Spoonmaking at Sterling College

The Serious Side of the Class

The Smiley Side of the Class

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.

The Spoontastic Side of the class.

The Spoontastic Side of the class.

Brother Spoon

DSC00615

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”).

 

DSC00612

It’s a large cooking/serving spoon.  Nice curves in the handle.

DSC00614

To me, trades like this are tiny examples of how things should be.

DSC00613

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!

 

A Shaving Horse For Oliver

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:

Oliver's Shaving Horse

Oliver’s Shaving Horse

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.

"the box" and head close up.

“the box” and head close up.

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.

more of "the box" and head.

more of “the box” and head.

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!!

 

The view from the Clouds: Spoon Carving at Cloud Mountain Living Arts

CMLA2.21.16.1

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.

CMLA2.21.2016.2

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.

CMLA2-21-2016.3

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.

CMLA2-21-2016.4

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?”

CMLA2-21-2016.5

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.

 

It is about putting a little part of me in your kitchen.

There is a series of a few postcards with black-and-white photographs on them from the dawn of the 20th century, showing Russian spoon makers (children, women, and men) at work.  In the details of the photos, there are wooden baskets as large as barrels full of carved wooden spoons at what is dubbed in the caption as the “spoon market”. When I first saw these images, I re-affirmed for myself that whatever I think spoon making and green woodworking is about in the here and now, it has been many things to many people historically.  A way to eat in more ways than one…

Some of us, myself included, occasionally mix up the art of thinking about putting our lives into a bigger, historical context, and the art of justifying our behaviors.  This can have mixed results.  When it comes to selling the things I make, I often price the object far below what I think I should charge for it, based on the time and effort that went into making it. Like other artists, I use all manner of contextualizing and justifying logic to support this behavior.  For the customer the “worth” or “value” of an object depends on a million factors ranging from how many dollars a person has to spare, to the way the sun is shining on a spoon when a customer sees it, to their mood (nostalgic or thrifty), to their values and beliefs, to their blood sugar levels.

So what goes into the price you pay for something hand-made?  There is first the cost of the making, which includes materials and paying yourself for your time.  Then there is “the cost of doing business”.  This is a term of art and context.  It includes:  fees and memberships to participate in farmers’ markets and craft fairs, rent and utilities if you run a shop, transportation, insurance if you have any, a standard 40% of your price may go to the gallery (Really!) where your object is on display, the cost of selling online, fees for your website, fees for payment processing, taxes, and the list goes on. When you begin to consider this very incomplete list, you might start to think about production, and making things faster, and maybe slipping a machine into the process to cut out a step…  This is where I always stop.  I know why I make spoons:

Splitting a Maple log for a Roman Bench in 2014.

Splitting a Maple log for a Roman Bench in 2014.

The experience of green woodworking and spoon making all hovers around the idea of connection.  The old tools are a link to earlier times, and some of the tools are ancient.  Each tree carries with it the past, and every part gets used.  I think about how, not long ago, there was no electricity, and most everything in our material culture was “hand-made”.  Making spoons makes me think a lot.  I think often about how we romanticize olden ways, and how perhaps our understanding of life in the past is lacking.  But then I think of what happens when the power goes out, the instant shift of peoples attitudes, their new postures of helping.  I watch people walk up to see what I am doing, and see their interest and wonder.  I savor the questions people ask like “why” and “how long” and “what kind”…  I love that a small toolbox can be carried 100 yards into the woods beyond the reach of all things “modern” where shop can be set up on a stump.  There is the wonder of the emergence of the spoon shape in a blank, and it’s evolution to the finished and dried spoon.  There is the simple pleasure of oiling a spoon for the first time, re-hydrating it, and seeing all of the grain come alive.  Rarely do I set out to make a specific spoon for someone, but often, when looking at my finished spoons, I know the one I will give as a gift or a donation.  There are the ever present wood chips on the floor and stuck to clothes, which somehow is a protest against sterility and an acknowledgement of nature inside.  It is not about production, and it is never likely to be about making a lot of money.  It is about making a new tool handle and mounting it on a tool found exploring boxes of rusty tools.  It is about sharing the love of something with others. It is about putting a little part of me in your kitchen.

A Visit from Rob Tarule

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:

DSC_0107

Rob Tarule’s Wooden Spoon Collection

DSC_0120

Rob Tarule’s Wooden Spoon Collection

 

DSC_0114

Rob Tarule’s Wooden Spoon Collection

 

DSC_0108DSC_0117DSC_0112DSC_0122

DSC_0115DSC_0105

 

Let the chips fly

 

DSC_0084

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.”

DSC_0088

Blacksmith Lucian Avery

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.

DSC_0079

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…

DSC_0078

 

With much gratitude for the invitation!