Sylva Spoon

Council Tools Camp Carver

Thomas BartlettComment
Camp Carve Axe

Council Tools asked me to preview their newest axe, the Camp-Carver. It’s been designed as a camp axe that can also tackle green woodworking tasks. They sent an early production model for me to see how well it works as a carving axe, and to provide feedback for improvements. They’ve got a few bushcrafters looking into its camp functionality. I don’t often find myself having to strike ferro-rods or build shelters in my workshop, so I’ll just stick to talking about what I know.

For a carving axe it’s got quite a long handle, 40cm (15 ¾”) and an overall weight of about 950 grams (almost 2.2lbs). The cutting edge has a nice curve and is 9.5cm (3 ¾”) long. Out of the box it had a slight convex secondary bevel. This makes a stronger edge for performing tasks like felling or splitting. When carving we want a single bevel that runs straight to the edge. This lets us use that bevel as a guide for accuracy. We can lay the bevel flat against the wood and know that the edge with start to engage with the wood. A secondary bevel lifts the cutting edge away from the wood, making it harder to know at what angle the edge will start to bite. A secondary bevel naturally occurs after a lot of stropping, so removing one is a common enough task and didn’t take too long.

Camp Carve Axe


I’ve axed out about half a dozen spoons with it. It’s a nice axe. I’ve always maintained that any hatchet with a narrow bit and a sharp edge can be used for carving. While this axe wasn’t designed with carving solely in mind, carving is one of its intended uses. A feature I really like in my carving axes is having a bearded head. For delicate, fine control you want to hold the handle as close to the axe head as possible. With a bearded axe, this puts your hand directly behind the cutting edge. You can now use your sense of proprioception. With your hand directly behind the cutting edge of the axe you have a better idea of where the edge will land.

Another feature I like in a carving axe is a curved edge. The best way to get a clean surface when carving with an axe is to have a good slicing action. The curved shape helps with these slicing cuts. The curve puts a smaller surface area in contact with the wood, increasing its cutting force. The Camp-Carve curve is pretty much the same as my Hans Karlsson Sloyd axe, which makes it easier for me switching between the two. Not sure where this is coming from, but I feel that for the weight of the axe, I’d like a slightly longer cutting edge. The Camp-Carve is 250 grams heavier (almost 9oz) heavier than the Hans Karlsson, but with almost the same edge length. It’s how I feel, but I’m struggling to come up with a proper rationalisation for why.

Camp Carve Axe

The slightly longer handle requires a little getting used to. I don’t know if it poses an actual issue or if I’m just accustomed to the shorter handle length of my other axes. A too long handle is certainly a hindrance in a carving axe. It gets in the way. A longer handle that’s just the right (wrong?) length will hit your body, throwing off the accuracy of your strikes. This wasn’t the case for me, but this is something that will be different for different people. This is purely personal, but I’d also like a slightly thicker handle, with more of a curve to it. I’m far too lazy to ever replace a perfectly functional handle. Unfortunately they’ve done a great job with the grain orientation of the hickory handle so it probably won’t be failing anytime soon.

I got into green woodworking by making a lot of pointy sticks as a child. In my early twenties I got back into camping and wanted to make more than just pointy sticks. That was my entry into green woodworking. I had a Swiss Army Knife, quickly upgraded to a Mora Clipper for most of my initial carving. Many, many blisters and aching muscles later I added the Gransfors Wildlife hatchet to my tools. I picked that axe because it’s a nifty little carver but it was designed as  packable camping hatchet. Here in the US, where some parks let you cut dead standing wood, adding an axe to your pack is fairly common. I’ve done very little dispersed camping here, and I didn’t bring any of my fancy $250 carving axes with me. I brought along my slightly more beat up Gransfors for handling a variety of camp tasks, as well as a little spoon carving. An axe that can carve and do tasks around a campground is a nice mix.

