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Utensils that stir the imagination

Unlike the lifeless wooden spoons one finds in shops, handmade pieces inspired by the raw material are functional art at its finest.

June 12, 2003|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

A wooden spoon can be a beautiful thing. A "whole-wheat-bagel-and-cream-cheese knife" made out of chocolate lacewood can be an exquisite thing. And a "two-cheese-pizza sauce spreader" out of figured lemonwood or a "Heinz 57 ketchup starter" from gnarled canary wood? Well, before getting carried away with ourselves, let's push out of mind the coarse, spiritless wood implements that dominate retail offerings in kitchenware, such as they are.

Really, who would buy one of those spindly spoons or stirrers that look and feel as if they're made of reconstituted sawdust? Worse, who would be so negligent as to plunge such a thing into a simmering kettle of one's secret St. Francis beer chili? But if you can rid your thoughts of the crudeness that passes for standard in the realm of wooden cooking tools, you're ready to bring some curves, twists, color, fiddleback grain and style into your kitchen.

It turns out that evolutionary progress is finally catching up with humankind's second-oldest craft. The oldest, we can presume, was the making of weaponry to bring down dinner. We can guess that the second-oldest was to fashion a stick into something to assist in its preparation. Now woodworkers are restoring some dignity and eye-catching appeal -- not to mention whimsy -- to the kitchen spoon, the sauteer, the veggie-pusher, the left-handed scrambler, the mayo paddle, the hash slinger, the olive thief.

The best of today's wooden cooking implements are made by professional artisans such as William Chappelow, whose Tryyn gallery and woodshop is east of San Diego in Guatay (www. The next best are made by you, in your garage.

The simplest of woodworking tools, the abundance of raw material and the utilitarian outcome provide satisfaction for the newcomer. The possibility of making something uniquely handsome supplies endless challenge thereafter.

Stirrers are one of the most useful implements and among the easiest to make. With the help of a shop vise or clamps, a handsaw such as a Japanese Ryoba can reduce a piece of hardwood to roughly 11 inches long, 2 1/2 inches wide and 3/8 inch thick. A coping saw, or fret saw, cuts the profile. A couple of rasps, one coarse and one medium, and a fine-tooth file are employed to round the handle and taper the blade. Sandpaper in grits of 100, 220, 320, 400 and 600 produce a gleaming, silky surface.

Power tools, such as disc and spindle sanders, can speed the production but add little to the possibilities.

As for design? There are two ends to a stirrer. One should fit the hand, the other the pot. Together they should achieve balance that pleases the eye. A PB&J spreader, by contrast, may have a grip in the middle with one paddle for peanut butter and the other for jelly.

Spoons, because of their concave bowl, require the use of a carving gouge and mallet and no small amount of practice. After you've made a few, you'll understand why pros ask $80 to $100 or more for even a simple hand-carved cooking spoon and many hundreds of dollars for intricate showpieces.

Once the bowl is carved, smoothing the inside poses a challenge. Chappelow has mastered a technique of finishing his bowls with perfect tiny scoops from a gouge. Alternatively, a smooth surface can be achieved by cutting sandpaper into quarter-inch strips. Draw the sandpaper strips under the thumb, like an inside-out shoeshine rag, to remove gouge marks and asymmetry.

Experts have all variety of finishing strategies for their wooden kitchen tools. One method is to douse the sanded tool in hot tap water, which raises the grain. Dry and re-sand. Repeat the process. Then rub the wood with food-safe walnut oil or mineral oil. Let the oil soak in, burnish with a rag and fire up the chili.

With use, a wood implement may require further touch-ups with 600-grit paper until it is adequately seasoned and smooth. Afterward, only common-sense rules prevail about not soaking wood or putting it in the dishwasher.

The choice of woods is practically limitless, although tight-grained hardwoods generally hold up best. Many fine utensils were born by scrounging piles of firewood. Look for pieces with interesting grain possibilities -- particularly burls and crotches. At lumberyards, split and knotty hardwood often suggests a natural shape for an implement.

The final touch: A one-of-a-kind kitchen tool deserves a one-of-a-kind name. You might take inspiration from a pro like Chappelow. Among his latest creations: "Extra-tender wart-hog rump with red bell pepper stir-fry knife" made of mesquite and an "extra-large-curd, nonfat, organic cottage cheese dolloper" of black locust.

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