Sylva Spoon


London's Carving Workshops

Tom Bartlett1 Comment
I recently held a couple of carving workshops in London. One near Old Street and another in Victoria Park. Both of them were great fun and they kind of surprised me with how eager people were to learn crafts.

Both of the workshops were a part of Keep Britain Tidy's Waste less, Live more Week. The week was themed 'Be Resourceful' with daily challenges. The first challenge was 'Make it' and that was where my workshops came in.

While I spend most of my time making spoons, butter spreaders are a better project to start with as they only need a knife and are less complicated objects to make.

I split billets of cherry ready for the event.

I also brought along some thin sticks for people to practice the various cuts with. 

For the workshop in Old Street, I took bookings and the seven spaces available filled up very quickly. 

Very impressed by some of the work they were able to produce in the short time available to them.

The Victoria Park workshop was slightly different. There's a patch of land currently being turned into an outdoor classroom/community garden. I was there to help encourage people to get involved in that project. 

I was set up next to one of the park's entrances and sat there whittling away to get peoples interest. 

Over the course of about three hours I had seven people take part in some carving. Three of them were children, whose behaviour and attention to instruction I was very impressed with. 

It did feel a little strange to be in east London handing out knives to people! Fortunately we didn't have any accidents, just several happy folk who now know a little more about woodwork!

The workshops in Victoria Park might become a regular, monthly event, so if you live near there, let me know and I'll send you the details of the next workshop once the details have been sorted out. 

Butter Spreaders

Tom BartlettComment
When I'm not carving things or out in the woods, I'm usually found in an office in London working on Eco-Schools for the charity Keep Britain Tidy. Each year in September Keep Britain Tidy has a Waste Less Live More week. Last year the theme for the week was food and food waste. This year the week is running from 22 - 28 September and the theme is 'Be Resourceful'
To encourage people to be resourceful and to raise awareness that what's good for the environment is good for us, I decided to teach people how to carve wooden butter spreaders, a nice introduction to green woodworking. 

In preparation for the workshops I thought I'd give myself a bit of a refresher, as it's been a while since I've done spreaders. I had a nice round of cherry left over from the bits of wood I hauled away from Spoonfest

Using an axe and a wooden club I split the round in half, and half again, until I had eight pieces of wood to work with.

I sketched out a rough design on them. I made each one was slightly different to experiment with the design a little. I went back and forth between using the axe to rough them out and solely using a knife. Some of the pieces of wood benefited from being split again, especially if I was just using the knife. 

I ended up with 11 spreaders. It didn't take too long to make these. It was good to do them as it highlighted which knife grips would be the most beneficial to use, the areas where learners might have trouble and how thick to split the blanks.

I'll be running a couple of workshops in London (one near Old Street Station and one in Tower Hamlet's Victoria Park). If you're part of an organisation in London or south Essex and are interested in receiving one of these workshops as part of the Waste Less Live More week, please get in touch (

A Spot of Decoration

Tom BartlettComment
Inspired by the  designs and work of Simon Hill, I decided to do a little more spoon decorating. Here I've drawn out the pattern on the spoon handle.

Carefully I cut along the lines at a slight angle in one direction, then at the opposite angle, cutting a 'v' shaped groove. A small piece of wood is removed from each line.

I made small incisions, not removing any material, to create a darker line. To help the decoration stand out I rubbed coffee grounds into the design.

After speaking with Simon Hill and how he does his work, I think I need to slow down and do a little at a time if I want crisper, more uniform, designs.


Tom Bartlett1 Comment
A Year of Spooning

Returning for its third year, Spoonfest, an international gathering of 200 spoon carvers in Edale, a scenic village nestled in the stunning Peak District has come to an end

