Sylva Spoon

Spoon Crooks

Thomas BartlettComment

AKA Bent Branch Spoons

I love carving with straight wood. It's great to have a large round of clean, straight grained wood. It splits cleanly, popping out identical billets. You know they will all behave in the same way. Perfect for carving out multiple spoons of the same design. Handily, large rounds of wood are also the easiest for me to get a hold of. 

The downside to carving lovely curvy spoons out of straight grained wood is that you start introducing weaknesses. We're all familiar with how wood grows in layers within the tree. Once the tree has been felled and you start carving, these growth rings are now the grain of the wood. Along the length of a spoon, the more contact one layer has with the next, the stronger that connection is. When working with a straight grain billet you need to layout the spoon so you get curves that don't cut across growth rings too sharply. It's easy enough to do, but you can't have extreme curves without creating a potentially weak spoon. 

 Using radially split wood, the weak points (in red) are most obvious in the plan view of the spoon.

Using radially split wood, the weak points (in red) are most obvious in the plan view of the spoon.

 In tangentially split wood, the short grain weakness are usually at the tip of the bowl. Depending on how much of a crank one tries to create, the handle might also have some weaker, short grain, connections. 

In tangentially split wood, the short grain weakness are usually at the tip of the bowl. Depending on how much of a crank one tries to create, the handle might also have some weaker, short grain, connections. 

Fortunately nature has already sorted this problem out for us. Trees have been kind enough to grow limbs in the shape of spoons, curves already included. You can find these pre-grown spoons where a new branch grows out of the trunk or from a larger limb, or where a limb splits into two branches. Occasionally you can also find the right shape somewhere in the middle of a branch, but these occurrences are rarer.

Working with crooks gives me a sense of working with nature. It does however mean that certain decisions have already been made for me. To make the best use of the advantages in strength and thinness that a crook offers you are limited to the shape it has grown into. The strongest spoon forms will have the fibres running unbroken along the bottom of the bowl, where it needs the most strength. You should be able to see the growth rings exiting the front of the bowl. This ensures there isn't any short grain at the tip of the bowl, an area often subject to stresses from scraping. 

 Here the spoon is laid out so the bottom of the bowl follows the wood grain / fibres. 

Here the spoon is laid out so the bottom of the bowl follows the wood grain / fibres. 

Sticking to the way the branch has grown often results in a spoon that has less of a bend in it than the branch hints at. A 'mistake' people often make when working with crooks is to try and get the crookiest crook that has ever crooked from their crook. This isn't really much of an issue, you're just introducing weaknesses that you get in tangentially split wood. If you're aware of this you can plan accordingly and all will be good in the world. 

 This crankier crook has some short grain in at the tip of the bowl. Might not be a problem, but is weaker than following the wood fibres.

This crankier crook has some short grain in at the tip of the bowl. Might not be a problem, but is weaker than following the wood fibres.

Personally I enjoy working within the limitations the tree has set for me. It presents a fun challenge and encourages me to finish a spoon that most closely represents what nature started. 


Burnout or Discipline

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment
Burnout: fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity.
Discipline: behavior and order maintained by training and control

My week tends to have a fairly set routine: after roughing out around 15 or so items at the Saturday Farmers' Market I have Sunday and sometimes Monday to spend time with my wife and generally relax. I then spend the rest of the week finishing the roughed out work, starting and finishing a few other items along the way. This week I found myself avoiding work. Which is strange, because I genuinely enjoy what I do. I wanted figure out why that was the case.

My wife and I did host a neighbourhood barbeque on Sunday. It was a lot of fun, but more effort than our usual Sundays of walks with the dog and watching films from the sofa. So perhaps I was just feeling tired. On the flip side, we did spend our Monday doing virtually nothing, which was decidedly delicious. I know that I'm susceptible to thinking that if I enjoy a little of something, then a lot of it would also be great. Which is how I sometimes end up eating a whole box of doughnuts on my own. But that's a whole other issue!

After much navel-gazing I decided it was either due to either burnout or a lack of discipline. I've been working more or less the same routine for the last 18 weeks. I've carved a lot of spoons in that time. I also know that I enjoy doing nothing. I get this weird notion that surfing Craigslist and watching another Youtube video on what Dr. Strange's plan at the end of Infinity War might have been will be more enjoyable than sitting in my workshop carving. 

