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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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:

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Rob Tarule’s Wooden Spoon Collection

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Rob Tarule’s Wooden Spoon Collection

 

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Rob Tarule’s Wooden Spoon Collection

 

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Let the chips fly

 

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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.”

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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.

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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…

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With much gratitude for the invitation!

New Year Review: Carving Knives by Jim Wester of North Bay Forge

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.

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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.

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A new Deep Bent Knife ($65) and a Large Straight Knife ($55) from http://www.northbayforge.com

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!