Spoon Carving

Blog, Woodworking / Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

At my last job I had a coworker who was the kind of person to know interesting people because she could be considered an interesting person herself. The kind of people who don’t sit in office chairs all day and instead work by their own rules on their own time making their own way. She is a potter. This person knew many other potters and artists and craftspeople and it was the kind of connection to something bigger that an indy-rom-com is about in its cookie cutter fashion.

This coworker of mine introduced Ellie and myself to a couple of friends of hers in the area in passing. The wife is a children’s book author and professor while the husband is a spoon carver. They’re around our age and live a couple miles from us. Nearly instantly I was fascinated.

But as lives go, paths only crossed occassionally and the infinitely fascinating duo remained out of reach for getting to know better. From time to time, we’d encounter Tom at a craft fair and I’d get all giddy but the time between these moments would stretch on for a while.

In a topic I’ll touch on in another post, the past year was less than kind to me. One of the realizations that came out of the year was that while I have many friends I see a few of them throughout the year. That personal interaction I had grown up with had slowly grown away from me. Those that I’m no longer close to would have left my life one way or another but those that I am are not in the area any longer and a meetup for a beer is out of the question. Seeing friends, lately, has become an event that must be planned in advance and everyone’s schedules must be checked and cleared as necessary otherwise you must look for another date or time or location. I gather I’m not alone in this either.

One way to combat this growing feeling of loneliness was to join a softball team. I had been wanting to play summer softball for years now but couldn’t find a team to join. The opportunity came along this year and it was a beautiful five weeks of getting our asses handed to us. But that ended and I was again in the position of feeling without companions.

So I joined Instagram. That helped and it didn’t help at the same time. I was able to connect with old friends but still, it was a digital connection and I was only able to look into their lives through a lens. I followed Tom on Instagram and was again fascinated with his life and work. He posted about the kinds of things I wish I was doing with my life. Then one day, he posted about something he called a weekly Chop & Chat. The Thursday evening session of carving spoons in his woodshop. It sounded like what I needed.

I wish I could say it was on a whim that I sent Tom a message seeing if I could stop into the Chop & Chat to learn but really the whim was a week or two of me building up the courage to mention the idea to Ellie and then a week or so of her encouraging me to send Tom a message. A healthy mental breakdown in the midst of that didn’t hurt either. I sent a message to see if there was room and he told me there’s always room. Then I broke it to him that I don’t know how to carve a spoon but would love to learn. He offered to show me the basics, very generously considering that is something he usually charges, and said I could borrow some tools to get started.

Spoon carving profile

Even with a fantastic and generous offer like that on the table, I was still a flight risk and a possible no-show. I’m not sure how you label how I feel about these situations but I know how they make me feel. Its like a combination of an impostor syndrome and social anxiety. To help me move forward and to show up to chop and chat, I excitedly told my boss what I was going to do. I worked it into a conversation and at that moment, I became accountable. The more people I told, the more people who might ask about how it went and the worse day I would have if I didn’t go. I mind tricked myself.

I showed up, not knowing what to expect. I didn’t know who would be there or what the atmosphere would be like. I had been in the shop, and old garage converted for the purpose, once before nearly two years ago. It had been upgraded to be more wood shop like and it felt warmer. There was another guy there carving away at his spoons while Tom worked on his pole-lathe. 

As promised, Tom took some time to show me the next step after I finished each one. He gave very thorough explanations on things. Out of habit, I wanted to say that I knew what he was talking out just to pretend like I knew what was going on but I caught myself and let him teach. I didn’t want to make any assumptions because that would end up being wrong in the long run.

Spoon carving outline

Because I am no expert, yet, I won’t try to pass on the knowledge I learned from Tom that first evening but I do want to distill some of the key points. 

  • Don’t cut your hands
  • Keep the moving blade away from flesh
  • The ax removes more than the knife so do as much work with it as you can
  • The pith is to be avoided
  • Don’t carve near your junk
  • If it feels wrong, it probably is and you should stop
  • You can only cut downhill
  • Work in one dimension at a time

Okay, maybe I lied a bit. I have more I want to say. Find the piece of wood you’ll use. Clean up an edge. Cut a crook where the bowl will be. Draw your spoon and start to shape the spoon. Once as much as safely possible it removed with the ax, switch to the knife and start to clean away material to get close to your lines. Before you get too far, get a hook knife to clear away the bowl of the spoon. Switch back to the knife for finishing details. 

Don’t take any of what I said as the right way to do things. I’m passing on the knowledge of a true craftsman after it’s been sitting in my head for some time. 

Spoon carving finished

All in all, the evening was what I needed. It was a chance to work with my hands and it was a chance to socialize and to expand my circle. I felt better when I left because I knew it was something I would come back to week after week. I’m no good at carving spoons and I don’t ever plan on making a living off of them but I’ll gladly put in the time to get better at it. 

Tom had asked why I wanted to carve spoons. Too embarrassed to tell him the main reason, I brought out my back up reason. I’m terrible at woodworking details. I notice where I slip up on a small scale but I have trouble focusing on not slipping up. I think the fine work of carving a spoon will help me hone the detail work so I’ll be more satisfied with a finished product. Additionally, why not learn a new skill? In addition to carving and chopping, I have a resource to show me the proper way to sharpen my tools! Something I’ve been wanting to learn for some time but haven’t had a teacher other than YouTube. I’m sure there’s even more to learn and that’s something I’ll figure out as I go.

I’m not usually this honest when I write but as I mentioned before, the year was hard on me and it forced me to reflect on some hard truths. Bottling those truths up is not going to help me. Maybe there’s something you’re struggling with too you need a nudge for. Go for it! It won’t be as bad as you think it will be. Do what I did too, tell someone your plans so they can keep you honest. I hope it helps you.

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