do tools make you a better carver?
Not even sure where to start after a title like that. Yes. No. Let me back up.
I started off carving with the worst possible tools. I struggled along for a year or so until I finally felt it was worth it to cough up the $25 for a Mora 106 and a bit more for one of Robin's early open sweep hook knives. I used a tag sale hatchet. The I stumbled along with these for a couple more years, seeing the much more expensive tools made by blacksmiths and old Swedish companies and felt like I would never find myself needing them.
I prided myself on doing the most possible with the tools at hand. At really owning them, knowing just how to get them to do what I wanted. I became good at that.
Then one by one, really top end tools started finding me, at first through the generosity of others (thank you Matt, thank you Brian!), and more recently because I have deliberately sought them out. As I have become proficient with these new tools, my carving has grown much better.
Leaving me to wonder, what is going on here?
Am I becoming a better carver, or am I just getting better tools? Now spoiler alert, the answer is that of course I cannot tease the two strands apart and claim that it is one or the other factor. It is clearly both. I am becoming better, and so I make better use of the better tools, and the better tools also allow me to achieve surfaces and control that I hadn't been able to before. But would I have felt the same way when I was less experienced?
If I was just starting out, is it really the right move to buy top end stuff right away? Will that accelerate the process of gaining the skills and confidence that lead to good carving?
Boy is this a tough one. I really don't know. I like the idea (probably because it's what I did) that you just start with whatever you've got and muddle along. But I recognize that I might very well have not continued carving at any number of junctures along that road. I might have thrown up my hands and thought it was never going to get easier. I almost did. Life goes in twisty ways, and I could have ended up somewhere totally different.
So I guess the result I'm coming to (and I really am just thinking this out now, as I write), is that the best tools might not make you a better carver immediately, but they might make you more likely to stick with spooncarving. Because that same mastery that I gained with my tag sale hatchet I might have been gaining with my Gransfors Bruks if I'd not scoffed at the very idea of pouring that much money into this budding business. Who knows where I might be today with that extra time on the better blade? We can't know where we might have ended up, but we can look back and see what almost stopped us from continuing.
For me, that was not knowing how to sharpen. It was not having a hook knife of any sort. It was not taking a lesson, and not actively pursuing deliberate learning. It was thinking I knew more than I did, when you really put things in perspective.
So yes. You can totally muddle along with whatever you have at hand. I certainly did, as did most other professional carvers. It takes rare forethought and deliberate action to make a plan, spend some money, and enact the plan. Want to be a better spooncarver in four months? Spend $400 on tools, another $100 on education, and then practice.
You could do the same without spending money, but it would probably take you a year to be in the same spot. Which is fine.
When I was younger I routinely traded my time as a tradeoff of not spending money. Just be clear eyed about it.
It is easy for me, and everyone I suspect, to focus too much on the immediate cost and not on the long-term vision. Or to focus too much on the tool and think that just owning it will make you better. It will, to a point. But so will education. And so will practice. And so think of tools as just one of many ways that you can nudge yourself forward. Inseparable from the rest of it. Mysterious as anything whether it's you or the tool or the combination of the two.
Wherever you are, that's the place to start. Where you go is up to you. Whether you have money or not. Whether you have a local option for learning or not. Whether you have the time to practice a lot or not. Piece together your own path forward.
I hope our paths meet.
This is a blog post with substance. So prepare yourself.
I wanted to share how I structure my spooncarving lessons and classes and why, in an effort to make as many of these ideas as possible public knowledge. If you teach spooncarving yourself, I would love to hear how you do things. If you respond on Instagram, I will likely reply, whereas if you respond here, I will read it and appreciate it but replying is more difficult and usually doesn't happen. My apologies in advance.
Spooncarving can be dangerous. There are a number of ways you can hurt yourself, ranging from minor stuff to life-changing calamities. For this reason, in general, I prefer to teach one-on-one or at most two or three. Workshops with more people need to be handled differently, and the likelihood that someone will do something stupid when your back is turned is higher, so beware.
I generally focus on four topics, in this order: spoon design, sharpening, axe techniques and knife skills. I like to start with design because that gets people handling lots of spoons and thinking critically about nuances of design. If possible, I have people try out my spoons with yogurt, so they can see the enormous difference in feel that tiny differences in form can make.
