I’ve always enjoyed woodworking. My dad made me a small workbench and gave me a hammer and nails to practice with for my fifth birthday, so it’s been a long-time love affair. But as we hurtle towards the edge of a rather steep cliff as a country, piling on the trillions of debt (does anybody understand how much a trillion of anything really is?), and outsourcing the production of our toothbrushes, tennis shoes and food fabrication, I’m making hand carved wooden spreaders. The importance of wooden items in our daily lives has long since been lost. Why use wooden utensils or eat off a wooden plate when you can have Chinese China and plastic plates leaching into our hand-made, home-cooked, locally grown meals? I mean, money might not grow on trees, but just guess what does!?
On a more serious note, sloyd is a fascinating word derived from the Swedish word Slöjd, which means handicraft. There is a rich tradition of hand carved wooden kitchen utensils from Sweden and I’ve enjoyed a hobby level study of the craft. This link will give you a plethora of images of the Master Sloyder Wille Sundqvist and his work. I’ve invested in the tools required to take branches and small trees and turn them into the useful items we need for eating and cooking. There’s a lot of complicated technology being promoted as “sustainable” these days, but I think we’re way off track. Sustainability is a very simple thing really: a few tools and bit of skill along with wood that is usually run through a chipper, and the combination of these things can provide for some of the most basic needs my wife, my kids and I have – plates to eat off of, spoons to get the food from a wooden bowl into our mouth, a few ladles and spatulas. Do we really understand what we’ve done by living a life in which we must buy everything we need (rather than make it our self)? And now we’ve outsourced all these items to be made a little cheaper in a foreign country, as if paying someone else to make everything we need wasn’t a fragile enough system! Are we really rich enough in this country to pay a whole slew of full-time employees to grow our food and to produce all the little daily items we are greatly dependent on?
Here’s a run down in words and pictures on the process of making an all-purpose, hand carved wooden spreader. My sister made me a sign and these spreaders are now for sale on our back porch at the farm. And yes, I realize the potential contradiction: what’s so different about me selling you a hand carved spreader, rather than buying one Made In China? Certainly that’s a voluminous subject but one reason is similar to buying your food locally – it leaves the money here at home, where it can bounce back and forth between neighbors as a means of simple transactions, rather than using those same dollars to further the complicated, greed-driven global economy. We would do well to produce everything we can ourselves, but a little bit of the old-time village where we could trade with the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker is far more resilient to global disaster than our current economic situation.
On to the process. The first tool you need is some kind of saw. Right now I use a folding hand saw, although I’m in the middle of restoring a vintage American buck saw, which is what old time farmers would have used to convert dead limbs and such into firewood to heat their homes.
Now I take a froe and club and split the wood into pieces large enough for a spreader. Using the froe, as opposed to a saw, allows me to exploit the weakness in the wood – the fact that a sharp blow with a wedge-shaped tool will split it into pieces – to gain the strength of wood in a small item like a spreader. The strength of wood is having the long fibers run the full length of the spreader. Think of wood as a bundle of soda straws. Splitting a handful of straws down the length of them is very easy, but their strength is obvious if you take that handful of straws and try to break them in half.
After the froe comes the carving axe. Any type of hatchet can hack wood off, but I’ve got an axe that Wille Sundqvist designed and the fine company Gransfors Bruks produces. It’s broad, curved bit and beard make it ideal for the carving of wooden utensils. The axe shapes the blank into a relatively flat piece, ready for laying out the outline of the spreader.
The axe and a bow saw quickly shape the outline.
Then I’m ready for the sloyd or knife work. The knife on the left is a large Svante Djärv which is great for the initial cuts that are needed to smooth out the rough axe work. The knife on the right is made by Del Stubbs of Pinewood Forge in Minnesota. He’s the premier tool maker for the growing sloyd movement in the United States.
After the knife work, the spreader takes a little bath in cold pressed organic flax oil. Woodenware should not be washed in the dishwasher because of the heat; warm water and little mild soap is all you need to clean it after use. A little flax oil periodically also helps develop that patina that only a well used, well-worn wooden item can.
Then, the spreader gets branded with a hot iron which stamps “My Dad & Me.”
Here are the spreaders displayed on our porch and the sign my sister made – isn’t it great? What do you think of our wooden spreaders and Anna’s hand drawn sign? And what do you think about our dependence on a complicated global economy for our every need?