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Splitting wood for spoon carving - the basics

An introduction on how get logs ready for spoon carving.


"My spoon was beautiful, then it dried and split!"

I hear this lament often enough with beginner spoon carvers, and there is nothing more frustrating than watching all that hard work you put into your first spoon spoiled by a cracked or twisted bowl.

If you're unsure of the correct way to process logs into *billets, read on. I hope to enlighten you to the simple physics behind splitting logs and so make spoon carving more fun and less of a guessing game!

*a piece of wood, split to a rough shape, usually rectangular or triangular in shape, is called a billet

Basic Rules -

  1. Regardless of the size of the log, the species, or its final use, you must at the very least split it in half.

  2. logs left 'in the round' will split and crack as they dry. If you're going to be leaving logs for a little while before using them, cut them to length approx 5cm/10cm longer than you need. The drying cracks rarely run deeper than this.

  3. All wood has at its very centre the 'pith' - a soft spongy part from the very beginning of the trees life. Sometimes this is visible as a small brownish dot in the centre of the log. This, plus the first few growth rings around it, is very unstable and needs to be excluded from your carving billet/finished spoon.

  4. Don't leave fresh/green wood in direct sunlight, or by a heat source. If wood drys quickly it will crack badly!

  5. The more *knotty the piece of wood, the more difficult it will be to split, and the more difficult to carve.

*a "knot' is anywhere on a piece of wood where there used to be a branch. The grain around a knot is always swirly, twisty and unpredictable, so they are best avoided.

How to split logs -

So, you've found yourself some logs in the local woods, or by the side of the road, and want to have a go at splitting them. Below is a simple step by step instruction with some added images. You can use either an axe, a wedge or a froe to help you split the logs.

Part one - small logs

By small logs, I refer to anything approx 7-20cm in diameter. Logs of this size are usually only suitable for splitting in half and getting two billets from, unless of course you're making particularly small spoons!

Here is a nice piece of Hawthorne. I have figured out where the pith is and drawn a line dissecting the log in half. Note that both sides are not equal, this is because the pith was 'off centre'. The pith denotes where the initial split needs to be. In lovely, straight grown wood this would be perfectly central!

The split log. As you can see, there is some tearing of fibres within the split. This is common with Hawthorne, and also when you are using the "butt', or bottom end of the tree. Torn fibres like this usually means more difficult carving due to the fibres being interlocked. If the piece of wood splits cleanly and easily, you have a winner!


From this point, you could start with one half of the log and begin removing material with the axe, however there is a lot of wood still remaining and so splitting off as much bulk as you can is always best!

Here I am attempting to split a big chunk of the half log off. This technique doesn't always work, and can result in the split "running out" and mean you loose too much wood. Its a calculated gamble!

In this instance the top, semi-circular part of the log is the piece I want to use. Once this split is done, I can measure how much width I need for the bowl and if necessary, split away each side of the semi-circle, leaving me with a domed, rectangular billet to begin carving.

The bottom piece, from the centre of the log, will be waste, or perhaps turned into something else, as it will undoubtably split in half of its own accord.

Part two - big logs

Big logs could be considered anything 20cm in diameter and above. But essentially what I mean by big logs is a log big enough to get quarters from, instead of just two halves. The techniques shown below can be done from smaller logs, but obviously you'll get much smaller sections!

Here we have a piece of Beech. Again, I've quartered the log using the pith as my centre mark.

Next i've drawn some more lines dissecting each quarter in half. Splitting the log in this way, rather than splitting the quarters into pie shaped eighths, gives us four good rectangular billets, and some pie shaped left overs.

The rectangular billets will be very stable (less likely to split and twist)

Beginning the first split.

The log split in half!

(the red marks are the paint from the wedge, not blood!)



The Finished Log!

Have a look closely at the four rectangular billets in the above picture, notice the growth rings. The four rectangular billets are my main carving billets, however they will need to have one section of them split off to remove the part which was closest to the centre of the log, where the growth rings are smallest. This part is very unstable and will crack/split.


So there we have it!

You should now know how to deal with simple logs and produce simple billets to carve into spoons.

Remember, always split off as much bulk as you can at the beginning. With practice & patience you'll be able to 'read' a log and determine whether it is worth using, and the best way to split it.

Stay tuned for the next post where I will talk about orientating your spoon in the billet to further reduce the chance of splitting & twisting, and how to achieve different visual effects on the finished spoon.

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