Okay, so I was scything a chunk of meadow this afternoon at my Christmas tree farm, it's a quarter acre I keep mowed to allow my truck access to a couple acres of trees. And the grass is tall and rank and lodged over and although there is enough wind that the sweat dries right away, it is tough going. I'm listening to Spotify to keep my energy up, but there comes a point where I just hit a wall. I've been mowing for maybe forty-five minutes, but the work is exhausting, and I'm already tired from a full day of work. Now, before I could quit, call it a day, rationalize that I'd done enough, here's the interesting part: the song "You Can't Hurry Love" by the Supremes comes on, and I find myself almost going into a trance, my eyes slitted down, just doing the motion, again, again, swinging the scythe, and SINGING at the top of my lungs! And it's not that it got easier, nope, it's just that I got past caring about that. The song pulled me through to a different place, a place where I was doing the hard thing BECAUSE IT WAS HARD. As my mom always told me, "if you can't get out of it, get into it".
I found out that a number of songs kept me in that place over the next hour and a half: "September", but not the Earth, Wind and Fire version, oh no, the Trolls version with Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick; "Downtown" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis; "Beautiful" by Carly Rae Jepsen; "Party in the USA" by Miley Cyrus. There was plenty of fiddle music mixed in too, of course, but the fiddle music didn't do the trance thing. Fast, driving fiddle music only worked for so long and then I needed a song to belt it out. Oh yeah, "Take on Me" by A-ha. Go figure.
I have found time and again that when you are faced with something truly difficult and you can't get out of it, you get into it. I was once told to wriggle my way down into the belly of a schooner I was working on to scrub down the boards that had become covered with sewage when the blackwater tank leaked. The space was so tight I had to be pulled out by my ankles, but I was cracking jokes and laughing the whole time.
Lately, a lot of manuscripts have come in for my editing business. I don't control when they arrive and I guarantee a two week turnaround on them, so when a surge of them comes in like this I just tack the work on top of whatever else is going on, since I have also made time commitments (although looser) for my spooncarving. So that means waking up at 5 every morning and putting in a couple hours of editing before the kids wake up, carving all day and editing in the evening until bed. If you can't get out of it get into it.
I could push off the carving, and when there is less to do I sometimes do. But I want to be disciplined about the carving, because it is the part of the income I control. I may not be able to predict when editing work comes in, but I can sure put in the hours with the knife to ensure a baseline income. Putting this first reinforces that it is my business, that it is the priority in the long term and that more opportunities flow from being consistent with my carving than just the spoons and the income they provide.
But 5 am is awfully early. So tomorrow, when I'm blearily switching on the lights in the kitchen and settling into my armchair to edit manuscript number six of the nine that have come in this month, I will put in the earbuds, and turn up the Supremes.
One of the most under-appreciated strengths a business can have, in my opinion, is the power of repeat customers. I have three businesses, and each one can attribute 50-75% of business transactions to customers we have worked with before. Whether it's the editing business (where fully half our business is funneled through one customer from colleagues all over the world and another 40% is also repeat business), to the tree farm (where we have families who have been coming for 50 years, four generations, and where I work with the same dozen wholesale outlets each year), repeat business gives a stability to these businesses, and allows them to slowly grow with time until they take up the amount of time I want or am able to allot them.
Both of these examples are repeat purchases (new manuscripts needing to be edited, a Christmas tree each year), while wooden spoons are a durable good, one that if I do my job right won't wear out or break in the owner's lifetime. So how applicable is the concept of repeat customers in this framework?
Completely, I would argue. But it is true that for customers to continue to find value in what I create, I need to make sure I'm addressing their needs. So I have allowed myself to be guided, within the bounds of what I'm interested in, by my customers' needs. You bought a spoon but now need a spoon rack? Done. Want a special scoop? Check. Need some salad servers? I'll try that too.
But far more important than offering a range of goods, I would argue, is to under sell and over deliver. I never want to be in the position (as I have experienced from the other side) of being given a lot of hype about a piece and then getting it and being disappointed. I purposely keep my photographs to a minimum because I want there to be surprise and delight when the package is opened. I go out of my way to make sure the work is as good as I can produce. I KEEP MY PRICES AFFORDABLE. And I try to be responsive to peoples; communications.