Spoon Carving Axe

If you are in the market for an axe, enjoy camping and/or want to start carving, the Council Tool Camp-Carver is a good choice. I’d also say it’s a pretty good choice for people who are already carving, looking to upgrade from their big box store hatchet. It’s got a lot of the same features as dedicated carving axes with one added bonus: you’ll probably be able to find one. With the rise in popularity of spoon carving and sloyd, many smaller tool makers are struggling to keep up with demand. As an owner of two of the more popular carving axes I think they’re definitely worth waiting for, but if the lack of an axe is holding you back from carving, this is a great option. It would be fantastic if Council Tools decided to come out with a dedicated carving axe (hint hint). For the moment, this is the closest they’ve got in their line up and it’s certainly capable of getting work done.

Vital Statistics from Council Tools:

5160 Steel
Premium Hickory handle
26 oz. Head weight (737 grams)
25 deg. Flat-grind
3.75” Bit length
15.5” Overall length
Hardened poll
90 deg. Spine
Large hatchet eye
Bearded
NOS Handle design

RRP $135

Cups

Thomas BartlettComment

Now the Farmers’ Market has finished, I’ve been able to focus on new products. I’ve been turning end grain cups. I turned my first end grain cups back in February during my apprenticeship. And none since. The main reason is not having the proper tools for end grain turning. I wanted to make my own hooks. That required blacksmithing equipment. I’ve slowly gathered everything I need: a small propane forge, a two pound hammer, tongs, a section of train track for an anvil and some O1 tool steel.

I forged myself nine new hooks. A few bowl hooks and two sets of end grain hooks. Once I had the hooks sharpened, I chucked some wood on the lathe and started turning a cup. It quickly became clear that a few of the hooks just weren’t working. Which is fine. Before this, I only forged two turning hooks from start to finish. Under direct supervision at that. Fortunately I was able to throw the bad hooks back in fire and rework them. I still haven’t quite got them working the way I want. But I’ll get there.

Back when I built my first pole lathe, I was using a set of three hooks I bought from Ben Orford. Turns out the cranked hook works well for end grain hollowing. I still want to make a specialised tool for end grain hollowing, but this works well enough until I have all the factors figured out.

For those of you who follow me on Instagram or Facebook already know some of the problems I’ve been facing. In the past two weeks I’ve turned about a dozen cups. Four have (so far) survived. The first cup I went too thin and cut a hole through the cup wall. While turning the second cup, the hollowing tool caught and twisted inside the cup. This pushed agains the rim, splitting it. It was a small split and I finished the cup anyway. For the practice. In the first week of having the tools I got four cups off the lathe and onto the drying shelf. All of them split while drying.

That was a mildly crushing defeat. Having cups fail on the lathe is entirely down to bad technique. I’m fine with that. It shows, quite clearly, techniques I need to improve. Having them split while drying feels much more avoidable. I’m sure part of it is cup design. I might have left areas too thick, or unevenly thick. Historically, end grain cups tended to have relatively thick bases and . Robin Wood has some great examples in his book The Wooden Bowl. Comparing my failed cups to the 10th century cups examples, they didn’t seem much different. If it wasn’t design, then the cups cracked due to environmental conditions.

I confidently chucked my cups up on the shelf because that’s were I’d been (successfully) drying out bowls. Zero bowl casualties, 100% cup fatalities. Clearly, cups aren’t bowls. After sharing a picture of my cracked bottom (that sounds wrong) I received an outpouring of help from the green woodworking community. A lot of the advice is stuff I kind of know already: put it in a paper bag, surround it in wet wood shavings, basically increase the humidity of the drying environment to slow the movement of moisture out of wood. It was all stuff I didn’t do. So now the cups will be spending a couple of week lounging in a paper bag filled with wood shavings. The fact that the humidity of my workshop is about 70% suggests I still need to work on design as well.

As annoying as failures are, they still represent really important opportunities for learning. My failed turning hooks have shown me how to make better hooks. The cups that failed on the lathe told me what techniques I need to work on. The cups that split while drying were an important reminder that the cups aren’t finished until they’re actually ready for use. Even then they might fail in use, demonstrating more ways to improve.

