Friday, 4 July 2014

Everybody Should Carve a Spoon

***This blog has moved to my new website. New posts will be made here***

Creating handmade, personal objects for everyday use.

We currently live in a throwaway society. The things we buy are designed to fail, the natural world is being priced up and sold off and we are forgetting traditional techniques and knowledge that might help us in the future. These issues, along with many others are having a serious negative impact on our wellbeing and on the health of the planet.

While these are all huge issues we might find difficult to address, there is a process I think we should all try to start tackling these concerns: hand carving a wooden spoon. Doing so increases our wellbeing, reconnects us with nature and teaches us useful skills that are hard to attain in modern life.1

This post aims to look more closely at some of the problems we face and will show how the seemingly simple task of hand carving a spoon actually goes a long way towards providing solutions to those problems.

Our Throwaway Society

Just think about a plastic spoon
The industrial revolution gave us a way to quickly and cheaply produce lots of goods. However, continued high supply eventually saturates the market, reducing demand. Initially this was overcome through the rise of modern advertising, creating desires in people where previously there were none.

Recently a new trend that encourages consumption has emerged, one referred to as 'planned obsolescence'. Products are being made with either an artificially shortened lifespan (the iOS7 update Apple released cripples older IPhone models), or are engineered in a way that discourages consumers from repairing them ('Unfixable Computers Are Leading Humanity Down a Perilous Path'). This leads to us buying the newest models available, even when the current version we have is still functional.

So the advertiser's promise of being able to buy happiness is actually a Sisyphean task. Every time we fill our desires with off the shelf pleasures, the boulder rolls back down the hill as a newer and better version of what we just bought is unveiled. This has been observed in America where material wealth has steadily risen since 1946, but the number of people reporting that they're 'very happy' has slowly fallen. Clearly buying things is not the salve to our struggles.

Changes in Happiness and GDP over time

Nature Deficit Disorder

As a society, we are not only spending less and less time outdoors in nature, but there also exists less and less nature for us to spend time in. These two problems go hand-in-hand. If we don't develop an appreciation for nature we are less likely to protect it.

The National Trust's 2012 Natural Childhood report discusses the problems children face with spending less time outdoors:

  • The proportion of children classified as obese increased dramatically from 1995 to 2008: rising from 11% to almost 17% in boys, and from 12% to 15% in girls, which might lead to over half of all adults being obese by 2050
  • Our children are suffering an ‘epidemic of mental illness’, with significant increases between 1974 and 1999 in the number of children suffering from conduct, behavioural and emotional problems
  • declining emotional resilience and the declining ability to assess risk, both vital life-skills in the development of which outdoor experience is vital
    • A potential impact is that children who don’t take risks become adults who don’t take risks.

Spoon carving: A cure

Before I delve into the benefits of spoon carving I want to make two points clear. Firstly, it is the broader connections that spoon carving makes possible that help with the problems discussed above. Secondly, other activities may be able to achieve what I am about to argue spoon carving does. I have settled on spoon carving as I see it as better at achieving these aims than other activities I have experience in myself.

I have carved spoons in many different settings and locations: a tiny Korean apartment, a Costa Rican horse ranch, and currently in the garden of a one-bedroom flat in Essex. This is an activity that can be done almost anywhere, with just a few tools and by anyone willing to give it a go.

Increased wellbeing

If material consumption is not sufficient at making us happy, what does increase our wellbeing? In 2008 the New Economics Foundation did some research into this on behalf of the government. In the end they found that there are '5 ways to wellbeing'.

Here are the 5 ways to wellbeing, according to Nef's research:
ConnectWith the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. building these connections will support and enrich you every day.
Be activeGo for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a phsyical activity you enjoy and one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.
Take noticeBe curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.
Keep learningTry something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.
GiveDo something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thanks someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.
I believe that spoon carving helps meet all of these areas. 

