense toughness when dry and a fine texture that takes oil well.

Splitability is also an issue since a billet is usually half or quarter split out of a bolt from a large limb or small trunk. Some woods, like elm or farkleberry, don’t split well and are hard to work. Hackberry and sycamore are a little better but need to be worked green with sharp tools. 

Spoons are often made out of crooks, utilizing natural curves in the grain. This is especially important in the extreme curves of ladles.  Trees with a twisted grain should be avoided.  

Orchard removals and powerline clearings can be good places to find wood for spoon making.

FEWER TOOLS are needed for carving the smaller pieces of wood.

Spoon engineering

Carving a good spoon can be viewed as a design exercise founded on engineering principles. The bowl of a spoon should not be exactly in line with the handle, but have some degree of “lift” or angle in relationship to the handle. This allows for reaching down from above, making it easier to scoop and lift. Often there is also a small amount of crank, a downward offset in the handle, to ensure that the load’s center of gravity is below the line of the handle. 

Consideration must also be given to the ways in which the structure of the spoon relates to in the grain and other qualities of the wood. Spoons of softer woods can’t be as thin and delicate as those made from harder, tougher woods. To help prevent cracking, the front lip of the bowl is usually kept at a shallow angle to the grain. The keel sometimes seen on wooden spoons adds strength to the bottom of a narrow neck by including more grain where it is needed.

At some point, engineering blends into style. For instance, a baby spoon may flip up at the end of the handle, where a ladle often bends down and levels off from a sharp rise; both create a functional grip, but also serve style and grace. Also, while the bowl has to work as a bowl, and the handle as a handle, there is a relationship between them; keep this proportionality in mind. And the juncture of handle and bowl is itself a key point in both engineering and style. To a large degree, the grace of a spoon is in its neck.

MORE TOOLS ARE required for the shaving horse method of production work.

Finding a spoon in the tree

Most woodworkers are used to starting a project with a detailed plan that contains specific dimensions and following that same plan through to completion.  In carving treenware there is an ongoing negotiation between the carver and his piece of wood. Whether one starts with a given piece of wood, or starts with an idea and then goes off to look for material, the design work is a continuous process of modifying and refining the general plan along the way as possibilities are revealed. The grain, and the good and bad spots, make suggestions, or at least define limits that can be taken constructively. To feel one’s way into a piece of wood, toward a design that works with this interior structure, one has to constantly feel the interaction between the tool edge and the grain.  

Spoons can be oriented with their bowls facing in toward the pith, the center of the tree, so a cross-section of the bowl would approximate the growth rings. This method requires less material and less work to remove less waste. The smaller pieces of wood are more easily held by hand while carving, requiring fewer tools. It is difficult to carve very large spoons with this method.

Another approach is to dig the bowl of the spoon in from the outside, so the grain at the lip is the broad outside of the tree. This is combined with the shaving horse method for production work; although it involves more tools  and more wood removal, it gives consistently good, strong results.  Also, with this orientation a striking visual effect can be produced where the grain inside the bowl forms a pattern of concentric rings mirroring the shape of the outer rim.

Bowl in

After selecting a piece of wood cut it to length with a good two or three inches of extra on each end (Fig. 1). Using a wooden maul and a froe or splitting ax, split the section in half along a line that passes through the pith and parallel to the face of the bowl and the top of the handle of your intended spoon (Fig. 2).

With a sharp broad hatchet, hew the rough split surface smooth, establishing a plane that follows the line of the top of the spoon (Fig. 3). It is very important here to remove all traces of the pith and any wood that is checked or not sound.

Next, starting at the neck, hew a surface perpendicular to the face that follows the side of the handle and neck (Fig. 4). Do the same on the opposite side. Then hew the back of the handle, starting at the back of the bowl and working down the handle perpendicular to the sides and parallel to the face. Although the finished spoon will have curved and rounded surfaces, establishing parallel and perpendicular planes helps in visualizing the spoon and maintaining symmetry.

After roughing out the neck and handle, shape the front of the bowl with a block-knife (Fig. 5) or the hatchet  (Fig. 6). This completes the rough shaping.

With a short bladed carving knife clean up the rough hewed surfaces, refining the shape, leaving smooth surfaces. As with the hatchet work, start at the neck (Fig. 7) and finish up with the front of the bowl  (Fig. 8).

Excavate the bowl with a spoon gouge or bent gouge (Fig. 9). Holding the bowl in one hand, choke up on the spoon gouge in the other hand to allow the edge of the gouge hand to rest against either the wood of the bowl or the hand holding the bowl. It is very important to maintain contact between both hands while excavating the bowl. Use short, rocking strokes to dig out the wood, rolling the side of the gouge hand against the hand holding the bowl. This is a very safe technique, but if the gouge hand raises above and loses contact with the other hand the gouge could slip and who knows where its sharp cutting edge would end up.

The last step is to trim the lip of the bowl (Fig. 10).

