spoons and spoons

As you might have noticed, I haven’t written much lately. well, not here anyway. Been finishing some articles, one for American Furniture and some for Popular Woodworking Magazine. That, plus the awful heat here have conspired to keep me from the blog. It’s not cooler yet, but I did get a few pictures of this and that.

As some of you know, I am looking forward to carving Swedish-style spoons this summer in Jogge Sundqvist’s class at Country Workshops (www.countryworkshops.org) –

various PF spoons


but sometimes in my day job I need to carve spoons that represent those used by English settlers in Plymouth c. 1627. I know just about nothing of the spoons used then, other than having seen a few at the Mary Rose years ago ( http://www.maryrose.org/)  

I carve them from maple usually, having riven out radial blanks. This way I can get a lot of spoons from one small section of firewood. I broke up a piece of maple last week that was about 10″ in diameter, and about 2 feet long. I have made 25 spoons from it thus far, and have that many again, I think. plus a lot of twisted discarded wood for firewood.

I came up with a simple rig to hold the riven & hewn flat blank so I can quickly gouge out the bowl of the spoon. It’s just a thick scrap of oak board, with two pieces of pine nailed to it; these are slightly angled towards each other. Then I just drive the blank into this wedge-shaped space; I use a holdfast to secure the whole thing to the bench.

I use a bent gouge & mallet to rough out the bowl shape. I trace a repro pewter spoon for the outline, then a few strokes with gouge & mallet have the basic shape hollowed out.

spoon blank held in place for gouge work


after the mallet; I then refine the rough bowl with hand-pressure on the gouge.

hand pressure gouge work


I did not photograph the whole process by which I make these; but in the photo below you can see one where I have sawn shoulders in just above the bowl, then I split down to these saw-cuts to define the section that will be the handle. From there is hatchet & knife work.

17th-century style spoons


Nathaniel Adams, Sr., a turner in Boston had an extensive inventory that included many items not necessarily made in his shop. Among these were “4 grosse of woodden Spoones         4s. pr. grosse” which came then to 16 shillings. Now, a trained tradesman at that time (1675) might make 2 shillings a day in Boston…depending on many factors; time of year, with or without meat, etc. – but however you cipher it, a person making these spoons in 17th-century New England was a.) making lots of them, and b.) not earning much for them. I was thinking I might be able to make 5 or 6 dozen in a day; but I wouldn’t want to make them the next day, that’s for sure.

Dave Fisher and his patient family came to visit a while back, and Dave gave me a very nice spoon, in cherry. Thanks, Dave. See his website here: http://davidffisher.com/home

and the spoon is here:

spoon, Dave Fisher, cherry

38 thoughts on “spoons and spoons

  1. Hmm… five dozen spoons in, let’s say a 10-hour workday is…

    600 minutes DIV 60 spoons = 10 minutes per spoon.

    A sixth dozen brings the time per spoon down to about 8.3 minutes.

    That’s not counting time for lunch and dinner, or for what we euphemistically call a “bio break” these days.

    The Pilgrims prefigured a lot of things, including the sweatshop, it seems.

    Keep your fingers close to your hand. Beware that axe. I shudder to think that someone would work so fast with the kind of sharp tools that would permit such a rapid rate of work in the first place.

    Or were those six gross of spoons the result of a long, quiet winter when there was little else to do except perhaps to make nails?


  2. JL
    I did a few of them last week that I roughly clocked at 15 minutes each…but I was talking to people too. When making these spoons, I never make one. I split a bunch of blanks, trim them w a hatchet, and then gouge out the bowls. then I make the saw cuts on the lot of them, then the splitting, etc. So a one-man assembly line. easier on your body that way too.

    I speculate that whoever made spoons in 17th c English/New England would make a large number over an extended period, then sell a bunch of them at once. we know turners in particular bought goods from “chapmen” (i.e. men who sold various odds and ends, not craftsmen who sold their prodcuts) to sell in their shops. Maybe the spoons are just that…remember the 4 shillings per gross is the price to the customer, thus possibly not what the maker got. hmm… 48 pence per 144 spoons, = 1/3 of a penny per spoon at that rate, I think.
    If it’s 144 per gross; it might be more. I have seen many things sold by the “hundred” that counted “6 score to the hundred” (i.e. 120)- don’t know if the gross was treated the same way.

