Thursday, January 30, 2014

Order of operations?

One subject that I have not found much advice on is the "order of operations" of spoon carving.  If you have ever watched with dismay as the diameter of your spoon bowl shrinks the more you work on it, you know what I am feeling.  Most advice, which I think is generally good, encourages you to move back and forth between the plan view (looking down on the spoon) and the profile view (from the side.)  You definitely have to keep both in mind as you work, as changes with one impact the other.  And that is where the mysterious shrinking bowl comes in.  If you define the curve of the bottom of the bowl before the profile of the rim, then when you remove material to shape the rim the overall diameter (the plan view) of the bowl will shrink.   I have a few serving spoons with tiny little bowls and long, fat bodies.

So is there a correct "order of operations" for spoon making?  After studying a few videos I generally don't think there is just one sequence of steps to follow.  But there are probably some good rules to keep in mind.

For example, Peter Follansbee in an episode of the Woodright's Shop with Roy Underhill, after splitting a branch, removing most of the bark, and drawing a center line and a plan view of the spoon, starts right in on carving the bowl of the spoon first.

Barn "The Spoon"Carder and Ion Constantin, on the other hand, both seem focus on hollowing the bowl last.

So for the most part, there is no one right sequence of steps in making a spoon, but I would say there are some things that I am trying to keep in mind:

  1. The shrinking bowl problem (as described above.)  In a recent email thread with David Fisher, he put the solution really well: "I guess the thing is not to undercut the edge of the bowl until you've carved the upper plane of the rim.  You can still carve along the entire outer rim of the spoon bowl first, but keep the cut at 90 degrees to the upper surface, then if you change the upper surface edge, the shape of the bowl remains the same.  Then you can carve the roundness of the back of the bowl."
  2. Working outside of right angles.  I find that I get into trouble if I define anything but the plan and profile of the spoon too early in the process.  For example, the transition of the underside of the bowl to the underside of the stem is a fun cut to work through, but if I focus too much on it before I have defined the upper edge of the profile view of the stem, the stem can get pretty spindly and weak.
  3. Don't jump to chamfer too quickly. I love Jarrod StoneDahl's recent spoon carving video for a lot of reasons, but one is how he saves the chamfers for the final step.  
  4. Leave some heft on the handle until the end.  You don't want the stem or handle flexing as you work on other parts of the spoon.  Ion Constantin does this.
  5. I like hollowing and even nearly finishing the inside of the bowl bowl while there is still some meat on the spoon.  I have more to hold on to, and I don't run into the problem of the bowl wall being too thin (well, not as much.)  Maybe Peter Follansbee's method deserves another look?  By the way, Peter is offering a spoon carving class this spring.  It is full, but there is a wiat list.
These days, my "order of operations" goes something like this: I firm up the "plan view" first, carving to the line. Then I hollow out a bit of the bowl, which lets me easily work on the profile of the bowl rim. Once I am happy with the rim of the bowl, I start moving back, working on the stem's transition into the bowl and eventually the handle's relation to the stem.  My goal is to make the upper edge of the profile view into a pleasing form. Once that is done, this sort of becomes my "reference plane."  I then go to work on the inside of the bowl, trying to refine the shape and finish as much as I can while I still have a lot of wood to work with.  Once I am happy with the bowl depth and finish, I carve away the underside of the bowl, keeping in mind the way the profiles of the bottom and rim of the bowl work together.  This is the step where I approach the final thickness of the bowl wall.  Once done, I then work toward the handle, this time on the underside of the stem and handle, again trying to create a pleasing form from the profile view.  Up until this point I have been focusing a lot on the profile view, though I certainly stop to check the plan view now and again, especially when I start removing material that is not at a right angle to the plan or profile view.  After drying, I refine the form, add chamfers, and touch up the finish.  

If any of you have insights, common problems, or suggestions, I would love to hear them.  Also, my "video" tab has a few carving videos that have been most helpful for me.  (Jarrod's is by far the most helpful to date.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Creator's Curse

I came across this little gem posted on the Spoon Carving, Green Woodworking and Sloyd Facebook group.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Do it badly, as fast as you can

When Robin Wood posted his top 20 spoons in the world, I noticed that Barn had engraved "I believe in replication" on one.  I appreciate this sentiment, especially as a newbie to spoon carving.  I am still imprinting forms on my brain and training my hands to do things, and that only comes with repeated attempts.  Gotta build up that muscle memory.
But I think Barn's declaration also points at another truth: that only with repeated attempts at something do we learn how to do something right.  The mistakes we make early on are crucial to our development, and the faster we get through those mistakes the faster we get to the really good stuff.  So don't be afraid to suck.  Just get on with sucking.

I find this often when teaching writing to my social studies students.  Many students feel their first draft needs to be perfect, immaculately conceived and born whole and fully formed like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus.  And when their first sentence does not come out right the first time, they feel like they have failed, and that writing is too hard.  Giving them permission to write a "shitty first draft" is crucial to their development.  Lots of low-stakes assignments gives them the space to make mistakes and learn the craft.
Along these lines, check out this anecdote from Fail Fast, Fail Often by Babineaux and Krumboltz.
The teacher divided the students into two groups. Those sitting on the left side of the studio were to be graded solely on the quantity of their work, while those on the right, solely on the quality. The instructor informed the students in the quantity group that a simple rule would be applied to evaluate their grades: those who produced fifty pounds of pots would get an A, those who produced forty pounds a B, and so on.
For the quality group, the instructor told the students that he would assign a course grade based on the single best piece produced over the duration of the course. So if a student created a first-rate pot on day one of the course and did nothing else for the term, he would still get an A.
When the end of the quarter arrived and it came to grading time, the instructor made an interesting discovery: the students who created the best work, as judged by technical and artistic sophistication, were the quantity group. While they were busy producing pot after pot, they were experimenting, becoming more adept at working with the clay, and learning from the mistakes on each progressive piece.
In contrast, the students in the quality group carefully planned out each pot and tried to produce refined, flawless work, and so they only worked on a few pieces over the length of the course. Because of their limited practice, they showed little improvement.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Mandrels

My first mandrel finally gave up the ghost.  After a half year of banging and prying, it split right as I was driving it into a bowl blank.  Doh!  Once in, it was not coming out, and I had worked hard to rough out that blank.  So I broke out the sheet metal screws and bailing wire and cobbled it back together.  Amazingly, it held long enough to finish the bowl.   

I had been meaning to make new mandrels, so this was my chance.  I have been wondering about different diameters and gearing, so I made two: a 2" and a 3".  To resist the splitting I thought of using a hose clamp, but that seemed inelegant.  Instead, I went with twine.  When I hafted my first adze iron from Kestrel Tools, they also sold me a spool of the toughest twine I have ever seen.  It stretches just a smidge, but it is really strong stuff.  So for the mandrels I turned a little recess at each end of the mandrel, and wrapped TIGHTLY with the twine.  We will see how it holds up.  An errant tool nick might unravel the whole set up, but that is better than dulling my tool on a hose clamp.     

Mighty cold and dry in New Hampshire these days.  Having to dry bowls very slowly, or they might start looking like this.

Still, beautiful weather for getting out with Ellie.