Bowl out

With the broad hatchet, hew the inside curve split from a 3-6" diameter section (Fig. 11). This will be the back of the spoon. Make sure to remove all of pith, leaving a surface of sound wood. Hew the front face of the spoon on the bark side of the wood parallel to the back.  Hew the sides, leaving a nose of extra stock on the bowl end, so the blank can be held both ways on the shaving horse (Fig. 12). Hew both nose and handle to a square cross-section, to help achieve symmetry as well as for grip.

Drawknife the top face to near-finished. This is where to determine the lift and crank of the handle, and the maximum possible width of the bowl.  Provisionally choose a bowl shape and a handle in proportion to it, and pencil in a general plan on this top face, including a refined nose (Fig. 13).

Drawknife the sides of the handle, bowl and nose to the plan, unless the wood tells you otherwise (Fig. 14). Cut in, bevel down, to remove excess wood where the bowl joins the handle, but get back out appropriately to leave enough wood for a strong neck and handle 

(Fig. 15). At this stage, surprises in the grain may lead to adjustments in bowl shape, handle length, or orientation.  When satisfied, shave the back of the (still square) handle and nose to thickness, and round the back of the bowl.

Finalize the bowl shape for total symmetry and smooth curves with a flat chisel (Fig. 16). Then, using a straight gouge, dig out the bowl, starting cross-grain in the center (Fig. 17). Enlarge the cavity evenly; as completion nears, gouge with the grain instead of across it. Being careful to leave the rim thickness undamaged, dig to final depth and contour, and clean up as much as possible.

Saw the nose off carefully and trim the stub with the drawknife, then paring chisel and knife, beveling the top side away from the lip first to avoid split-outs.  

Finish the bowl by feeling for thick spots with your finger-calipers, crosshatching those areas and then shaving the pencil off, repeating until the entire bowl is of even thickness.

Round the handle with the spokeshave, refining the grip until it feels right. Trim the neck and rim with the carving knife, round the butt of the handle with the knife or paring chisel, and check the whole spoon over for missed spots.


Traditionally bowls were made of tupelo, poplar, basswood, butternut, sycamore, sassafras or catalpa – the lighter weight, easier to carve woods that grow big, clear blocks – and occasionally in harder woods like walnut or maple. Bowls are almost always dug out from the center of the tree, purely for size reasons. Burls, with their bowl-like shape and swirling grain, make nearly indestructible bowls.

The same methods used for spoon carving, but scaled up in size, are used for making a traditional dough bowl. Someone must have let bread dough rise in them somewhere, but for many generations they have basically been used as flour bins that biscuits were made in directly, and they are often called biscuit bowls. Very large ones called meat troughs were used to carry butchered meat into the kitchen.

Start by splitting a bolt through the center; hew top and bottom flat and parallel, and then plane both faces fairly smooth (Fig. 18). Pencil a plan on top, usually an oval or a rounded rectangle, with or without handles on the ends, and indicate a ½" wall thickness.

Excavating the bowl requires endurance. If a gouge and maul are used, a stop-channel is cut across the center first, and then long chips are taken from the ends in towards the middle. Generally, though, the bulk is removed with a small gutter adze, and once the skill is acquired, the results can approach an almost finished level 

(Fig. 19). Either way, take it down in layers, giving the ends a good slope.  Trim the inside surfaces with a well-sharpened, hand-pushed gouge (Fig. 20).

Some of the outside wood at the end corners can be sawed off, but often it’s just as well to hew it, first with the broad hatchet (Fig. 21) and then with the adze, which works surprisingly well on the outside, too. The blockknife is also useful for shearing this down.  Whatever the tool, be careful to support the wood judiciously, and not crack the end grain as it thins. With most of the heavy work done, put the bowl top down on the bench, against a low stop. Switch to maul and gouge, and eventually to hand-pushed gouge, paring chisel and spokeshave. A plane works well on the sides. Check thickness frequently, trying for an even ½" all around, except where needed to give a good standing bottom. A foot rim carved into the outside bottom can help make the bowl sit steady and is a good way to remove excess thickness from the bottom. Clean under the handles with the gouge, perhaps even adding a finger groove. Roll the edges of the rim and handles with spokeshave, paring chisel and knife.


Wood carved green should be set aside to dry thoroughly, out of direct sunlight, before finishing. Larger pieces can be stored in plastic between carving sessions to promote slow and even drying. During this drying process a slight warping may occur which can be corrected by trimming the rims.

Scrapers and curved rasps can be helpful to work smooth a whittled surface, but the best aid in making a smooth surface is neat and clean carving.

A good utilitarian finish can be achieved by simply sanding with 150-grit sandpaper then applying a generous coat of mineral oil, which is wiped dry after being allowed to soak in. For a more deluxe finish, raise the grain by soaking the piece in water for about an hour after the initial sanding.   Let the piece air dry then sand well with 400-grit paper. Apply four or five coats of mineral oil, the last of which should be mixed with 25% beeswax, which can be buffed dry to a soft luster.

Owen Rein and Steve Folkers

Using old-fashioned woodworking tools and techniques has long been a passion for Owen Rein and Steve Folkers.  Wandering around in the woods comes more naturally for both of them than they care to admit.


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