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.
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.
One idea is as worthless as another until you actually do something about it, and then it is the action, not the word that matters. --Orson Scott Card