Sidenote: I prefer to think in terms of discipline rather than motivation. Motivation tends to relate more to wanting to do something. If I always waited until I wanted to do I thing, I wouldn't get a lot done. Discipline get things done because you know it needs doing.

The tricky part is figuring out which was the cause. The lazy part of me could convince me it's burnout and sit me on the couch and let Youtube's algorithm feed me an endless stream of videos. Conversely, the disciplined part of me is capable of marching me out to the shed and keeping me there until I end up genuinely disliking what I'm doing. So figuring out where on the spectrum of being burnt-out or lacking discipline is a worthwhile pursuit albeit a tricky one. 

I wasn't fully avoiding work altogether. What I was avoiding was the main task of actually carving stuff. I've recently acquired a small gas forge so I can make my own turning hooks. I played around with that a little this week. I don't have a anvil, so I was using the 'anvil plate' on the back of my bench vice. It didn't work great, a real anvil is still needed, but it was fun to smack some hot metal around. This week wasn't really the right time to fire up the forge. I should have waited until I had access to a proper anvil. I also spent a fair chunk of time putting together some videos. All things that peripherally support the business. But not the main task of making things to sell at Saturday's Farmers' Market. 

The way I was avoiding work was probably the biggest indicator as to why I was avoiding work. The fact that my procrastination was still within the broad realm of 'work' suggested I was being disciplined enough to avoid truly wasting my time. I think mixing in a wider range of activities (more regular blogging again, for example) will keep me from pointlessly avoiding the main tasks that need to be done. 

What tends to pull you away from your most important work? How do you keep yourself focused and on task?


Objects with Soul

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment

The Meaning We Give to the Items We Own

I love making utensils for people to use. Through regular use, we start to give physical objects an emotional meaning. A spoon is gradually no longer just a spoon, it's your favourite spoon for eating the chicken soup your partner makes you when you're feeling a little poorly. It becomes a symbol that says 'things kinda suck, but they're starting to look up'. Opening the kitchen draw and seeing it becomes a reminder of community, love and healing. 

The items we hold dear are reservoirs of memory. They are present at key moments in our life. Like us, they're changed by the experience. Wood is especially good at this. It's durable enough to be long lasting, serving it's purpose for more than one generation. But malleable enough that the passage of time is clearly written on it's surface. Edges become worn, scratches appear and colours mellow. In other objects, this kind of wear is seen as damage, devaluing the product. For objects with soul, it becomes a part of the story. 

 Worn, used and loved kitchen utensils

Worn, used and loved kitchen utensils

Giving an object soul is a slow, unconscious, process. In my own life I find that the more simple an object is, the more likely I am to see it as soulful. It starts as a blank canvas, single-mindedly performing the function it was designed for. I might only have a handful of objects I think of as soulful: a few of the wooden spoons in my collection, a couple of my older items of clothing, my woodworking tools. They're items that 'feel right' when I'm using them. Items that easily evoke pleasant memories. Things that have a history I can retell.   

Nearly all the woodworking tools I use are steeped with meaning. I know the person that made the knife blade I use most regularly. I made the handle from a cherry burr given to me by a friend. The wood is dark from use and the blade is starting to change from repeated sharpenings. Another example is a tool that got me thinking about the way we shape objects is tied to how they shape us.     

 An old tool absorbing new memories

An old tool absorbing new memories

This drawknife is a recent addition to my life. It was it's newness that brought the relationship we have to the objects we own to the forefront of my mind. I've had it for perhaps two or three months. It was given to me by a gentleman that got chatting with me at the Madison Farmers' Market. He saw I was using a drawknife and realised he had one at home he had no use for. A couple of weeks later I gave him a spoon in exchange for the drawknife (and a couple bits of wood). A little Googling suggests that it was made by the John Pritzlaff Hardware Company, a Milwaukee based company that operated from 1850 to 1958. That suggests this a locally made tool, at least 60 years old. 

