In my varied experiences sharing green woodworking and spoon carving techniques back and forth with other wonderful people, I’ve taken a keen interest in the topic of “holding the work”, and exploring the range between the absolute minimalist kit (namely the hands), and the use of various mechanical means to secure the work piece. My grandfather had a small vice bolted to a scrap-wood bench in the basement that was absolutely invaluable to my childhood adventures in sawing bits and nailing together little airplanes. Later in life one of my first adventures in green woodworking was to work with other students to make a shaving horse for use with the spoke shave and draw knife to pile up shavings in the shop. Invariably when you become accustomed to using these and other versatile but somewhat stationary holding mechanisms, you find yourself scratching your head when you don’t have them on hand. I have seen in workshops how having a generous variety of ways to hold the work really opens doors for people who might otherwise struggle as beginners to hollow out a spoon bowl with a hook knife by traditional means using hands only. I believe that in the beginning working with sharp blades, a feeling of accessibility, safety, and control, sometimes gained by using a holding mechanism, is more valuable in gaining the very basic understanding of green wood spoon carving than it is to push the hands-only approach. I would also hypothesize that the apex of invention is using your thinker to come up with better ways to hold things. Certainly when it comes to clamping, in the vast majority of cases you will not be making any new “discoveries”; that is to say, your idea is coming to you through a process, putting together the things you’ve seen or imagined, re-organizing them, experimenting, etc. There are a proliferation of clamps, lapboards, the list is endless.
Before I went on my current Instagram sabbatical, I came to greatly admire and respect the work of @iseilnam , who’s talents far surpass mine in every area, but especially in the area of the invention of holding mechanisms for green woodworking. I must mention him here and say how much what he is doing inspires me to look everywhere for ideas. If you google search or follow his Instagram feed, you will see his many unique inventions, his beautiful work, and his workshop.
Years ago I came across a picture online of a “lap board”. I have never been able to find the original picture again, but the principle stuck with me. Essentially, a board slung across the lap, with a loop of cord running through two small holes in the center, and down around your foot. When you press your foot down in the loop of cord, the loop on top of the board tightens, allowing you to place your work piece in the loop and clamp it tightly against the board with your foot. In this way you can securely hold a spoon and hollow out your bowl with a hook knife or gouge. There are many variations on this around, but this one was very simple, literally a small board and a loop of cord. After experimenting with this really good idea, I found it was too fiddly to adjust the loop just right and get in and out of it. I tried adding a stick in the loop, and stepping on the stick, which was an improvement, but still the board on the lap really limited the motion of your foot to operate the clamp, and lead to discomfort.
One of the limitations of a shaving horse is that you are seated using your leg muscles to press down on the pedal and operate the clamp. You can vastly improve the strength of the clamp by paying attention to the geometry of the construction, or even by using a large heavy head, but ultimately it is only as strong as you can press down with your legs in a sitting position. You might find yourself pressing hard and sliding backwards as you pull with your spoke shave or draw knife. In another picture I’ve never seen again, a standing, 2-legged version of a shaving horse is being used in the woods. Simply a half log, one end of the log on the ground and two legs up front making the tripod (like a giant Cooper’s Jointer), with a mortise for the head/foot pedal to pass through and the pin fulcrum making the first-class lever. This one is brilliant because the joinery is very minimal, and one can use a large heavy log that makes the unit incredibly stable, with the added advantage of being able to use not just your leg muscle, but also your weight, to step on the pedal.
I’ve always been enamored by the treadle and spring pole lathes, taking such good advantage of the feet and legs, but I have never taken up the art. I admire those who have applied new ideas and evolved this historic craft with new invention. Maybe I’ll get to this one day…
All of this is to say here is my simple 3’x3′ Woodland Spoon Carving Bench. The “base model” is a 10″ diameter ash half-log, 3′ long. For joinery, it has 5 one-inch holes drilled through (4 for legs, one for the leather strap/cord at the center). On the bottom under the center hole, I’ve notched the log in a V so as to drill through less material and create less potential friction for the leather strap passing through. I’ve riven and roughed out four 36″ red oak legs. The fit is snug but not wedged, so it can be easily disassembled. For the clamp, this is an old leather belt cut to 3/4″ width so it will pass through the 1″ hole without resistance. The leather is folded over and slid through the hole on the bench, loop on top. Underneath, a loop of p-cord is passed through holes punched in the leather. Finally, a 3-4′ long riven board, or nearly any strong narrow board, is notched and fed into the p-cord loop for the foot pedal. It can be knocked down and wrapped up with a strap for transport or storage, and one might even add a handle.
