Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Finesse of the Scandinavian Butter Knife


One of the pleasures one quickly discovers in woodworking is the wonder of “scrap” material.  

Inevitably, a trip to the lumberyard or self-help store results in accumulation of odd bits that are casually stacked beneath a workbench or tossed into a five-gallon plastic bucket.  I have found it is a personal quirk as to what will be reserved for a later project or deemed worthy of kindling for the next fire.  My personal preference is to save scrap longer than six inches and more than a quarter inch in width. Everything else becomes fodder for the backyard fire pit.

There are rare exceptions to this rule.  I once carefully collected trimmings from an old teak cabinet that was being cut up for other uses. The shavings measured no more than an eighth of an inch thick and about one inch wide.  A rich dark black, the longer bits were cut into an eight inch length, lightly sanded, and then offered as bookmarks…a perfect handout from a would-be carpenter.  (I find such keepsakes cause friends to offer equally useful gifts on holidays—I am always happy to get another packet of sandpaper, a couple of saw blades, or collection of dowel rods that have been abandoned in a garage.  All of it will be put to use in one form or another.)

In this case, however, we are tackling remnants that are poorly suited for large projects, will not impress friends when glued into a small token of appreciation, and are too numerous for paint stir-sticks. Here’s where a little ingenuity comes to play, particularly when the weather has confined you to the shop and there is no pressure for meeting a deadline that pays the rent or phone bill.

Rather than flip pages through a collection of books on projects for the amateur woodworker, I like to fiddle with the assortment of scraps to decide what might become my next Scandinavian butter knife.  Those cleaver people who brought us IKEA and pickled herring, have long fancied kitchen utensils that are functional yet simple. Oh, we are all familiar with the wooden spoon and rolling pin.  But have you seen a Swede or Norwegian wield a wooden butter knife?

Before you scoff—everyone can cut butter—think about the texture and curve of your everyday table knife.  We all have a favorite.  Fat, flat, long, short, silver or pewter.  But wood?  Have you considered wood?  

Now we are back to the collection of project remnants.  Those cast off bits that measure more than six inches are actually perfect fodder for one of these Scandinavian “simplicities.”  The quote marks here are not accidental.  As I quickly discovered, making one of these instruments is no easy adventure.  What looks so simple on the table is hard to create in a manner that pleasures the eye, hand and other users.  

I find something between six and eight inches long is preferable.  At that length the knife is less apt to flip out of the plastic butter dish and stain a table cloth or dish mat.  Then there is width.  Most women prefer a wood butter knife that is about a quarter of an inch wide and about one inch tall.  Men are more apt to go slightly larger on the dimensions, and occasionally request a round handle.  (Those of you with a talent on the lathe should feel free to weigh-in on how such a feat is accomplished.) 

So now we begin.  Sketch a proposed design on the remnant deemed worthy of your time and meander to a band or jigsaw to rough out your idea.  I prefer the band saw (just like the vibration on the table), but most people opt for the jigsaw—precision and less noise.  The real purist and go with hand tools, just be cautious in determining the density of the selected scrap. Oak with a hand saw is going to be a lot harder to shape than a bit of left-over pine.

Once the basic shape is in place the real fun begins.  I prefer a table-mounted belt sander with attached disk for this step.  The goal is to keep in mind fit and feel of the butter knife without getting carried away with edge or tip.  We are, after all, cutting butter.  A gracious curve of about two-three inches for the “blade” with another five-seven inches for a “handle” should suffice.  

And there you are, the perfect use of a rainy afternoon and a pile of “scrap.”  Be warned, however, this is an addictive pastime and will result in requests for one to take home at the end of a party.  It is, after all, the simple things that often draw the most attention and appreciative comments.

Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.