Woodenware II

In my last post, I outlined the best methods, tried and proven, for destroying your investment in quality woodenware. Now I know that many “craftspeople” use absolute trash wood for their woodenware – stuff I’d be ashamed to put into my woodstove. But most of us create good quality ware and hope you can use it carefree for a long time.

Most woodenware is sold to you with a traditional food-safe finish of mineral oil. Mineral oil is available in your local pharmacy, is listed as USP, and is generally accepted as safe. However, most carvers use some variation of the oil finish. For example, some prefer almond oil ( also food-safe), and some use walnut oil ( I avoid walnut oil because some people have walnut allergies).
I, and others, sometimes add a tiny amount of beeswax ( food-safe) to the base oil.
It is not invasive for you to ask a carver or crafter what finishing materials they used. This spoon, spatula, bowl, or cutting board will contact the food you eat. I would avoid anything finished with an oil that might go rancid, including olive oil. Highly refined vegetable oil should be OK.

Once you own a traditionally finished piece of woodenware, you will need to know how to take care of it. You can wash it with a gentle scrubber in hot water and soap. You should carefully dry it off and not leave it immersed.

Periodically you will need to recoat it with oil. I’d use a bit of mineral oil from the pharmacy. But you can find all sorts of spoon and bowl dressing oils in shops or on the internet. Mostly they are just mineral oil with some additives. I do not advise using anything with a scent. No matter how pleasing, the odor or smell can transfer to the food you are preparing. Be careful with tung oil unless you are confident it is food-safe. Labelings are inaccurate on some products. I have obtained food-grade tung oil from Lee Valley, but I am sure it’s available elsewhere. Just be cautious.
There are some non-traditional methods of coating woodenware that are beginning to appear. I have started to use a food-safe varnish from General Finishes. We’ve used it on woodenware in our kitchen with great success. I have begun to use it on the carved wooden bowls I make. I appreciate how durable the finish is and its appearance. But most spoons, spatulas, and cutting boards are still traditionally finished.

Now a word on woods that get used. Cherry, apple, maple, and ash are the primary woods that I use. Once in a while, I’ve also used lilac and redbud. In addition, you might find olive wood used, which is also food-safe, just not available to me on a routine basis.

I avoid tropical woods and woods where I cannot be sure of their food safety. This isn’t to say that they are not food-safe, just that If I do not know for sure, I’ll avoid using them. Besides, regionally available woods in my area are sustainably harvested and readily available through local sawyers.

Methods of work vary widely among carvers. Some use knives, gouges, and scrapers exclusively. Others use power tools.
I am in the middle. I shape the wooden blank on the bandsaw and rough out the spoon’s bowl with gouges.
I might refine the shape with knives or power tools depending on the grain. Sanding and burnishing are a mix of power and hand methods.

Most carvers like me make pretty individualistic products. We avoid making two of anything precisely alike. Nevertheless, there may be a sort of “family resemblance” – how the handle sweeps or the edging of the bowl is created.

Mass-produced woodenware sometimes strives to appear handmade, but unlike the resemblances in my work, the mass-produced items seem more like peas from the pod- produced by machines carving out duplicates. Don’t get me wrong; these may be perfectly adequate as woodenware. They are not handmade. If I was required to produce hundreds of pieces a day, I might be forced to do what the makers of mass-produced woodenware do. I am fortunate that my production is small.

I hope that this post has been useful and informative. Enjoy your woodenware!

How To Torture Woodenware

I am on vacation this weekend, but I thought I’d offer a post or two on my favorite topics. The first is on -how not to care for kitchen woodenware – Spoons, bowls, spatulas, and cutting boards.

Over the decades, I’ve sold enormous amounts of woodenware. Most of what I produce gets made from cherry and maple, hardwoods that can take a good bit of abuse before giving up the ghost. I have been fortunate to have] had very few complaints over the past three decades. But then I have a “test kitchen” and a brutal tester, my wife, who commits every atrocity on my spoons so I can design utensils that can take a beating.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. It just worked out that way.

So let’s start with the easy ways to destroy woodenware:

  • Immerse it, leave it immersed overnight, clean dry and repeat. Eventually, even the best spoon will cry, uncle.
  • Run it through the dishwasher; if this doesn’t work, repeat until it does. Heat and drying cycles are known destroyers of cutting boards and spoons, which split and dry out.
  • Microwave. Watch the wood first boil and then possibly explode. A fascinating way to render a wooden spoon useless; and potentially a STEAM experiment for a student. 
  • If traditionally finished with oil and wax, refuse to recoat with a protective mineral oil coat. It will dry out and get grey first, but if you use any of the above destructive methods. It will eventually self-destruct.
  • It desperately needs recoating, so you recoat it with something that will go rancid. You will toss this one out before you’ve destroyed it, because the odor or taste is so foul.

