Sylva Spoon

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





Dane County Farmers' Market

Thomas BartlettComment

Let the wood chips fly. #marketmornings

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Somehow I managed to set up shop right in the backyard of America's largest producers only farmers' market. Madison hosts the Dane County Farmers' Market at the State Capitol every Saturday morning. Alongside the farmers' market, there's a small selection of craft vendors. I'm now one of them. 

It was a bit of a saga to secure my place as a vendor: special insurance, various permits, licences and a meeting to review my products. The start of the farmers' market was approaching and I hadn't heard anything. I was getting kind of nervous as I'd put most of my eggs in this basket. Last year I sold my work at craft fairs all over the midwest, but this year I only applied to a couple. If I couldn't get into the farmers' market I'd be in trouble. 

With just under two weeks before the first day of the market, my application was approved and I was in. Every Saturday from April 24th to November 10th you'll be able to find me on W. Mifflin Street, outside Coopers' Tavern. Happy days. 

Now a new concern was brought front and centre. Stock. As many of you know, I spent the winter apprenticing at Woodspirit Handcrafts. I learnt loads, but it meant that I didn't have much time to make stock for myself. The apprenticeship ended in February, which gave me about a month make stuff. Being awesome at time management, I used a chunk of that month to build a lathe, and another chunk to make stuff for my web shop. Not many chunks of time left. 

In the end I managed to make what I consider the absolute minimum amount I'm comfortable going to a show with. Enough spoons to fill my shelves twice. It's a little less than what I'd expect to sell at a good two-day show. I guess I was still in the craft fair mindset while preparing for the Farmers' market. Expecting two full days of vending to customers looking for handmade crafts. Not a morning of selling to folks who are mainly after carrots and tomatoes. 

Market day arrived. It was a bit of an early start, having to be onsite before 7:30am. Certainly not as bad as the farmers, who have to be there at ridiculous o'clock in the morning. I set up, going with a slightly stripped down version of my craft fair setup, but with a chopping block and spoon mule. I wanted to be able to make stuff during the the market and was reliably informed that the amount of attention one attracts is directly related to the size of the wood chips you can produce. So swinging the axe was a must. 

 It certainly worked. Out of necessity I develop slight tunnel-vision while axing stuff out. It was always amusing to come out of that zone and look up to find a sizeable crowd attracted to my booth. 

It was great to see so many people interested in the craft. I made some good sales, but more importantly I had some great conversations with people. I spend most of my time in my wood cave, alone, making stuff. I love it, but it's also great to meet face-to-face with people who are interested in what I do. Perhaps they've dabbled in the craft, or it's something completely new to them. Either way, being able to share what I do with people in such a direct manner is incredibly rewarding. 

If you find yourself in Madison, Wisconsin on a Saturday morning this summer, come along to the farmers' market and watch me waste some wood. 

Teachers' Workshop

Thomas BartlettComment

Last weekend I spent it back up in Ashland. It was the premier of Jarrod's 'Teachers of Spoon Carving course' and he was kind enough to invite me along. When Jarrod first mentioned his idea for this class I thought it was a genius idea. Knowing how to carve a spoon and knowing how to teach are two very separate skills. With more and more people interested in making things with their hands, there's a growing demand for classes. I know my classes tend to sell out, I even have regular enquiries for one-on-one tuition

I have a lot of experience teaching. I taught English for two years to primary school children in South Korea. I spent several months teaching adults English in Thailand, and 6 months teaching a range of subjects to students in Iraq. From my time working at Eco-Schools back in the UK I ran hundreds of workshops with students and trained teachers in Education for Sustainability. So when I started teaching people how to carve I was fairly comfortable with the idea. I already knew how to manage a classroom, do basic risk assessment and so forth. 

That said, teaching craft is quite different to regular classroom teaching. It's not the best way to teach, but so long as you're at least a chapter ahead of the students, you can pretty much blag it. After all, no one is going to sever a finger if they fail to properly conjugate a verb. Once you start handing out axes and knives, you really need to step up your game. 

A post shared by Jarrod Dahl (@jarrod__dahl) on

Jarrod's class was extremely useful. The basic structure was of a regular spoon carving class, but with pauses to comment on why the class is structured that way and to discuss things to consider when teaching different skills. For me it was gratifying to see that Jarrod's class structure wasn't wildly different from mine. Jarrod's structure was more refined and laid out in a way that avoided certain potential problems. Just as you'd expect from someone who's been teaching craft for as long as he has.  

