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How do I start?

I’m often asked “I want to get into carving spoons, how do I start? What tools do I need?”. Well, in this blog post I’m hoping to give some answers to those questions. Hopefully it will be helpful whether you’re in the UK or anywhere else in the world!

My two WoodTools Axes.
My various knives.
Curls made by a sharp axe!
Let’s get into it!

The beauty of greenwood carving is that once you’re set up you only really require three tools; an axe, a knife and a hook knife. To get to that point though you need a few other fairly essential things, a space to work, an axe block, a maul/mallet/caveman club, a saw, a sharpening system (including strops) and I would recommend putting a first aid kit together which includes a tourniquet.

Most importantly though you will need some wood (wet wood, otherwise known as greenwood).


The Space

All you need is a space big enough to swing an axe, I do my axing outside without cover, I bring all my tools inside and cover my axe block so it doesn’t get wet. I usually do my knife work inside, in the warm!

My old carving set up, before we moved house!

The Axe Block

I won’t go into what makes a good axe block because Emmet Van-Driesche and Lee John Phillips have made a fantastic FREE e-book covering all you need to know about what makes a good axe block. It also details the process of making one. https://www.leejohnphillips.co.uk/store/the-pocket-book-of-axe-blocks

Image from leejohnphillips.co.uk

The Maul, Mallet or Caveman Club

Whatever you call it it’s an important piece of carving equipment. It’s used a lot for whacking the back of your axe to split whole logs and to split chunks off to make a useable blank. It’s best if it’s a knotty piece of wood so its less likely to split and break. To make it I just axe down one end until the handle is thin and comfortable to hold, simple as that, it’s done!

My Club, made out of knotty Beech.

The Saw

Whether you are cutting a branch to length or cutting stop cuts for the axe work a saw is important. A chainsaw is much easier for cutting logs or branches to length but it’s an expensive investment and I would recommend training if you are considering that. A hand saw is the next best alternative such as a bow saw/bucksaw or a pruning saw, these saws are great because they are purpose made for greenwood and can be small and portable.

I used to use a Bahco Laplander saw but I now use a saw from Samurai Saws in the UK and I will be getting a folding bucksaw for bigger logs, below I will list some makers and websites where you can find your own. Some links are to the main site but you need to look for stockists and dealers of which there are plenty.

Samurai Saws for folding and fixed blade saws. (UK)

Silky Saws for folding and fixed blade saws. (US)

Bahco for folding and fixed blade saws. (Europe)

Will Priestley is a maker in the UK who makes folding bucksaws

For bow saws you can get them at most hardware or tool shops for example in the UK; Screwfix

Photo from Samuraisaws.co.uk

The Sharpening System

A sharpening system can be as complex or simple as you like, there are a few popular options which I’ll cover, I’ll also include strops in this section.

I won’t go into how to sharpen as there are plenty of resources out there, it is important to understand the geometry of the blades so if you’re unsure, watch a few videos and give it a go! On Youtube and/or Instagram, Spoon carving with Tom, Matt White, Emmet Van-Driesche and Hewn and Hone have good information.

As I said, there are three popular set ups for sharpening; whetstones/Japanese water stones, diamond stones and wet or dry abrasive paper. I use abrasive papers so I don’t have much experience or knowledge of a whetstone or diamond stone set up, but just like how to sharpen there are plenty of resources out there from other carvers who would recommend other systems. Zed Outdoors made a great video with Lee Stoffer on sharpening with both water stones and sandpaper, watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1FCQuUH-r0 .

As I mentioned I use the sandpaper method for which I buy supplies from Hewn and Hone. I usually start at 1200 grit and move up through 2000, 5000 and 7000. If the edge is really bad I start at 800 grit. This is a very simple system and works very well my only problem with it is that it is probably the least environmentally friendly out of all the options as the sandpaper has to be changed regularly.

My sharpening system

Strops are also brilliant to have in your tool box, traditionally they are a leather strip for sharpening razors. In carving we use them as the last stage of sharpening but also for touching up the edge throughout the carving process. If you’re using leather strops there will normally be a suede strop which will have some kind of honing compound on to aid the sharpening and there will be a smooth leather side for the final touch up.

Generally the firmer the material used for a strop the better the results, for example a thick squishy piece of leather will not be as good as a plain MDF board with some compound on it. This is because the squishy leather will very slightly wrap around the edge of the blade which will round it off spoiling all the hard work of sharpening!

Just like the sharpening system there are a few options; you can very easily make your own strop be it leather or wood. When making your own it’s important to have a base that is flat to keep the bevel on your tools flat. A very simple option is to get a piece of wood or MDF and just put honing compound straight on that (arguably this is the best method to keep a truly flat bevel) or buy some thin leather and glue it to the wood making sure there are no lumps of glue to spoil the flat surface. Alternatively you can buy a good strop from most good woodworking/sharpening/knife shops.

You can also buy a very premium leather strop from other makers such as @spoon_carving_with_tom .

