Bushcraft master, James Ruther, teaching the next generation of spoonmakers how to make a wooden spoon | Photo by Christopher Nyerges

A master class in making spoons

Christopher Nyerges Columnists

By Christopher Nyerges

James Ruther is a master of bushcraft, with survival skills that include knife use, foraging, shelter building, firecraft and more.

One day, after he and I finished a survival class in the foothills above Eagle Rock, he showed me a wooden spoon.

I liked it. It looked a bit different from the many wooden spoons I’ve seen over the years at thrift stores and novelty shops. “That’s nice,” I said.

“I made this one,” he said.

“You made it?” I replied.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, given Ruther’s vast know-how. But I’d assumed the spoon was something cranked out in a factory woodshop. Once I knew it was individually carved, I examined it more closely, noting that the handle was smooth, though irregular. I turned it over in my hands. I saw the character that an assembly line product would not have.

James Ruther with some of his handmade wooden spoons | Photo by Christopher Nyerges

Ruther told me that he had made the spoon with his trusty Mora knife, which he pulled out and showed me. He said the spoon was made from ash, which he uses because it’s common and relatively easy to carve. “Also, because ash trees grow like weeds, no one minds if I trim a few branches and use them for making spoons,” he said.

Then, Ruther gave me that beautiful spoon. I have kept it and used it. I also attended one of Ruther’s spoon carving class.

The class, held in the Arroyo Seco, began with the basics of knife safety: How to hand a knife to another person; how to always carve AWAY from your body and fingers (which can be harder to do than it sounds); how to demarcate a “blood circle” around a person using a knife so that no one is standing too close if the user loses control of the knife, even momentarily.

After the safety lessons, the class took a short walk to find and collect suitable woods. Ruther pointed out that just about any wood could be used to make a spoon, even dead wood, though fresh sound wood is more desirable. Oak is excellent but harder to carve. Willow is abundant and easy to carve but might be too soft. In addition to ash, Ruther likes alder. The students collected pieces of ash wood, about a foot long and a few inches thick.

To begin the spoon making, Ruther guided each student to split their section of ash with a sheath knife, using a technique known as batoning. Then, the student decided which half to use, flattened the cut part with a knife and penciled the shape of the spoon onto it.

Next, careful carving began, with Ruther demonstrating various techniques.

A saw was used to reduce some sections. For example, excess wood on the section that would become the handle was sawed perpendicular to the handle so that unwanted wood could be chiseled away.

The hollow of the spoon was especially interesting. We used curved carving knives, which is the easiest method. However, you could use an ordinary knife, with much more care.  Another method is to place a small coal in what will be the hollow of the spoon, allowing the section to char before being carved.

Finally, the spoons were sanded with sandpaper. 

“What happens if the spoon breaks?” a student asked Ruther. 

“Oh darn, you’d have to carve another!” Ruther replied.  

On a more serious note, Ruther pointed out that discarding a handmade wooden spoon is no problem because it’s biodegradable, unlike a plastic spoon that would take 100 years to decompose. He also pointed out that if you cut from overgrown invasive trees, you’re practicing a form of weed control. “It’s always good to learn to make something rather than buying something,” said Ruther, “and this produces no waste.”

To learn more about Ruther and his classes, you can reach him at ruther1@gmail.com.

Christopher Nyerges, author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California” and other books, also leads outdoor field trips. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com 

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