Monday 9 July 2018
The lovespoon has become something of an icon of Wales and is a favourite project among woodcarvers. With origins dating back over 350 years, lovespoons were carved throughout Europe for a range of romantic purposes. From 'testing the waters', to courtships to wedding celebrations, ornately decorated lovespoons were given as a way for young men to demonstrate both the intensity of their ardour and their ability as craftsmen.
Although the carving of lovespoons for their original purposes had largely died out throughout most of Europe, it is experiencing something of a revival as woodcarvers and romantics once again enjoy the challenge of carving them. They are now presented and enjoyed at a range of celebrations, such as weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and Christenings, which mostly fall beyond the original borders of the tradition.
Sadly, a great deal of internet misinformation and the overwhelming presence of souvenir industry spoons has resulted in the vast majority of modern lovespoons being pale imitations of their historical ancestors. Without an understanding of the meanings, purpose and craftsmanship of the lovespoon, it is difficult for contemporary carvers to create evocative lovespoons which carry on the tradition in a worthwhile fashion.
Having a grasp of traditional methods and design will go a long way towards helping modern day carvers create lovespoons, which will carry on the lovespoon's rich tradition of elegance, skill, romance and symbolism. In the following series of four articles, I will examine the stylistic differences, the varied carving techniques and the unique romantic purposes of lovespoons from a number of European regions.
A Welsh tradition
Probably the best known of the lovespoon carving countries is Wales and it is there that we will begin our study of traditional lovespoons. As the only country where lovespoon carving continues in an appreciable way – quite possibly due to the same souvenir industry, which ironically has smothered inventive design and stylistic beauty – Wales is fortunate to have a number of excellent museum collections for study and a number of excellent practising craftsmen who keep the tradition alive and vibrant.
Welsh lovespoon carving was romantic, dynamic and somewhat eccentric. Nowhere is this borne out more clearly than in the broad handled 'panel' type spoons, which were developed by carvers seeking a more expansive palette on which to display their skills. While not a strict historical copy, the panel spoon we are using as a pattern here is an amalgamation of several similar antique lovespoons and is an accurate representation of the style.
Understanding Welsh lovespoons
Welsh lovespoon carving is generally a much less conservative endeavour than its Continental counterpart. With a wider variety of symbols and a much more eclectic range of styles, the Welsh lovespoon often appears to be much more passionate and much more readily wears its heart on its sleeve. Styles range from simple panel spoons, such as that in our Welsh lovespoon carving is generally a much less conservative endeavour than its Continental counterpart.
With a wider variety of symbols and a much more eclectic range of styles, the Welsh lovespoon often appears to be much more passionate and much more readily wears its heart on its sleeve. Styles range from simple panel spoons, such as that in our example, up to masterworks of chain-link and balls-in-cages crowned by ornate swivels, anchors or even working whistles. Judging by the level of effort which seems to have gone into most of the historical examples still in existence, these spoons were given with serious intent and most probably when the response was liable to be positive. However, there's no evidence that the acceptance of the spoon by the young lady constituted a 'betrothal'; most likely, it simply gave the young man a green light to initiate a relationship. Even though this simple panel spoon displays only a small number of symbols, it nevertheless imparts a good deal of romantic information.
Welsh lovespoons do not appear to have evolved in an orderly linear progression from simple to difficult. The oldest known example – dated 1667 – is an extremely sophisticated piece, which features ball-in-cage carving, while some more recent pieces appear much cruder in craftsmanship. Two distinct 'types' of spoons seem to exist, though: narrow, open spoons, which often feature ball-in-cage or link carving and the broader panel spoon, like our pattern example.
