Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Nut Butter Spatula

I often find myself taking my job home with me, with visions of WiFi firmware, drivers and kernel threads and a million other things rattling around in my head.  Lately I have been spending some time with more concrete art-forms in the evenings and weekends to try to regain some ballance.  This morning, I was scraping peanut butter out of a plastic jar with a table knife, wincing as I felt the metal dig into the plastic, and hoping I wasn't about to feed my kids a bunch of plastic shavings.  So this evening, I set out to to perfect the nut-butter spatula.  I like the way it looks and feels, and I have a whole jar of Nutella to practice with in the coming days!  Here is how I set about making it...

I started off with a piece of Black Walnut from a tree I recently cut on my property while clearing space for a new shop.  The white is the sap wood, and the dark is the heart wood.  Usually you only see stuff made from the heart wood, but I like the contrast and have been carving with both.

I roughed out the blank using a draw knife to cut the wood and a shaving horse to act as a convenient clamp.  You get a lot of speed and power with this combination, and it only takes a minute or so to finish smoothing the sides and start on the handle and blade.  I made the shaving horse myself, and the draw knife came from some German tool company who's name I forget.  In general, I have been very happy with good European hand tools, and I suggest that you spend a bit extra rather than put up with cheap steel and badly formed tools you might get from a mid-grade manufacturer.  When the tools are cutting well, you get nice big and clean shavings, as you can see below.

At this point, I hang up the draw knife and get out a carving knife.  A couple of years ago my brother-in-law gave me and the kids some really nice knives made by Morakniv.  I recently got a smaller version of these and have been using it with good success.  When carving with any hand tool, try to go with the grain of the wood.  If the knife digs in, then you are carving the wrong way.  It can take some practice, but a good clean cut will save you a lot of sanding later!

I have the spatula clean of all splinters, smooth to the touch, and in the final form I am looking for.  The flat end is asymmetrically rounded in hopes that will get the very last Nutella out of the corner of the jar, and also out of the tricky places up near the rim.  Hopefully this will keep people from contemplating cutting the jar in half to get at the remainders!

Growing up, I watched my dad carve large wooden bowls and other really nice items.  He would spend hours sanding until the wood was almost perfectly smooth.  And often, people would find a few faint gouge marks in the wood and let it be known that they would really like to see the tool marks more visible all over the carving.  I have received similar feedback on my simpler carvings.  As a compromise between the urge for perfection and desire to see the hand carved nature, I have been using a relatively fine starting sand paper of 150 or 220 grit.  I sand it briefly to knock down any big edges, and then I quickly move to a 400 grit sand paper to complete the sanding.  This tends to leave many of the gouge or knife marks in the wood, and yet also smooths them so they are soft to the touch.

Now that the wood shaping is done, it is time to apply some finish.  People are going to be eating off of these, so I want a good food safe finish, and something easy to re-apply later as the wood ages.  I got a bit frustrated trying to find just the right thing on line.  Some have ingredients I might not want to eat, and in the end, I just wasn't happy with not knowing exactly where they got their ingredients.  So, we took a trip to the local Co-op and purchased some organic Walnut oil and organic beeswax from a local supplier.  I mixed 4 parts oil with one part beeswax and melted it on the stove.  When cooled to room temperature, it is about the consistency of cold Margarine.  I think next time I may use 5 parts oil, but I am happy with it none the less.

To apply the finish, I use a piece of old pillow case (you do not want something fuzzy like a towel).  I get the wood warm by placing it on a trivet on the wood stove, and then rub the oil and beeswax mixture onto the wood.  I let it sit a bit longer and then wipe it again and place it to the side to cool down.  I had saved up several small butter spatulas and another larger spatula for the occasion so that I could finish them all at once.  If you do not want the trouble of mixing your own finish, then simply using a vegetable oil from the cupboard will work nicely as well.

The end product is smooth with a soft shine.  It also has a wonderful walnut and beeswax smell. Since it is destined to spread nut butter, it will likely never need to be re-finished (the nut oils will do the job automatically).  When washing wooden implements, just use hot water only (no soap).  If the wood ever looks rough, a quick sand with 400 or even 600 grit sand paper and an application of vegetable oil will have it looking as good as new.  If you don't have sand paper handy, just keep using it...over the years, it will become smooth on its own!

Thank you for reading, and good luck with your own projects!

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