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Say I want to carve a spoon from wood that I find, are there any trees I shouldn't use due to their toxicity? Are any that are particularly easy to carve or hardy?

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Good question, I never considered toxicity of wood in carving a spoon. Sounds like a good excuse to buy a titanium spork! thinkgeek.com/homeoffice/kitchen/8ace –  Timothy Strimple Jan 26 '12 at 0:39
    
@TimothyStrimple: I find the spork extremely impractical. I have a set of spoon, knife and fork that are extremely light and are bent in a way that they "spoon". They lock together so they don't wander around separate when packed. –  Stefano Borini Jan 26 '12 at 0:45
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You will never convince me that a spork isn't an essential piece of survival gear! –  Timothy Strimple Jan 26 '12 at 0:49
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I have to say that "eating with" falls under the same rules as "eating". Don't go out in the woods and put something in your mouth unless you know exactly what you are dealing with.

Many woods are toxic. Also remember that "wood" doesn't just come from trees, but all woody plants, which is why some shrubs are also listed here.

Specifically avoid the following (If it's listed here it has at least one poisonous variant. Since tree variants are difficult to distinguish, it's best for amateurs to not try these:

  • Rhododendron
  • Pines & Cedars (some are safe, but identification can be tricky)
  • Laurel
  • Black Locust (may be safe if heated)
  • Elderberry (not a tree, but small tree vs. big shrub can be an easy mistake)
  • Water Hemlock is extremely poisonous and the sap is quite toxic
  • Horse Chestnut (unless properly prepared)
  • Red Baneberry

Anything you are not certain of is not safe. Plants develop poisons as a defense mechanism. The fact that you're not eating it helps a little, but when you use the spoon it will be in contact with your food, which will absorb and exchange with the wood. Heat, moisture, loose pieces, sucking... many ways to get a bit of some toxin in your system. And why take the chance? If you're not sure, just eat with your fingers and the next time you hit town buy something safe.

All that being said, generally woods which are safe for smoking, such as apple, hickory, alder, and maple, will be safe for utensils.

Also bamboo is fairly common in much of the US now, easily identified, and safe to use.

Some varieties elder may be safe

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I don't think Elderberry wood is poissonous, only the berries and gren parts. Also see my answer. –  Tomas Feb 11 '12 at 13:59
    
I'm sorry, I should have saved my toxicity link, but I'll have to settle for wiki: "Due to the possibility of cyanide poisoning, children should be discouraged from making whistles, slingshots or other toys from elderberry wood." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambucus. –  Russell Steen Feb 11 '12 at 16:25
    
Well, I had a look into my book (poissonous plants), and the bark is poissonous. However, as I said, the old Slavonians used it for making a whistles. Also look here: jonsbushcraft.com/elderwhistle.htm –  Tomas Feb 11 '12 at 16:33
    
Old peoples have in the past used many toxic substances for many things, not realizing what they are. Old Americans also used mercury in tonics to treat diarrhea. Biologically speaking there is definitely a risk of cyanide poisoning from continuous and/or improper use of elder. A spoon is going to be much higher risk than a whistle. ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/poison/Sambuca.htm –  Russell Steen Feb 11 '12 at 16:47
    
@Mr.Wizard -- Please visit the links already provided and you will see that one is an National Institute of Health article on toxicity of pines.... –  Russell Steen Feb 29 '12 at 18:18
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Lime wood is used by carvers as it is very soft! I can recommend it too, personal experience. And it is not poissonous of course.

My friend is using the wood from European elder to carve pipes. Its wood was traditionally used for this purpose. I haven't found any information on elder wood to be toxic (the bark can be though), but if you want to be sure, continue with your research.

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There are about 20 or 30 variants of elder. Some are certainly safe. Your friend is probably skilled at identifying them. But they are not generally safe for non-experts. Another possibility is that some part of the pipe making process denatures the toxin. I used to heat cure my pipes with sugar and honey and that will denature some toxins and seal against others. It's also possible that smoking just doesn't get enough of the wood itself into your mouth. Regardless, elder is toxic, and I wouldn't try it as an amateur. –  Russell Steen Feb 11 '12 at 16:26
    
@RussellSteen, I mean sambucus nigra. There are only 2 species in our country, and sambucus nigra can be very easily distinguished and is the only common species. He used some oil on it, but it was just to make the wood more resistant. –  Tomas Feb 11 '12 at 16:36
    
If you can provide a credible link saying it's safe for use I'll happily update my answer. I don't know what country you are in, but I'll also need to include that to keep it accurate to locale. But Elder in general, and esp. in the Americas, is usually going to be poisonous ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/poison/Sambuca.htm –  Russell Steen Feb 11 '12 at 16:51
    
@RussellSteen, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambucus_nigra doesn't say anything about its wood being poissonous. As for me, I consider it safe as for the whistle. –  Tomas Feb 11 '12 at 16:59
    
The question isn't about whistles. –  Russell Steen Feb 11 '12 at 17:05
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