The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild - Dave Canterbury (2016)

Part II. Bushcraft Cooking Methods

Chapter 8. Tools Improvised from the Landscape

“Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable.”

—George Washington Carver

If you have the time, you can construct almost any kind of utensil you will need for cooking, depending on available tools and your skill level. But sometimes a stick will do as good a job as anything; we tend to overthink things quite a bit. In a real tight spot, remember God gave you ten fingers for a reason.

Cutting Boards and Planks

The same piece of wood can be used for both carving food and for some cooking chores. A cutting board or cooking plank should be cut from a green hardwood, preferably one without resin, which will impart a bad taste to the food. The wood can be split from outside the pith of the tree trunk or large limb. It should be a minimum of about 4" wide by 12" long. You can create this using only a knife if the one you carry is capable of batoning without breaking (batoning is the process of splitting a piece of wood by driving a knife through it). An axe or larger chopping blade makes this an easy task.

You want this board to be about 1⁄2" thick when finished and smooth at least on the side that will be used. The flatter it is on both sides the more enjoyable and easier it will be to use.

Cedar, hickory, and maple make the best planks. Green wood is what you want for this application.

For grilling, you want the plank damp. Soaking it for an hour or so before use will accomplish this. For baking, the plank can be dry.

Plank grilling works best if the food and plank are enclosed in an oven setup. Any oven will work for this, be it earth, Dutch (if large enough), or reflector.

For baking, the plank is used merely as a platform that can be manipulated at an angle around the fire to cook things like bannocks or fish. The plank for grilling is placed directly on the rack or the floor of the oven to maximize heat, and the evaporating moisture will help keep the meat moist as it cooks; this works great for thinner steaks and fish.


Depending on the task, a cleanly broken stick will work for lots of things. Carving one side of a small branch, about 2–3" wide, at an angle will work fine for a spatula for batter mixing and stew stirring. No need to be fancy with this. Again, green hardwood is preferred; use something with no resins to impart taste to the food.

Tongs are simple to create—cut a green sapling and carve a thin middle section on one side, then bend the branch in half to create the pinchers or tongs.

When I think about spoons, I figure they are nothing more than a shovel and don’t need to be any fancier than that for a one-time use. Carve another 2" sapling and make a curved angular cut with your knife. Smooth it as best you can and call it good. If you live in an area with mussel shells, using a shell as a spoon is an easy solution. You can either hold it in your hand or lash it to a split green stick.

Bushcraft Tip

Bark can make some handy tools fairly quick, from cups to spoons to ladles and simple trays for eating or for steam cooking.

Creating Nicer Wooden Utensils

The creation of beautiful wood utensils for cooking and eating is a relaxing pleasure that’s hard to match, but this should not be done at the time they are needed—if it’s the last minute, then you use what is around you. If you desire to create nice utensils and keep them, there is time for this in camp or before the trip but some special tools will be needed in most cases for creating a concavity or “dishing out.”

A good group of wooden utensils for a modest camp would be an eating spoon about tablespoon-sized and a larger serving spoon, a spatula, and a ladle. The ladle will take a bit more skill than the others but the more you make, the better you will become.

Create utensils from green wood. Remember that softer woods like poplar are easier and faster to carve but harder woods will last longer over time. In this book we will not get too deep into this subject as it could make a complete book alone, but there are a few simple rules to remember:

1.    Don’t use woods that have oils or resins within them. Coniferous trees have resin and should be avoided. Birch is an excellent choice as the oils are contained in the bark and it is a fine harder wood that carves nicely.

2.    Avoid areas with knots or twisted grain.

3.    Always remove the pith from the project piece.

4.    The thinner you carve the piece, the less apt it is to crack while drying. This sounds counterintuitive, but wood shrinks as it dries, and the thicker it is while drying the more moisture is retained in some areas and less in others, which can cause the thick bowl of a spoon to crack as it dries.

5.    Always work with the grain, not against. This will become obvious while carving, as working against the grain will remove chunks instead of fine slivers.

Start with a straight-grained branch or sapling about 4" in diameter. Cut a section about 12" long and split this in half with an axe or another tool. You will see the center pith when you split the piece. This should be removed by carving it off. You now have the blanks for two utensils, a serving spoon and a spatula. See Figure 8.1.

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Figure 8.1 Serving spoon and spatula

For the spatula, take one side and split off a veneer about 1⁄2" thick. You now have the leftover of that side to make an eating spoon. You should get three tools from one piece of wood easy enough.

