Woodland Spoon Carving Bench

In my varied experiences sharing green woodworking and spoon carving techniques back and forth with other wonderful people, I’ve taken a keen interest in the topic of “holding the work”, and exploring the range between the absolute minimalist kit (namely the hands), and the use of various mechanical means to secure the work piece. My grandfather had a small vice bolted to a scrap-wood bench in the basement that was absolutely invaluable to my childhood adventures in sawing bits and nailing together little airplanes. Later in life one of my first adventures in green woodworking was to work with other students to make a shaving horse for use with the spoke shave and draw knife to pile up shavings in the shop. Invariably when you become accustomed to using these and other versatile but somewhat stationary holding mechanisms, you find yourself scratching your head when you don’t have them on hand. I have seen in workshops how having a generous variety of ways to hold the work really opens doors for people who might otherwise struggle as beginners to hollow out a spoon bowl with a hook knife by traditional means using hands only. I believe that in the beginning working with sharp blades, a feeling of accessibility, safety, and control, sometimes gained by using a holding mechanism, is more valuable in gaining the very basic understanding of green wood spoon carving than it is to push the hands-only approach. I would also hypothesize that the apex of invention is using your thinker to come up with better ways to hold things. Certainly when it comes to clamping, in the vast majority of cases you will not be making any new “discoveries”; that is to say, your idea is coming to you through a process, putting together the things you’ve seen or imagined, re-organizing them, experimenting, etc. There are a proliferation of clamps, lapboards, the list is endless.

Before I went on my current Instagram sabbatical, I came to greatly admire and respect the work of @iseilnam , who’s talents far surpass mine in every area, but especially in the area of the invention of holding mechanisms for green woodworking. I must mention him here and say how much what he is doing inspires me to look everywhere for ideas. If you google search or follow his Instagram feed, you will see his many unique inventions, his beautiful work, and his workshop.

Years ago I came across a picture online of a “lap board”. I have never been able to find the original picture again, but the principle stuck with me. Essentially, a board slung across the lap, with a loop of cord running through two small holes in the center, and down around your foot. When you press your foot down in the loop of cord, the loop on top of the board tightens, allowing you to place your work piece in the loop and clamp it tightly against the board with your foot. In this way you can securely hold a spoon and hollow out your bowl with a hook knife or gouge. There are many variations on this around, but this one was very simple, literally a small board and a loop of cord. After experimenting with this really good idea, I found it was too fiddly to adjust the loop just right and get in and out of it. I tried adding a stick in the loop, and stepping on the stick, which was an improvement, but still the board on the lap really limited the motion of your foot to operate the clamp, and lead to discomfort.

One of the limitations of a shaving horse is that you are seated using your leg muscles to press down on the pedal and operate the clamp. You can vastly improve the strength of the clamp by paying attention to the geometry of the construction, or even by using a large heavy head, but ultimately it is only as strong as you can press down with your legs in a sitting position. You might find yourself pressing hard and sliding backwards as you pull with your spoke shave or draw knife. In another picture I’ve never seen again, a standing, 2-legged version of a shaving horse is being used in the woods. Simply a half log, one end of the log on the ground and two legs up front making the tripod (like a giant Cooper’s Jointer), with a mortise for the head/foot pedal to pass through and the pin fulcrum making the first-class lever. This one is brilliant because the joinery is very minimal, and one can use a large heavy log that makes the unit incredibly stable, with the added advantage of being able to use not just your leg muscle, but also your weight, to step on the pedal.

I’ve always been enamored by the treadle and spring pole lathes, taking such good advantage of the feet and legs, but I have never taken up the art. I admire those who have applied new ideas and evolved this historic craft with new invention. Maybe I’ll get to this one day…

All of this is to say here is my simple 3’x3′ Woodland Spoon Carving Bench. The “base model” is a 10″ diameter ash half-log, 3′ long. For joinery, it has 5 one-inch holes drilled through (4 for legs, one for the leather strap/cord at the center). On the bottom under the center hole, I’ve notched the log in a V so as to drill through less material and create less potential friction for the leather strap passing through. I’ve riven and roughed out four 36″ red oak legs. The fit is snug but not wedged, so it can be easily disassembled. For the clamp, this is an old leather belt cut to 3/4″ width so it will pass through the 1″ hole without resistance. The leather is folded over and slid through the hole on the bench, loop on top. Underneath, a loop of p-cord is passed through holes punched in the leather. Finally, a 3-4′ long riven board, or nearly any strong narrow board, is notched and fed into the p-cord loop for the foot pedal. It can be knocked down and wrapped up with a strap for transport or storage, and one might even add a handle.

This bench combines elements from all the inspirations I’ve listed above, and is a superior clamp in a standing position. I find that the best height for this is just a bit below your bent elbow, so the leg length will vary. The legs are lightly splayed, meaning that the bench standing alone is slightly susceptible to being knocked over. But in use with the weight of your body on the pedal, and even an elbow or arm draped across, the bench becomes incredibly stable. The loop rotates 360 degrees simply by lifting your work and turning it. It is virtuous in holding work for sawing, chip carving/kohlrosing, and making chopsticks and muddlers with the spoke shave. I’ve been experimenting with a much larger version of this in my shop, and coming up with all kinds of jigs and rigs, pegs and whistles to make fun use of this simple and really strong foot-powered, hands-free clamp. It’s also great to rest your coffee on while you look out over the springtime valley.

I will be offering a two-day class constructing this Woodland Spoon Carving Bench this August at Fletcher Farm in Ludlow Vermont.

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