Craft and Art

Thomas Bartlett4 Comments

My Art Inferiority Complex

Art vs Craft

Art won the propaganda war over craft about 600 years ago. Around this time the arts differentiated themselves from artisans. Artists became famous and crafts began to decline in status. In Europe, rich Christians and the Church commissioned artists to paint religious scenes. The House of Medici provided funding for works by Leonardo de Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, among others. These people were funding painters, not blacksmiths. 

Under this system of funding it was the artist who were regarded as special, not necessarily their work. Many of these artists were highly skilled, but they may have had contemporaries with similar abilities that weren't recognised until much later on. Van Gogh had to wait until he was dead before he sold a painting. Craftspeople couldn't afford to do that. Craftspeople had to rely solely on the strength of their products, as they themselves were often relatively anonymous. 

The ‘Art vs Craft’ debate tends to get reduced to ‘art looks good but is kind of useless while craft is handy to have around but it’s emotionless and simplistic’. This is often the result because one side is trying to prove it’s better than the other. This is stupid. Art and craft have their own separate goals in mind. My complaint is that in our collective ideology, art is often compared to craft and considered to be superior. This is a love letter to craft, adding to the growing literature that craft is important and shouldn’t play second fiddle to art. Partly because craft made the violin art’s using.

For the sake of this article, I'm defining craft as things created to fulfil a utilitarian function. A teapot, shoes, a bicycle. Art as things created to evoke an emotional response. A painting, a sculpture, a film. Art and craft have a lot in common. However we humans like to put things into categories. We prefer 'or' to 'and'. This divide can feel like a false barrier, and there exist a whole host of items that fall into the ambiguous grey zone of something between art and craft. That said, creating clear definitions is extremely important. The magic of language, the ability to take a formless idea that exists only in our minds and breath life into it through words so it can, fully formed, enter the mind of another, is an amazing thing. An amazing thing that only works if words have meanings. In this context, saying ‘art or craft is whatever you want it to be’ really isn’t helpful.

I don't want people to think I'm trying to belittle the value of art. I'm not. I think art is extremely important. Good art opens our eyes to new ideas, it excites us and gets us feeling and thinking in new ways. We desperately need good art in our lives. What I'm trying to do here is raise the stature of craft. This is an essay praising the value of craft. Valuable in its own right.

Craft is not Art waiting to be born.

I hate it when people call craft 'art', as a complement. It conveys the impression that if only the craft is good enough it can be elevated to the venerated position of ‘art’. If we craftspeople work hard enough or put our hearts into our work we might one day be considered Artists. Oh to dare to dream.

He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
— Louis Nizer

Good art gets us to feel. It exists to evoke emotion and helps to evolve human consciousness. Craft is designed to make our day-to-day lives better. It’s importance is in a comfy sweater, your favourite coffee mug, the pen that glides across the page. Craft is at its best when it works. When a craft object works really well, it integrates itself seamlessly into our life. This seamless integration is part of the problem in raising the profile of craft. It quickly fades into the background. There’s the initial excitement of getting a handcrafted kitchen knife that effortlessly slices and dices. After a few ragouts and several pico del gallos, we’re used to the way it glides through tomatoes with ease. The facile cleaving of fruit no longer elicits the excitement it once did. Without being mindful of the importance of craft, it’s likely we won’t notice it again until it stops working. We value it without appreciating it.

Life just works better with good craft. We might only get a small pleasure from using good craft objects. But we have the potential to use them a lot. Our current culture has created a cult of the exotic. We’ve become conditioned to look for enjoyment only from things rare and difficult to access. Repetition is looked down on as boring. We’ve come to believe that if we get to experience something everyday, it can’t be significant.

We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life - those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength
— Oswald Chambers

Simple Pleasures From Simple Objects

In order to raise the status of craft in our current culture we have to highlight the importance of the little things in life. Craft makes the things we do everyday more enjoyable. It’s because we do these things everyday that we should take notice of them and the potential for enjoyment they bring.

