My carving setup
I've been thinking about this because I plan to write an article to this effect for the next issue of Spoonesaurus Magazine. So let's call this my brainstorm, my rough draft.
One of the main things I pay attention to when setting up a carving area is that I need more than the stump. Even if you go crazy and attach all sorts of clever hanging loops and pegs to your stump to store your axe and club, something that I don't actually find helpful, you will still need some horizontal surfaces nearby to put other things on. What other things? Billets of wood, spoon blanks, your saw, your club. I need about three other surfaces, all within an arm's reach of me standing at the stump.
Perhaps the best setup I ever had from this perspective was my stump under the woodshed, flanked by a table on either side and with chair and bench directly behind it. Other setups have used the spoon mule as part bench, part tool rest.
You need to be aware of where your chips will be flying when using the axe, so you don't have them making a mess somewhere that would be a problem. I'm left handed, so for me the chips end up between 9 and 12 o'clock. If you're right handed, it will be 12-3.
I found out the hard way that chunks really need to be collected out of the chips, otherwise they bind the whole pile together and make it a hundred times more difficult to shift with a manure fork or shovel. So that means a pile, or bins or barrels or milk crates. You likewise will want to have a plan for WHERE you intend to move the wood chips when they reach an unacceptable level. Maybe that's mulching something, or just piled in the woods, or used on a path.
I prefer to keep my axe buried in the stump and my saw unfolded and out, in part because I feel like they rust less that way. I always keep them undercover, and in the winter I smear them with whatever oil or oil/wax mixture I have on hand.
Likewise, it is really important that you keep a tourniquet at hand, somewhere you can reach for it immediately should you need it. Practice using it. Remember that applying a tourniquet is serious business with serious consequences, and should only be removed by someone at a hospital. Do the wrong things when you take it off and there can be problems. I keep my tourniquet in a can with some trauma shears (turns out I keep my cell phone in the pocket of the leg most likely to need the tourniquet, and I want to be able to call 911), and I keep that can right next to where I work. If this sounds far-fetched or like something you would rather not think about, I would agree. But you should plan for it and practice for it nonetheless.
I prefer axing outside but undercover. For many years I worked on our porch, and then in the driveway. Then under the woodshed, and finally under a tarp. In the winter I worked in my hoophouse, and now I finally have a shop to work in this winter. All of these spaces were small. 6x10, 10x12 ft. In the hoophouse, I found out the hard way that it is worth putting sheets of plywood down before anything else, to keep the woodchips out of the soil.
As for where I actually carve spoons, that varies much more. My tools are in a box, and I migrate to wherever it is nicest. Sometimes that's sitting cross legged under a tree or on top of the picnic table. Sometimes it's in my shop. Sometimes it's in the kitchen. Having my tools in a toolbox gives me horizontal spaces to spread my tools out, as well as keeping me from needing to pull everything out the way I would with tool roll, say. I get maximum working surface area in the smallest footprint.
If in doubt, Sharpen
I don't know if you're in the same boat I'm in, but right now I have a spoon to carve. And my knives need to be sharpened.
All of which has the effect of stalling me out. Whenever I have the inkling to start the project, the fact that I would need to sharpen my knives before beginning keeps me from beginning in the first place.
When I'm in the carving season and sharpening is just a part of the weekly schedule, I don't have to face this the same way. And maybe that's the thing I should do, is focus on sharpening before I even THINK about carving. Because I suspect that once my knives are sharp, the carving will take care of itself.
I'm at the stage of writing my book now where I am gathering together the photos and sorting them by chapter, and this has made me appreciate very deeply the daily practice I have had of taking photos, not just of my finished work, but also of the process. This is something it took me years to understand, and I might not have been so diligent about it had I not been sharing these same photos on Instagram, but it is invaluable to have captured these moments, something that could only have happened over the course of months and years.
You might be thinking that you aren't planning to write a book, so what does it matter. But I didn't think i was going to write a book about this either. But the daily practice of documenting the PROCESS, not just the outcome, has proven to be one of the most important things I have done.
I highly recommend you begin.
One of the least appreciated aspects of a carving knife is a wide, rounded spine. This is so central to long-term comfort when carving that we don't even notice it.
Until it isn't there.
It turns out, most knives aren't made this way. They are not designed to be used with the thumbs on the spine of the blade. I first noticed this when I went back to my Mora classic after finally getting a Mora 106 back in the day. I hadn't had any point of comparison before, but the Mora classic blade, I realized, was thinner than that of the 106. And the edges were also sharp whereas the 106 had been softened.
At first I didn't know what to do, passively assuming that it just was what it was.
And while that is true for the width (nothing to be done there), I quickly realized that I had it within my power to soften the edges. I just took some sandpaper, went at it, and in five minutes or less they were nice and round.
This same trick can be used on inside bevel hooks, which over repeated sharpening will form a sharp corner on the inside edge of the spine. This can be harsh on your forefinger that rests against the spine of the hook when in use, but a few minutes with some sandpaper will soon make it better.
Sometimes what holds us back is what we don't know. Sometimes what holds us back is knowing something but assuming there is nothing we can do about it.
Now you know. And you know what to do.