And I can say that it is working. It used to be that I would sell a spoon and then never hear from that person again. I think this is because I was charging too much so there wasn't the match up of value and perception that I try to have now. Now, fully half my orders are from repeat customers. They are buying more things for themselves. They are buying things for gifts, they are buying because I am offering them something good at a fair price, and they know it and I know it.
This sort of business takes time to build up. Years. But they are relationships that are not just about money. They are ships sent out from my world to theirs, and the prevalence of these relationships lets me know that I am doing something right. So if you are in this as a career, play the long game. Make the choices that value these relationships over the additional dollar. Don't sell yourself short, but don't sell the customer short, either.
They will be there for you, again and again.
I was planning to write a post about the differences between carving spoons on commission and carving spoon on spec to sell. But what I've really been thinking about is the long game, by which I mean where I want to be in five years. Because the best way to end up even close to where I want to end up is to have some clear idea of where that is and then reverse engineer what I need to get there.
Making a living carving spoons takes some ingenuity. While some live a nomadic life with few expenses, that is not me right now. I have two small kids and my wife is in school. Carving spoons is about a quarter of what I do, and probably half to two thirds of my time. I could increase that income by increasing my prices, but for a variety of reasons (partly philosophical, partly gut instinct, partly long game), I don't want to do that too much. So the actual selling of spoons I see as putting a floor under my income, a baseline that is entirely controlled by me.
But the long game is where I can make choices today that will have career impacts in five years. I can write this blog. I can carve spoons every single day (and align market forces to incentivize me to do so), getting good at what I am passionate about. I can teach. I can share my story and grow my reach through Instagram. I can make connections with fellow carvers.
In five years, I want to be making two or three times as much from spooncarving as I am today. I want to be writing more, and I have several book projects cooking. I want to be teaching at a number of venues and I want to have a shop at my home to facilitate teaching from home.
Spooncarving is not a scaleable thing, and that is part of it's attraction, to be honest. But if I balk at scaling the price (which would be the common way to increase income from a finite resource, turning it into an art form or high value item), then I will need to make smart moves to grow my income year over year. Unlike a farm or other business, I cannot simply hire others to carve spoons for me, because that would be antithetical to the whole point of this thing.
So a big part of scaling will be presenting my story and drawing income from other, more scaleable tangents to the actual carving. A number of other spooncarvers have already started doing various fascinating examples of this. Barn, with the Greenwood Guild subscription videos. Robin and Jojo, with the tools. Jarrod with the teaching. Barn and EJ with the books.
Of course, for this to work, you need to get at some underlying need you can bring value to. All of these examples so far are serving the community that wishes to start carving spoons themselves.
Where I see the biggest opportunity, though, is the community that actually buys way more wooden spoons than other spooncarvers, and that is cooks. Specifically, women that cook. Typically, someone wanting to learn to carve buys one spoon, maybe several. The people buying ten, twenty spoons are people who love to cook and love to be surrounded by beautiful, meaningful, well-designed objects. So the question is, what is their need that can be served beyond just providing them with spoons.
That is what I think on a lot. That is my long game.
So last night I watched this Chinese movie, Cook Up A Storm, and while I am not exactly recommending it as amazing, it did make me think. It is a classic story of a street chef cooking classic Chinese soul food squaring off against a Michelin-starred chef reinventing Chinese dishes through molecular gastronomy. After all the plot twists, the street chef wins, in the same way that Remi in Ratatouie wins, by cooking simple food that appeals to our heart and our memories, that evokes our past. More to the point, in winning, the street chef saves his family's restaurant in a historic neighborhood that is threatened by gentrification. The restaurant is a landmark in the neighborhood, providing excellent, affordable food. It is a hub of the community.
Okay, so this silly, cliche movie (in all fairness, I love silly, cliche movies) made me realize that I want to be like this neighborhood restaurant with my spoons. I guess I already am with my Christmas tree farm (sixty years, family traditions, low prices), but I want to be that way with my spoons, and it is more complicated because the spoons are an online phenomenon. What does it mean to serve your community in that context? What does providing excellent, affordable craftsmanship look like? What does this look like after five years? Ten? Thirty?
