Sylva Spoon

30 Things I Learned While Apprenticing

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment

My Apprenticeship By The Numbers

  • Miles driven: 4,000
  • Eggs eaten: 123
  • Bowls turned: 15
  • Time spent in meetings: 24
  • Trees felled: 1
  • Bandaids required: 2
  • Songs endured: far, far too many
  • Instagram Posts: 43
  • Things sawn in half: 2

Four months on, and I've finished my apprenticeship at Woodspirit Handcraft. I'm back in Madison, making things for myself again. I am supremely glad to have had the opportunity to take this apprenticeship. Seeing how a fully functioning craft business runs, learning new skills and having a few laughs along the way. 

Until taking the apprenticeship, I've been entirely self taught. Time and time again I've read or heard the importance of receiving high quality instruction. I saw the wisdom in that, but never acted on it. There is a lot one can achieve alone. However I think it's the rate at which one learns that is most impacted through instruction. I feel like my work is evidence of both what one can achieve alone and through working under high quality supervision. 

I've written a post for (I think) every day I spent at Woodspirit Handcraft. I wrote them for myself more than anything. I wanted a record of all the things I did. I have a hard time remembering what I had for breakfast (normally it's oatmeal, one banana and a dollop of peanut butter thrown in) so I knew I'd easily forget lessons taught to me four months previously. It seems that many people enjoyed following my adventures with Jarrod. Thanks to everyone that took the time to comment, email or in some way let me know they were enjoying the blog. I don't think I'll continue writing daily posts - my normal life just isn't that interesting - but I want to write a weekly update of what I've been up to or thinking about. 

Before that, I thought it would be nice to reflect upon my time with Jarrod and Jasmin at the Sunshine House. Here, in no particular order, are 30 things I learned while apprenticing:

  1. Having a teacher helps
  2. Wood is weird - Cracking, drying and warping oh my
  3. Blacksmithing is kinda scary - But exciting
  4. Form matters
  5. Repetition is key success
  6. You can probably make it a bit thinner
  7. The inside and outside of a bowl are two separate beasts
  8. Pole lathe hooks are complicated
  9. Small mistakes make a big impact - Bumps and uneven lines can easily make a great design average
  10. Sketching is a much quicker way to play with designs
  11. I like repetitive tasks
  12. Craft is important
  13. I can have the same meal as dinner or lunch for a week and not be bored by it
  14. Sludge Metal is a thing - just not my thing
  15. Have a plan - Stick to it as best you can, but accept that it probably won't go the way you want it
  16. Woodwork for business and woodwork for pleasure are two entirely different things
  17. Not all tools need to be razor sharp - Especially if you have strong hands
  18. Anvils are very bouncy when you miss what you're supposed to hit
  19. Snow tires help
  20. Good wood makes making easier
  21. Power tools and sandpaper both have their place
  22. Having a systematic approach - to both craft and business - is essential
  23. Working to a deadline makes sure sh*t gets done
  24. 'Within tolerance' exists for all things
  25. The reward of a thing well done is doing it - Being able to then sell it is also nice
  26. The BP station on US-8 in Tripoli will give you a free coffee if you get petrol there
  27. People love owning handmade things
  28. Indigo refers more the plants the dye was obtained from than the colour itself
  29. Critique ideas, not people
  30. If you do it full-time, you have to enjoy it


Turning Rhythm

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment

Apprenticeship Day 40

Heading down into the basement this morning there was only one lamhog mandrel free. The rest were still stuck in the lamhogs I turned yesterday. I wasn't sure what Jarrod was planning to do for the day, so I decided to start by turning my cup-a-day cup. I usually wait until the end of the day to work on my stuff. Jarrod doesn't care when I make them, but that usually felt like the right time to do it. Today I did it first as I knew I'd end up freeing up the mandrel when I finished, so I could then use it to rough out another lamhog.

Jarrod started his day by working on the awaiting lamhogs, so by the time I finished my cup, there were plenty of free mandrels. Now that I'm working to a template, there's (hopefully) less work for Jarrod to do with the outsides. In the end I think it took less that two hours for him to do the outside finishing work on those five lamhogs. 

I just cracked on with turning lamhogs for the rest of the day. I had two fully axed out blanks from the day before. Once those were turned I axed out six more and got round to turning three of them. 

This week feels like Jarrod and I have gotten into a really good rhythm with the lamhogs. I can rough out about five in a day. Jarrod can fully finish about five or six. Like most of the woodware we both make, we don't take one item from log to finished article in one fluid process. We do a certain amount of work on batches. I carve and rough turn the outside of a batch. Jarrod then finishes the outside of that batch. Then he hollows them. Finally he carves the handle. By that point, there's another batch waiting.

Working at this scale of production is a lot of fun. Making the same object again and again teaches you lessons you can immediately apply. The scale of production we're working to is big enough to get into a rhythm but small enough to keep it interesting. We're also working to a target. We have pre-orders that need filling. I've found that Jarrod is a lot more loosey-goosey with regards to targets than I am. For things like carving the spoons for tomorrow's Spoonagedon I wanted a target number of blanks to carve. Jarrod prefers to set to work and just see what happens. So having a set number of lamhogs to make is mentally pleasing for me. I think it helps when making the same thing over and over because you know there's an end in sight. I can easily imagine making the same object again and again becoming overwhelming without that. 


