Introduction: Fire Polished Spoon
I carved this spoon out of tamarack wood, charred it with a propane torch and finished it with a kitchen sponge. I like the smooth surface of burnt wood as well as the way it highlights wood grain. However, charring also changes the chemical and physical properties of wood. Charred wood is harder (and more brittle) and I have read that it is less porous and is more resistant to insects and fire. This entire project took me less than two hours, the longer the project takes the more likely it will be that the finished product cracks.
Step 1: Collecting Wood
I recommend using a straight grained piece of green conifer wood for this project. I used part of a tamarack sapling for this project. The wood should be cut off the tree right before carving (or frozen until you are ready to start). I cut down a sapling late this fall and the wood has been buried frozen in the snow for several months. A suitable piece of wood should be over two inches in diameter. It is important that the spoon does not cross the pith or contain knots (the pith is the thin dark stripe of bark-like wood at the very core of the concentric growth rings in a piece of wood). Charring puts a lot of stress on a piece of wood and the more varied the grain is the more prone it will be to splitting.
Step 2: Shaping the Spoon
My piece of wood was about 3 inches in diameter and I used a hatchet to split off a quarter round. I carved off any splintered areas as well as the bark with a Sloyd whittling knife. I intended this spoon to be for my niece so I wanted it to be small, smooth, have a handle one could chew and survive being thrown on the floor. I used one of my step-son's old baby spoons, and my pinkie as models. Any spoon could be used as a model as long as the wood is at least 1/8" think in all areas. I matched the shape of the bowl to that of his spoon and a tapered it back to a handle roughly the shape of my smallest finger. I carved out most of the exterior shape before hollowing the bowl. I used a fishtail gouge to carve the bowl and then refined the shape of the handle. I worked very quickly so the wood was still cool and damp when I started using the torch.
Step 3: Charring the Spoon
As soon as I had established the shape I wanted I took my work outside to burn it. I set the propane torch, pliers, liter and spoon in an old cast iron pan in the snow. I made sure that there was nothing near my work area that was in danger of lighting on fire, then I started the torch. I held the spoon in one hand and the torch in the other. When I was worried that the surface would be too hot, or the flame would be too close to my fingers I used the pliers to hold the spoon.
Charring the wood to the right point is not easy and I have ruined many projects. The wood needs to be heated just enough that it glows ever so slightly in the torch flame. The wood may blacken with soot without actually charring or it may catch on fire and burn uncontrollably. I suggest starting with the end-grain and then working toward the middle. Sap can boil out of the endgrain and make it difficult to burn evenly. If too much sap comes out of one area scrub the spoon and tackle it on a second round rather than trying to burn it all at once.
Step 4: Polishing
I scrubbed the spoon with a damp kitchen sponge and then gently rinsed off the soot. Then I dried the spoon for 20 seconds in the microwave. There were two small spots on the spoon that were not dark enough so I took the spoon back outside and carefully recharged these areas. Then I scrubbed and microwaved again. I further polished the spoon's surface by rubbing it on a large piece of leather. When I was happy with the surface I put the spoon back into the microwave for 10 seconds and rubbed it in ground flax seed. The flax hulls helped furter smooth the surface and oils from the flax added to the wood's sheen.
P.S. Similar techniques can be used to make all kinds of other projects including the cheese knife pictured above.