Sharpening comes next, because that is everyone's weak spot, almost without fail. It also allows novices to get their hands on a blade and begin to have a relationship with a knife. I keep a couple of beater knives around rather than try to have them sharpen knives to finish quality. Sometimes this happens, but sometimes it doesn't get that far, so keeping a separate set of knives that are already sharp helps. I cover sharpening by discussing edge geometry, bevel geometry, how to use sandpaper to sharpen, how to feel if the edge is actually engaged properly and the muscle memory that builds up when you do it correctly. We briefly talk about re-flattening bevels, and sharpening hook knives and axes.
We then go outside to the stump and begin the process of carving two spoons. By carving two, I can keep them moving forward, demonstrating on one spoon while the student practices on the second, and thus avoid leaving them spoonless. I keep pushing the process forward on both spoons, and at the end the student goes home having seen the entire process and with two good examples for reference.
The goal with this is to teach safe habits rather than nuances of design and execution, although it is always fun when I have a more advanced student and we can relax and geek out about how to do this or that. My general goal is to have people go home feeling empowered to continue, backed up by safe habits so they don't hurt themselves.
So axe skills emphasizes keeping your fingers safe, splitting with the club, gentle and accurate cuts, and a slow pace. My method of axing blanks is the same for all shapes of spoons, so we always start of axing in the reference face with the crank, drawing a shape and then refining from there. The student takes turns with myself walking through the process, with me stepping in to show just how far you can take things. And I watch them like a hawk, making sure their fingers are safe, their body is turned to the side, they have a healthy fear of the axe and that they are thinking about what happens if something doesn't go as expected. Axing is where things can go really wrong really fast, but thankfully I have not had an accident yet.
Then we take the blanks inside and start carving. Again, the emphasis is on the two or three basic cuts (thumb push, chest pull, and possibly pivots) and how to execute them safely. Over the year and a half I have been teaching, I have had to explain the thumb push in many different ways to find a way that a particular student can understand. The best I have come up with is this: the hand holding the knife adjusts the angle of the blade but provides no power. The thumb of the other hand, placed on the back of the knife blade, pins the knife in place while the fingers of that same hand move the spoon across the blade edge. So the knife is staying still (unless it transitions to a pivot for extra length) and the wood is pulling or rotating against the edge, not the other way around. That really helped someone see it recently.
So we go through the spoon, cut by cut, talking about why and how to handle certain situations. I watch them carefully, and don't hesitate to stop them and show them a safer way if I see them forgetting. The most common mistake is to hold a spoon down at your chest and do a chest pull down toward that hand, or to do a chest pull correctly except with the elbow out, meaning you could stab yourself.
By the time we get to hollowing the bowl (which I do last), the knife familiarity is generally pretty good. I always clean up the cuts the student makes at every stage (unless the person is a confident carver) so they go home with an example of what is possible, not what they can do. They will have lots of examples of that, plenty. The hook knife cuts I teach NEVER have the blade going up and over the thumb, but rather have the edge stop short of the thumb when the handle chokes up in the palm of the hand. I also rely on lots of pivots for hollowing. As before, I always clean up the work of new carvers so they can see what it looks like to really take it the right distance. If time is running out, I sometimes shift to straight up demonstration carving, swiftly carving the remainder of the spoon so they can see the whole process and we can talk about it. I would rather that than give them another twenty minutes of muddling along. They can muddle along when they aren't paying for it.
For larger classes, I cover these same topics, but there are some additional things to watch out for. I always try to start by asking about people, where they are at, why they are here and what they hope to get out of the class (this goes for individual lessons as well). I like to start with a demonstration of carving a quick spoon so they can see every step of the process, because different people advance at different rates and that way I get the basics of safety and strategy for not getting stuck in a hole out to everyone, right away. This demonstration is combined with a treatise on spoon design, as illuminated by the process that dictates elements of the design.
We then shift to sharpening, for all of the reasons above. I never want to leave sharpening for last, because I think it is the topic most shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding and is at the same time the most crucial for success. So we dive right at it. Classes are always longer affairs, so we might devote half a day of a two day class to sharpening.
So an hour demo, then two or three hours of sharpening, then people start axing. I prefer short stumps for classes, because people are safer when sitting down. They are less likely to overdo it with too much force, and less likely to hit their legs. When people are axing I walk around and around, correcting and adjusting. I'm always looking over my shoulder. I have found that it is not the people you expect who hurt themselves.
Someone is always first to shift to the knife, so as that shift occurs I keep a knife in my pocket so I can take the spoon from someone and get them back on track with a demonstration or correction. This is where the earlier demonstration is really important, because having that under our belts means that people can advance at their own pace without waiting up for others so I can explain the next step.
