Tag Archives: hand tools

Wooden Spoons and the Price of Craft

I had a sudden and strong compulsion to make wooden spoons around nine months ago.

Part of it was a way to avoid some extremely tedious conservation work. Part of it was a desire to emulate the beauty, at least in spirit, of traditional Swedish wooden spoons. Part of it was an excuse to buy some new tools.

I also wanted to test out some longstanding questions; primarily, as where does technique reside? Traditionally Western craft technique is taught by close contact and imitation of a skilled practitioner. Now it is common to learn by reading a how-to-manual, watching a video, or maybe taking some classes. Technique is often regarded as solely residing in the practicioner.

Many aspects of technique may also reside in the tools themselves. Since I didn’t know anything about spoon carving, this might be a good test: How much could I learn by letting the tools teach me how to make a wood spoon?

spoons

It only takes a few simple tools to start making wooden spoons. On the top, a small vintage (ca. 1970’s) Norlund hatchet with my handle, which split when mounting the head. Grrrr. Still, it works fine. Under it, on the left, a Mora knife, next to it a sweep knife made by Robin Wood, and a hook knife made by Pinewood Forge.

Of course, I had to start with the best quality tools I could find. The odd thing was, after I made a dozen or so spoons, the compulsion disappeared almost as quickly as it came on. This may be explained by the thrill of accomplishment when beginning to learn a new craft: mastering the final 20% can take a 1000% more time than the original 80%. One reason many people jump around to different crafts; jonesing for a new quick rush, weary of the long path towards mastery.

This was not a true test of technique completely residing in a tool.  I have been whittling since I was a kid (ball in cage!), professionally make and sharpen knives, and use axes quite a bit. Nevertheless, it does speak to the relatively easy transference of tool based knowledge, rather than traditional object based craft education. Does the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” serve to warn against tool based knowledge? Could it be dangerous?

spoons1

A wooden spoon I made out of Swiss pear wood.

I still use the spoons I made and didn’t give away, they are serviceable and some ended up quite elegant, in my opinion. The one above sees the most use in my kitchen. The handle is comfortable in a variety of grips, and I intended the shallow bowl to be good for tasting while cooking. Wood feels weirdly sticky in my mouth though, like a tongue depressor, so I don’t do this.

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I’d forgotten about this episode until a couple of days ago, when I received a blog post from a professional wooden spoon maker, Jarrod Stone Dhal.  The Trouble with The Green Woodworking Community or I Don’t Want to be Poor.

There are many aspects of his post that anyone involved with crafts will find of interest. One of his questions revolves around the almost impossible desire to make quality handmade objects at an affordable price. When craft objects get too expensive, people put them on a shelf and are afraid to use them. This might also be part of the reason many craftspeople sell their wares absurdly cheap, and are regarded as failures at business.  I doubt that large companies like Walmart care if what they sell is used. People who make functional items want them to be used.

But how many handmade books — including etsy style blank books, seeming sold for less than the cost of materials — actually end up getting used?  many books get read?  When I worked in an academic research library, I bet almost 10% of the books I recased had never been read.

Much modern craft philosophy emphasizes the making of something as the primary fulfillment. Being in the moment when making, zen like, and so on. This romantic attitude might have inadvertently contributed to public reluctance to pay for the time and skill of craft. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be doing it for the love? You want to get paid too!?”

Short Pencils

This pencil box, filled with well worn pencils, strikes me as extremely poignant.  Someone treasured, or at least saved these used up pencils and eventually they were resold to in a junk shop.  It is increasingly rare to even see well worn objects– things just break or get discarded because they are obsolete or out of fashion.  No one today (except Jim Croft!) would ever consider using a pencil that is so short, awkwardly grasping it at the end of two fingers and a thumb, then slowly writing.  I imagine when the ferrule prevented the pencils from entering any further into the pencil sharpener, someone removed it and tried to sharpen them from the other end.  Using the ferrule to make the double ended pencil seems an absurd amount of work for very little benefit.  But since many of the pencils appear not to have been used after being sharpened, were these made as an exercise to pass the time? Could the person who made this not be able to afford a new pencil, or just being creative?  Even the pencil box, well constructed with finger joints and a sliding lid, is a rarity these days.  The remains of these pencils are possibly more interesting than the words or numbers that they once wrote– pointing to the value and importance of tools.