Making the spoon
Things you will need:
Axe, coping saw or scrollsaw for rough shaping and fretting
Drill for starting fretwork
Straight knife – 20mm or 38mm blades are ideal
Bent knife for shaping bowl although you can use gouges to do this
Small hand saw for notching handle/stem and thinning handle
150 grit cloth-backed abrasive
20mm straight chisel – for chamfering bowl and handle backs
Needle files for cleaning fretwork
Small hand scraper – optional
Selection of fine abrasive papers for final finishing
Clear Danish oil – or similar
Birch (Fagus sylvatica), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), lime (Tilia vulgaris) or similar light toned hardwood measuring 115mm wide x 355mm long x 20mm thick
The first step for creating your own Welsh lovespoon is to start with a clear piece of timber, which measures approximately 115mm wide x 355mm long by 10mm thick. If you are a beginner, you might want to use a 10mm-thick piece and avoid the swan-neck bend, which the following step-by-step illustrates. The next step is to photocopy the design shown above. I like to glue a photocopy of the spoon – you can adjust the size to suit – and work directly from that. The paper helps you stay on line and it also offers a bit of protection to unworked areas
A number of methods can be used to rough shape the lovespoon blank. If you have a scrollsaw to hand, that is the quickest and most accurate method. Alternatively, you could also use a jeweller's saw or go 'old school' and rough shape with an axe – the choice is yours. If you do choose to use an axe, don't forget to hand saw a couple of cuts into the bottoms of curves so that you don't chip out precious wood you want to keep!
With the blank now shaped, you are ready to clear out the fretted areas you have marked out. Again, a scrollsaw is the quickest tool for the job, but you can use a drill to clear the bulk of material before cleaning the areas with a narrow straight knife. Using a variety of drill bit sizes will enable you to clear away a good deal of the unwanted wood
While the piece is full thickness, clamp it securely to the bench and carry out the chip-carved bordering patterns. This is a simple knife operation, which may also be quickly done with a veining or V-chisel. If you use a knife, cut straight down on two sides, adjusting the depth of cut from nothing at the wide end of the triangle to about 1.5mm deep at the pointed end. Then turn the knife sideways and take a slicing cut following the depth of the straight cuts; this will pop out a neat and very effortless little pyramidal chip. Avoid the urge to cut too deeply at this stage. Leave the remaining paper on for now; this will act as a protective cover against any dirt and light abrasions
After the handle carving is complete, it is time to begin shaping the bowl. Begin by cutting a shallow notch – approximately 5mm – to delineate the handle from the swan-neck, then use a bandsaw, hand saw or axe to shape the top of the swan neck curve and the taper of the bowl
If you are clever, you can peel the paper back off the cutaway and reuse it on the swan-neck, or simply redraw the lines with a pencil. Shape and smooth the neck with a knife or chisel, then carry out the chip-carved pattern
As you can see here, to clearly define the crest of the bowl, keep it slightly higher than the top surface of the swan-neck
I like to use both gouges and bent knives to hollow out the concave aspect of the bowl. With the spoon clamped securely to the bench, you can use a lot of force and remove material quickly with the gouges and then tidy up and finish shape with the more delicate bent knife. If you use a bent knife, hold it with the fingers rather than across the palm. Exercise extreme caution, here. I suggest all beginners consider making use of a thumb guard
For sanding, I use 150 grit cloth-backed abrasive torn into long, thin strips for both concave and convex curve shaping. To smooth the bowl, draw the abrasive under the thumb – cutting side down – and use the shape of the thumb to smooth out bumps or hollows. Don't sand too long in one spot or you will create hollows. The same abrasive can be used to smooth and round-over edges
Once the bowl has been hollowed, it is time to carve the outside surface. A quick and accurate way to hand-shape this section is to make use of multiple chamfers. I draw out a series of chamfers, which I repeatedly halve until the bowl begins to become rounded. The bowl is probably the area where most carvers fall down. Many treat the bowl as something of an afterthought and leave it looking heavy and crude. However, even the simplest historical spoons show a great deal of effort went into the carving of the bowls and the vast majority are very elegant. The bowl is a crucial counterpoint to the busy handle and is an equally important showcase of your skill and determination as a carver
The back of the handle can be trimmed to size and the back of the swan-neck shaped. This can be done on a bandsaw or by hand. The black lines delineate the actual thickness of the handle and neck; the red line indicates where the back can be tapered to create the illusion of a thinner handle
I like to finish the back with some detail carving and nicely tidied edges. Once the spoon is tidy, apply 3-4 coats of Danish oil – with a wet/dry paper sanding of 600 grit – on the third and fourth coats. Finally, give the spoon a buffing with some beeswax polish
The completed lovespoon should look something like this