Artist Kiko Denzer teaches Lynne Rossetto Kasper about the craft of spoon-carving.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: From the bread ovens to spoons, how did this all evolve?
Kiko Denzer: The short answer is they're both sculpture, and they both feed the sculpture passion, and they both feed people, and I think that, really, is the connection.
I'd carved a spoon or two, here or there along the way, but my understanding of woodworking was that you always had to have seasoned wood, and seasoning was a whole, long process, and also that you had to have a shop, and you had to have chisels and mallets and gouges and a workbench and a vise, and all this stuff.
I had begun a correspondence with Bill Coperthwaite, who was a marvelous person. He's no longer with us, unfortunately. But he was involved in the Swedish tradition of spoon carving, which is something you do with a small, hooked knife and a straight blade. You do it in the kitchen on your lap, and you use green wood, which makes it much easier to carve. it also means that you can go and chop a branch off a tree and make a spoon, and it was, like, “Oh! I don't need to be in my shop to make sculpture. I can do this in my spare moments at the kitchen table.” Then I started making chips on the floor, and my wife sighed in an exasperated way and said, "Ok, we'll just deal with this."
LRK: I'm holding in my hand one of the two spoons you sent, and I have to say, it is one of the most comfortable things I've had in my hand. It just feels right. Can I make this?
KD: Oh, yeah.
LRK: How do you begin carving it?
KD: Well, I like etymology. So, the word "spoon" actually comes from an Old Norse root meaning "chip of wood." So, in the northern countries, that's what a spoon was. It was just a chip, and you can eat with a chip of wood.
In the Latin countries, of course, they were closer to the ocean, and their word for "spoon" comes from a root meaning "shell." You just grab a shell, and you use it to serve the soup. But the fancy spoons are just a chip you spend more time on, and the first spoon is always a little rough. But basically, it's just a stick with a hole in the end, right?
LRK: Interesting point, yes, exactly.
KD: Everybody's first spoon looks like a stick with a hole in the end, and then you just keep carving more spoons, and they grow and evolve.
LRK: The only thing I've ever carved is a turkey. So, can you step me through this?
KD: What I would do is take a green piece of wood and I would split out some boards, but it's very easy to do with straight grain. You cleave it, and then you split the board roughly the length and width that you need for the spoon.
A lot of people like to start with a drawing. You sketch out the shape that you want to make, and then you either use a saw or a knife to cut in at the point where the bowl meets the handle on both sides. Then you can split out most of the wood just by tapping at the end and running that split down to the cut.
That does most of the work for you, and the rest is just whittling. The only part that requires a little bit more finesse is carving out the bowl. For that, you need what's called a "crooked knife" or a "hook knife," so you can get that nice curve.
LRK: Oh, I've seen those. They literally look like a hook at the end of the knife. You know, the grace of this spoon--the handle is curved, and it comes up above the bowl and then flares out. There's a balance to it. Is that something you just come upon as you keep doing it, or is there a key?
KD: Yes. As you keep doing it, you begin to see the proportions more precisely, and my discovery has been that most spoons are three to one. The length of the spoon is three bowls long.
LRK: Interesting. Now that I've carved my spoon, do I just let it dry?
KD: You let it dry. Depending on where you are, you might have to control the drying a little bit because, in extreme, dry environments, you can get cracking. The nice thing about working with green wood is once you get it thinned out, it dries fairly evenly. It also varies with the type of wood.
The finishing is important because you don't want the wood to pick up the flavors of the foods that you're eating. So, you take a drying oil--walnut oil and flaxseed oil will both polymerize in the grain. That's basically the hardening process. Once the grain is full of oil, and the oil has hardened, then it won't absorb any fats, and it won't absorb any flavors that will go rancid in your spoon.
LRK: Kiko, you teach this, right?
KD: Yep. Usually, for beginners, I'll give them just a piece of straight wood and have them carve a simple kitchen spoon, and then, depending on how they do with that, we can go on to more advanced stuff. But the first one, especially if you're not used to working with a sharp blade, you can easily spend a day carving a spoon and be quite happy--or be quite frustrated--but people usually walk away with a spoon.
LRK: I think it's a lovely way to just spend a day, as you said, working with your hands.
[Ed. note: For more information on Kiko, visit his website.]
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Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.