Introduction: Hand Carved Sculptural Wooden Bowl

About: Artist and woodworker based in Oakland, CA.

Learning to carve spoons and bowls is an incredibly valuable skill to have as a woodworker, whether you want to pursue carving as your main focus, or just get a more intimate understanding of wood grain, hand tools, and shaping techniques. I started carving traditional spoons and bowls, but as a sculptor I have recently dedicated myself to making complex, sculptural carvings that blur the line between functional object and sculptural form. This project in particular is more advanced and intended for people who already have a solid understanding of spoon and bowl carving, and want to expand their skill set to make some more unusual and complex forms. This "Hole Bowl" design is something I have incorporated into a lot of my work, but the techniques involved in this piece can be translated to many other designs and projects.

So, if you are interested in taking your spoon and bowl carving to the next level, I recommend coming up with your own design and using the following steps as a guide to make it happen!

Step 1: What You Will Need

Here are the tools you will need to for this project:

1. A set of carving gouges, ranging in size and scoop, depending on your project's design

2. A carving knife

3. A carving mallet, preferably one heavy and one lightweight

4. A drawknife

5. A set of rasps and files

6. A strop to keep your blades sharp as you carve

7. Some drawing supplies for marking out your design on the wood

8. Dowels, soft pads, and foam to use with sandpaper

9. Sandpaper, 80-400 grit

10. A corded drill (or drill press) with a range of forstner bits

11. Guinevere sanding system and sanding sleeves.

Step 2: Come Up With a Design

For a project like this, the design step is crucial. Try to avoid traditional norms of functionality or design, and think of ways to subvert people's expectations of what a bowl should look and feel like. Take inspiration from visual imagery not associated with wooden utensils. I look to the human body and organic forms found in nature. Eating, the process most associated with spoons and bowls, is deeply personal but at the same time very communal. Think of ways these objects interact with our bodies, touching our hands and mouths, and are used as vessels for our sustenance. Try to explore this poetic and intimate relationship we have with these everyday objects, and incorporate the surreal, abstract forms you come up with into your design.

Basically just go crazy and draw as many different sketches as you can. These do not have to be technical design drawings, allow them to be abstract, cartoony, and irregular. Translating that human touch into a highly polished wooden sculpture is what makes this kind of project unique.

Step 3: Transfer Your Design Onto Your Wood

Choose a species of wood. I usually work with walnut, soft maple, or cherry. This is going to be a tough project, so avoid hard woods like ash and hickory. Make sure the piece of wood is large enough that you can secure it to your workbench while carving. You will want to keep your piece in board form for as long as possible during the carving process, allowing you to easily clamp and secure the piece.

Draw a top down, line drawing of the design you came up with onto the board. Use a marker. You may have to reorient or adjust your design to fit on the board or correspond with the grain.

Step 4: Drill Out the Interior of Bowl

Before you start carving, it is helpful to use a drill to hog out the interior of the bowl. Use forstner bits so that you can overlap your holes. If you are using a drill press, make sure to set your stop so that your bit stops around 3/4” from the bottom of the piece. If you are using a handheld drill, use tape on your bit to mark your stopping depth.

In this step you are NOT attempting to drill out the entire, or even the majority of the bowl's interior. You are just trying to create a cavity so that when you start roughing out the bowls interior with a mallet and gouge, the chips are able to break and fall into the drilled out spaces. The less you drill, the more control you will have in carving the texture and topography of the bowl's interior. Do not make the mistake of drilling too much!

Step 5: Rough Out the Interior of the Bowl

Use a mallet and gouges to rough out the interior of the bowl. Its very important to begin by aligning your gouge with the inside rim of the bowl, and make your way around the perimeter, hammering down towards the interior as you go. This way you ensure that you do not accidentally allow wood to chip off outside of your drawing.

For my design I began by carving the around the perimeter of the bowls rim, and then carved around the edges of the protruding holes, always hammering towards the inside of the bowl.

Rough out the entire bowl and then take another pass. Start to shape the interior topography of the bowl and eliminate any harsh tool marks or indentations.

Step 6: Shape and Smooth Out the Interior of the Bowl

The goal of this step is to take the roughed out interior to its final smooth shape, sanded to 80 grit. To achieve this you will use a handful of different tools and techniques. Start by taking one more pass with your gouges and chisels, this time without the mallet so that you can have more control in cleaning up the rough marks you made in the last step. The more you carve, the less you will have to sand.

Next use the Guinevere Sanding System with an 80 grit sleeve to continue to smooth out the carving marks. This is an incredibly helpful tool for sanding spoons and bowls, but be careful not to get too fixated on it. Often you will waste time trying to sand out a mark or scratch that you could gouge out in a few seconds.

The best approach is to alternate between the Guinevere Sanding System, gouges and chisels, a sculpting rasp, and 80 grit sandpaper. As you go you will see that each of these tools works better at smoothing out different things, and it is best to stay flexible and switch between them when needed. The final step will be making sure the entire interior of the bowl is sanded to 80 grit.