I spent several hours putting on a new edge and it soon become a regular user. Last night tipped the balance into making this tool a reservoir of memory. My friend brought over a recently acquired sharpening device (a Tormek T-7 for fellow sharpening nerds). This tool uses a stone wheel, which creates whats known as a hollow grind. With the equipment I own, I can only produce a flat grind. As neither of us were super familiar with using this kind of sharpening tool, the new grind on my drawknife not only serves a practical purpose, but now holds the memory of messing about in the workshop with friends.

This tool has survived the last sixty years in great condition and just a few months with me it's probably already carved over a hundred spoons. I don't knows how long it will continue in my service, but I know that every time I pick it up I'll be reminded of community, the kindness of strangers and the joy of learning new skills. 


Workshop Renovation

Thomas BartlettComment

It's been a busy time at Sylva Spoon HQ. I've been out harvesting birch bark, busy attending the Madison Farmers' Market, best man at a wedding. And, after just two years here, I've finally made some updates to my workshop.

My workshop is a 19'x13' garage in our back garden. If it was built around the same time as the house, then it's about 70 years old. Apart from a couple of windows at the back and about 200 nails, I don't think anything's been done to the inside of the space in all that time. 

The great thing about spoon carving is that all you really need is a chopping block. It doesn't take up a lot of room. Aside from the axe work, everything else can be done in your lap. Holding devices like a spoon mule help speed up the process, and these days I'm turning on a pole lathe too. So the space starts to fill up. I've also got spare chopping blocks for carving classes and a shave horse. Add a couple of weeks of wood shavings and all of a sudden my workshop looks like this:

Messy workshop

Alongside having a generally tidier space, I wanted to insulate and add windows. It was a little dark in there and the workshop didn't really hold heat at all. Last year I did insulate the loft area, which certainly helped, but the walls probably had an R-value of about 1. The winters here can be a little chilly, and being able to use my workshop year round will be nice. 

That I was able to start work on my shed was more down to chance than anything else. Our household automobile is a 2002 Honda Civic. A car as reliable as it is boring. While I've been able to fit an impressive amount in the Honda, strapping fourteen 4'x8' plywood panels to the roof seemed like a bad idea. 

Two weeks ago my wife took a road trip with her Dad to see family in North Carolina. They were in her folks' Camry. They also have a second vehicle, a Chevy truck. Courtney's Mum didn't want to drive the truck for the week Court and her Dad were road tripping. So we gave them the Honda and I took the truck.

So I took the opportunity to load up on plywood. I didn't plan on starting the renovations right away. I still had to balance workshop updates with the ongoing need to produce stock for the Farmers' Market. I do know myself pretty well though. I'm pretty lazy. Don't do today what you can put off till tomorrow and all that. I had to do something to make sure they plywood didn't lie around untouched for a year or two.

Cunning plan

I stacked the plywood in the workshop neatly in the most awkward place possible without actually making the place unusable. Fourteen plywood boards is a lot of wood to shift, so it wasn't a pile I was going to idly shift around the workshop. I think I lasted about a week before starting work. 

Alongside the insulation and plywood, I wanted to add some windows. I wanted to squeeze them in between studs, so I didn't have to mess around with cutting studs and building headers. That limited the size of the windows I could get. I'd been frequenting our local Habitat for Humanity store (a charity shop that sells donated building supplies) for a while, looking for windows. I hadn't had much luck and new windows were a little more than I was willing to spend. Eventually I remembered that there were a bunch of old window inserts in the loft of the workshop. A fair few of them were broken, but plenty were fine for my use. 

I lugged down four matching windows and made my own double glazing. It's not the prettiest, but compared to the windows already installed, they're not bad. They also let in a lot more light that the walls. I did buy one new window to fill a narrow gap, bringing the total new windows up to three. 

The workshop has aluminium siding. The proper way to install a window would be to remove the siding, cut the rough opening, measure and cut the siding and reattach it. After some internet research, I discovered that a backwards-facing plywood blade on a circular saw does a tidy job of cutting through aluminium siding. So I did that instead. 

With the windows in, I could finish putting up the plywood. Derek came over to help for an afternoon, which sped things up a lot. All in all, I'd say it probably took me about 60-80 hours to do. Now I've got some nice shelving, my tools can all be hung straight on the walls, and there are areas for different tasks. 

The workshop will always be an evolving space, but I'm rather pleased with how it's looking. 

Tidy workshop