As this is the last week of my apprenticeship, I've been spending a lot of time reflecting on this period. I've spent almost four months apprenticing for Jarrod. During this time I've learned a great deal. However it's only been towards to end of this time that I've been able to work more independently of Jarrod. For many people four months is a time commitment they can't make. So I feel super fortunate that I've been able to do that (thanks Courtney). But for Jarrod, a big part of this apprenticeship has been spent teaching me. And I feel like I came into this with a good grounding in woodworking. The investment Jarrod has put in only really starts to pay off towards the end of our time together. I'm extremely thankful Jarrod was willing to take me on and teach me what he has. I'd like to think that my input has helped Woodspirit Handcraft and I appreciate taking on an apprentice represents quite the risk for Jarrod. He's done it a couple of times in the past, and it looks like I haven't screwed up anything so badly that he won't do it again in the future

If you're interested in apprenticing with Jarrod next winter the spot is still open. If you want to know more but feel like the 40 blog posts I've written on my experience aren't quite enough information on what it's like, feel free to get in touch. 


Beginning of the End

Thomas BartlettComment

Apprenticeship Day 38

This is the last week I'll be apprenticing at Woodspirit Handcraft. I will be going along with Jarrod to North House as his assistant in March. But this is the last week making stuff here. As usual, there was the Monday morning meeting. This week the plan is to focus on ploughing through as many lamhogs as possible. Jarrod will also show me how he bends his turning hooks. I've ground them all, they just need bending into hooks. That'll be the last piece of the puzzle in terms of tool making for me. 

So I started the day by chainsawing out some six inch tall rounds of birch. I cut five, estimating that each will have about four lamhogs hiding inside. I took them indoors and spent the rest of the morning splitting them up. I axed out six of them, which is also how many smaller mandrels we have. 

After lunch I set about rough turning lamhogs. Jarrod made me a template for the lamhogs, so these won't be as rough as my previous roughing. The first I turned, I didn't talk to Jarrod about what the diameter of the lamhog should be. He did mention to grab him once I removed the axe marks, but I just dived straight in. And kinda missed up. I ended up turning the top rim a little too narrow. It was still wide enough for Jarrod to make a lamhog, but he didn't have much margin for error, or opportunity for shaping. So if you're one of the lucky folks you managed to preorder a lamhog and you receive a skinny looking one, you're welcome. 

It's been a little over a week since the lamhog preorders opened. Jarrod has about ten or so finished. We've lost maybe three or four to cracks in drying, which is always depressing. We have about fifteen left to make. Today I think we got the outside done on five. I should be able rough turn another five or six tomorrow. Jarrod will probably be able to finish the outside on them, plus he might start the hollowing on those we got done today. 

The hollowing will go a lot quicker now that his Japanese lathe is up and running. He spent most of last week getting it up and running, tinkering with it, making chucks and new hooks for it. Taking the time to develop and make tools and devices to help create our products is something I kind of struggle with. With spoon carving, once you've got your basic tools, the only shop furniture you need to build is a chopping block. You can start cranking out spoons. There are things that can help with speed and efficiency. Having a spoon mule, some modified tools or just sharper tools can all help. 

I've found that I have a bit of a mental block that holds me back from spending time on these things that can help. I've got a spoon mule that's a bit shoddy, but I can make it work. I've half built a better one, but find I've yet to make the time to finish it. I feel that my time is better spent actually making products. The rational part of me knows that better equipment will make creating products easier. I just know that I'm capable of making products without those aids, even if it does take longer, or require more effort. 

So while there's a slight cloud of feeling we're behind schedule in the Sunshine House, the time Jarrod has spent working on the Japanese lathe will ultimately payoff. It just takes some foresight to realise these things. 


Gotta Catch Em All

Thomas BartlettComment

Apprenticeship Day 36

I wanna be the very best
Like no one ever was
                              - Pokemon

I feel like I'm collecting gym badges, on my way to enter the Indigo League. I'm already a pretty good spoon carver, I'm happy with the progress of my bowl turning, I can turn nested bowls, I understand how to make birch bark containers, I'm enjoying turning cups, struggling a little with the hollowing. I haven't tried lidded boxes, let alone locking boxes. I have no idea about blacksmithing, but I have at least hit some hot metal now. 


In a Facebook group I'm a part of, someone recently asked, 'Is it possible to make money selling spoons?'. My response was 'You can make money selling spoons. Making a living from just selling spoons is difficult.' My friend Paul Adamson pointed out 'You can make money selling spoons as a small part of an overall craft and skill providing business.' 

Trying to make a living from craft, especially this kind of woodworking, requires you to be able to make a range of things. Look through the photos here on Woodspirit Handcraft. There are plates, cups, spoons, boxes, birchbark canoes. A whole range of items. Not only does Jarrod need to know how to make all of these, there are tools, jigs and machines involved that he might have to make himself.


It can be kind of daunting. Part of what brought this to the forefront of my mind was heading out with Jarrod today to his shed where his forging setup is. He has a small propane powered forge and an anvil. That's pretty much the kind of setup I've been thinking about adding to my workshop (along with a dozen other changes I've been thinking about). Chatting with Jarrod, outside of making tools for sale or classes, he forges about six hooks a year. These either replace worn or broken tools or are new tools to better perform a particular task. I'm certainly not at a level to start teaching turning, so my hook production will probably be max six a year. Is it worth my while to invest in all the gear for six hooks a year?

I know a few folks with forging setups I could bother for the few hooks a year I'd need. It would certainly be more convenient to have a forge and anvil on site. It would also give me the opportunity to practice. So far in my woodworking career I've been able to buy all my tools. On the one hand, having to learn how to make tools is kind of annoying. I don't think I'm ever going to do enough smithing to get really good at it. Blacksmithing is an entire craft in it's own right. On the other hand, having the ability to make the tools I need appeals to me. But the time spent widening my skills is time not spent deepening the skills I've already got. Dilemmas. 

I'll probably eventually maybe get myself a forge and anvil. Mainly because handling red hot steel and smacking it with a hammer makes me feel manly. 

That's enough pondering for now. Here's the cup I turned today. No hole in the bottom of this one.