This bench combines elements from all the inspirations I’ve listed above, and is a superior clamp in a standing position. I find that the best height for this is just a bit below your bent elbow, so the leg length will vary. The legs are lightly splayed, meaning that the bench standing alone is slightly susceptible to being knocked over. But in use with the weight of your body on the pedal, and even an elbow or arm draped across, the bench becomes incredibly stable. The loop rotates 360 degrees simply by lifting your work and turning it. It is virtuous in holding work for sawing, chip carving/kohlrosing, and making chopsticks and muddlers with the spoke shave. I’ve been experimenting with a much larger version of this in my shop, and coming up with all kinds of jigs and rigs, pegs and whistles to make fun use of this simple and really strong foot-powered, hands-free clamp. It’s also great to rest your coffee on while you look out over the springtime valley.
I will be offering a two-day class constructing this Woodland Spoon Carving Bench this August at Fletcher Farm in Ludlow Vermont.
Today I worked from home and, because the office is still a pencil-eraser-sized camera wherever you are, at lunch I walked our dog down in the woods to the logging tarp-shack for lunch.
The road was mostly impassable for the last several days, and various combinations of our family members reminisced as we walked up and down the muddy hill, several times each day and a couple of times at night.
In 1997 I saw a Subaru sunk in the middle of Moscow Woods Road in Calais twelve inches above the rocker panels and the next day we stayed home instead of trying to travel down those roads.
I remember bouncing out to the Family Program at Shao Shan Temple through the mud inside a van full of our unhappy children who wanted nothing less than to go there, which is in itself a question of Buddhism.
Then the guest at the Family Program told us his story of surviving the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, and how now he doesn’t care if children spill milk on the laptop.
Another time, after a great celebration at the temple, the visiting monks smoked cigarettes at the end of the temple driveway. Another time, Taihaku unexpectedly died.
Chances to look at our situations from different perspectives are all around us; sometimes subtle, faint, sometimes intrusive or disrupting, but ever present. We freeze and thaw to them like mud.
The view from our place to the north-east.
A small group of families take turns driving to pick up raw milk for all of us from Jonathan Falby at Symphony Farm, an act that in many states is like smuggling whisky during prohibition. The logistics of this cooperative endeavor are unusually challenging, seeing that there are a number of really bright people involved in getting 9 empty half-gallon jars with lids to the appropriate shelf in the milk room on the appointed day, delivering payment, and dropping off the milk itself at each destination. I’ll admit, I am a third wheel in it all because I’m usually not into making the milk run, much preferring to never get into a car if I can avoid it. There is always some error in the process each week, a great conversation starter.
Given that at any time in Vermont, unless you are thoroughly well-resourced and organized, you might be driving a car in a sad state of repair with, say, no seat belts, no inspection, or the wrong tires for the season on. The roads in Vermont are not “as the crow flies” therefore, to get over a range of hills, you might have to go way around. Nonetheless, pretty much everywhere you turn your head in any season, stunning beauty abounds, while not everywhere around is “a signal”. And likely you will have this milk run time to yourself, to enjoy your coffee, or sometimes, to white-knuckle it down Eagle Peak Rd. in either a frozen blizzard or a muffler dragging mud bog.
Today, however, it is high summer, Heather is off at Shadow Lake, and I have to bring the milk bottles to the farm because on Thursday the cows will not stand and wait for the bottles to arrive. There’s a little humid stormy rainy air hanging, a light haze that is also fog forming. Our van, 305,000 miles, mostly sounds great, but the transmission makes a lot of bad sounds despite functioning fine, so its only a matter of time. Should I break down on Eagle Peak Road, it would mean a good long walk no matter how you slice it, so I generally keep a few things on hand like shoes, a pocket knife, some water, and “the phone”.
Jonathan is a really nice fellow, and is often found doing some job of work on his place, hosting guests in their yurt, rinsing milking equipment, stacking wood, etc. It is a lovely place nestled into the trees sloping down to the south west overlooking a sweet pond. The light-brown cows stand in a row in the trees talking.
I always feel a little strange walking in the driveway to Symphony Farm, which has a welcoming but private and secluded feel to it. So I park on the road out of respect for that feeling and walk in with the two bags of bottles. The hot fence ticks. Generally speaking I never encounter anyone, but sometimes the children, Jonathan, sometimes Meaghan. Bottles on the Thursday shelf and off we go.
The summertime is really the time for raw milk. If you know anything about it, well, it tastes subtly like grass. The drive is stunning, the air is good enough that the dog hangs her head out the whole way there and back. After 25 years here, getting raw milk from different places over that time, the milk run has never been sweeter than today. Thank goodness for rain, and all of the many intricate things that work together to get us there and back. The never ending analysis of one’s position in it all must occasionally and more frequently be paused, to spy the view looking north from Eagle Peak. And later, to make coffee for the sole purpose of having some cream.