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend all three Spoonfests, and this year was another great weekend. I arrived, like most attendees, on Thursday afternoon, unable to enter the spooning fields as they were closely guarded by volunteers, unmistakable in their day-glow yellow t-shirts. Several times I was accosted by one such volunteer (be-hatted and Irish) demanding to know:
a) if I have a car,
b) if it was here,
c) if I wanted to park on the field,
d) if I had pre-paid for parking
e) if I had an email address
f) if I was willing to advertise for Spitalfields City Farm  in return for a parking spot
(incidentally the answer to all of the above was ‘yes’)
Eventually, possibly at the threat of being rammed by a camper van, the gates were opened and we streamed into the verdant field of spoons. I spent a few moment trying to figure out the best spot for my tent, engaging in some rather complex calculations (distance from toilets, ease of access to car, line of sight with marquee, likelihood of being next to a snorer, prevalent wind direction, angle of the sun, nearest ley line, etc).  Finally I settled next to where two identical tents had been pitched next to one another, if only for the potential comedy it might provide. I tucked my tent as close as I could to those around me, so as to not repeat the horrors my tent’s guy-lines inflicted on people last year. Really, the less said about that the better.
Once unpacked and settled, I wandered around, bumping into a few of the instructors, the lovable Barn, the holy Hazell and the distinctively coiffured Owen Thomas. Ensuingly, proceedings in the marquee began, with the instructors all being given their chance to tout their wares for the following days of spoon tutelage. A moment of silence was attempted for all the trees that aren’t yet spoons, but Barn’s insistence that he was ‘being serious’ only encouraged people’s chuckling and tittering. Robin eventually split the sacrificial billet and the bar opened Spoonfest officially began.  
On Friday, the workshops were focused on the neophyte spooners. While it is always good to be reminded of the basics, as one man’s basics are rarely the same as the next’s, I however thought it prudent to save my pennies for the spoon shop. Therefore I strode out to the woodpile to inspect this year’s timber tributes. Amongst the regulars of birch and cherry I found some almond. The steel of my axe has never tasted almond, so I helped myself to a small round. I carved two spoons from it, handing out the rest of the wood to other carvers similarly interesting in testing out a new material. One of my spoons harked back to the Welsh dolphin spoons and the other more reminiscent of the Swedes. The Welsh spoon was carved radially and the Swedish style spoon was carved tangentially, so as to properly explore what almond’s grain had to offer. I then helped myself to a crook of wild cherry. The wood split nicely, but the lip of the bowl kept checking (developing small cracks). The intermittent cloud/sun probably wasn’t helping matters. I carved on regardless. Eventually one of the checks deepened and I had to admit that a crack had formed.
The split lip
It wasn’t great, but I asked the opinion of those around me. Some said chuck it, various glues were suggested, others said to ignore it and use it regardless. Sean Hellman offered some nice insights: glue wouldn’t work for this ladle, as they don’t stand up well to hot liquids. Sean makes a lot of large shrink pots and cracks in those can negate a whole day’s work, so he’s investigating decorative methods of repair, such as copper wire or butterfly joints. He said these might be tricky to apply to a spoon, but I’ll keep my eye on his blog for any such methods he may be sharing. I’ll then be amazed at the skill with which he’s done the repairs and resign myself to using superglue as decoratively as I can (which isn’t saying much).
Tagged and ready to go
This year I decided to put some spoons in the spoon shop. I brought spoons along last year for that intention, but chicken out and put them all in the spoon gallery instead. I laid out my dozen or so spoons, all carefully labelled and priced. I was strangely proud to see my spoons lying next to all the others on offer and not looking entirely out of place. I also had some spoons I wasn’t quite ready to part with and put those up in the gallery.
On Saturday I was up earlier than I intended, my body unaware that I didn’t have to wake up at 5am, but doing so regardless. The Spoonfest field that early in the morning in a magical place, the silence broken only by snoring, trains, farming equipment, the curses of sleepy eyed people tripping over guy ropes and the clang of portaloo  doors. I stumbled about, performing my morning ablutions, eventually finding the coordination to light my cooker and make some coffee. Properly caffeinated I wandered over to the fire to join those other morning larks in smoky conversation around a bubbling kettle. I soon decided to join the rapidly lengthening queue for the day’s workshops. Closer to the front than the back I was fairly confident I would be able to get on Martin Hazell’s burr scoop workshop, one I had been meaning to attend since last Spoonfest.