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For those old enough remember card catalogs and the little pencils (aka. golf pencils) scattered around them, this informative documentary explores where they come from, how they were made and how they were used.  Documentaries like this one give us a fascinating glimpse into how earlier cultures lived, worked,  and constructed the objects of daily life.

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The new Zebra mechanical pencils, available from Staples and Amazon, costing 39 cents each are close to ideal. They are light, cheap and cleverly designed. The lead that comes with the pencil is fairly poor quality, but is easily replaced. Pressing the eraser advances the lead. But  their best feature is their perfect overall length– most pencils are too long, at least for my hand, and have been that way for the past 100 years or more.


a new bone?

dyed bone

The Library Preservation blog mentioned a very cool Martha Stewert branded bone folder, made from melamine.  I also picked up a nifty new bone from a flea market, but haven’t been able to identify the material it is made from. The coloring appears to penetrate the thickness. It has the density, rigidity and pore structure of bone.  But the mottled appearance and seams on the edges could indicate tortoise shell which has been laminated.  Or it might be some kind of horn.

Occam’s Bottle Opener

Simplex Sigulllim Veritas.  I bought this in Nepal in 2002. It functions beautifully, is made from the simplest of materials and costs virtually nothing to manufacture.  A bolt, two nuts and a scrap piece of wood.  But the man I purchased this from specialized in making or reselling these- he had hundreds, and it was a very common item in restaurants.  To use it, it is turned upside down and the the bottle cap inserted at the end,then the head of the bolt lifts the bottom it off. I think I paid about 5 cents for it and it even comes with a hang hole.

Labels

hot-wash-stick

 

I bought this stick a couple of weeks ago at an antique store.  It is about 12 inches long and the squared end on the right is about 1 inch thick.  I didn’t know what it was, but liked the smooth, worn surface and seemingly intentional shaping.  As I paid my three dollars, the mother of the owner of the store, who was 85, asked me if I knew what it was.  I replied that I didn’t.  “It’s a hot wash stick,” she said.  “I used to use one like this when I was a girl.  When we had really dirty cloths, we would bleach and boil them on a stovetop. We would use a stick like this to lift them out.” Then she demonstrated how she would hold the knob on the right, while poking in the pot with the other end. 

Suddenly this old stick was transformed into a useful tool- desiccated from being repeatedly dipped in hot water, the left side bleached  and the handle darkened from hand oils.  Although simple, the squared handle is quite comfortable to grasp, and could easily be used to stir the pot as well.  Without this verbal labeling, this tool most likely would have spent the rest of its life as an odd shaped stick.It is similar to another tool, called a spurtle, which is a traditional Scottish wood rod used to stir stews. 

Usually, I analyze the material makeup of objects, the technologies used to create them and examine evidence of use to theorize about what an object is.  Here, however, information not directly contained in object gives it context and meaning.

How many other extant objects have lost their labels?

Leave it to Beaver

 

I found this stick while I was walking in upstate New York, and was amazed. It is remarkable how close the beaver came to eating all the bark and cambium, without biting too deeply into the sapwood, which are the slightly rougher areas. The marks reminded me of a David Pye bowel– using a hand placed gouge as an example of “workmanship of risk”. But this was teeth/paw/eye corrodination.

This stick is not craft, because craft is a learned human activity. This stick is the left over activity from a meal, the bones of a beaver brunch.   If this stick were used by the animal for some purpose, we might consider it a tool, if shaping enhanced its use.  Could we consider non-purposeful shaping a kind of animal art?

An average sized beaver is about 60 lbs. They can swim underwater for 25 minutes, and eat through a 5 inch diameter willow tree in about 3 minutes. To chew, they hold the stick in their front paws, much like we hold corn on the cob. The stick below was about 2 inches in diameter.  Look at those crisp bites through the endgrain.  

 

I started thinking how many tools I would need to replicate this stick– a somewhat dull chisel to get the bark off, a small gouge for the cross grain slices,  a curved bowel adz to slice the endgrain.  I would most likely have to make a miniature scrub plane to get this high degree of regulation on the surface.  And even with these tools, I doubt I could do such a good job. And it would take me much, much longer. 

I realize that teeth are not tools, and that a beaver is not a craftsman.

But looking at this stick reminds me that the skillful use of simple tools is an efficient, beautiful expression of craft.