Sylva Spoon

Functionality = Beauty

Thomas BartlettComment

A thing cannot work extremely well and not have beauty. Everything that has a high level of utilitarian functionality ends up looking beautiful. If all that is considered is function, beauty will follow. 

 Beautiful and functional wooden spoon

Beautiful and functional wooden spoon

William Morris famously said "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." I've found time and time again, that the things which work extremely well cannot help but look good. For makers, this in an important fact to remember. When we want things to look good, we sometimes focus on the aesthetics of the piece. That's the wrong approach. We should focus on the function and trust that beauty will emerge as a by-product of the item working well. It's easy to make something look good. To make it work well is a much harder task. One that has a longer lasting reward. 

In Spon by Barn the Spoon, he talks about form being the focus of his work; "I love using plain wood best, however, because then nothing distracts from the form of the spoon." In Richard Raffan's book 'Turned-Bowl Design' he warns against a focus on surface beauty. "If you reach beyond the gloss of attractive grain and a polished profile, there's a good chance that your bowls will not only feel good and function well, but grace the eye when not in use."

We've all come across work that uses attractive grain or added decoration to distract from poor design. I'd like to think it's unintentional, but there are definitely people out there furiously polishing turds. It can be tricky to spot, especially with so many of us looking at work over the internet. With the right filter, almost anything can be made to look good. If we get suckered into buying such a piece, it hurts to find that the functionality doesn't match the looks. Worse still, the surface beauty that first caught our eye is likely to fade. Pretty grain darkens and mellows, paint chips and scratches, engravings wear away. All we're left with is a thing that doesn't work very well and a lingering sense of being cheated. 

Beauty is subjective. As the saying goes, it lies in the eye of the beholder. Functionality is much less subjective. A good functional object integrates well with your physical being. While humans come in all shapes and sizes, we fall within a bellcurve. Hands tend to have five fingers, mouths are usually under the nose, feet are most often on the end of legs. When making things for the masses, what works for you is likely to work for me. This is another advantage to chasing pure functionality over beauty. Beauty is much more subjective. It's determined by culture, beliefs and fashions. What was considered beautiful a hundred years ago might not have the same status now.

Great items tend to remain functional for a long time. A comfortable ladder-back chair from the 1800s will still be comfortable today. Through use, wood wears down. It does this at a quicker rate than other materials, but it's slow enough to get a lifetime of use out of an object. It will wear down in the way that it's used. An armrest will become smoother and more comfortable to hold, a spoon rim will align itself to the way you like to scrape the bottom of the pot. It makes these items unique to us. If it works well, you're more likely to reach for it. The more you use it, the more personal it becomes. The more personal it is, the more we love it. 

Pure utilitarian function creates beauty. To design and craft an object that works well is a difficult task. If we achieve it, we will have created something beautiful.

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess. 
 - William Shakespeare





25 Books for Green Wood Working and Craft

Thomas Bartlett4 Comments

Painting and Decorating

Thomas BartlettComment

Today was the final day of Jarrod's Knife Skills and Decoration class. We began the day with the students continuing with chopsticks, butter spreaders and decorating planed boards to let them get back into the groove of making. The students have been taught knife skills, so it was onto a couple of different forms of decoration: kolrossing and painting. 

It was great to see the students filter in and get down to work, chatting with their neighbours or just carving on their own. The atmosphere was very relaxed. I think a big part of that was due to the way Jarrod planned the workshop. With the focus on process, instead of a particular finished product, the students weren't frantic to get their work done. In my workshops where I teach axe and knife skills I try to emphasise that the focus in on skill building. That said, it's skill building through the medium of carving a cooking spatula. And folks get locked into the idea of finishing that spatula, sometimes at the expense of developing skills. Which is absolutely fine if people are just interested taking the class to try carving. 

Decorating with the knife so far involved using the tip of the blade to actually remove material. Kolrossing is slightly different. The knife tip is used to scratch a line in the wood which is filled with some sort of fine powder. Originally soot was used, but these days we tend to use coffee grinds.

Jarrod showed the students how he mixes milk paint and oil paint. The students were then handed brushes at were able to paint the chopsticks and butter spreaders they had made. Not everyone wanted to paint all their work, so some of the students went back to working on making chopsticks and butter spreaders, periodically coming to Jarrod or myself for advice on certain techniques or particular problems they were having. 


That was how the rest of the day went, students painting, carving and decorating. In a very relaxed manner. With about an hour to go, Jarrod gathered the students around and we talked about what we learned, and what they would like to have had covered in the class. Several folks wanted to know more about sharpening. So, with an hour to go, Jarrod grabbed some of North House's sharpening stones and went through the basics of sharpening sloyd knives and a little about sharpening axes. 


Every evening from 7-9pm there has been open shop carving. Quite a few students and instructors who will be involved in the second round of classes have arrived, so this evenings' open shop will likely have a few more folks in attendance. Tomorrow is a day of talks, demonstrations and open carving sessions, so that will be fun to hang out with folks. 


Practice in Learning

Thomas BartlettComment

The class I'm assisting Jarrod in is Knife Skills and Decoration. Jarrod's goal for the students, as far as I understand it, is for them to learn how to use a knife in green woodworking. The goal isn't to create any particular items by the end of the three days. That said, it's difficult to just teach knife grips without showing the context in which they can be applied. Yesterday we had students practicing the grips on random lengths of wood, but to check that they're understanding how to use the grips properly we need to give them some sort of end goal to aim for. 