Martin’s workshop was an interesting one. Having carved spoons for a few years now, I know how to carve a spoon, but having never worked with burr wood, I was hesitant about diving into it on my own. Martin clearly and humorously explained to us how to remove a burr, the difference in grain between burr and normal wood, and how to use some of the mini-gouges. I stuck with the tools I already have, not wanting to get enamoured by another shiny bit of metal. I was impressed with how well the twca cam faired at carving a small bowl (initially at least). My HK spoon knife was sufficient to finish off the scoop I made. For me the biggest difference in using burr wood is in the roughing out. When removing larger pieces with an axe or knife, you expect the pieces to split away in a certain manner. This is not the case with burr wood, as the split follow the grain, and the grain goes every which-way. This means small cuts with the axe and (for me) moving onto the knife a little sooner than I normally would. All too soon the 90 minutes allocated for our workshop had elapsed, but we hung on a little longer, with Martin providing hints, tips, encouragement and regular insults (so we didn’t get too pleased with our progress). Immediately after we left the workshop I hunted through the woodpile for some more elm burr. Finding some, I wanted to carve a deeper burr scoop, something akin to Jon Mac’s kuksas.
Right, the scoop I carved on Martin Hazell's workshop, left my second burr scoop
 I spent most of the day working on that scoop, sitting around one of the carving blocks with some rowdy Scots. The carving block soon became the ‘story telling block’. Anyone was welcome to use it, but had to tell a story about themselves whilst doing so. We had stories of bodies down wells, tarantulas up trouser legs and lifesaving rain jackets. Saturday night’s campfire entertainment was stellar, as usual. In fact, there were two campfires, for a while seemingly competing with one another. Under the tarps there were traditional folk songs, flutes and fiddles. Under the stars there were guitars, drums and, a hilariously gravelly voiced rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Hit me baby’. Eventually, as numbers began to thin, revellers coalesced  around the fire under the tarp. There the singing continued, as did Steve Tomlin’s pleas to be driven to a rave in Manchester. However a couple of traditional Swedish songs about frogs seemed to placate him.
On Sunday I wasn’t sure which workshop to attend. It was a dead heat for Anja’s spoon decoration and Sean’s sharpening. While I really love Anja’s bold style and everyone who took her course the day before only had good things to say about it, I felt that knowing how to properly sharpen my tools would serve me better in the long run. Sean’s course was definitely informative. I‘ll be purchasing myself a jewellers loupe in the near future, so I can properly inspect the ragged state of my tools’ edges. Unfortunately, none of my tools were in that sorry a state as I had bought one of Sean’s sharpening systems about a year ago, which has kept my tool edges in a good condition. While there wasn’t much metal removal for me to be getting on with, Sean’s advice for me was to watch the secondary micro-bevel that’s starting to develop on some of my knives (Sean does recommends a micro convex bevel to add strength to the edge). If the secondary bevel stops being micro, then slicing long, thin wood chips becomes difficult. All I need to do to get it back into tip-top shape is to work through some coarser grits.
After the workshop I spent some time struggling with a couple of blackthorn crooks. One had an unfortunate knot that revealed itself where I wanted the spoon bowl to be. Not great. The second suffered a similar fate to the cherry ladle, checking along the front of the bowl. Slightly dejected I decided to pack up my tent and collect my spoons from the gallery and spoon shop. I managed to sell one of my spoons, which made me happy.
With all my spoons in hand I did a couple of spoon swaps, and generally chitchatted my way around the site. With about an hour or so to go before Spoonclub, I wasn’t sure if I was up for it, having slept very little over the weekend and my office-soft hands were starting to show a bit of wear and tear. I did help myself to a nice lump of cherry, thanks to a guy called Richard who just liked to saw wood. I also walked off with rather large chunk of beech I was encouraged to take home, lest it become firewood.
From left to right, a swap with Tom Standen, a swap with Chris Allen and a purchase from Sean Hellman
After three days of spooning, I hopped in my car and made the journey home, stinking of wood smoke, fingers calloused and sore, as happy as hell.