I’ve had such a great time making spoons from green wood and doing all of the many associated fun activities for the last 25 years. Every single time I make a spoon, learn from or share skills with others, or think about spoon making, I feel pretty darn good, like I’ve found my “thing”. I was lucky to meet a couple of great people who introduced me to green woodworking and the “bent” knife, and that started the journey. So many more interesting people along the way as well. So, after 25 years, it feels good to be a person involved with sharing this passion with others, as that is how it started out for me. Most importantly, sharing encouragement and paying attention to others. Now I’ve crossed the half century line in life, and I’m really looking forward to embodying the “old spoon maker on the hill” role (well maybe a few years away still).
I have learned many, many lessons from years of spoon making, and from “selling”; selling my wares here and there, and selling spoon making as a “teacher” (I don’t ever profess to be one) to others. Selling is not something that I put a lot of energy into, which is different than some others. I don’t work to make a living making spoons at this time, although I’ve considered doing it, and in doing so, learned more about myself and this craft. It is so great to meet people, something I really miss since the pandemic started over one year ago. I came to learn early that spoon making in public, or spoon “busking” as an acquaintance called it, is an incredible way to meet people, get people talking, and share some good vibes. I used to busk music in Milwaukee with my best friend in the early 90’s, so that was good training for street spoons. Especially if there is a hatchet, shaving horse, drawknife, chopping block, or other tools involved that you don’t see every day, or sometimes ever. I sure have missed that circuit; this year looks uncertain for many events, so playing it by ear as usual. If there is some money that comes of it, I guess that is a bonus. Year after year for me, spoon making is a zero sum game financially, while also a psychologically and metaphysically rewarding rubric.
I’ve also been able to “meet” spoon people on Instagram (Facebook in disguise)(@spoonmakerx). There is a sweet virtual community there to be found, with kind, helpful, and non-judgmental people who generously share what they make and what they are up to, and even arrange swapping. There’s tale of a legendary spoon journal making its way around the world, receiving entries, and being sent on ahead with a spoon for the next person, with a list a mile long of those who wish to see it in their post one day…WOW! I’ve made a few new connections, maintained a few others, reconnected with still others, and probably spent way too much time looking at my phone. Most interesting is the ability to make connections internationally and have the opportunity to expand cultural understanding as much as the format will allow, and my limited knowledge of only one language. There are so many incredibly talented, incredibly young spoon makers I’ve come to admire. The young ones especially also have grown up with the internet, so they have much skill at making video, using cellphones and cameras to create super cool demonstrations of their craft which you can view endlessly in lieu of actually making things yourself. There was nothing like this available to look at when I started spoon making in about 1996. I especially appreciate those who bring creative humor, stop-motion animation, and general family life into the Instagram mix. I also admire those who work to keep alive traditions and imagine new ones. One day I watched a live feed of a group of people in their back yard in Japan working on a shaving horse, and, by their good graces of also speaking English I was able to chat with them. So much fun…this is a special phenomenon, the ability to connect and to be simply acquainted so directly with people from around the world, such an opportunity to build peace around our common interest, explore material culture, and to learn about each other’s ways “live”! It is also a place to have dialogue about how to respect and honor other cultures craft traditions as not to exploit those traditions for money. Here in Vermont this is an especially rich topic on many fronts, for example, making maple syrup, or certain styles of basket making, or canoe making; all traditional skills and crafts done by indigenous people on this their occupied land.
Another wonderful thing is to be able to support one another by purchasing the things others make: the spoons, the tools, the endless list of extra cool hand made items. Prices are completely all over the map and the best thing I can say about that is there is likely something that everyone can afford, or barter for. Unfortunately, international shipping is extremely expensive for small packages of handmade items, and these packages can also be slapped with extra taxes and tariffs. I’ve thought this is an area for international cooperation of craftspeople, fighting for an end to the high expense of international shipping, maybe cooperatively building a ship to sail spoons abroad… To be sure this virtual connectivity with other spoon and tool makers affords endless chances to buy things, trade things, spark your creativity, enhance your imagination, give and receive encouragement.
