(tools, sharpening, books, video tutorials and events)
Whittling and spoon carving are excellent therapeutic, productive, useful and creative activities and we hope the craft will bring all those benefits to those who take it up. However it’s even more important to stay safe when learning at home with no teacher to keep an eye on you, so we’ve written some brief tips for carving at home.
We use green wood (it’s in the name), this is unseasoned wood straight from the log, because it’s still full of water it’s softer and easier to carve. Any wood is worth a try. At London Green Wood we use mainly native hardwoods, our favourites are silver birch and sycamore.
Lime and alder are hardwoods that are soft and easy to carve. Fantastic for beginners. Willow is soft, but very sharp tools are needed to get a good finish. Poplar is soft and easy to work, but has a high silica content that with scratch your tools.
Cherry is also popular with our members, particularly for the colouring, but is more likely to split than other woods (so not suitable for cups, ladles etc. and more care should be taken in drying). Other fruit wood is also good and often has pretty colours and patterns in it. All are fairly dense, and therefore harder to carve but will give a brilliant smooth finish.
Very hard woods, eg. oak, as very hard to carve. So we wouldn’t recommend it for starting out.
Ring porous woods, such as ash and elm (where there is a visible difference between the summer and winter growth) are not suitable for spoons or vessels that need to hold liquid.
Woods with poisonous berries, eg. yew and laburnum, best avoided for kitchenware. But most trees growing in the UK are safe to use.
There are many online suppliers of green wood tools and very few physical shops. We recommend the Woodsmith Store and Woodland Craft Supplies, small independent business’ who will give you friendly advice on the phone if you have questions about tools.
We teach with Mora 120 knives. These are not general purpose knives and should never be used for food or for splitting wood. They are made of carbon steel, this will rust if left damp or in contact with acidic items such as food. Carbon steel is softer than stainless steel and so is both easier to damage and easier to sharpen.
Don’t use a folding knife for whittling or woodcarving, even one with a locking mechanism is not fail safe.
Do not carve with gloves on, or any type of kevlar finger barrier. Instead develop safe habits that protect your hands. We think that these kinds of finger guards are dangerous because they encourage bad practice. Instead develop safe habits that protect your hands.
Knives for kids
For small hands we recommend the Classic Swedish Child’s Safety Knife or in stainless steel the Morakniv Rookie. A rounded tip is essential (this really helps to reduce injuries), a hand guard on one side is also useful to help the kids tell the blade from the back of the knife (a surprisingly common problem when people of all ages get excited), and a decent sheath for protecting both you and the knife in storage is important too.
Folding knives, pen knives, swiss army knives, pocket knives etc. are not safe for carving wood.
Hook knives (also known as crook knives or spoon knives)
The Morakniv 164 was redeveloped in 2019 and is now a really good value hook knife. As with all hook knives it comes with a left or right grind. The right version is predominantly for right-hand users drawing it towards yourself but left-handed users can use this knife by pushing it away with both thumbs. Likewise a right-handed user can use a left knife pushing it away from themselves. Using the ‘wrong’ handed hook knife is a slower but safer method, we particularly recommend this method if you are spoon carving at home with young people.
Morakniv also make double edged spoon knives. Please don’t buy these, they are unnecessary and dangerous.
Carving axes come with a left or right handed grind (a flatter surface on the side that hits the wood) or a centre grind (that can be used left of right handed). A side axe will cut more aggressively and a centre ground axe will allow for more detailed carving. It is not necessary to have both, but which you choose is a matter of personal preference. An axe head should last for generations.
Father and daughter team, Wood Tools, have developed affordable, lightweight axes for beginner carvers made from their workshop in Sheffield.
Gränsfors Bruk axes are hand forged, expensive and amazing. For spoons and small projects: the Large Carving Hatchet, the Wildlife Hatchet or the Hand Hatchet. The Large Carving Axe has an extra weight that makes it useful for larger projects such as kuksas and bowls as well as spoons. If you have small hands you will struggle to get a good grip on the Large Carving Axe. We do not recommend using axes under 600g, especially not with children and young people. Very lightweight axes can be more dangerous because you have to compensate for the weight of the tool by swinging the axe harder and therefore with less control.
Spoon carving set
Wood Tools’ spoon carving starter kit (their own axe and spoon knife with a Mora 106 straight knife) is the most economical way to get all the tools you need for spoons.
If you buy a knife it is essential that you also have a way to sharpen it. The stone from your kitchen drawer is likely far too course to use on woodwork tools. Sharp tools are safer.
Wet and dry emery paper is a cheap alternative to buying sharpening stones. Sean Hellman sells a kit that is made up with replaceable abrasive paper.
There are loads of blogs and videos for instruction, this one by Paul Kirtley is a good starting point, as is this Introduction by Robin Wood which explains the theory of sharpening and introduces different sharpening stone options. Note that some sharpening systems must be used with water and not oil.
Green wood shrinks as it dries, this can cause warping and cracking. Once your work is finished dry it slowly, away from a heat source or sunny spot. The bigger, thicker and deeper it is the more important it is to dry it slowly to avoid cracking (a spatula is less likely to to crack than a spoon, a bowl or a cup are more likely to crack than either). You can slow drying down up wrapping your work up in a damp cloth, or in a bag full of woodshaving.
Love your treen and use it. Wash up your spoons, bowls etc. as usual but never in a dishwasher and never leaving soaking in a basin of water. Dry thoroughly between use. Any time that you have differential drying (eg. a puddle in the bowl) you are likely to get cracking.
Oiling your work once dry will bring up the grain and keep it clean. Use an oil that is both curing and edible. Oils to use: hempseed, raw linseed/flaxseed, walnut, safflower, poppy, soybean or tung oil. NOT: olive oil (non curing, as are mineral, coconut, peanut, olive, rapeseed oils) or boiled linseed (not safe for consumption).
There are loads of books about whittling and green woodwork these days, but the most useful resource remains the classic ‘Swedish Carving Techniques‘ by Wille Sundqvist originally published in in 1990.
Barn the Spoon‘s latest book Woodcraft is a great practical how-to guide with projects from beginner (mallet making) to advanced (chair making) which you can make at home. He sells a pack of 4 graphic Spoon Carving Postcards which illustrate basically all you need to know- knife grips, edge geometry, grain alignment and grain pattern. He also offers online membership to Spoon Club, which gives you access to a library of video tutorials.
Those who have been paying attention will know that London Green Wood are against using any type of folding knife, even locking knives, to carve or whittle wood. But despite his choice of tool, The Little Book of Whittling by Chris Lubkemann is full of fun project ideas to carve from sticks. Particularly good for families. We recommend following these projects with a more suitable knive (see above).
- Spoon Carving for Beginners, a library of 24 introductory videos complied by London Green Wood coop memberRichard Roberts, covering everything from choosing wood, to knife grips and sharpening.
- Spoon carving with Tom.
- Spoon club with Barn the Spoon and the Green Wood Guild (paid content).
- Getting started with pole lathe bowl turning, content by Sharif Adams.
- Video tutorials from Zed Outdoors covering everything from sharpening, to spoon carving, natural cordage, basketry, turning and fire lighting.
Events we recommend
Annual gathering of the Association of Pole-lathe Turners and Greenwood Workers. The Bodgers Ball is held every May in a different part of these isles each year.
The international celebration of the carved wooden spoon, featuring: masses of green wood, the best carvers in the world doing free demonstrations and paid workshops, campfires, a spoon gallery full of inspiration, local beer sold for charity and a wood fired pizza oven. Held in Edale on the first weekend of August. Sells out like Glastonbury.