As the time gets to a close, I try to adjust how much carving I am doing on people's spoons to that they are keeping pace with the remaining time. They should have at least an hour or two to work on the bowl. As the spoon gets close to finished, my carving becomes trickier as I rescue the spoon from failure again and again and keep them on track to finishing. This can be very intense for me, but the trick is to keep it calm, and funny and self-deprecating.
I always keep a first aid kit of my own on hand. I have found that I need large bandaids, gauze pads, medical tape and antibiotic ointment. While I don't have injuries with each lesson or class, there have been several times that I was very glad it was right at hand.
That's it! I like to end classes (and sometimes lessons) by asking the students what I can do differently the next time to improve the experience. I have learned a lot that way.
Many ideas for the next blog post have come and gone, piling up in my pocket notebook like shouts heard dimly across a room. I will probably never explore them, because the thing I have been focused on lately has been growth.
I realized the other week that the time had come to start scheduling more carving into each day. I started out the year with a goal of making $35-50 a day of spoons and blanks, and lately I seem to be hitting somewhere between that and $75, depending. I now have a two month long waiting list, and I anticipate closing this year's books sometime in August, to give me time to fulfill all my commitments before pivoting to the Christmas tree farm.
I've been thinking a lot about how to grow my business, and the most obvious place to start was to push myself to make more each day. So I bought a new monthly planner and rewrote the two months of work, booking at least $100 a day, with a lighter day on Mondays when I go help my grandmother for a few hours. This has really started to squeeze the rest of my obligations, taking care of the house, the dogs, the editing I do and generally keeping things running on an even keel.
I don't want to put myself in a position of imbalance, but the reason I pushed to do this was because I realized that no one was going to do it for me. If more and more work comes in, but I just schedule it out in the future more, then I'm not actually making more, right? I just have more work lined up.
The way to earn more money is to do more with each day. That can be by charging more for my work (which I do increase prices every October), or it can be by demanding more of myself.
That's the thing about being my own boss. No one is going to make me do it but me. And no one is going to figure out that truth that I won't actually make more until I do more, but me. So this is the next step. Push through the summer seeing if I can do a solid seven hours of carving each day and still meet all my other commitments. And see if I am happy.
I seem to have plateaued in the time it takes me to make spoons, because even though I get more efficient, I also tend to expect a higher standard from myself. So the next step is to figure out where the other avenues of growth lie, beyond increasing my time and increasing my prices. We shall see what I do.
One thing is for sure. No one is going to make me do it but me.
So the other day I rediscovered Hanson. You know, Hanson, the three brothers whose song MmmBop was the biggest song of 1997. Flash in the pan, right? One hit wonder, right?
I had been aware that Hanson had grown up and was still making music in college because Taylor Hanson (the middle one) bears a striking resemblance to my freshman college roommate and best friend. But that was back in 2002. I honestly hadn't given it another thought.
Until the other day, when I listened to a podcast that told their story after their searing moment of fame, and I found out just what had happened. It wasn't drugs and a dramatic breakup and their lives falling apart and no longer making music. Oh no.
Turns out, they started their own independent label after their second and third albums failed to get the support of their former producers, who stopped promoting them six weeks after release. They are still making music, together, they are married and have kids, they still tour and play sold out concerts to screaming fans.
And their music is better than it was. That to me is the crazy thing, that we are all ignoring, that these brothers, who somehow bucked the tide of fame and fortune to retain their humility and genuineness, are better songwriters now than they were back at the tender ages of 16, 13 and 11.
Why am I writing about Hanson?
Because I find their story inspiring. They found a way to play by their own rules, with total control, and to keep doing what they loved doing without needing anyone's permission. They are an example of what talent pushed forward over twenty years looks like.
I have written maybe a year ago about how our culture values flash in the pan genius, but has less reverence for mastery earned over time. Hanson's story covers both, with the early contribution that for many would have been the end of the line, the best they did. But what I love so much about them, and what I find inspiring, is that they put their head down and just kept going, year after year, in a smart, businesslike way, and now they have a body of songs that eclipses that one hit wonder they started with. They have mastered their instruments, and they have a deep and technical sense of songwriting. Without losing sight of what is catchy and hooky and fun, they have a calm assurance now that their early work just could never have.
These are all things I want in my life. I want to make that is catchy and hooky and fun, and also calm and masterful. Thankfully, I know what I need to do to get there. As Zac, the youngest brother said in an interview I watched on YouTube (I have been very deep down this rabbithole), the secret, such as it is, is to "do what you love. And then do it a lot."
p.s. If this podcast has enticed you to listen to any Hanson at all, I would recommend Get the Girl Back, I've Been Thinkin Bout Something, and I Was Born. Happy listening!
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.