Words & Photos By Jeff Donne
For the love of good cutlery, we all need a hand-carved Swedish butter knife in our lives. And the best thing is you can carve your own smörkniv from trees growing in your garden.
Hand-carved butter knives are strong, sturdy and a work of art. They range from simple, elegant forms through to animal-shaped spreaders with matching dishes. They’re relatively simple things to make with a few low-tech tools and you probably won’t need to go any further than your garden to gather all the materials you’ll need.
The art of carving with an axe and knife has its roots entangled in the little-known Swedish word slöjd. Literally translated, this means handicraft, but dig deeper and you will find a tradition that calls upon the use of simple tools and techniques to live a sustainable life in the modern world. While slöjd refers to the act of self-sufficiency through craft – a reference to the farmers who once used axes and knives to eke out an existence on the land – today’s slöjd is something more appropriate as we move from clearing forests to decluttering our busy minds.
What You Need
In terms of tools, you’ll need a pruning saw, a woodcarving knife and a small, sharp hatchet.
When it comes to choosing a wood which is easy to carve, fruit-tree prunings are ideal. Apple, pear, plum and cherry are especially lovely to carve, but if all you have is an old eucalypt, then a small branch will be fine.
Select a branch about 50 mm in diameter and 300 mm long. Try to get something with minimal knots because it will be easier to carve, but if it’s bent, twisted or just funny looking, all the better; wonky is wonderful in the world of slöjd. And it also minimises the amount of waste that would otherwise burn in the fire or amuse the dog.
If the wood is ‘green’ – still moist on the inside – your hands and tools will thank you. Green wood is easy to carve, dry wood is not. But green wood comes with its own challenges because it can twist, warp or crack as it dries. Twisting and warping are fine – that all adds to the wonkiness – but cracking is a problem.
The key thing to consider is speed, or lack thereof. Embrace the slow and happy pace and the world will wait. With every deliberate movement, think about the tool’s path and how to avoid parts of your body impeding the moving blade. No tool should move towards your fingers, and never carve in the space between your thighs.
Split The Branch
The first thing you need to do is cleave the branch in half. Carefully place the branch on its end and rest the axe along the pith, which is a tiny dot on or near the centre of the end grain. The pith is what you need to remove because it’s the troublemaker that will cause the wood to crack as it dries.
With the axe resting along the pith, strike it with a timber club held in your dominant hand. Depending on the wood you are using, the branch will either split cleanly down the middle, or you may need to be a little more persuasive with the club.
Return one of the pieces to the splitting block and cleave it again, this time splitting off a flattish blank about 20 mm thick. You will see the exposed pith running down the centre on one side of the blank. Remove this with the hatchet by shearing off about one millimetre of wood from the blank’s surface.
Effective use of the hatchet, or small axe, involves holding it close to its head and swinging it from your forearm, keeping your elbow low and close to your body. Keep your wrist loose, allowing a snapping motion as the axe nears the blank, which you hold at an angle to encourage the sharp edge to bite.
Draft The Design
With the pith removed, you now want to taper both flat sides to meet each other at the end of the blank. Once done, your blank should resemble a very thin door stopper.
Draw your design on one face with a pencil. This can be any design you wish, but the golden rule is to prioritise function over fancy.
Next you need to rough carve the shape which will introduce you to carving with the grain. Wood is a collection of tightly bound fibres that, if worked in the wrong direction, will tear and split. But worked in the correct direction, it will produce a beautiful clean surface smoother than one that’s been sanded.
To ‘go with the grain’ is to move the blade from a high point to a low point. On this design, you can see the high points mostly run from close to the middle out towards lower points at the end of the blank. This means you can easily carve with a knife or axe from the middle of the blank without catching or tearing any fibres.
The section on the underside of the handle is different, because there are two high points either side of a single low point. This means you can no longer carve towards the end of the blank without damaging your design.
Using your pruning saw, carefully cut down to the low point under the handle, and then carve in a downwards action towards the saw cut from both sides. This means you are using two downhill cuts which will achieve a more pleasing result. Notice the illustrated design doesn’t go right to the end of the blank. This is because the extra length will keep your fingers away from the axe when it comes to carving the end of the handle. When you are ready, you can either saw this extra material off or keep it as a longer handle.
Once roughed out, you are ready to refine the shape with your wood-carving knife. You can use a combination of techniques to achieve this, starting with a braced-knee grip. Firmly hold the knife on top of your knee and pull the roughed-out blank along the blade’s underside. This technique is great for establishing long cuts along the handle and spine, and also for tidying the wide blade of the butter knife.
Another technique is a thumb-lever grip which is used for carving inner curves like the under-side of the handle. It’s a versatile technique that involves levering the blade off a firmly held thumb, much like the technique used for sharpening pencils, only with greater power. You can use this cut on any part of the butter spreader; if you need a powerful cut, hold your levering thumb at the base of the knife’s spine, or for fine, finishing cuts, move your thumb along the spine and lever closer to the blade tip.
Dry And Decorate
There are many more wood-carving techniques to learn, but the two techniques described above will give you a finished butter knife. All you need to do once finished is let it dry for a week or so, paint the handle with food-safe milk paint and apply some coconut or flaxseed oil to bring out the colour of the grain.
Now sit back and admire your work. If it’s wonky and it took you all day, then you have embraced the spirit of slöjd. Grab your sourdough, break out the butter and get spreading with your own beautiful smörkniv!
This is a sneak peek of a chapter from Jeff’s upcoming book, The Hand Carved Kitchen. For detailed videos of the carving techniques featured in this article, go to www.underthebloodwoodtree.com/carvers-room.
This article represents the permaculture principle USE AND VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES AND SERVICES.