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Whittling 101: whittling ideas, tips, and tricks

A nicely whittled spoon next to a knife
Whittling a wooden spoon is a useful and relaxing pastime (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

Humans have been whittling and carving bowls, mugs, spoons and other utensils from wood for thousands of years. Originally, they were practical objects, used for everyday cooking and eating, but over time they also evolved to become decorative pieces of folk art – like the traditional Welsh love spoon. Even today, however, you’ll still find a wooden spoon in almost every modern kitchen, proving their enduring usefulness, despite the rise of stainless steel and silicone utensils.

Wooden spoons, ladles and spatulas come in particularly handy on camp, especially if using cast iron pots and pans, or even lightweight aluminium and titanium cookware. Firstly, they don’t damage metal or non-stick surfaces – and second, there’s also something authentically outdoorsy about using a wooden spoon, whether for prepping camp dinner or tucking into your meal. And there's a huge sense of satisfaction, of course, in having crafted your utensils yourself using your best camping knife...

In addition, the process of working with wood to carve a spoon can be a relaxing, even therapeutic, pastime, as well as being the ideal way to learn simple whittling techniques with little more than a small pocket-knife or one of the best multitools, all of which should have a sharp and whittle-worthy blade. And no matter how rustic your finished spoon may look; you can be rightly proud of it.

There is an inherent beauty in a handmade wooden object – particularly one that you have created with your own hands. Whittling itself can also be quite addictive, and as we all know, practice makes perfect. After you’ve made your first spoon, you may well be tempted to make another, and another. Then you might scale up to bigger scoops and ladles. In fact, before you know it you might be turning out an array of bowls, mugs and much more.

Simple whittling projects: carving a camp spoon

A wooden spoon makes a useful addition to any outdoor cooking kit and is an ideal camp craft project for beginners. Following is a step-by-step guide explaining how to whittle your own wooden spoon.

A block of wood

A chunk of green softwood selected from the log pile. The natural curvature of the wood ought to make a good spoon. (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

1: Choose your whittling wood

First, choose your base bit of timber. For a small eating or serving spoon, you’ll need to find a small piece of wood about 8cm (just over 3 inches) in diameter and no more than 25cm (just under 10 inches) long. Look for a clean, broadly straight piece of wood that is free of knots. Study your chosen piece of wood and look for any natural curvature or similar features that you might want to use as part of the design of your spoon.

In terms of tree species, many different types of wood can be used for spoon carving. Some of the best include sycamore, birch, maple, cherry, lime, rowan or alder. Just avoid woods with a high tannin content if you want to use your spoon for cooking or eating – as a rule of thumb, the lighter-coloured the wood, the lower the tannin content.

A selection of wood whittling tools

Wood carving tools: The only essential tool required for whittling is a small pocketknife. However, a full carving kit might also include a carving axe, folding saw, a spoon or crook knife and a folding pocketknife. (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

2: Choose your whittling tools

The only essential tool required to start whittling is a small, sharp pocketknife. (For more on these, see our guides on how to choose a camping knife and how to sharpen a camping knife). However, a spoon or crook knife, which has a curved blade, is also useful for carving out the bowl of the spoon. A folding saw is also handy for cutting away branches or small limbs when selecting your wood. And if you get into whittling as a serious hobby, you might also want to invest in a carving axe, which makes removing bigger chips of wood for larger projects much quicker. Lastly, a selection of sandpaper in varying grits and some food-grade oil will enable you to finish your spoon.

Detail of a block of wood for whittling

A spoon blank. Now you can begin to take wood away from the top and bottom of the wood to shape the bowl and handle. (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

3: Split your roundwood log or branch

Unless you’ve managed to find a split chunk of wood, the next step is to split your roundwood log or branch in half, using an axe or a fixed blade knife and a baton (a heavier branch or log is ideal). You should find that the wood will split exactly down the central growth ring, which should be clearly visible as a darker line down the middle of each of the split halves.

A block of wood with a spoon drawn on it

Draw the outline of your spoon on the flat surface of the wood, using a soft carpenter’s pencil or a black marker, such as a Sharpie. (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

4: Mark out your spoon

Take one split half of your piece of wood and draw the outline of your spoon on the flat surface, using a carpenter’s pencil or a black marker such as a Sharpie. Leave a little extra wood at either end, as you’ll need to remove plenty of wood to form the spoon’s bowl and handle. This also makes it less likely to split.

A block of wood whittled into a spoon shape

Start to rough out the spoon blank, using long, smooth strokes with your knife to shave away the edges of the wood. (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

5: Rough out the outline

Start to remove chips of wood, following the grain and shaving away surplus wood with long, smooth cutting strokes. You’re aiming to get down to your pencilled outline. Turn the wood around in your hands and work from both ends.

A whittled spoon bowl

Shaping the back of the bowl using short carving strokes. Use your thumb for added control. (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

6: Shape the handle and bowl

Gradually thin your spoon out, shaving away more and more wood. Initially, focus on creating the basic outline. It is far easier to work on one horizontal or vertical plane at a time, so don’t worry about shaping the top or bottom of the handle or bowl until you roughed out the spoon as per your pencilled outline. Leave a little additional length at the bowl end of the spoon, as this will give you something to hold when trying to shape the spoon where the handle joins the bowl, enabling you to always cut away from yourself.

Next, you can carefully and steadily work on the depth of your spoon by taking wood away from the underside of the handle and starting to round off the bowl. When you are happy these elements, you can remove surplus wood from the tip of the bowl.

Finally, work on the top surface of the spoon. You may want to retain a flatter shape, or you may want to round off the handle. Now you are ready to hollow out the bowl.

A hollowed out wooden spoon

Shaping the back of the bowl using short carving strokes. Use your thumb for added control. (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

7: Hollow out the bowl

Traditionally, bowls were hollowed out using a smouldering ember from a campfire. It’s much easier if you have a crook or spoon knife though. Use a scooping, twisting action right in the centre of the bowl, a bit like using an ice cream scoop.  Once you have made a small depression begin working from both sides from the middle outwards, cutting across the grain. Continue until you have hollowed out the bowl to an even thickness. You can hold the wood up to the light to assess the thickness of the bowl – don’t make it too thin or you may hollow straight through it!

A whittled wooden spoon

Sand your spoon using sandpaper in progressive grits, from coarse to fine. Alternatively, leave it unfinished for a more rustic ‘hand-carved’ look. (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

8: Finishing your spoon

Unless you want to leave a rustic finish, you’ll probably now need to sand your spoon. Start with a coarse (60 or 80) grit and work through medium (100 or 120) and fine (240+) grits until the wood is smooth. To finish your spoon and protect the wood, lightly coat it with a food-grade oil. Edible drying oils such as hempseed oil, walnut oil or flax oil are the best choices, but olive oil will also work. Oiling your spoon will also help to bring out the grain.

Matthew Jones

An outdoors writer and editor, Matt Jones has been testing kit in the field for nearly a decade. Having worked for both the Ramblers and the Scouts, he knows one or two things about walking and camping, and loves all things adventure, particularly long-distance backpacking, wild camping and climbing mountains – especially in Wales. He’s based in Snowdonia and last year thru-hiked the Cambrian Way, which runs for 298 miles from Cardiff to Conwy, with a total ascent of 73,700 feet – that’s nearly 2½ times the height of Everest. Follow Matt on Instagram and Twitter.