One thing is clear to me. I don't want to keep raising my prices to drive down demand. I want to find a way to meet demand, and for awhile at least, I should be able to do that by using a waiting list and increasing the hours I devote to this and becoming more efficient. But sooner or later there will come a time when I max out the practicality of these measures, and the temptation will be to turn into the molecular gastronomy. And I don't want to become that. I am the bowl of noodles. I am the fried rice.
So it may be that in the future I hire someone. Maybe I take on an apprentice. Maybe I diversify into teaching or writing more. Probably all of these things and more will be true. I see this business, more and more, as a service, bringing beauty and utility and functionality into people's lives. People need to cook. I help with that. That is and always will be the bottom line.
Okay, so I've been asked to share my bread recipe. This recipe is very basic and can be altered all kinds of ways, using different ratios of flour, or with nuts and raisins and seeds and oats added, and the timing is also pretty loose.
In a large bowl, mix 4 cups flour (I personally prefer 1 cup whole wheat and 3 all purpose, but you can mix in rye, spelt, whatever floats your boat) together with 3 tsp salt (I just use large pinches), and a pinch of dry yeast.
(side not here to stem the horror of anyone who thought I was doing sourdough. I have made starters off and on over the past five years, which is a pretty simple process, but ultimately it is just another thing to keep track of. To get sourdough to be great, you need to cook bread when the starter is prime or control the starter's conditions perfectly to line up with your preferred schedule. Using dry yeast allows me to mix up dough on a whim or short notice, and the results are almost as good.)
Mix dry ingredients together with raisins or seeds or whatever, and then add 2 cups warm water. Mix only until all the dry ingredients are hydrated, no more.
Cover bowl with lid (can be loose fitting, that's fine) and let stand 8-16 hours. There is a great deal of leeway here, so bake when it works for you. I often mix up dough in the evening and bake the next morning, or vice versa. If the house is cold, run the oven at 200 for a few minutes, turn it off and stick the bowl in.
Thirty minutes before you intend to bake, heat up a cast iron pot with a lid (crucial point) to 500 in the oven. If the pot has a plastic knob on the lid, replace that with some bolts or wingnuts. If you have a pizza stone, stick that in as well.
Flour a tea towel and flour a counter. Turn out the dough (which will be soft) and gently fold all four edges into the middle. Wrap in the floured towel. Let rise for 30 minutes to two hours (see above about when to heat the pot and oven). When the oven is hot, take out the pot, place the whole tea towel in the bottom, and then REMOVE the tea towel by gently lifting up one edge and letting the dough roll out the bottom.
Bake 30 minutes with the lid ON, 15 minutes with the lid off. Remove bread from pot to cool.
The reason this recipe works so well is that the lidded pot creates a steam chamber, where moisture driven out of the wet dough (which earlier made it easy to mix up) helps to create a thick, chewy crust like bread from the best bakeries. Total hands on time for this is literally about 5 minutes, and the parameters are flexible enough to fit it in around daily life.
For extra credit, you could make a sourdough starter. Just mix equal parts flour and water and leave it out on your counter, stirring it vigorously once a day to fluff it up. You can chuck some apple or grape skins in if the fruit has that whitish bloom on it that you would polish off on your shirt (that's the wild yeast, but you don't need the fruit). Every day when you stir, discard half the mixture and add fresh water and flour.
After about 4-5 days, you should have some bubbling. Keep going! Sticking it in the fridge will make it hibernate, or leave it on the counter and use the part you would discard to leaven pancakes, biscuits, etc. When you mix up bread dough, use at least a half cup starter that seems at its most frothy part of its cycle instead of yeast.
As with anything, there is TONS of nuance that you can get into, but I hope this will convince you to try baking bread. The trick is the wet dough, long rise (no kneading!) and lidded pot in a super hot oven. Have fun!
I will admit it: I love IKEA. I love the way you can walk through the showrooms and there is stuff in every drawer. I love how you can bring furniture home in your car because it is packaged so well to take up less room. I love how you can wander through the store or page through the catalog and find a thousand small ways to fill the everyday acts of life with a little more grace. I even love how you assemble most furniture they make yourself, embueing the object with some of your own spirit, even if you are just following directions.