Some good stropping compounds for the suede side are Veritas Honing Compound (best on leather), Tormek Honing Paste (a bit messy, best straight on wood) and the cheap and effective Autosol Metal Polish.

My stropping set up from Spoon Carving with Tom.

A quick note on tourniquets

As well as a standard first aid kit with plasters, bandages, tape etc. you should get a tourniquet. Hopefully you will never have to use this but it’s better to have it, it could save your life! There are loads of places to buy a tourniquet including places like amazon but do not skimp on this. Ones on amazon are poor quality and reviews say they have broken when being used, don’t take the risk, buy one from a trusted first aid supplier. I bought mine from St Johns Ambulance UK here: https://www.sja.org.uk


TOOLS!
My various knives.

Now on to the exciting part of carving; the tools! Apart from all the other things I have just covered, the main tools for carving are just an axe, straight (sloyd) knife and a hook knife. There are so many tools and makers out there that when you’re first starting it can be a bit overwhelming finding the right ones, so I will quite simply list some tools below and mention which ones are the best budget option and some more expensive quality tools.

Sloyd Knives:
  • MoraKniv 106 – This is definitely the best budget option, the blade is purpose made for carving and holds its edge well. You can also buy the blade on it’s own and handle it yourself. I still use mine as a roughing blade every time I carve.
  • Adam Ashworth Sloyds UK – Adam makes some beautiful blades at a very reasonable price, They are perfect for spoon carving, they are slightly thinner and longer than the Mora which makes them great for tight turns and finishing cuts but also great for the whole process.
  • Green Haven Forge US – Josh also makes brilliant blades which are a reasonable price for great quality. I’ve not had a chance to use one but they come with a flat over hollow grind which means they are a bit easier and quicker to sharpen.
  • Matt White TMW US – Matt makes super high quality knives that are well known for their edge retention and ergonomics. These tools are in a higher price range as they are very sought after, Matt has quite a long wait list so if you’re looking to get started carving it might be best to get something else while you wait!
  • Nic Westermann UK – Nick is also a very high quality tool maker as shown by another long wait list! He is making some of the best blades you can get, Nic sells the blade only so you’ll have to handle them yourselves.
  • Adrian Lloyd UK – A special mention for Adrian who is making some beautiful knives with lovely painted handles, they come hollow ground. He’s making in small batches so get in quick!
Hook Knives:
  • MoraKniv 164 – Just like the sloyd knife the Mora is again the best budget option, the blade is purpose made for carving and holds its edge well. This is the newer upgraded version which I would recommend over the previous 164 which had a sharp point at the end and also over the double edged 162.
  • Wood Tools UK – Another brilliant budget end option, I use the compound curve hook exclusively at the moment, it’s great for spoons, scoops and just about everything.
  • Green Haven Forge US – Same as before Josh makes great tools, they sell out pretty quickly so once they are on his website get in quick!
  • Matt White TMW US – Same as before, Matts tools are incredible. He makes various types of hook knives all of which require joining a waitlist. There may be the odd one posted on instagram which will get bought very quickly!
  • Nic Westermann UK – Same as before, Nic is well known for his top quality tools. Just like his sloyds the hook knives come as blade only so will require handling.
  • Lee Stoffer UK – A special mention for Lee who uses blades made by Nic Westermann (which can only be bought through Lee I believe) to make the mighty scorp, an amazing tool which I haven’t yet had the privilege to use, I recommend having a look and signing up to Lee’s newsletter to get shop updates.
Axes:
  • Wood Tools UK- This is a great budget axe option, Wood Tools has built up a good name for making tools that work well for both beginners and experts. I started with ‘The Robin Wood Carving Axe’ and eventually moved on to ‘The Woodland Axe’ (still my carving axe) which is a bit more of an allrounder axe and it’s heavier.
  • Green Haven Forge US – Josh has captured the mid-range/budget axe market with his recently launched ‘Essential Craft Axe’ a brilliant functional axe that comes with a great grind on it. He also offers a ‘Sloyd Axe’ which is a bit prettier, has a longer edge and is a bit more of a spoon carving focused axe.
  • Soulwood Creations UK – Peter is an amazing craftsman who makes beautiful axes, he is very much focused on ergonomics and the comfort of the axe, as well as a very sharp edge! These axes are very popular and sell out at light speed. Peter also makes special edition axes if you fancy a one of a kind axe. Because of the high demand these are expensive axes.
  • Gransfors Bruks SW – Gransfors Bruks are a well known brand of axe, they make a large range of really good quality axes. Among the most popular for carving axes are the ‘Large Carving Axe’ and the ‘Wildlife Hatchet’, they are versatile, reliable axes. As they are a larger company they aren’t as expensive as others but they aren’t budget axes either.
  • Kalthoff SW – Julia is a swedish maker who is passionate about making good tools, her axe is a very popular choice for carving. It’s very well balanced and as you would expect, comes very sharp. These axes are again at the pricey end of the spectrum.

I hope that’s helpful for you! If you have any other questions (or amendments) please contact me, Instagram direct messages are best!

Happy carving!

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