Spoon carving class

I also learned a lot from the other participants. As this was the first time Jarrod was running this class, it was filled with folks he knew. Of the eight of us, just two of the participants were new faces for me. The nature of the class meant that all the participants were either professional or semi-professional craftspeople. This meant that throughout the weekend there were lots of great conversations that had nothing to do with teaching, but offered interesting insights into how we each run our craft businesses. 

We're all very professional...

We're all very professional...

Right now I'm back in Madison, digesting what I've learned while frantically trying to crank out spoons for the Farmers' Market, having lost a day due to getting snowed in at Ashland.

Spoon mule

How To Build A Pole Lathe

Thomas Bartlett3 Comments
The new pole lathe

The new pole lathe

In 237 Easy Steps

My first pole lathe was a bit of a monstrosity. It was entirely handmade. As far as I'm aware, the only power tool involved was the chainsaw the city parks folks used to cut down the tree. I was lucky enough to get hold of a medium sized ash tree, about 28" diameter, maybe 10 foot long.

By hand I split it down into planks about 3" thick. The planks were 'smoothed' with a hewing axe. In one of these planks I used a crosscut saw to rip cut the channel for the poppets. The holes for the legs were bored with an auger. It was a great experience to go from log to lathe with just hand tools. But never again. 

So this is a brief account of how I built my new lathe. Feel free to use it as inspiration for building your own lathe. 

This time round I wanted to start with dimensional lumber. You want a pretty substantial lump of wood for the base. It's useful for it to be heavy enough not to move much when spinning larger pieces of wood. I wanted a 10"x4" length of wood in something like oak, ash or maple. Not the kind of thing Home Depot stocks. So I called a timber framer friend of mine, Mike Yaker. For him, 10x4s are small. I wanted his advice on where to go to buy such a piece. As it turned out, he had some oak boards in that size he was willing to trade for. I popped over to his workshop, got massive workshop envy, gave him some treen and walked away with a 9' oak board. 

Mike Yaker 's Workshop

Mike Yaker's Workshop

There's a lathe in there.

There's a lathe in there.

From that board I cut two 2' lengths. These will be the poppets. The remaining 5' will be the lathe bed. In the centre of the bed I cut a 3" wide, 36" long slot. I used a chainsaw, but I think a circular saw would have been better, leaving a nicer finish. I had quite a bit of tidying to do after the chainsaw work was done. I tidied up the slot with a chisel and drawknife. 

Cutting the slot

Cutting the slot

I also drilled 2" holes for the legs. The legs are ash, leftover pieces from the same tree my first lathe was made from. If you can find some 2x2s (that are actually 2") I'd recommend that. I used an battery powered drill and forstner bit. The limited battery life on my chainsaw and drill is part of why it took me so long to actually finish the lathe build. The battery would run out, I'd put it in the charger and get distracted with another task. 

The poppets start the same size, but you want one to sit lower than the other to accommodate the tool rest. So one gets a 12" tenon, and the other gets a 16" tenon. You want these to sit snuggly in the slot you cut in the base, but not so tight it's difficult to move them back and forth. The poppet tenons need slots cutting into them for wedges. These slots need to be positioned such that the wedge will bite against the underside of the lathe bed. 

The poppets need metal centres inserting. The taller poppet gets a straight centre inserted to the face, the shorter poppet gets a 90° centre inserted to the top. It's important that the centres are properly aligned. You want them positioned relatively high to accommodate larger bowls. 


The position of the metal centres dictates where the tool rest will go. You want the tool rest to be more or less level with the metal centres. The taller poppet has part of the rest attached to the back of it. You want this to be fairly sturdy as you'll be putting some weight on the tool rest. The shorter poppet has a swing arm attached, where the tool actually sits. I found that you don't want this to be too large, as it's handy to be able to comfortably grip the tool rest as a way of pinning the hooks in place. 

The pedal system is a roughly 2'x1'x2" box with an offset spike that acts as a swing hinge. The pedal itself is small plank, wide enough to comfortable press down on. Personally I think this one is a little short, so play around with lengths to find what's right for you. The rope is tied to the pedal and goes up to bungees. Here I use a bit of leather so the rope doesn't bite into the bungees.

While I've tried to include measurements, none of them should be taken as the be all, end all. This kind of contraption should be made to fit your personal dimensions. It's a very simple thing to put together, but it does require some elbow grease. Once you've got it up and running, be careful to listen to your body as there will probably be adjustments you need to make. 

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