There’s no real trick in carving the basic shape for a flat spoon or for a spatula—it’s a straightforward carving process. The basic carving can be done faster with a saw or an axe than a knife. Once the rough shape is made, then you are down to fine carving.

Fashioning the bowl is the tedious part of the spoon process for the beginner, but with the right tool it goes very fast. Many would say at this point that a good spoon-carving knife or hook knife would be the tool for this, but for me the easiest to use and make short work of it is the gouge. A nice shallow sweep (or the depth of the concavity in the tool), about 3⁄4–1" wide, will be plenty for any spoon bowl you wish to make. The same process can be used on 1⁄2 scale to make an eating spoon.

Spatulas are a bit easier with the same basic beginning steps. However, the end of the tool will be square or slightly angled and beveled over the length of the working end to make it chisel-like for getting under things in the pan. See Figure 8.2.

9781440598524 Wooden spatul

Figure 8.2 Wooden spatula

A simple whisk can be made by finding a sapling with several shoots growing from a central point. If this is cut at about 12" and the shoots cut to about 8" they can then be folded backward against the handle and lashed with cordage. See Figure 8.3.

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Figure 8.3 Wooden whisk

Improvised Containers from the Landscape

Containers are one of the hardest things to reproduce off the landscape. Making baskets and bark containers that are not watertight isn’t too difficult, but containers you can actually cook in are a different matter. If you are in an area with stands of large-diameter bamboo, you have readymade containers of all types, but if not you are at the mercy of some more time-consuming and difficult methods, many of which will also dictate the way you can cook with them.

Burn-Hollowed Containers

Burning containers from wood is one of the oldest methods to make containers but also one of the most labor-intensive. It requires a good piece of green hardwood that is large enough to light a fire on, burn a controlled concavity into, and not leak after the fact. You can use a downfallen log for this provided it has no rot or insect damage that may compromise it after the burning process.

Once the wood is selected, place it on a flat surface. It may be necessary to split the log to create a flat area or hewn surface to work with. Build a small fire that is easy to control in the center of the wood. You will want to watch the sides closely and leave about 1" of thickness all around. You can slow the process on the edges by adding wet mud or clay as you go. After it starts to burn, remove the coals and scrape the burnt area to the bare wood, creating a concavity. Then add coals to the fresh scraped wood and begin the burn process again. A tube to blow on the coals and direct air for more heat in some areas will help with control as well.

Bark Containers

Barks are a great container-making resource, especially if the containers do not have to be watertight. However, with the proper materials and a bit more effort, they can also be made watertight. The simplest way to construct a bark container is with folded birch bark, but other barks like poplar work well, especially in the spring when the sap is running and they are easily removed from the tree.

Bark-lashed containers are easily made from poplar barks in the spring. To remove these barks from the tree it is necessary to split the bark on the tree the length of the container doubled plus an additional amount for the bottom, depending on the size of the container being made. Pick an area of the trunk at least half again the diameter of the finished desired container, to allow for shrinkage when drying, and try to pick an area with no knots or branches.

Split the bark vertically this length and then slip your knife or axe blade under the bark to lift it away from the tree. You can construct a quick spud for prying the bark from any green branch by cutting a single-sided wedge on the end of a 1–2" branch. This will aid in lifting larger pieces away from the tree. Once the bark is removed in one sheet, it can be scored and folded, then punched and laced with inner bark cordage or any cordage you have available.

Be sure to also punch a row of holes around the top and lace an additional piece of split material around the rim for stability and add a handle as you wish from a bent green branch or another split or riving.

Tips and Tricks

·        As with utensils you pack in, think about how you can use a tool you make for more than one application to save effort and resources.

·        Tools that you’ve made from the environment can be burned in a campfire if you do not plan to pack them out with you.

·        Use the fibrous material from the inner bark of a tree as cordage for making utensils.

·        Use your imagination. Look around you and use what’s already in the natural environment. A turtle shell could be used as a container (boil the shell before using). A square log could be cut and hollowed out for a cooking pot. Leaves could be used to wrap food for cooking (in place of aluminum foil).

·        Tools and utensils you make from the environment are throwaway items (or add-to-the-fire items) as with most quickly improvised tools, so cleaning and sterilizing are truly not an issue, although a good soaking in a boiling kettle will take care of this for a next-day use.