This is a tough step, depending on how narrow and deep your bowl is, it can be really tedious. But achieving this organic, fluid interior of the bowl is a crucial step, so stay strong!

Step 7: Drill the Through Holes

Once you have finalized the interior shape of the bowl, you can drill the holes that pass through the center of the bowl. It is important to complete the steps in this order, because if you drill the holes before you finalize the interior shape of the bowl, you increase your chances of accidentally chipping into one of the holes. Use a forstner bit again so you can overlap your holes, and make sure to stay at least 1/16” inside the line, so you have space to carve.

Step 8: Carve Out the Holes

Once you have created the rough holes with the drill, its time to finish shaping the holes using gouges and a knife. Similarly to in step 5, carefully align your gouge with the inside rim of each hole, and make your way around the perimeter, hammering inwards towards the hole. Then go back and continue taking off material from the inside walls of the holes, using gouges with and without the mallet for more control.

Step 9: Continue Carving Out the Holes From the Back

Once you have cleaned up the interior of each hole from the top, it's time to flip the piece over and start carving out the holes from the underside. You want to reference the shape of the bowl's interior and make sure to match the same curves and slopes as you carve the underside. Carve sloping down into the holes and allow your carving marks to meet with the marks you made when carving the holes from the other side. Be very careful not to carve too deep and break though the other side. Keep flipping the piece and checking the thickness of the bowl, making sure it is not getting too thin.

At a certain point it will be helpful to secure your work vertically on a bench vise and start using a knife to take material off the hole passageways, approaching it from the front and back of the piece. Work your way through each hole, trying to keep the walls of each hole a similar thickness.

As you are carving, make sure you leave 3 points on the back of the piece as thick as possible. Mark these points so that you do not over carve them. These points will be where you will eventually make the nail holes for mounting the piece on the wall. See the orange marks on the last image as a reference.

Step 10: Smooth the Holes and the Back

Similarly to the process of smoothing out the interior of the bowl, now begin smoothing out the back and insides of the holes. Begin by taking another finer pass with a knife or gouge and then use round rasps and files to begin smoothing out your carving marks. Then sand the back and inside the holes to 80 grit.

As you are doing this, remember to maintain thickness on the three points you are saving for your nail holes. Shape and sand those areas so the blend in with the rest of the piece, but maintain their thickness. Again, see the orange marks in the last image.

Step 11: Cut Out the Bowl

Now that he interior bowl's interior, the back, and the holes are all sanded to 80 grit, you can take the piece to the bandsaw and cut out the shape. Remember to leave ⅛” -⅜” thickness for the outer rim of the bowl, depending on your design.

Step 12: Shape the Outside of the Bowl

Once you have cut out the piece, now shape the outside of the bowl. Secure the bowl vertically on a bench vise and use a mallet and gouge and a draw knife to shape the bowls exterior, trying to maintain the same thickness as the walls of the holes and the bottom of the bowl. Keep referencing the topography of the bowls interior as you carve the outside of the bowl.

As you did with the rest of the bowl, keep refining the outside with rasps and sandpaper until it reaches 80 grit. Now the entire bowl, interior, holes, backside, and exterior sides, should all be at 80 grit.

Step 13: Add the Nail Holes for Wall Mounting

Flip the piece face down and find where you marked the thick points for the nail holes. Very carefully use a forstner bit, sized depending on how large your piece is, to drill about ¼” deep into the back of the piece. Be very, very careful that you do not drill through the front. Then use a small gouge to create an overhang in each hole for the head of a nail or screw to rest in. Then sand the nail holes. This is a great way to hang your work that works well aesthetically with the piece, and does not disrupt the look of back side too much.

Step 14: Finish Sanding

Now for the fun part (not!). Time to sand the entire piece, working your way up through the grits from 80, 100, 120, 150, 180, 220, 320, 400. I recommend not skipping grits. With work like this the more times you pass over it with sandpaper the more organic and fluid the curves of the piece become. Remember to sand with the grain, and use anything you think will be helpful, soft blocks, pieces of foam, dowels, your fingers, anything that helps get into all the curves and crevices of the piece.

Step 15: Apply Oil

Once the piece is totally sanded, apply a coat of natural oil. I use Rubio Monocoat. It is expensive but it is all natural and very durable. I do two coats, sanding in between with 400 or 500 grit sand paper. With pieces like this the wood is often very thirsty, because there is so much exposed end grain and realistically some irregular sanding, so keep applying oil until it has fully and evenly absorbed.

If you are planing to actually use your piece for cooking and eating, you will want to raise the grain by wetting the piece with water, allowing it to dry, sanding it, and repeating a few times. Then consider using a mineral oil or butcher block oil that will be easily available for future reapplications.

Step 16: You're Done!

That's it! Its an intense project with a lot of steps, but within this process there are tons of tricks and techniques that can be applied to all kinds of sculptural carving projects. To get an idea of some other possibilities, check out my carvings at

Happy carving!