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!!
It’s always really amazing to lead a workshop. Last weekend I had the great fortune to “inaugurate” Cloud Mountain Living Arts with a green wood spoon making session. It was a warmish, grayish day…slightly icy, slightly muddy… But once I stepped inside the Dojo building I was welcomed to a beautiful warm space, brightly lit by lovely windows and vast uninterrupted floor space. Hosts Heidi and Ben Pincus put on a fantastic lunch including tasty offerings from some of the participants. We did a short spoon carving talk at the start, and dove right into carving.
We were working with freshly cut Beech from the local area, and primarily using the double-bladed Deep Bent Knife from North Bay Forge. Despite all the safety warnings and a very cautions crew, hardly anyone was spared from a “nick of the knife”, so the band-aids were out in force. One young participant asked me, “is this the bloodiest workshop you’ve ever had?” There was little time to waste, and even though the delicious lunch was waiting at noon, folks were hard to tear away from their industry.
It was a beautiful sight to see this lovely group all seated at a long table chatting and eating lunch. I could see some connections being made. Connections with wood, knives, people. A truly great day.
Even in a 5 hour workshop, there is scarce enough time to make it around the room enough to spend quality minutes with each participant. Still I was able to share with and learn a little about each person.
After lunch, the spoon makers’ determination kicks in. This is when people get creative. The draw knife is upside down. The spoon is being held by the foot. There are questions. “Is this thin enough?” “How do we know when the spoon is dry?”
I can’t say enough about how fortunate I feel to get to share a craft I love so much with so many friendly people in such a lovely setting. I learn so much every time I do this, and each workshop builds on the last. Thanks to Heidi and Ben, Cloud Mountain Living Arts, and all of the participants for a wonderful Sunday in February.
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.