I know it isn't cool, especially in this crowd of craftspeople, furniture makers and restorers of old things. I know I probably shouldn't bring it up. I've seen Fight Club, where the main character laments the soullessness of his apartment furnished entirely from IKEA. I should really keep my mouth shut.
But here's the thing I really love about IKEA: they DESIGN things, not to conform to an old way of doing things, and not to be different for the sake of being different. They design things to work WELL. That seems to be the criterion. They must work well. Sure, some of the stuff can be chintzy. But some is really solid, and has earned my devotion over the years.
We went to IKEA this time (we tend to end up there every other year or so) to buy a set of stacking containers to hold our recycling and to buy a particular short, small wingback chair to go in our kitchen so I can keep my wife company in the evening when she does her homework at the kitchen table, without myself forgoing a cushioned seat. But as we wandered through the store we found other small items: a magnetic strip to hold our paring knives, a new organizer for shampoo bottles in the shower to replace the rusted one, a little wedge of plastic to hold my notebook at an angle when I'm editing that is easier on my wrist when I sit the way I like to. Small things that will make life better.
At checkout, there were plenty of yuppy white moms in yoga pants and those flowy cardigans that seem to be the rage right now, hair up in a messy bun, holding a fake plant or a dining room chair with an impossibly white slipcover. But there were also plenty of people, like ourselves, for whom affordability was a clearly an important factor. That is the other thing I love about IKEA: the fact that they are affordable. Not affordable in a "this is junk" kind of way. But affordable in that the design process stressed manufacturing techniques and transportation parameters and just general economies of scale that make it possible for me to buy a wingback chair.
As we left, we stopped before getting on the highway and had amazing burritos from a taco truck. And I know many of you are gonna hate me saying this, but it felt kind of like the same thing: something amazing and delicious that was really well done, inexpensive, fast and totally what we wanted.
Here is how I take pictures for Instagram. I see something. I take the picture. Or if I'm photographing a spoon, I walk around, put the spoon down, and take the picture. Whatever is next to the spoon is real. I didn't put the Garfield cartoons in the picture after the fact. I didn't put my kid's sneaker or the bottle of bubbles in the frame after the fact. It was there and I put the spoon down next to it. If I have a lot of spoons to photograph, I put the handful down and photograph them the way they landed. I don't spend time arranging them to look random. They ARE random. It's a real moment.
This may seem like a silly distinction to make in a media as curated as Instagram. I only show you parts of my life, and I definitely crop stuff out. I also curate my feed as a whole, to delete old posts that don't work well as a team with the overall thing I want it to be. So why quibble about how staged a photo is? And isn't it just as staged if I put a spoon in a particular spot? Don't I sometimes arrange spoons quite geometrically?
But I don't think it's silly. In a space where the only rules on what I do are the ones I impose on myself, I find it helpful to have some structure to the photographs I take. This rigor makes them more meaningful to me. It feels more like I am capturing the reality of a situation than constructing it. The discipline of this also makes me make strong artistic choices by chance that I would never have chosen otherwise. I used to pose my spoons next to succulents or artfully arranged fruit. Those pictures with the Garfield and sneaker and bubbles? Way better. But I wouldn't have done it if I didn't have the rules for myself.
When I take a picture of a moment in time, I am amazed at how often my first picture is the best picture. The act of taking out a camera changes things, and the sooner it is put away the more intact the moment remains.
So here are my rules for keeping it real on Instagram: I can walk around with a spoon, but then I put it down and take the picture. Ideally, the picture will tell a bit of a story beyond the spoon: the book someone is reading, the cherry tomatoes picked from the garden, the wooden bowl I promised my grandmother I'd refinish ages ago. Glimpses of my real life.
I try to snap as few takes as possible. Usually the first is the best, but sometimes I have to try a few places to find the right light. I use filters and focus to make it look like reality and to draw the eye to what I want to be the object of attention, but I try not to juice the colors.
I try to share my life in a real way. That is, after all, what I want from you.
Well, today I took part in my first ever scything competition today! It was at the Addison County Fair and Field Days, way up near Burlington, Vermont. I got up at 5, started driving at 6, and got there (with a few turnarounds on rural highways) at 10. By 10:20 I mowed my first trial, and then my second around 10:45. Each was a 25 ft. length, swath as wide as you wanted. You got timed, and then the width of your swath and the length of your stubble was somehow factored in. I don't know my time to do this, but it was just a couple minutes really for each. And I was cutting about an 8 foot swath, with the stubble quite short except at the very end, where it got longer as the blade dulled. The grass was very heavy and lush, lodged over with the rain and a lot to move. Not ideal mowing but not awful.
