Sunday, December 13, 2015

Drying Wood in the Microwave: or, the Cursed Spoon

Three rounds of 30-second exposures in the microwave oven, with a few minutes outside in between to cool off, will dry most spoons enough to be ready for finish sanding and oiling. And that would have worked for this spoon too! But nothing about this spoon was easy. It probably shouldn't even exist. It resisted being created at almost every step of the way. And I refused to listen.

I visited my shack in the Wisconsin woods in October and found that a bear had torn a big limb off the apple tree in the yard, either climbing to get the apples or just pulling down the limb to bring the high ones into reach.
That tree has sweet apples and 2015 was a good year for it. After I pruned the tree to minimize the surface area of the wound it will have to heal,

I picked all the remaining apples from the upper branches and left most of them under the tree, so the bear wouldn't further damage the tree trying to get them.  

Then, I looked for spoon blanks in the amputated branch. Some were nice and straight but with a big punky area in the middle.
Others had nice kinky bends (not gentle sweeps), but as commonly happens in apple, most of the "elbows" had little branches coming out of their outside face, in other words, putting a big knot right where you'd make the bowl of a ladle. Other sticks had too many knots. When I split one or two promising blanks, the twist was so extreme that nothing could be made of the tortured, splintered fragments. Finally I was down to one straight-enough blank that would yield an eating spoon if I could avoid a knot when I rived it out. So I cheated and combined riving with some sawing on either end of the blank, and split from both ends of the blank, and so when I returned from vacation I brought a dozen or so beautiful white and yellow birch blanks which had split beautifully and looked quite promising, and one piece of crooked apple which I only kept because it was from a tree right next to my shack. The rest of the pieces ended up on my stovewood pile, drying for use in the Jotl some cold morning.

Every step in carving this spoon went wrong. I laid it out with the bowl facing the pith, but then I found the pith made a sweeping curve right where the handle needed to curve the opposite way, so that got flipped over partway through the process. As I carved I kept finding little knots and deviations in the pith, so the handle is much narrower and much straighter than I intended. Finally I had done what I could with the knife, and dried the spoon in the microwave.

The traditional Swedish approach is to rub the new spoon with boiled potato and leave it in a warm dry spot (like a radiator) overnight.  I have done this and it works fine, though carving off the thin rind of dried potato takes a very sharp knife and lots of care. In Drew Langsner's spoon class at Country Workshops, he taught us to dry a freshly-carved spoon with three 30-second blasts in the microwave, with a couple of minutes' time to cool outside the microwave between blasts. I have dried dozens of spoons this way with no issues. That method worked fine for this spoon too, but then 5 minutes after the third blast, I impulsively put it back in the microwave for 32 seconds. Just as the timer beeped, I smelled wood smoke.

The result is as you see, a dark spot right through the bowl of the spoon, not at its thinnest point, but near to it. Having sanded and oiled it, I'm sure that it's sound enough. I also know that any spoon that lives an active life in a lively household is bound to develop patina. This guy just got an early start!

I mentioned before that I only tried working the blank because it's from a tree that's important to me personally. I then only persevered through all the carving mishaps, and sanded and oiled it despite its scorch mark, for the same reason. But now I'm glad I did all those things, for another reason. I learned about some setbacks or surprises that can be overcome. I learned about the safe limits to a powerful technique. There's knowledge you get by doing things right every time, carefully sticking to procedure. That sort of knowledge is important, because you can learn the quickest way to get a desired result by carefully repeating safe, known procedures. Then there's another sort of knowledge you learn by traveling beyond the limits of failure. When you have looked at the limits from both the perspective of success and of failure, your knowledge of exactly where the limits are becomes much more certain, passing even out of the realm of knowing and into that of feeling. 

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