  3. Peter, your bowl first technique is interesting. Everything I’ve seen so far describing Swedish and traditional European spoon carving showed the bowls being carved last. I shouldn’t be surprised that New England spoon carvers had different techniques.

    I suspect it might be easier to carve the bowls in drier/harder wood with a gouge using the two handed gouge, bowl first technique you used here. Given that craftsmen or “chapsman” would used materials and tools familiar and available in their locale, different efficiencies would emerge in different locales.

    I personally favor the carve bowl last technique but I’m not being asked to produce 6 dozen spoons a day at a 1/3 of a penny each.

    Check out these Russian spoon carvers! http://www.pinewoodforge.com/RussianCarvers.html Another group that used to have high production numbers.

    • Will – I have no evidence whatsoever about how spoons were carving in the seventeenth century, England or New England. the method I show here is based on the idea of making a lot of spoons quickly, from straight-grained stock.

      I learned from Wille & Jogge Sundqvist and from Drew Langsner to make spoons from sections of limbs with “crooks” in them; thus the shape is partially determined by the stock.

      This work is a much simpler task from a design standpoint. No thinking, really – just cutting.

      since this posting last night, I’m already learning more about spoons in England at that period. Stay tuned.

    • No, Kari, not GB, but it is a Swedish-made hatchet; I got it years ago from Drew. Off the top of my head, I forget the blacksmith’s name. You’ll see a few versions of this tool next month when we are at CW w Jogge.

  4. I think it might be a mistake to look at the production of items like this in the context of a working day and working patterns as we perceive them. With small items produced in quantity I suspect whole household groups would often have chipped in with the work, possibly even beyond the ‘working day’ rather than as part of it. The Russian photos maybe suggest this. I have certainly seen images of whole families gathered around forges to produce nails.

    In this light, the 2s. (or whatever) income could be earned by 4,5,6 pairs of hands rather than just 2.


  5. Chris – I agree, mostly. I offered the price per gross and a typical day’s wages to give an idea of the meager value of a wooden spoon.

    I wish we would stumble upon some more documentary evidence from that period about woodenware in general. But I suspect you are right about the spoons being made in odd moments here & there, until there is a sufficient number to be sold to represent some income…

    so much suppostition though…

  6. It was a great experience to visit with Peter and see his workshop and the museum. Peter has helped me by sharing so much here on the blog, and he’s an even nicer guy in person. There is much to learn and experience there.

    Regarding the historical production carving of spoons, there is a big difference between wanting to do something and having to do something (something I remind myself of when I need an attitude adjustment as a high school history teacher). I guess what I do in the workshop — following my curiosity and creativity, excited to learn and figure things out along the way — is far removed from the day to day working life of a craftsman of a few centuries ago. Maybe a bit like Marie Antoinette enjoying herself at the Petit Hameau.

  7. Hello one and all,
    A great thread as usual.
    Just one thing . I would suggest that using inventries as a reference needs great caution. These inventries where often done shortly after the death of the named person and often by someone who had no trade knowledge. So gave items a valued that seemed fair (or not) to them .
    Recently I was looking at some records from the early 1500s in the uk. In the reciept book glasses 10s a pr, death inventry 1 year later 2s a pr! Kevin

  8. hello all, Some interesting ideas and discussion.This is something I have discussed with fellow spoon carvers,just what kind of production might be the norm for a days work. It reminded me of reading this passage in David Pye’s “Art and Nature of Workmanship”. In the old days free workmanship was the way of turning out cheap goods in quantity,but now even the smartest workman using it could not compete with the workmanship of certainty,and it survives successfully only in making a few things which the workmanship of certainty is incapable of, such as baskets and the underwood industry, palings,spikes,hurdles,which are still in demand and have no acceptable substitute as yet. It is essentially deft,done with economy of effort. The liveliness and decision of it, and the fact that it is often associated with the countryside, have caused it to be thought that its practitioners must have taken pleasure in doing it; which may be very much doubted in some cases. The Welsh turner, James Davies of Abercych, told me that as a boy he had carved wooden spoons to be sold at fairs at, I think, twopence each. He said at that price there was just time, when the spoon was finished, to look at it once on the inside, once on the outside, and then throw it over your shoulder onto the heat and start another! But having seen his work I do not doubt the spoons were a pleasure to look at.

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