These are some of the primary ways of destroying woodenware. There are others. I knew a man who tried to return a spoon at a show after using it to wedge open jars. I hate to think about what happened to the jars, but I laughed him out of the booth. 

You can comment on your favorite ways of destruction in the comment section below. In the next installment, I’ll explain how I make and finish things. I’ll also add my tips on keeping them in good condition.

Wild Wood

Around late October, I put some time aside from whatever projects are ongoing in the shop to work on treen – woodenware.
Something is liberating about this. I usually work on projects like ship portraits, signs, or other fussy items where the portrayal’s accuracy is essential.

I follow the wood’s grain, texture, and color when I carve a spoon or frequently this fall bowls. I continue working through a pile of native cherry that my wood guy delivered to me two years ago. Unlike the staid straight-grained stuff used for paneling, flooring, or even traditional carving, bowl, and spoon wood shows the cherry’s wild side.

The spoons shown here are one of my wife’s anniversary presents, while the gathering of bowls is what I’ve completed this fall to date. In a future post, I’ll show more specific shots of the bowls. Hopefully, by January, they’ll become part of the offerings on a Shopify store I’ll be setting up.


Wood occupies a central part of our lives. We love our cherry spoons, Mahogany cabinets, and teak deck chairs. As consumers, there is much that you don’t know about your favorite woods.


Ash has a sweetish odor, that is uniquely distinctive when you saw it or burn it. Fresh red birch has a scent that takes you back to the best root beers you’ve ever had. Cherry bark smells like tasty cough syrup. And oak has an earthy odor to it. If you work with fresh-cut timber, these are some of the sensations that the tree shares with you, and which the uninitiated remain unaware.


Love the look of mahogany, the beautiful color of cherry, or walnut? The tree didn’t add them for you. Trees live in a highly competitive environment where organisms are always attacking the tree, looking for a meal. To deter the attacks, trees deposit chemicals into their wood that inhibit insects, bacteria, and fungi. After we cut the timber, those chemicals give us the coloration and some of the wood’s durability.


Some woods are toxic to us. A wood called Pink Ivory is lovely to look at but is dangerous because of the chemicals in the wood. In use, it needs sealing before it’s safe for us to use. 

Woodworkers need to be especially aware that the dust caused by sanding some species is irritating. Mahogany and teak fall into that category. Not everyone is sensitive, but wearing protective gear is an excellent way of avoiding dermatitis or respiratory issues.

Food Safety:

Normally most of what I’ve mentioned is not too important to the average consumer. There is one area to aware of, and that is treen. Treen ( derived from the word tree) are objects like spoons, spatulas, bowls, and the like. Being that we handle food with them, the potential toxicity should be considered. In North America, woods normally considered food safe are woods like maple, fruitwoods (cherry, plum, pear, and apple) birch, and poplar. I’ve used ash for cutting boards, but not for spoons because it has alternating summer and winter woods ( ring porosity) and might absorb odors and flavors when immersed. Oak, while not toxic, is ring-porous, and can impart it’s earthy taste to foods, so I do not use it.

You might notice that I have not included walnut on my list. I am rather certain that it is food safe, but I rarely use it because there are a good number of people with walnut allergies.

Spalted wood is wood with the patterns of decay caused by fungus visible on the wood. It’s beautiful to look at, but there is a significant debate as to whether or not it is food safe. I do not work with it, in part, because there is a respiratory risk to the woodworker from the spores of the fungus. Yes, many woodworkers claim that the spores can be killed by microwaving or heating the wood. It’s just not a risk I take.

Exotic woods. I stay away from them. For many, there are question marks regarding their food safety, and being that I used to sell commercially, I had product liability to worry about.

If you have questions about any of this, write me, and I’ll try to formulate an intelligent response.

How Much Cherry? How many pieces of treen?

The featured image shows the current batch of treen destined to be Christmas presents for family and friends. Fall is treen season. I pause from other work to dig through the cherry splits for good spoon wood.