Spoiler alert: I came in 3rd in one category. And I was also shocked at how hard it was to mow quickly like this. When I mow properties, whether my own or for someone else, the goal is never speed, but efficiency. I need to be able to continue doing this for a couple hours. So the emphasis is on good posture, gentle motion, a keen blade. This, however, was a sprint.
And it got me thinking. It seems like in our culture we glorify the sprint. The fast money. The overnight success. The 25 foot strip of grass that left me with sweat fanning down my face and my chest heaving.
But really that is a shallow way of looking at things. For me, the success is in the skill acquired from hours and hours and hours doing something. The dedication of years spent pursuing a goal, whether it seemed Quixotic or not. The quiet, steadfast continuing of something, whether it is a business, a skill, or your family relationships. Those don't get the glory, the prize. But they are really too priceless to assign a prize to. They are themselves the prize.
At the end of the competition, this great scyther Alfonso Diaz (who won the overall category, by the way) and myself did a peening lesson for all the people interested in learning to use their scythes better. And we talked about starting a US (or North American) Scything Association, to promote scythe use and make resources available for people just starting out. Maybe we will hold different events. But I like to think that at least any event I will hold will be a communal mowing rather than a competition. People could arrive the first day, hang out and get their scythes repaired and peened, and then early the next morning we would all start in on some mowing project that seems overwhelming for one person, and experience that pleasure that in many ways is the opposite of a speed competition at a county fair: a shared task, quietly and steadfastly completed as a group. To me, that is the essence of scything.
When I look back at what I carve and why I carve it, one thing really stands out:
I am usually wrong.
For instance. I used to refuse to carve scoops, because I don't really use scoops myself (I have a rack full of lovely wooden spoons, waiting to be used for things like measuring out coffee), so I scorned the very need for such a thing. I felt sure they would be a pain in the neck to make, and that they were a frivolous kitchen thing.
I finally agreed to make some for one of my best customers. And boy, was I wrong. It turns out I LOVE carving scoops. They are fun to carve and fun to photograph and a well-made, well-designed scoop is a pleasure to use. I now carve a lot of them.
Same story with miniscoops, and long-handled scoops and spreaders. Every time, someone has come to me and asked if I could make them this thing that I hadn't made before. And it has always been an epiphany to say yes.
What I have come to realize is that I have a lot to learn from my customers.
I have a lot to learn in how to be a better craftsman, how to better serve their needs, how to design even the tiniest details of my spoons (want to know if something works or not? Ask a customer what they would change!). I have gotten feedback from a professional chef on what a serious cook looks for in a cooking spoon. I have asked every one of my students who come for a spooncarving lesson what I could do better in the future. I have said yes to orders that have pushed me outside my comfort zone in terms of scale or what I'm trying to make (70 spreaders?.... sure. A super long handled scoop?.... sure. Eight identical spoons but each from a different species of wood?... sure). I have switched the finish I use on my spoons based on customer feedback. I have started selling blanks and giving lessons via Skype, not because I thought of these things on my own, but because someone asked me if I would and I said yes.
As spooncarvers, we often find ourselves in the position of educating people about why we do what we do, the way we do it. We talk about the value of knife-finish, about crank, about how a well-designed spoon is actually better than the cheap one you can buy at the grocery. But all this teaching can obscure the fact that we should be listening to our customers at least as much as we are doing the talking. What do they want in a spoon? What do they want in their kitchen? How can we help them achieve what THEY want to achieve? Asking these questions will make each of us a better craftsperson, teacher or designer, and we will probably be surprised by where we end up when we start listening.
I've been researching the Instagram algorithm lately, trying to better understand how it works. This is partly because I've noticed that things will pop up in my feed that I've already seen, or I'll visit the page of someone I follow and realize that I hadn't seen the latest things they've shared. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to not fall through the cracks.
