So we were sitting around a campfire at this weekend's Spoonesaurus Gathering, after a full, enriching day of hanging out with other spooncarvers, and the topic of conversation turned to what is encouraging or discouraging to people just starting down the spooncarving path. In particular, the point was raised that displays of skill can be inspiring but they can also be discouraging, because it makes something feel unattainable and ultimately unsatisfying.
This was a wake up call to me, because I realized I myself am guilty of shock and awe displays of skill (remember the 10 minute spoon? look it up on YouTube) that I intend to be a demonstration of what is possible, but that also might have the effect of making someone want to throw in the towel.
I'm sorry about that. It's a tricky thing, putting your best foot forward but also reaching back a helping hand to hoist others up behind you. I don't often get the balance right. What came out in the conversation around the fire was that understanding my story, how long I've been doing this and what it looked like at different stages was actually helpful and encouraging, so I thought I'd take the time here to lay that out, in the hopes that it makes you feel like you can see your own path forward more clearly, and not just think that you could never get from where you are now to where you want to be.
I started carving spatulas, not spoons, about five years back. I had carved maybe five spoons before then, none using an axe, all of them using a swiss army knife and lots of sandpaper. Then I was taking care of my baby daughter, keeping an eye on her as she played in the grass, and I figured I could be making spatulas to sell at Christmas out of the firewood stacked on our porch at the same time, have something tangible at the end of the day I could point to. It helped a lot with the intensity of caring for a baby to do this.
I carved only spatulas for two years, selling all of them at my Christmas tree farm for $10 a pop, slowly getting more comfortable with the hatchet and knife, but still sanding. Throughout this time I was reading everything Robin and Jarrod every wrote, lurking Jojo's Instagram and generally sucking up as much info as I could find scattered around the web.
I finally bought my first hook knife from Robin around the same time as I decided to stop sanding, and I spent that third Christmas season starting to carve spoons, and they were choppy and awkward and it didn't matter because quite frankly, nobody's execution was as refined as it is today. Go back and look at Jojo's account three years ago and you can see that while she was good, it wasn't the gut wrenching level of amazing it is today. So I was lucky enough to have her as an inspiration at a time when what she was doing seemed approachable.
After that third Christmas I decided to quit my summer job and devote that time to carving, and that's when I joined Instagram, two and a half year's into my journey. So at this point, over half of my journey was completed before I ever interacted with anyone. In retrospect, I had an inflated sense of my own ability. Looking back at the spoons I was carving and sending out as samples to potential wholesale customers makes me cringe, but I have always had a blithely optimistic assumption of my own abilities in the present, even when I can look back and acknowledge that I'm still improving.
That whole first year on Instagram I struggled to gain any traction. I had no followers, no idea how social media worked, no clear path to get to where I wanted to go. All I had was the time to keep carving and the assumption that if it worked for someone else, it could work for me. So I kept at it, almost every day, and bit by bit, spoon by spoon, I got better.
It takes time to get good at anything, and the definition of what "good" is constantly changes with your perspective, and probably changes as the culture of craftspeople matures and develops as well. I was lucky enough to be able to line up the economic incentives of selling stuff with my desire to carve as much as possible, and this spurred me on to constantly ramp up how much I carved. By the end of that first year on Instagram I had the goal of carving at least one thing each day, and by the end I was posting it on Instagram and it would sell within fifteen minutes. After another six months of that (so do the math, at least 180 spoons further along) I started to build up a waiting list of pre-ordered spoons.
This whole last year then has been me managing a constantly growing list of pre-orders, and to meet this I have dramatically ramped up how much I expect from myself each day. Some of this comes from being more efficient carving, but most of the change is just in how many hours a day I spend doing this. A year and a half ago I might have spent an hour to an hour and a half a day carving. Now, I typically expect a seven or eight hour day of carving spoons and axing spoon blanks for others to carve. You do the math on how much that increases my own development.
You get good at what you spend your time doing. There is an amazing video on Vimeo of Antonio the spoonmaker (search "spoonmaking") who carves spoons all day every day and sells them for dirt cheap, and he carves them with an axe and a SICKLE. No joke. His motions are swift, easy, economical. You can see that this is what he does, all day, every day.
So if you want to have that improvement, the best advice I have is to figure out how to line up your economic imperatives so that you spend more of your time carving. Make it worth your while. Sell them as fast as you can! Play that long game and recognize that it's not just the number of years you do something, but also whether you are spending an hour a day or eight hours a day doing it.
I will say that there are many more resources available for learning today than there were five years ago, from me and Matt's efforts with Spoonesaurus to Tom Scandian's amazing videos to Barn's online resources. It is possible for me to explain things to my students who come to my home for lessons that shoots them years ahead of where I was when I started. But there is still the work of carving the spoons. That doesn't go away.
But I hope that this account leaves you feeling more encouraged to continue carving, with the recognition that we all start at the same place, struggling to sharpen that knife, sweating over cleaning up the spoon bowl, cursing ourselves for carving the handle too thin. Been there. Done that. And you will be where I am and do what I do yourself, in time, if you just stick with it. Have faith.
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.