Yesterday, and spilling over to this morning, the end goal was to carve a pair of matching chopsticks. If you've never freehand carved chopsticks with a knife, I recommend trying it. It's a very challenging task. The simplicity of a chopstick, and the need for it to match it's partner leaves little room for inconsistency. The students invest a lot of time in getting them as perfect as can, but at the end of the day, it's just a chopstick. The students tend to be less emotionally invested in them, so are more willing to take risks and try new techniques. 

Once we finished with chopsticks we moved onto butter spreaders. These are a great next step as they add curves. You now have to think about grain direction. There are a couple of extra grips to learn too. But butter spreaders are often perceived as more precious. As the students got closer to the finished form, you could see them getting more conservative with their choices. One student was working with a rather thick piece of wood. Both myself and Jarrod suggested he try splitting it in half. Thinning it down with just the knife would take a lot of work, and axe work wasn't being covered in this workshop. Splitting it had the potential to save him a lot of effort. It also had the potential to ruin the spreader. In the end he did split it, with success, but was extremely hesitant to do so. 

Getting too invested in our work is dangerous. It's important that we care about what we're doing, but we shouldn't get so invested that we end up making life harder for ourselves. It took me a long time to realise the importance of this lesson. Really great woodworking has bold, confident tool marks in it. The best way to get good at producing those kind of marks is to practice them. It takes time to develop the skill to accurately lay down a big bold knife cut. It's okay to start with smaller marks, but don't be afraid to (safely) push your limits. So long as the worst that could happen is that you break the spoon or spatula you're carving, you'll be fine. 

Also, taking the time to do exercises that are just practise is also important. Jarrod demonstrated a few techniques on carving decorations using the tip of the knife. The students practiced on planed boards. The goal would be to eventually decorate carved items. If we started out by asking them to add decoration to the butter spreaders they'd just spend a couple of hours carving, the students wouldn't have tried as many techniques as they did on the boards. 


I don't tend to add a lot of decoration to my spoons. Every now and then I'll do a little kolrossing. Aside from that I prefer to have the focus be on the simplistic form of the item. To some degree I think decoration is used to distract from poor form, but good decoration on a good form can make something excellent. I might also be slightly biased against decoration as I'm not particularly good at it. I just don't take the time to just sit and practice carving letters, or repeat the same chip carving detail 20 times until I'm good at it. Practising decoration, and performing improvement tasks like chopstick making is something I'd like to add to my weekly routine. Not only is it a chance to develop skills without the risk of ruining an otherwise serviceable product, it is a good opportunity for creativity.  

Wood Week at North House

Thomas BartlettComment

As the final part of my apprenticeship, Jarrod has kindly brought me along to help out at his knife skills class at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN. It's right on the shore of Lake Superior and a bit of a Mecca for craft in the Midwest.


I've heard a lot about it in the three short years I've been living in the States. A lot of very well regarded craftspeople run courses here. So having my first time here be as an assistant instructor is pretty cool.

The class Jarrod is running is a focus on process. All the other classes have some product or item as an end goal. Focusing on process is a pretty bold move. A lot of people get motivated to sign up for craft workshops because they want to try making a thing. Telling folks that, essentially, we'll just be practicing a bunch of techniques is a harder sell. But the class is full, and that makes me inordinately happy.


With a product focused class, students are often champing at the bit to make that thing. Inexperienced students are nervous to step outside their comfort zone and risk ruining the item they're trying to make. By shifting the focus to process, Jarrod is giving the students freedom to try new grips and techniques without being quite so invested in the item they're making.


Today Jarrod explained to them the basics of wood, a little about grain and had them split up a log into roughly inch square lengths. They cut those lengths in half and used the pieces to practice a variety of knife grips. That was the morning. The whole afternoon was spent on making chopsticks. We didn't finish the chopsticks and that's great. 


Getting really skilled at knife work requires you to work slowly. Working slowly lets you control the cut you're making. It also allows you to 'listen' to what the interaction of blade edge and wood fibre is saying. The knives we use have what's called a 'Scandi grind'. There's a single wide, flat bevel that goes from about halfway from the spine of the blade to the very edge. Laying that flat bevel on a piece of wood just about puts the cutting edge in contact with the wood fibres. If the wood is perfectly flat we can move the knife, bevel flat, along the wood without cutting anything. If we lift the spine away from the wood, the edge comes into contact with wood and begins to cut into it. Often the angle required to start the cut is steeper than the angle we want to continue along at. So once the knife begins to enter the wood we need to rock the spine back down towards the wood. Too far and the cut will exit the wood. Just right and we'll create a nice long shaving. These movements might only be a single degree or less. It's that delicacy that we're trying to get the students to feel for. 

Being able to assist Jarrod is a lot of fun. I haven't really taught carving alongside anyone before. While Jarrod is perfectly capable to teaching this all on his own, it's nice to be able to throw in little helpful comments, point out things the students might have missed and generally make myself look intelligent without having to go through the effort of being responsible for the class as a whole.

Jarrod's class runs until Thursday, then there are open workshops all day Friday. I'll try to give a daily update of the week, but there's a chance I'll be having too much fun to write everyday.