It is important to allow the well made into our lives. Well made craft items function well. This makes the tasks they’re designed to fulfil more enjoyable. If a cooking spoon is comfortable to hold, does a great job of getting into the corners of your pot and is able to scrape the bottom just right, I guarantee that the person who made it spent a lot of time thinking about hands, pots, stirring technique and cooking. Their thoughtful effort makes your cooking experience more enjoyable. If you’re anything like me, you like to eat. It’s an activity I engage in several times a day. Which means a lot of cooking as eating Pringles straight out of the tube while standing over the sink loses it’s charm fairly quickly. If we own well made craft items that work well we would do well to consider the maker; the thought and effort they put into their work so we can scramble our eggs in an enjoyable manner. In this way, good craft not only makes tasks more enjoyable but it connects us to the people that made them.

Good craft items are practical, physical objects that can represent certain values or feelings. We are shaped by our environment, therefore we would do well to fill our homes with work that represents values we want to embody. For example, we might want to show our appreciation for the natural world - owning items crafted from natural fibres could help remind us of our connection to the living world. A person feeling downtrodden by modern life - it’s hectic rushing, cold technology and excessive precision - might be drawn to a handmade wooden bowl. As well as comfortably holding nourishing soup it is a balancing symbol of nature, the rustic and craft.

There are many daily activities we engage in that good craft can make more enjoyable. By taking the time to notice what works and what doesn’t in our lives we can consciously use good craft items to improve our day-to-day existence. Craft isn’t likely to deliver the lightening bolt of new ideas and emotion that art does. It’s more of a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day - simple, unobtrusive but greatly appreciated.

Driftless Spoon Gathering 2018

Thomas BartlettComment

Last weekend was the Driftless Spoon Gathering in La Farge, WI. It’s organised by the Driftless Folk School and was the first US spoon gathering I attended back in 2015. I couldn’t make it last year, so it was great to be able to attend this year.

We’re kind of lucky the event was able to go ahead at all. Just a few weeks earlier La Farge was hit hard by flooding. Parts of the village were 10 feet underwater. By the time we arrived La Farge seemed to have recovered well enough for the local school kids to ‘TP’ several houses during homecoming, which fell on the same weekend as the Gathering.

As usual, I carpooled there with Derek. We had planned a couple of camp meals together with Tom Dengler and Fred Livesay. I brought along pork kebabs, Derek had a couple of breakfast hashes planned. Pretty much everything tastes better cooked over a fire while camping.

Campfire

The event itself is pretty chill. As the name suggests, it’s a gathering. We spoon carvers gather and carve spoons. This year’s turnout was fairly small, perhaps 20 or so people. Most people had at least some experience in spoon carving. Terry Beck, one of the organisers of the event, was doing a great job of making sure newbies got at least some instruction.

Terry giving some instruction

Terry giving some instruction

I had a lot of fun with some of the people new to the craft. I managed to convince the Driftless Folk School’s new admin hire to carve her first spoon. I showed a 7 year old how to hollow out a spoon and was impressed by how well they took to the task. A family of three were all carving in unison, having just learned how to safely perform some new knife grips.

I met lots of fantastic people at the Gathering. Most I’d met before at previous gatherings. Or we’d interacted online. I finally met Daniel Marcou face-to-face. He interviewed me for his website last year. He also brought some fabulous cherry crooks along to the Gathering. I nabbed a couple and spent most of the weekend working on them.

I also got a chance to chat with Greg Nelson. Our paths had crossed previously, but I didn’t get much of a chance to paw through examples of his work. Greg carves fantastic eating spoons. I highly recommend you check his work out. I bought one of his spoons and so far have used it daily.

These gatherings are always a lot of fun. If you’re into spoon carving you already know that it’s mostly a solo activity. The peaceful nature of sitting alone, slowly shaping wood into a useful utensil is an aspect that draws many to the craft. Explaining the joy of spoon carving to the uninitiated can be difficult. So hanging out with so many people that already get it and are as willing as you to nerd out over wood types, spoon designs and mouth feel is a great pleasure.

Spoon circle spoons

Spoon circle spoons

Spoon Crooks

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment

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.