How to Carve a Traditional Wooden Bowl

Written by james young
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How to Carve a Traditional Wooden Bowl
Shape a traditional wooden bowl in ways that use the natural form. (wooden bowl image by Stanisa Martinovic from

Hand-carved wooden bowls differ from hand-turned wooden bowls in that the result is oval, not round. Traditional craftsmen worked with green wood, not kiln-dried wood, and their tools and techniques focused on quirks and useful properties of the fresh material. Modern power tools do not adapt well to this work. Artisans who work with green wood must be prepared to do most of the shaping immediately after cutting the tree. Many types of wood begin splitting--called checking in the trade--only moments after blocks are cut.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Poplar
  • Chain saw or crosscut saw
  • Wooden mallet
  • Froe
  • Hatchet
  • Wood rasp
  • Curved adze
  • Spoon gouge
  • Plastic trash bags
  • Curved scraper
  • Straight scraper
  • Linseed oil

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  1. 1

    Fell a poplar tree with a diameter of 12 to 18 inches. If possible haul the log to the workshop, because blocks will quickly begin checking on the ends after you cut.

  2. 2

    Trim the base of the log straight across with the chain saw or crosscut saw until fresh wood shows no sign of checking. Cut a bowl block from the base of the log equal in length to the long axis of the bowl you intend to carve.

  3. 3

    Tip the block on end and place the blade of the froe over the centre. Divide the grain pattern of the block symmetrically with the blade. Hold the froe by the handle and drive the blade into the block with the wooden mallet.

  4. 4

    Split the block by working the froe deeper into the wood and twisting the handle to either side. Straight-grained wood splits easily and accurately in short sections.

  5. 5

    Place a split block on end on a solid wooden surface--a notched section of log works well--with the split side toward the left hand. Hold the top of the block with the left hand and shape the lower end of the curved side--the side with bark--with the hatchet. Shape the end to a symmetrical oval.

  6. 6

    Flip the block end for end and shape the other end of the outer surface. Smooth the rough surface of the bowl block with the rasp.

  7. 7

    Hollow the interior of the bowl with a curved hand adze followed by a spoon gouge. The adze removes most of the waste material but leaves a furrowed surface behind. The spoon gouge--a curved carving gouge used for shaping the bowls of wooden spoons--cleans up what the adze leaves. Shape the outside of the bowl with the rasp and match the interior to that with the gouge.

  8. 8

    Reduce the wall of the bowl to a uniform thickness of from 5/8 to 3/4 inch. Temporarily place the green wood bowl in a plastic trash bag to prevent fast drying. Store green wood bowls loosely stacked in a cool, humid place--a root cellar or basement--for six months.

  9. 9

    Shift the drying bowls to the workshop and let them air dry another three months before doing final shaping with the steel scrapers. Treat the smoothed surfaces with pure linseed oil.

Tips and warnings

  • Expect to ruin many bowls before the first success. When you work with green wood, the technique must be fast and accurate. Slow work gives the wood time to check on the end grain before you finish. Inaccurate thickness distorts and splits the finished product.
  • Hewing hatchets with double-bevel cutting edges work well enough if they are ground thin and honed sharp. Broad hatchets ground with a single-bevel edge shape outside curves more efficiently.
  • Hand woodworking depends on the skilled use of sharp tools. Keep hands behind the path of a cutting tool. Gloves will not protect fingers from a hatchet.
  • Don't use sandpaper on hand-carved bowls. Abrasives immediately change the handmade appearance of the bowl and leave grit embedded in the wood grain.

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