As a Goddard College student in the late 90’s during the waning years of the resident undergraduate program, I took a group study titled “Earth Household Arts”, which was instructed by Charles Woodard and Rob Tarule. Charles (who sadly passed away in 2010) spent more than 30 years as both student and teacher of sustainable agriculture and natural history at Goddard. Rob, a medieval historian, writer, expert 17th century furniture maker, and former head of Mechanick Arts at Plymouth Plantation, was returning to teach again at Goddard.
In this remarkable group study we explored a wide variety of student-determined interests grounded in “the ways of the past”, visiting Vermont craftspeople engaged in these skills and practices, and learning how to practice some of the skills ourselves. In a final weekend group trip to New Alchemy Institute and Plymouth Plantation, we spent the evening reading our semester papers out loud to one another in the hall of a closed down summer camp. What I explored in this group study inspired me, and a few others, further into the “Earth Household Arts” and pre-industrial technology.
I was instantly enamored with the old tools after Rob demonstrated the use of a froe in the classroom, spread out some tools on a table, and talked about a pole lathe and a shaving horse. He passed around some Oak pins pulled from joinery and bearing evidence of the “draw bore”. Rob in his patient and thoughtful manner guided a small number of us through numerous and increasingly complex green wood and timber framing projects over the course of several years until the residential program was shuttered.
All of this is prelude to share the great joy we had in being able to host Rob for a visit and coffee and a bowl of soup this March at our place in Roxbury, after not having seen him in about 16 years.
Rob brought along his fantastic spoon collection:
I was fortunate enough to be invited to share some green wood spoon carving skills out in Cabot, Vermont last month. Along with blacksmith Lucian Avery ( www.lucianaveryblacksmith.com ) who began the day with an intensive lesson on knife sharpening, the event was hosted by Ben and Penny Hewitt as one of a series of workshops planned for their venture Lazy Mill Living Arts ( www.lazymilllivingarts.com ). According to its website, Lazy Mill is “…dedicated to reviving traditional skills of hand and land.”
What a beautiful day it was. The sun was trying to warm that last day of February through the crisp blue skies, but it was not really succeeding. Inside, the house began to fill with people and so began a fantastic morning and afternoon of doing, interrupted only by one of the best lunches I have ever eaten. I always know it’s been a great day of wood working when I forget to drink water along the way because I’m so engaged in activity. The floor had to be swept up several times to keep from losing tools among the accumulating wood chips. I believe I saw discovery, enthusiasm, and determination on the faces; I know I saw a few Band-Aids on the hands.
Every time I’m involved in skill sharing, I remember the interconnected pathways that brought me up to this present moment, and the special people along the way who sparked and ignited this interest in and connection to the pre-industrial era past. Simultaneously, I never forget a caution I heard from a fellow Goddard student, who checked my high-flying romanticism for all things “old-timey” by advising me of the benefits of electric light in the barn enjoyed by his grandfather when it finally came to his road in Maine. Certainly these patchwork-acts of reaching backwards across the arc of time for a tool to make with, instead of a dollar to buy with, can only have beneficial results for us as people. In the case of the spoon, I experience a daily reminder as I stir or eat, that the hand, the tool, and the eye can still remember how to work in harmony. No matter how many thousands of years of metallurgic wisdom and experience are packed into the blade, tools, like communities of interests, are still merely the means by which we reach for something else…
With much gratitude for the invitation!
When I was a student at Goddard College in the later 1990’s, a friend and fellow student somewhat reluctantly let me borrow his amazing bent-blade carving knife for a weekend. He picked it up from working with his neighboring San Juan Islander, Jim Wester of North Bay Forge. The blade, sharp on both edges, was of a similar design as those used by indigenous people of the pacific northwest. Sheathed by a section of garden hose, I packed it off to Cape Cod on a weekend trip. I picked up a piece of Dogwood and crafted my first spoon, a chunky handled ice cream scoop with a 1″ knot in the handle. That was when I fell in love with making spoons.
I first purchased my own double-bladed Deep Bent Knife and general purpose Straight Knife from North Bay Forge in 1997. Over the years I have accumulated other tools from Jim’s shop, including a scorp and an adze, but the Bent Knife is the tool in hand for most of what I do, which is carve green New England hardwoods into kitchen spoons and spatulas.
A new Deep Bent Knife ($65) and a Large Straight Knife ($55) from http://www.northbayforge.com
My original old Deep Bent Knife and Straight Knife (not shown) arrived razor-sharp, and after 17 years, they have changed little. Still razor-sharp, and I’ve done little to keep them that way. I carve green wood, so it is easy on the blades. I keep them away from rocks and steel and children. I rarely, lightly, sharpen them. Over the years, I have kept a few extra knives on hand for workshops (and maybe out of a bit of tool hoarding behavior), but eventually passed those on to others. Recently my 11-year-old daughter has been getting interested in spoon making, so I made another purchase from North Bay Forge.
A few days after ordering, the knives arrived USPS neatly packaged in a mailing tube. Because my purchase was over $100, the shipping cost was included. The blades are oiled and dipped into a thick rubbery plastic coating, and the knives are wrapped in corrugated paper, including a handout with information about use and sharpening. The Eastern Cherry handles on the new knives are untreated, awaiting the oils from a carver’s hands to develop a patina.
A couple of differences that I noticed in the new Deep Bent Knife. The overall length of the blade out away from the end of the handle is slightly, but noticeably shorter than my original 17-year-old knife. The new knife blade is also somewhat wider (edge to edge) than the original knife near the base of the knife where the tang enters the handle, and from a certain view looks more “triangular”. Finally, the convex side of the blade shows no peening marks like my original knife. Both knives are as sharp as can be and ready for use after pressing the blade against a block of wood, removing the protective rubber coating, and wiping off the oil.
I chose the Large Straight Knife this time, and the blade is about 2 1/4″; about twice the size of my original knife. On the Straight Knife, somewhere over the years Jim dropped the curved back of the knife sloping down to the point, and opted for a beveled back, which is on all 3 sizes of Straight Knives. This knife is huge and akin to a stiff razor blade at the end of a handle. One false move and…be careful!
It takes some time to develop the technique to use the bent knife safely and take full advantage of the many angles and thumb-fulcrum from which you can carve. But once you get the hang of it, these knives make quick work of hollowing large spoons and bowls, cutting across stubborn grain, and leaving a finished surface behind.
I have never looked elsewhere for carving tools. The craftsmanship and quality of Jim Wester’s hand-forged tools honestly makes them worth every hard-earned penny. His website is full of information about the process of forging these knives and how he came to start his business. I highly recommend these tools and reiterate my warning that they are SHARP!
A beautiful frosty November morning in Plainfield, Vermont. Just outside of the Flanders Building at Goddard College, which serves as the office for EarthWalk. What a fine morning sharing spoon making techniques with these wonderful and deeply talented folks… Thank you for sharing your morning with me and being so inspired and inspiring!
Determination in the beautiful morning sun! See in the center a “Roman Bench” with iron holdfasts, which are used to clamp down the workpiece. A versatile and easy to make set up, and good for chisel work on the bowls of large spoons, or on bowls with chisels and the adze.