After reading a number of kind of gross articles about how to like back and buy access and generally con your way to a bunch of followers, I felt compelled to write my own manifesto of how I use Instagram. I don't have a ton of followers by any metric, but I have only been active for the last year and a half, having started at zero with no facebook page to link up to. But Instagram is an integral part of how I market my spooncarving, teaching, scything work and Christmas tree farm, and I do take it seriously. So here are my seven rules that shape how I use Instagram:
1) Make it valuable for you.
It is easy when you are marketing yourself to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that you are creating a body of work that should have meaning for you. For me this means using the discipline of taking photos on my phone to capture moments of my life that would otherwise just be a fleeting memory. Not only do I have photographic glimpses of my life, I also have a catalog of my work that gives me a lot of material to work with for my website, when I apply for teaching gigs, and for promotional materials. Keeping the focus on what I find valuable means that I'm never questioning the value of Instagram in my life.
2) Do good work
Ideally, the discipline of posting content on Instagram pushes me to do the best I can, since I am going to be sharing it. This also pushes me to be disciplined about producing new work, which in turn makes me better at what I'm doing and gets me a step closer to my goals.
3) Share yourself
I try to share a spectrum of my life, not just the spooncarving. I also try to be real and honest about what's going on, although I'm not going to take a picture of the toilet I'm cleaning. But I want to communicate the whole of me, not just the one part. And even with the spooncarving, I try to share tips and tricks and thoughts and basically everything I can, because I find that I always wish people shared more with their photos. Often, the photo is just a door to whatever broader thought the post is about. Being real and sharing my life in a thoughtful way is part of what makes instagram valuable to me, and it is good business, too.
4) Be respectful
Communication online can get weird. Because the back and forth of a conversation is delayed and sometimes dropped, we can read too much into pauses and silence. We can read too much into what is said, too. While I think it is valuable to chime in with dissenting opinions, I have also found it to be super important to be as respectful as possible. I also think it is important that we use Instagram to stand up for what we believe in, and not be afraid of losing followers if we share a post in solidarity with one cause or another.
5) Use hashtags strategically
Okay, now we are getting into the nitty gritty. I use hashtags a lot, because I don't have many followers and people find me through seeing my photos on hashtags. I am always on the lookout for hashtags that are being used in ways that seem promising (meaning I like the photos on them). A good hashtag is just the right size, too, for my posts to show up in the top posts, meaning it doesn't disappear in a flood of new images. Huge hashtags are easy to get lost in. Small ones nobody sees. I use different hashtags for different types of posts, but the goal is always to attract people who will appreciate what I'm doing and sharing, who will see my feed and want to follow and engage. Which brings us to:
6) View your feed as a whole
I didn't used to edit my feed, thinking there was information that would be lost, or that it was somehow less authentic. But then I realized that I needed to be aware of the impression the top six or nine pictures in my feed gave, since that was the first impression had by anyone deciding if they wanted to follow me or not. I started deleting the weakest pictures, and started posting pictures with an eye toward a good balance of color and content. I see my feed as a whole, and maybe once a month I go back and delete maybe a quarter of the recent pictures that don't make the cut.
7) Be consistent
This is a big one for me. I try to share multiple posts each day. I know this is too much for some people, and I probably lose some followers because of it, but for me it is about appreciating moments in my life and sharing my work. That usually takes between 3-6 posts a day to do well. If I am thoughtful about sharing interesting stuff and making it real and varied and if the photography is good, then I figure I will retain exactly the people who want this. And this is what I want from almost every person I follow, too: more. I want to see more of your lives, I want to know more of your thoughts, I want to see more of your work, whatever that is. By using multiple, varied hashtags on these posts, I spread out across Instagram and attract interested people from a number of paths. For selling spoons this works well because other spooncarvers will in general by a spoon here or there, whereas someone from outside the spooncarving community who finds you and digs what you do will by again and again, assuming you are producing good work (2), sharing yourself so they know a bit about you (3), are clearly in it for reasons other than just making a sale (1) and are respectful and approachable (4). They will find you in the first place because they saw some photo on a hashtag (5) and then when they checked out your feed they liked what they saw (6). Finally, they followed and were engaged, day after day, by a beautiful, thoughtful, honest and stimulating array of content (7). Those are your best customers.
For those of you who are that for me, know that I am deeply grateful that you are a part of this thing we are doing.