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Keel

I finally had a chance to sit down an punch out some thoughts.  This is the first of the ramblings I have swirling around.  I hope to get more out soon. Enjoy.

When carving traditional Swedish eating spoons there is lots of talk about each of the parts of the spoon.  One of these is the keel.  The keel is the part between the bowl of the spoon and the handle that adds thickness to the neck.  The function is to provide strength and support to the bowl of the spoon.  This is especially important for cooking and some serving spoons, although they can be found on eating spoons.  There are two types of keel. (See this blog post about spoon parts)  The first is bottom keel as seen in the picture (carved by Jane Mickelborough).

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The second type of keel is being seen more and more often.  I call it top keel.  It is an upward swelling at the neck, as in the spoon below (carved by Oliver Pratt). Most often it is seen in spoons that are modern takes on the Welsh dolphin spoons.

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One of the nice things about bottom keel is that it is fairly easy to carve.  It also may add support to the bottom of the bowl, where top keel does not.  On the other hand, when carving a spoon with bottom keel, the back of the bowl may be thicker than a spoon with top keel, because some wood is often left to make a smooth transition from the bowl to the keel.  A deep bottom keel may also dig into the fingers uncomfortably as it rests in the hand, too.

Top keel can provide extra attachment support at the back edge of the spoon and give it a bit more rigidity than a spoon without keel.  It is also often more comfortable to hold a spoon with top keel than with bottom keel. In addition, because you don’t have extra wood on the bottom of the bowl you can keep the thickness of the bowl very thin toward the back.

Lastly, there are spoons with minimal to no keel.  These are the most comfortable to hold, in my opinion.  With eating spoons lots of keel is not really necessary anyway.  How often do you pry your food with an eating spoon?  Most often when I have seen an eating spoon break it has been at the front of the bowl anyway.  The grain is short there and prying efforts (like ice cream from a container) are more likely to break the bowl than the keel.  The only time I have felt a spoon in danger of snapping at the neck more than the bowl is when I have tried to cut something with the side of the bowl.  That puts sheer pressure on the neck that a thick keel does little to help. (This is also part of the reason I like slightly thicker necks on my eating spoons.)

It also happens to be very traditional to have little keel on Swedish eating spoons.  Pictured below are the profiles of 3 antique eating spoons. Two are surely Swedish, and I assume the third is because of the style.  All three of these are very comfortable to hold.

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This last is a spoon that I carved nearly a year ago and has seen regular use.  Although it is thin and has minimal keel, it holds up very well to regular eating.  You won’t catch me prying ice cream out of a container with it or tossing it in my back pocket though.

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More important than the actual shape of the keel is the way the grain direction runs through the spoon.  Those top 2 antique spoons have the long grain running all the way through the bowl and some short grain in the keel and handle.  The bottom one was a spoon that clearly saw daily use and has strong straight grain throughout because of the minimal crank (more on that another time).

I guess the point of this is don’t let yourself get too caught up with how much keel you have.  Just try to carve a comfortable eating spoon, use spoons from other makers and think about why you have included the features you have on a spoon.

Cheers, Ty

 

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On Learning

Okay, I know I said I would write a followup of the functions of spoons, but I just don’t have the steam right now.  It will come later.  I want to address another topic I have been thinking about recently: the learning of craft.

When I was a boy I remember seeing commercials that claimed they would teach you to play the piano in just a few hours.  I remember being amazed, and a bit skeptical.  Skeptical because my older brother loved piano and he would come home from school, practice the piano for 4 hours until dinner, eat, then practice 2 more hours until bed time.  In his room he would either read books on music theory or compose.  It was his life.  So to see somebody learn to play on a couple hours was amazing.  The funny thing is it works.  For one song.

You see, the program would teach you to play one or two songs in a short amount of time.  You could go on and learn another tune, and another that way.  I am sure you see the problem though; there is no real understanding of the music being developed.  There is a great little video about this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UABqrdBll1c

With the great outpouring of ‘How to’ videos on You Tube there has been a great resurgence in this type of learning, especially as related to craft. People watch a video, perhaps even take a class or ask some questions of experts, then they go out and make a new video.  Some of them even claim to be ‘experts’ at the craft because they can create product turns out well.  Some may not say they are experts outright, but a ‘Hey look at how well I do!’ attitude can come across as feigning being an expert. Now, I want to note, I think the interest in traditional craft that is re-surging is fantastic.  There needs to be more craft and more traditional skill sharing and developing.  For it to be high quality skill sharing there also needs to be the realization that however skilled you believe you are at the moment, if you have not spent hundreds or thousands of hours at the craft, then you are no expert.  There are no short-cuts.  Let me explain why.

Learning a craft consists of several parts.  Most people begin with the most visible and that is the product.  How to make___  How to do____.  It is a wonderful place to start.  As you learn, you develop and refine the product you also learn the next part that can only come through experience -the process.  One of the things that separates an expert from someone inexpert is the process.  Is their process efficient?  Does their process allow them to replicate or to make changes at will?  The process is about control over the product. The third type of learning only comes through both creating craft and using the craft that you create AND by using similar craft that others, preferably recognized experts, create: performance.  I recently made a spoon.  It was a good spoon.  The shape was aesthetically pleasing, it had good hand and mouth feel and was well balanced.  I ate a few meals with it before giving it to a friend.  I decided as I used it that I would never use that bowl shape again because when I eat I use the rounded front of the bowl to scoop food.  This spoon was too pointed at the tip of the bowl.  The point made it less efficient than other shapes.  I had gained new knowledge of the performance of my spoon by using it.  I had also compared it to the efficiency of other spoons by other makers.  It was literally compared to hundreds of other spoons over the course of many hours of eating with wooden spoons.