These past few years, I’ve been working through a bountiful stock of native cherry. It was cut about two years ago and is still not totally dry, but dry enough for me to use ( according to my moisture meter). The average length is 15 – 18 inches, but if I need larger stock, there are some unsawn logs available to me. For most of what I carve firewood length is excellent, and that’s what the cherry pile originated as; firewood. When my firewwod provider told me there was cherry in the load I instantly started digging for it.
If you sell treen it’s essential to get an idea of what you can get out of a split, log, or plank. Wood, like I am working with, has bark, sapwood, wane, knots, cracks, and all sorts of imperfections in it. But, it’s gorgeous wood after you get rid of the faults. I begin the work by taking a maul and a froe to the large splits of wood. In reducing the bigger wedges, I have my first opportunity to evaluate what is inside. All that is rejected at this stage is lovely kindling for the woodstove. I gradually work the piece into a large blank, as you see at the top in the photo below. If there are no severe checks or significant splits in the wood, I can proceed.

Below the blank is a partially worked piece. The blank has been refined into a general the general shape of a dipper or deep spoon.
Below the rough out is a completed spoon. With luck and some careful cutting, I can get several products out of one blank. The examples shown are a bowl scraper and a spatula. You do not always get lucky, and lots of time, there are hidden knots, cracks, or other flaws that mean you have one piece and a pile of kindling. I heat with wood; cherry kindling is always welcome.
I use my jointer to get a flat surface if the splitting doesn’t provide one. After this, it’s off to the bandsaw to refine the shape a bit. Once upon a time, I did much of this work with a shave. Selling good volumes of treen at boat shows ( not everyone wants a boat portrait, you know!) dissuaded me from this. Not to worry. There is still much hand tool work to take a rough blank and turn it into an elegant spoon.

Cherry – the versatile wood

The photo for the featured image was just taken this morning. I was finishing a batch of cherry treen. If it’s fall it’s time for me to start making treen for those friends who’ve requested spoons, spatulas, or spreaders for the holidays. The image illustrates four of the reasons I love cherry.

Cherry has a lovely color repertoire depending on the circumstance of the tree’s growth. Color, grain and hardness vary widely. Cherry is durable, and moderately hard to carve, but not so hard that it’s a a trial. In addition to treen I’ve done chip carving in cherry, and it’s my “go to” wood for ship and boat portraits. There is no other wood that I have had such an intimate and long lasting relationship with. I love our native New England cherry and I’m excessively fond of the Alleghenny cherry that I get from Pennsylvania.

In recent years I’ve had difficulty getting the wider planks I prefer for portraits and now regularly joint panels from narrower stock. Perhaps, that is a fifth reason why I love cherry; once glued properly it holds together well.

If you haven’t tried cherry because you thought it too hard I’d advise getting a sample and allowing the wood to appeal to you.

Finishing Treen – luxurious spoons & spatulas

After tempering the treen is allowed to dry for several days before finishing starts. Finishing begins with cleaning up unfair curves, and rough spots. Sanding with 80 grit, 120 grit and 240 grit sandpaper follow. A final whirl with a sanding mop ( a sort of flap sander in a drill press) acts to polish the wood.
After sanding and polishing I heat a mixture of beeswax and mineral oil. I also warm the treen. If you have the experience you can do this in a microwave, otherwise, do it in the oven. To much heat at this point will split wood, so less will be more. Just heat till the wood is warm to touch.
After the wood and beeswax mixture are both warm, I rub the treen thoroughly to cover the surfaces. In the picture shown here the treen has an excess of beeswax. That’s fine. Over hours or days it will be absorbed into the wood.
The reason for the beeswax mixture is not to make the wood look beautiful; although it does. The mixture seals and conditions the piece, so it resists moisture and the tastes and odors of cooking. At shows, I’ve seen folks pick up and smell spoons and spatulas expecting a pleasant fragrance. A subtle whiff of beeswax is pleasant, but I try to explain that you don’t want your cookware to either impart or acquire cooking odors — this is part of why we use hardwoods like cherry, maple, and apple for treen.
A final note I avoid using exotic woods. The woods that I do use are generally considered safe for use with food. Many tropical or exotic woods have toxic characteristics that make them excellent choices to avoid for food-related applications. Likewise, some oils carry risks as well. Walnut and peanut oils also are attractive on wood, but I avoid them because a customer may have an allergy to them. Oils like olive oil, safflower oil, and others I avoid because they can go rancid. There is no cure for a rancid spoon.
That’s why I stick with the beeswax and mineral oil mixture. It’s generally considered safe.
After coating I allow the treen to sit overnight. The next day I give everything a final touch up and rub down, and it’s ready to go.