Please consider supporting Taproot, the wonderful magazine for makers, doers, and dreamers! (Yes, they are talking about YOU…) In this brand new edition, you will find my spoon carving tutorial. Sincerest and warmest gratitude toward Taproot, and all of its contributors and readers, and especially to Rachel Wolf who contributed the photos for the piece.
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.
Rarely for me in this life are the elements of a particular day so joyfully copacetic and grounding, that I lay down at the end, exhausted, with renewed hope for our species. I do recognize that this simply might mean I need to work on my perspective a little, which is undoubtedly true, however this day was definitely one of those days.
Early this year, Rick Thomas from Sterling College reached out to explore having me visit as a guest instructor and share spoonmaking skills with the students in his Working Horses, Working Landscapes course. This course, focused primarily on draft animals as valued, respected, and revered participants in today’s agriculture, is one part of Sterling’s School of the New American Farmstead program.
Well if you know me, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm to get me to drive out to Craftsbury, VT, blasting The Duhks along the way through a sparkling August day to carve spoons together with a group of spry young people who signed up for such a program. Not to mention the delicious lunch, much of which came right from the Sterling farm. Oh, and there was the modest timber-framed green-woodworking building perched atop a hill amongst a few outbuildings, the lower half of which infilled with cordwood masonry, sporting wide views of the working farm, barns, and hills beyond seemingly intentionally spread out before it. Oh, also, there was the great and cheerful company of Rick Thomas, who in the span of the afternoon espoused so much knowledge to me as we walked the land that I had to pull over on the way home to take notes from my overflowing brain before the important stuff, like preparing the land for fruit trees, or clearing the ground beneath a favored variety of tree particularly loaded with seed to receive and start new trees, was lost to me on my drive home.
It was outside of the green woodworking building, in the shade of a Cherry tree, that we spend the warm afternoon learning to handle the bent knife and transform green wood into kitchen spoons.
I have observed that learning spoon carving, no matter if or how you receive instruction, begins awkwardly as you learn to hold the carving knife. Some learn well by reading a technical description of how to carve, others learn by looking at pictures or observing a demonstration, and some by doing. I do my best to instill a respect for the very sharp blade, and spend some of the first hour trying to reel in some wild whittling and dangerous knife wielding. But most of what happens is discovery through trial and error, a little frustration, with a little guidance. I’ll deliver small presentations of some other ideas about what is going on throughout the process. For the beginner, starting to carve out the bowl of the spoon is slow going. The tendency is to use a lot of force and a severe angle, trying to take out a lot of material at once. But eventually you create enough of an even, shallow concave across the whole bowl that the curved blade begins to more agreeably slice the curved surface. And there is the sound of a group of people carving. If I stand among the students in a workshop like this and quietly listen, the sounds reveal where they are in the process. After about the first hour of carving, many in this class found what I kind of consider a magical place where the spoon and knife and hands are coming into a harmony of motions. What is interesting to me is that along the way you might come up to any student as they carve, and each of them will be at a really different place with carving out the bowl, but, by the end of the class, as they worked out ways to hold the tool and spoon, and to carve, they are all yielding similar results.
This craft does lend itself, as Rick Thomas said, to quiet contemplation, and is a physical manifestation on a hand-held scale of technical problem solving. The concept of design in working with fresh green wood forces you to consider what is already there that you can see, as well as what is hidden inside; the potential. You can impose your creativity on the wood only to the extent that the grain will yield to the blade and the coordination of your hands, much like all of the living systems in which we interact. But by taking small, thoughtful cuts, be they with a carving knife or a furrow, and developing a keen awareness of what is beyond what you can see, you can be a part of revealing what is already there.
Thank you to all of the students pictured here, and to Rick Thomas, for inviting me to share this day! It was all I imagined, and even more was revealed as we worked with our hands together under the Cherry tree.
I made my brother this Maple spoon to thank him for doing some graphic design for spoonderlust(see the word spoonderlust inset in the logo on the site banner, which features a spoon for the “p” and “d”).
It’s a large cooking/serving spoon. Nice curves in the handle.
To me, trades like this are tiny examples of how things should be.
Making tangible things for one another, sharing our varied talents and skills. Leaving money out of the equation.
I am ever so grateful for my brother!
I recently finished up making a small light-weight shaving horse for our friend’s little boy Oliver. Earlier this winter he was over for a visit when I was making spoons in the house, so I had my shaving horse sitting by the wood stove. He wanted to know what it was, so I took out a spoke shave and let him (and his “Pa” as he likes to call him) get to work on whittling down a stick of kindling. He really enjoyed his time, so I started thinking (not for the first time) about making a kids-sized shaving horse. Design wise I wanted to try a short 4′ horse using spare dimensional lumber, drywall screws, glue, a sapling, a bolt with washers and a wingnut, and an old piece of threaded steel rod I had used in a different shaving horse years ago. Take a look:
It’s made up of one 2x10x8′(half of it making up the 4′ bench, and the rest the top and ends of “the box” section), one 2x3x8′(half for the pivoting “stem” part to which the foot pedal and the clamping head connect, and half for the long support piece under the seat reducing flex of the narrow middle of the bench), about half of a 2x4x8′(the two blocks under the bench ends that the legs pass through, and the rest for the clamping head), and about half of a 1x10x8′ #2 pine(making up the two sides of “the box” section). I used a scrap of 2×12 pt for the foot pedal, and 1″ hardwood dowel from a paint roller extension handle to peg underneath it and make the foot pedal adjustable up and down the “stem”. I found the steel rod on which the “stem” pivots at a garage sale years ago. It passes all the way through the top of the 2×10 box, and the bent end makes it easy to remove (This could be replaced with any steel rod, threaded or not). There is one 5″ bolt with two washers and a wingnut holding the head on, which is also adjustable up and down the stem so that the opening of the clamping space can be made bigger or smaller.
I cut everything to length on the chop saw. The whole thing is held together with maybe thirty 2-1/2″ drywall screws and ample Gorilla Glue (which you can see sloppily foaming out here and there). I used a few clamps to keep it together while I was cutting the bench curves with a jig saw and driving the screws. I used my huge $5. 1940’s aluminum electric drill (no reverse) with a couple of nice sharp auger bits do drill the 1″ holes for the legs, and the various other sized holes for the foot pedal, the steel rod “axis”, the bolt hole in the adjustable head, and the holes to start the mortises in the top and bottom of the box for the stem to pass through, which I then cut out with the jig saw. I also drilled and cut out the mortise in the foot pedal with the jig saw.
I made a little “tongue” out of the work surface with the jig saw, and used an extra piece of sapling to give it a little extra strength underneath(held in place with counter-sunk screws and a little glue). With the legs off, this makes an awesome handle for carrying the horse from place to place. The legs are Maple sapling, about 2″, but are shaved down to 1″ where they pass through the bench. They simply drop out of the holes when you pick it up. I used my shaving horse, Japanese saw, and draw knife to make the legs(but you can easily taper the ends with a knife or carefully with a hatchet if you don’t have a shaving horse. Just drill a 1″ hole in a scrap of wood to keep handy and test fit until you whittle it down to the right size).
Looks like it will be a good design to riff off…super light but sturdy, fits in a hatchback, not too much store-bought involved…making it affordable (buy one 2x10x8′ and find the rest lying around!). Easily done in 4 hours or less.
Have fun Oliver!!