Many people don't realize or appreciate what percentage of spoon carving is done with the tip of the sloyd. Probably about 70% is done with the final quarter of the knife. And yet that knife tip is usually the last part of the blade to get truly sharp, to have any secondary bevel actually eliminated in the first stage of sharpening. It is easy, if you don't pay attention to this, to spend more of your time carving with a blade whose tip is never actually properly sharp. That tempts you to use the center or back of the blade when you shouldn't, and then it digs in further than you intended, and around and around you go.
The way out of this?
Pay attention to the knife tip when sharpening. Don't proceed until you know that it's fundamental geometry is correct. Pay attention to your form when sharpening and stropping so that you don't compromise this part of the edge.
Everything else will be easier for it.
Carving is hard on your hands, particularly in the winter. Callouses tend to crack and then become quite painful.
I find that treating each spoon as I make it, and especially heating it over a stove burner as I smear in extra beeswax/jojoba oil mixture, really helps eliminate this problem. If I waited to treat my spoons in batches, I wouldn't get nearly the benefit. It's the daily habit that helps.
Turns out that's true of many things.
Selling Your Work
I recognize that this is not a technical subject of carving, but I wanted to share my thoughts on this given that many of you are starting to contemplate selling your work this holiday season. If you want to hear more of my thoughts, I have talked this over several times on my podcast Emmet Audio, which you can find wherever you listen to podcasts.
The most common situation I see of people selling is them overcharging. This is because we are naturally attached to our work, or we are basing our price on the time it took us, or we are basing our price on what we see our peers charging. All three of these are the wrong way to go about it.
Your price needs to be calibrated on the perceived value of your CUSTOMERS. They don't know what someone else is charging in the scene. They don't know or care how long it took you, nor how valuable you think it is. They DO have a gut sense of what such an object is worth to them. And unless your price lines up with that, they won't buy.
If you have more demand than you can handle, that is fine. But if you have more spoons than demand, then one way you can sell more is to lower your price. This has a lot of strategic advantages, namely being that it pushes you to carve more, and thus you get better, and the perceived value of your work increases, and then you can charge more. But you can't put the cart before the horse, or the whole thing just sits there.
I understand that if you have already done an event or two with higher prices and you then show up and sell for less, it can feel like giving up or like you shafted the few customers who bought at the higher price. Get over it. Price MUST be fluid, because it is how you learn.
There is more to say here than I have time to write, but if you are still balking, ask yourself this: which would you rather have, all your spoons sold at the end of the season and $500 or almost none and $150? I know what I'd take, every time.
Work for it.
Pivot cuts are an underappreciated part of the spoon carving arsenal. There are only a few I use, mostly to cut the rim of the bowl, but their ability to stop on a dime, with control, and to exert force using mechanical advantage allows for careful, exact work that never runs the risk of being out of control.
The thing that makes a successful pivot is the pivot point, or fulcrum. This is the connection around which the force rotates. It is not just for show, nor is it an arbitrary connection. Whenever I see people struggling to remember how to do the pivot cuts, it is because they have forgotten to prioritize this pivot point, treating it instead like some artifact that they know they need to maintain but not actually using it.
Everything is about the pivot point. Pivot cuts are not pull cuts where you happen to be holding a pivot point. Pivot cuts are not push cuts where you happen to be holding this connection. Pivot cuts truly pivot around this connection. You need to commit to that.
For a step by step breakdown of the two most common pivot cuts that I use to cut the bowl rims of my spoons, check out my IGTV.
I just did a podcast episode (did you know that I have a daily podcast called Emmet Audio? In many ways it's a good companion to this blog) of the same name in which I talk about pacing myself in the work on the tree farm that we have and that has just started, but I thought I'd take a moment to discuss pacing yourself with spoon carving, because there is no substitute for correctly pacing yourself so that you don't create a chronic injury.
Pacing yourself carving happens at two levels. On the macro level, it means building up to carving for hours at a time. Our bodies are capable of stupid levels of exertion for brief periods, and are generally happy to do something to the point of aggravation or injury before they signal to us that we should stop. There is a time lag between doing the thing and the infammation or tightness that incapacitates us. So it is up to us to use our brains to stop ourselves short of this point.
This is a decision born of experience, and in general more caution than most of us show would be a good thing. Carve for a little bit and then stop. See how you feel the next day. Carve for longer the next time. Don't let yourself carve 3, 4 hours until you are sure you know what that will do to you.
On the micro level, pacing is actually about speed. The faster you carve, the softer the wood will be because it won't have air hardened. Moving a spoon along from rough to refined in a timely way will dramatically reduce the wear and tear on your body because the whole thing will happen with softer wood. Obviously, there are things you can do in terms of selecting good wood and bagging up your work in process that can help, but all things being equal, a fast carve is always easier on your body than a slow one.
Chew on that paradox for awhile.
Often, despite our best efforts when axing, we end up with a twist in our spoon blank. The best time to address this is when roughing out the spoon with the knife, and the simplest way to do it is to lower one of the sides of the tip of the bowl, which will have the effect of straightening everything out.
It is tempting to do this side first. But you should do it last. Here's why:
Usually the other side, the side with less, has some real limitation to how much you can remove without dramatically changing the outline of the spoon that you want. You want to do this side first because it is the limiting factor. Once you have this the best you can, you can match to it the side that needs to come down to undo the twist. By definition, there will be enough material to be able to do this.
A bit counter-intuitive, but it works better.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.