To call Englishman Ralph Hcncall a spoon carvcr is to call Buckingham Palace a nice house. Hentall, one of Great Britain's premier carvers, makes lovespoons. These symbol-laden ornaments of affection arc carved to commemorate important events, from 50th anniversaries to royal weddings. Usually carvcd from a single piece of wood, each Hentall creation carries on a centuries-old tradition that most likely originated with the Celts or Vikings.
The intricate patterns and complex carved forms of HentalTs work belie much simpler origins. The first lovespoons were just spoons. Their deep bowls signified the act of providing, promising "I'll take care of you." F.arly lovespoon makers whittled their
creations with crude knives, perhaps adding embellishments such as initials and hearts before presenting the spoon to a sweetheart.
Over the years, the art of lovespoon carving developed its own symbolism, drawing upon both Christian and pagan influences. A chain was added to the spoon, and represented being "fettered in love." The key says "My house is your house," and the spade assures "I will work for you." A loose ball in a cage, representing the seed in the womb, symbolizes fertility, as do the tiny "sponlets" which signify children.
Researching the history of lovespoons, Hentall began visiting museums throughout Great Britain, persuading curators to bring lovespoons out of their vaults. "Since there were hardly any books on the subject," Hentall recalls, "I had to look into the wood and reason out how to do the carving by studying the different facets and angles of the chainwork." His investigation also delved into the significance of the many symbols and motifs that have characterized lovespoons through the ages.
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These clays, Hentall designs and makes heirloom-quality spoons unique to the people who commission them. When a client requests a spoon—usually to commemorate an anniversary— Hentall gathers together as many personal details as possible. He then develops a design that is both symbolically apt and aesthetically pleasing.
Sincc his delicate and complcx spoons involve a good deal of chainwork, the wood for a lovespoon must be strong in cross-grain section. Traditionally, sycamore has been regarded as the ideal wood for lovespoon carving sincc it's strong and odorless. Hentall also uses maple, walnut, holly and fruitwoods such as cherry, plum and apple.
Careful layout is important, especially for the chainwork, much of which is extremely complex. The figure-of-eight twists, for instance, involve nine different steps from layout to completion. (Sec photo, below.) "If you connect that figure-of-eight to an ordinary chain link by adding a flat twist," he explains, uyou have three differently shaped chain links and it becomes very complicated. You've got to know just where to cut the wood or you'll end up with three unconnected pieces."
To shape his designs, Hentall uses an impressive array of tools that includes a fretsaw, firmer chisels, V-chisels, gouges, files and Swiss knives. For probing tools, he improvises with dental instruments and rug needles.
The traditional tool that is crucial for many aspects of lovespoon carving is the twea cam (pronounced took'-ur-cam). The name is Welsh and means "bent knife." The twea cam has a curved blade that excels at scooping out the
Getting the scoop. Hentall uses a specially made bent knife, called a twea cam (pronounced took'-ur-cam), to hollow out the spoon bowl.
hollow in a spoon. (Sec photo, above.) Most serious spoon carvers make their own twea cams. Hentall has a selection of different shapes and sizes that he has made from old files.
Despite his collection of tools, Hentall says that the beginning lovespoon carver can do well with a basic selection: "Don't spend a fortune on tools. Buy the best, but just buy what you need. Start with a l/2-in. firmer chisel, a good selection of craft knives and one or two probing tools. The only tool you need to make is a twea cam. If you can't make one, find someone who can."
After marking out the design onto the wood, Hentall sets to work carefully shaping the chain using the fretsaw,
Pieces of eight. The figure-of-eight links shown here feature links that have a 90° twist. Careful carving frees them from the blank.
Spoon with a twist. With its figure-of-eight handle, this spoon is first cut with a fretsaw and then shaped with carving tools.
chisels, gouges and knives. That done, he roughs out the panels, the spoon-work and the other ornamentation.
He uses chisels and gouges for the relief work on the panels and Swiss knives for the chip carving. The spoons are sawn out and shaped with knives and chisels, and their bowls are hollowed out with twea cams.
It isn't until after every part has its basic shape that Hentall approaches the fine detail. "That's when it bccomcs exciting," he says. "When I've got everything that the customer wants on the lovespoon, I can start working on my own embellishments." The minutiae to be found on his work are fascinating: A lovespoon made for a royal wedding features surfaces that are textured with minuscule patterns, tiny tendrils clinging to crosses and wee beads dancing around panel frames. A diminutive, elaborately carved crown tops off the piece. (See lead photo, opposite page.)
When he's satisfied with the carving, Hentall coats porous woods with a sanding scaler or wood filler. Then he smooths the piece again before applying cither boiled linseed oil or a burton polish. Last, he applies a coat of beeswax to bring up the highlights.
Although the spoons (and their promises) are not carved in stone, they are likely to last a long time. Hentall once carved a lovespoon out of a spoke from the original bell wheel that had been installed in the Whipsnade Church belfry around 1593. "If you allow for the tree's growth time—about 200 years—you're talking about a piece of timber that's more than 600 years old," Hentall marvels.
He has nearly completed writing a book about lovespoons around the world and continues to create his own legacy of work in wood. "I've been carving seriously for 25 years," he says with a smile, "and every day is a joy."
Ralph Hentall loves spoons—and Buckingham Palace is indeed a very nice house. A
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