Workshop Mishaps: From a wandering moment to a woodcarver's woe

The Story

From a wandering moment to a woodcarver's woe

In mid-May 2006 I acquired a replica of a 300-year old hand tool that can be best described as a bent-knife with a 24" handle. It is what young Welsh men used to carve the bowl of their love spoons since the 17th century, resting the long handle on their shoulder as they pulled the curved blade through the wood towards them. As a modern-day love spoon carver who demonstrates the folk art at festivals and shows, I was very excited at the prospect of showing people how my ancestors performed their work using this most unusual tool.

At a Celtic Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio, after driving the 3½ hours early that morning in order to set up my booth, I began carving, using my new bent-knife to gouge the bowl of a spoon from butternut. By now the festival was in full swing with loud, raucous Celtic music filling the air. In a nanosecond of inattention from watching the sights (and not the carving) I drove the bent-knife into my bare hand, resulting in a 3½" slice that traveled up and down my thumb. Within 20 minutes—a roll of gauze wrapped around the wound—my wife was driving me to the local emergency room.

The Victim

Thirty-two-year old Chris Watkins, whose Welsh love spoon we feature on page 68, took up professional carving four years ago, starting up his business Llwyau Sgwd (Waterfall Love Spoons). Today, working his chisels, gouges, and knives, Chris (and his father) sell decorative spoons through festivals, stores, and

Case Analysis

Chris admits he was too tired to safely demonstrate carving after getting up early and then driving and setting up his booth at the festival. Nor did the musical entertainment on stage near his booth help his concentration. Says Chris, “We are frequently warned of the dangers of operating power tools when tired, but my experience suggests that this caution should also be applied to hand tools, particularly razor sharp ones.”

Another mistake he admits making is using a new tool in public without becoming familiar with its quirks. “I had not practiced enough with the bent-knife in the two weeks it had been in my possession to claim to be expert enough to show others how to use it.”

One final note: it wasn’t until Chris had his accident that he purchased a woodcarver’s safety glove and leather thumb guard, items that could have saved him a lot of grief.

Shop-Smart Strategies

As you’d expect, Chris has redoubled his efforts to stay safe while carving. Here’s his list of pointers to help you make wood—and not yourself—the object of your well-honed tools.

  • Never carve when you’re tired or feel rushed.
  • Remove yourself from any distractions that could take your mind off your work such as TV, lively conversation, and babysitting kids.
  • Wear a carver’s glove or leather thumb guard on the hand holding the workpiece. Both help you avoid cutting yourself from a carving tool slip. The thumb guard is particularly effective when drawing the carving knife toward you.
  • When possible, place your work on a solid benchtop and non-slip pad for maximum control. 
  • Turn the workpiece as needed or work the carving tool so the cutting edge cuts with the wood grain. Cutting against the grain could cause you to remove big chunks and cause the knife to slip.
  • Always plan to cut away from yourself. When possible, use the thumb of the hand not holding the carving knife to direct the blade and apply cutting pressure.
  • Always direct gouges away from you. 
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