This past 14 months has brought about a lot of changes in priorities. It was scheduled to be a big year for spoon making classes and festivals, street-spoons and the bike cart. But instead our first world lives encountered many challenges, cancellations, and brought out the best and worst in us as people, while we adapted to new ways of doing things. Financial necessity led me to change day jobs, and everything in our family life was turned around in many ways. Everything except for, unlike so many other people, we were and still are so fortunate to enjoy the continuing health of our extended families. I still cant loose sight of the fact that the worlds people are suffering from the loss of so many lives in terrible circumstances, with the effect of shining more light and focusing more attention on inequality, racism, patriarchy, colonialism. The remarkable “pepper spray and candy” feeling I get from America: at once some of the best and most progressive and creative and forward thinking people, and some of the most frightening intolerant and bigoted people, all of whom could certainly benefit from spoon making and maybe inching their chairs a little closer together to strengthen common humanity.
So the summer is here. I’ve walked down our steep land to the bottom and back, the secret springs and waterfall flow, and still and in perpetuity this hill defies ownership despite the hundred year old barbed wire, which is being eaten by the trees. I tell our teenagers to just stay here, enjoy this place, but they long to go and I fear for them but also know the strong magnetic pull toward imagined and unknown places and experiences. In June the birds start singing in the faintest faintest dawn light at 4:25 am and the days are stretched out long between sunrise and sunset. I wake in the middle of the night for some reason and can’t sleep, bothered or mind occupied by racing thoughts. Grounded in the trees and the woods, cutting some firewood and cleaning up lots of windfall and diseased pine. Picking up the mess of a crashed old treehouse and burning the debris in a bonfire. Cleaning up trash that the bear dragged off into the understory. A fox pursues our chickens each evening; a swift and graceful series of movements for the fox, just answering the dinner bell, and total upheaval for the chickens and the humans who, in so many ways, try to stave off all that is inevitable through countless futile activities, all the while missing what is right there before them, behind a green fern, the now.
If you are interested in ordering a custom spoon or other hollowware from me, or would like to add custom lettering (Kohlrosing) to a spoon as a special gift, please reach out through the contact button on this site to place an order. Soon I will be selling finished spoons directly from this website.
I also offer individual or group skill sharing on green wood spoon making, materials and tools provided, as well as spoon making demonstrations for events. If you are interested in learning about costs and scheduling, reach out to me using the contact button at the top of this page.
Typically, throughout the summer and fall, you may find me regularly making spoons at my cart at City Hall Plaza in Montpelier, VT. This year, due to the global pandemic, I have been weighing the safety of working out on the plaza. Recently I spent the day on the Plaza making spoons to test my ability to keep the space safe, work with a mask on, and to figure out how to let customers check out the spoons for sale without handling them. It was a bit challenging. I do anticipate heading out to the Plaza again in August, September, and October of 2020 on a limited basis. If you do see me there, please stop in and follow Vermont’s mask wearing mandate and social distancing recommendation of 6 feet between persons.
People of all ages and from all walks of life and from all parts of the planet benefit from the complex living breathing organism that is a forest. Some may never have the distinct benefit and privilege of setting foot in one, and others may never stay in the forest for long enough to consider it an experience. Still others live on the edge of, inside, and with the forest. Those who have spent time in the forest might agree that, if nothing else, it is a remarkable place, a place that draws us in. Forests are complex places, and no less complex than everything else outside their edges. But somehow, unlike everything else, they are a place of their own. You can tell when you’ve entered, and when you’ve left, when you are close to one, and when you have been away from one for too long.
Reverence for trees might sound odd coming from a person who cuts trees down for the purposes of trail building and firewood, craft and more garden space. All that I do could be a mistake; I am at best fallible. But I do take from the forest, slowly, “by hand”, without a tractor or horses. And in 15 years getting to know a small part of the forest, I’ve seen and been a part of the changes there. I’ve never felt greedy or wasteful. I believe that what I have taken is from an abundance, and what is left behind is a reflection of the changing, vivid, diverse, and ever-evolving or devolving person that I am. It is a relationship, impacting both parties. Gratitude ebbs and flows depending on whether I am dragging logs uphill or downhill. But I’m not fickle; my passion for the forest overrides any temporary difficulty I may be having. I sometimes feel if I stay too long, I might not be able to come out.
The students I had the distinct privilege of working with last week at Sterling College in Craftsbury, VT were graciously friendly. I feign teaching, as what I do is really share something that is such a joy to me it is difficult to contain myself. I have to really slow down in describing and demonstrating the steps in making a spoon, yet all the while I do not want to bore the students or belabor the points. I don’t think I’m making this up: Spoon making has a disproportionately large number of “ah-ha” moments. On a small-scale, we realize what we are capable of. Wheels start spinning. The disconnection and displacement from all that was for thousands of years narrows quickly. The hands, making things, using tools, together, talking. I’m a sap, and it is beautiful. So as I always say, thank you for sharing your time with me, and tending my fire. Your enthusiasm is a joy to witness.