The Flow of Spoon Carving

Tom Bartlett2 Comments

What is 'Flow'?

At its most basic, flow is when we are in a state of optimal performance, completely immersed in the activity we are doing. Studies have found there are six factors that identify a ‘flow’ state:

1.    Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2.    Merging of action and awareness
3.    A loss of reflective self-consciousness
4.    A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
5.    A distortion of temporal experience
6.    Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

The psychological term 'flow' was introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s, but the subject has scientific roots going back to the early 1900s with research into how the brain alters consciousness to improve performance.

More recently, technological advances have allowed us to scientifically measure what is going on in our brains whist we are in a state of flow. Neurobiological studies have found that a state of flow comes from a radical change in normal brain function.

In flow, as attention heightens, the slower and energy-expensive extrinsic system (conscious processing) is swapped out for the far faster and more efficient processing of the subconscious, intrinsic system. (source).

Another study, this time using fMRI scans of jazz musicians in a flow state, found that the parts of the brain where a lot of our self-checking comes from shuts down, giving freedom to “spontaneous creativity”.

Neuroscientists have also found that endorphin, norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin are released during flow. These are pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemicals, which help improve reaction times, attention, pattern recognition and lateral thinking.

Being in a ‘flow’ state therefore not only improves performance, but it also has a lasting effect on our happiness. Activities that induce flow are positively correlated with happiness and transcendent experience.[1] The enjoyment that flow gives us is dependant  on the quality of the flow state and can have a lasting impact on how satisfied we are with life.[2]

How to achieve flow 

1. Clear goals
You need to know what it is you hope to achieve in order to help direct and concentrate your focus on the task.

2. Immediate feedback
Knowing whether or not you are achieving your goals helps to maintain focus. Seeing the immediate influence of your actions keeps you focused on the present, helping toprevent the mind from wandering.

3. Balance between difficulty and ability 

Discovery in Action
The challenge cannot be too great, otherwise we become disheartened. If the task is too easy, it is unlikely to require our full attention. People rarely experience flow during activities that are passive, such as watching TV. Most of the studies into flow focus on people engaging in activities that require learning skills or using those skills at a high level, such as surfing, chess or jazz.

4. Focused attention
The flow state requires concentration on the task at hand. Not only does the task need to be completed in a context that allows for the removal of distractions, but a high level of risk helps to hone one's focus.

Flow and spoon carving 

As flow has a highly positive impact on our wellbeing, it is an important state of consciousness to try and achieve. Spoon carving is an excellent way to achieve flow, and spoon carvers looking to improve their work can help themselves by creating conditions that are conducive to entering a state of flow. Here's how:

1 Setting clear goals
A tried and tested way of setting clear goals is to use the SMART method. Goals should be:

Realistic and 
Time based.

For example a SMART goal for an advanced spoon carver might be 'carve eight identical Welsh cawl spoons in one day'. A novice spoon carver might make the SMART goal of 'draw a spoon template onto a piece of wood and, within an hour, axe out the spoon blank, following the markings as closely as possible'. These are good goals to have in mind when sitting down to do some carving, but I also find that it is good practise to measure your progress against written goals. For example I have a goal for August, which is 'carve a set of stylistically similar cooking, serving, and eating spoons' (stay tuned to see how that turns out!).

2. Immediate feedback
Spoon carving naturally gives immediate feedback. The impact of each cut is apparent as soon as it is made. New shapes and grain textures emerge after every pass of the knife.

Revealing the final surface of the spoon bowl.

 As such the spoon will take shape and evolve the whole time you work on it. There can be some delayed feedback from greenwood as the final shape of a spoon can twist and 'move' as the wood dries, but often the change is subtle.

3 Balance difficulty and skill
One of the great joys of spoon carving is that to create and object that is able to scoop food or other objects is quite easy. Carving the ergonomically and aesthetically perfect spoon is something we can spend a lifetime doing. Our work therefore tends to fall somewhere between those two markers of success. 

As the process of creating a spoon is entirely about the removal of material, one will always reach a point where one has to stop for the piece to remain functional. This gives every spoon we start to carve some nice limits to work within. Are we able to balance function and form within the limited amount of material we have to work with? If we haven't found that balance with our latest spoon, can we create it with the next? For myself I am beginning to recognise anxiety creeping in with regards to the thickness of the spoon bowl. Too thick and the spoon will feel clunky in the mouth. Too thin and it lacks durability. Finding the right thickness is different for every spoon due to variations in the wood being used. Some species are stronger than others, bent wood (where the curve of the grain follows the curve of the bowl) can be carved thinner than a spoon carved from a straight grained section of the same tree.

4 Focused attention
It is difficult to carve a spoon and do another activity at the same time. Setting aside time to just carve without distractions makes it easier to achieve flow. 

Activities that have a high level of potential risk tend to correlate with entering a state of flow. While good technique means that the risk of injury from carving can be effectively managed, any time such tools are used, the risk of serious injury is present.

 Thus the use of sharp edged tools helps concentrate our focus, increasing the likelihood of reaching a state of flow.

What do you do to try and achieve flow in your carving? 

[1] Tsaur, Yen, & Hsiao (2013): Transcendent Experience, Flow, and Happiness for Mountain Climbers

[2] Collins, A. L., Sarkisian, N., & Winner, E. (2009). Flow and happiness in later life: An
investigation into the role of daily and weekly flow experiences. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10(6), 703-719.