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Introducing Butter Knives

By Drew Langsner

Woodworkers who have taken one of our bowl and spoon carving courses know that we usually start with a lesson on using a sloyd carving knife. After the class members get some practice with knife grasps we introduce smörknivar – butter knives, which we also call "spreaders." These are table utensils commonly used in Scandinavia for applying butter to bread, and mustard or mayonnaise for making sandwiches. (Nowadays they are also used for pesto and humus, even bruschetta.)

The basic form is simple, but designing and making a nice spreader is challenging. Last summer Jögge Sundqvist showed us how he makes his butter knives, which are one of his best production items. I also worked on a design that I've been developing in recent years. I needed gifts for our Japan tour and these would be perfect. I made 29, all similar but each one somewhat different.

We now invite you to design and make a butter knife for what will become part of an on-going study collection here at Country Workshops. Our semi-monthly e-newsletters will have a regular butter knife section with photos of the spreaders that come to us. We also welcome written contributions – about your butter knife approach (design, or carving and finishing methods) and even butter knife poetry. Spreader World – The Butter Knife Gallery is a new, permanent section on our web site showing the complete collection. Thus, anyone will be able to see everyone's butter knife contribution.

There are no set rules for the butter knife collection, just a few guidelines. We ask that these butter knives will be user pieces. They should be practical, really good for applying a spread to a piece of bread or a cracker. And lovely. Smörknivar should be relatively simple, well designed and nicely crafted. Working out your design(s) may take any amount of time. (Really nice, but simple things are often very challenging.) Experienced carvers should not take more than an hour to make a butter knife. Beginners may take about 2 hours. If you are a professional woodworker, your butter knives should be relatively inexpensive. Your contribution to the collection will be just that – this project has a zero budget.

Butter knives are the first project in the section on "Knife Grips" in Wille Sundqvist's excellent (and out-of-print) book Swedish Carving Techniques. In the Taunton Press edition smörknivar is translated as "butter paddle."

"The function of the butter paddle is most important. You should be able to butter bread with it, it should be able to stand up to substantial use and it should feel good in your hand. The blade of the paddle should be wide and thin, and the most slender part of the handle should be at least twice as thick as the blade to give it strength. Grain direction and structure ought to figure into your design."

If you have not made butter knives in the past, I suggest starting with one or more practice pieces made from a soft carving wood, like linden or white pine. That way you can work quickly, trying different ideas. When you're happy with your design and ability, switch to a hardwood. Close grain species, like birch, cherry and maple are much nicer than coarse grained woods like oak or ash.

To make my butter knives for Japan I followed these steps:
1) Rived pie-section blanks from a freshly cut black birch sapling about 5 inches across.
2) Formed the sides of the blanks using a drawknife at a shaving horse.
3) Penciled my design (using a quick made pattern) on one side of the blank.
4) Band sawed the out line.*
5) Carved the bevels and refined the cross section using a sloyd knife and a spoke shave. Some of this was hand held. Some with the blank in a wood jawed machinist vise.
6) About 10 seconds sanding.
7) Dried in a microwave. Two blasts of about 20 seconds, with a minute for cooling between hits.
8) Painted the handle section. (Idea borrowed from Jögge, but I use acrylic paint, he likes oils.)
9) Oil finish; 2 coats. I currently favor health food store flax oil (food grade linseed oil) mixed about 1:4 with citrus peel solvent. Oiled the blade and painted handle section.
10) Louise sewed a simple cloth presentation wrapper for each spreader going to Japan.

*While this is mainly a hand tool woodcarving project we are not saying ìno power tools. Carvers need to make their own decision on this ever-present question.