This is the kind of learning that cannot be faked.  This is also the kind of learning that comes out under a highly qualified instructor.  They can tell you not only what works, but why it works. They can help you refine your process to make it more efficient.  They can use your product with you (yes, put the spoon in their mouth…just wash it) and tell you how it can be improved.  They often have craft from other makers so that you can compare yours by eye, by hand and by mouth (spoons) so that you can compare your work without having to invest the same hundreds or thousands of dollars in other makers that they have.

Even after a course, there is no short cut.  You have to make, and make again and compare and compare again.  The closest thing there would be to a shortcut would be an apprenticeship.  A constant guiding hand to help you understand the work as you create.  There is some interesting work beginning to happen in the area of apprenticeships and traditional craft. Jarrod Stonedahl has written a bit about it on his blog.  You will have to scroll back and find it, but the whole blog is worth reading: http://woodspirithandcraft.com/blog/

Many that become expert in a craft also learn something related that does not always translate directly into better product (although it can).  That is the history of the craft.  They will know not only a general history, but where a specific style developed.  They will have theories as to why that style was ideal to that group of people, how their daily life impacted the craft and how the craft influenced their life.  It is this last part that truly makes a craft come alive.  When you participate in a craft, really, truly, authentically you become a part of the history.  You become a torchbearer. If you try to take the shortcuts you short circuit the heritage of the craft.

Let me be clear here to end:  I am no expert spoon carver.  I once thought I was, but the more I have learned, the more I realize I have far, far to go to understand everything it takes to be an expert.  That is part of the journey though, and really, it is part of the joy too.

Types of Spoons part 1

A spoon is a spoon is a spoon, right?  Wrong.  Spoons can be divided into roughly 4 categories, with some overlap. There are spoons for preparing food, spoons for transferring food from one vessel to another and spoons for transferring food from a vessel to a mouth. The last type of spoon consists of spoons that are entirely decorative in nature.  More on those later.  Today I will focus on the first three types.

You recall from the last post that each spoon, to be a good spoon, must have 4 characteristics: efficiency, comfort, mass (weight and balance) and aesthetics. In addition, spoons have certain interactions and tasks that increase their complexity.  In this case an interaction is when one object interacts with another object via the spoon. A task is what the spoon is supposed to do during an interaction.  All spoons are designed to interact with your hand.  The hand is an incredibly versatile instrument.  The number of motions and hand shapes that the hand is able to make are astounding.  It is for this reason that the handles on spoons can be in a wide variety of shapes.  The hand has the ability to comfortably adjust to many, many shapes.  Some spoons (though not all) are also designed to interact with the mouth.  The mouth is not nearly as versatile as the hand.  It has one major motion, with slight lateral and proximal motion.  The mouth is also very flexible. For this reason, spoons that are designed to interact with the mouth have bowls that are limited in size and shape.  There is some variation and this is due to the limited versatility of the mouth.

The other thing that spoons interact with is vessels. A vessel would consist of a plate, bowl, jar, cup, or anything that holds your food.  Vessels maintain a rigid shape and the only movement that they have is due to their being moved by the other hand. This is why a rounded bowl for a spoon works better with mixing bowls, and one with a corner works  better for pans. We adapt the spoon to the limitations of the object with which it interacts.

Tasks for a spoon would consist of transferring food from a pot to a plate, from a plate to the mouth, or in food preparation such as scraping, scooping stirring, mixing, etc…

It is the combination of the tasks and the interactions intended for spoons that determine their complexity.  For example, if you want a spoon to be able to stir your soup and mix your cookie dough, you would design contours that word work adequately for both.

Spoons for food preparation and spoons for transferring between vessels generally only interact with one vessel (the receiving vessel in a transfer does not really interact with a spoon unless the spoon is too large and you are trying to figure out how to get food into it).  Spoons for the mouth interact with a vessel and with the mouth, thus increasing the necessary complexity in the design of the spoon.  Spoon design will be the topic of many future posts.  For now it is enough to know that complexity of design increases as tasks and interactions increase.

One last note…

That fourth category?  Decorative spoons?  One of the reasons that I do not carve them is because they lack complexity.  Sure, they may be feats of technical carving skill, but it requires no understanding of how the parts of a spoon interact with the body and vessels.  They interact solely with the eyes.  For me, that makes for a boring spoon.

Watch the next post for how this applies to individual types of spoons.

 

Parts of a Spoon

Spoons are one of the simplest tools.  Basically a bowl on a stick.  The bowl transfers the food and the stick keeps your hand from having to touch the food.  Simple.

However, spoons have evolved into surprisingly complex tools.  They are still simply bowls on a stick, but the shapes and contours all need to work together to do four things: transfer food efficiently, be comfortable in the hand and in the mouth, maintain a certain degree of lightness, balance and strength and to be aesthetically pleasing.  In order to fulfill those goals, spoon carvers will add things like a keel to maintain rigidity and strength to a thin, light handle.  Different regions have solved these goals in various ways.  A Welsh cawl spoon is significantly different than one from Romania, which in turn differs from spoons from Russia or the Scandinavian countries.  Different bowl shapes, handle lengths and other features work together to meet the eating habits and cuisine of each country.  I have included a brief diagram of a modern Swedish style spoon.  If you were to look at a spoon from Sweden from 100 years ago, the bowl would be bigger and have a flat rim, most likely.  This style spoon has adapted to meet modern eating habits.Spoon parts

Ramblings

For the past while I have wanted a place to park my thoughts on spoon carving.  Each time I have a realization, new learning or outstanding experience related to carving spoons and green woodwork, this is where I will write.  I am by no means an expert, so take the thoughts here with a grain of salt.

I hope it is of some value to you,

Ty