Connect - In August there will be the 3rd annual Spoonfest, during which hundreds of spoon carvers gather in a field in Edale, Derbyshire for a long weekend of spoon carving. Smaller regional spoon carving events occur elsewhere as well. Digitally, facebook has several groups that focus on spoon carving and closely related crafts. One of the largest groups, Spoon carving, green woodworking and sloyd, has, at the time of writing, well over 4,000 supportive members. Also, through using green (freshly cut) wood, it encourages practitioners to connect with their wider community. Many spoon carvers get wood from conservation charities that manage green spaces, from local tree surgeons or from neighbours who hear they're on the lookout for fresh timber. 

Be Active - Collecting and moving wood around is physically challenging. The actual task of carving a spoon require less brute strength but helps develop excellent co-ordination and dexterity. 

Using the Nic Westermann twca cam to hollow out the spoon bowl 

Take Notice - The best wood for carving spoons is from branches that already have the spoon shape in them. With this in mind, one starts paying closer attention to the forms that trees make.
Pinewood forge - spoon crooks

Keep Learning - For many, it would represent either a new skill, or applying current knowledge in a different way. Aside from learning how to carve a spoon, it also leads to the development of many other skills and areas of knowledge:

  • tool maintenance - a sharp blade is a safe blade, as it require less force to make a cut, reducing the risk of slipping and injuring yourself
    The tools I use to carve spoons.
  • tree knowledge - learning what species of tree work best, which are easy or hard to carve, which way to split the wood to best bring out patterns in the grain, differences between sapwood and heartwood. 
Give - many people learn spoon carving through videos and articles people have created to encourage others to take up the activity. In the aforementioned group, Spoon carving, green woodworking and sloyd, there is an annual 'Secret Spoon Swap' during which members put their names in a hat to send and receive spoons they have made. Another facebook group, The Green Wood Exchange  encourages members to swap handmade goods with one another. At Spoonfest:
"There will be areas for you to sit and carve together chatting, exchanging ideas and SHARING SKILLS." 

Connecting with nature

Carving a spoon from freshly cut wood also helps to reconnect practitioners with nature. In order to have a supply of material to work with, there needs to be healthy, well managed green spaces. Much of Britain's ancient woodland was heavily managed for thousands of years, leading to our local wildlife becoming dependant on that management. Pound Wood, in Essex, is one such patch of ancient woodland, and a source of much of the wood I use for my carving. Trees are regularly cut down as part of a woodland management system known as coppicing. Trees are cut down in winter, and the roots left intact. When spring arrives the stumps send up new sprouts. The 'coppice stool' is then left to mature, (usually 5, 10 or 25 years) before being cut down again. This cycle can be repeated almost indefinitely, as coppicing can extend the lifespan of the trees being managed. My interest in spoon carving led me to volunteer for the Essex Wildlife Trust to help manage my local woods and has inspired other spoon carvers to do the same. 

Risk management

Working with sharp cutting tools, and a material like wood means that spoon carving encourages risk taking. Once a piece a wood has been removed, it cannot be put back on, so every cut has to be measured. 

Using a tool such as an axe enables large sections of wood to be easily cleaved, but also means greater potential mistakes to the piece you are working on. That said, taking countless tiny slices of wood is an inefficient and potentially boring way to make a spoon. 

Therefore the spoon carver has to balance efficiency with accuracy. Taking risks and making mistakes is a vital part of learning. In fact, learning becomes better if conditions are arranged so that you make errors. So long as one views mistakes as opportunities for learning, then making them can improve your skill in that area.
Here I made a mistake on the spoon bowl, but it gave me the opportunity to practice engraving decoration on the handle

I think spoon carving is an activity everybody should try. It has the potential to help address many of the issues we face in today's world. If you are interested in trying spoon carving, the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Woodworkers  has many groups across the UK where you can try spoon carving. There are many facebook groups that focus on spoon carving, with members who are happy to share skills and point people in the direction of finding tools and materials. Youtube also has several video tutorials

If you can think of other reasons why everyone should carve a spoon let me know in the comments below. 

1 Quilley, S. (2009) 'Transition Skills'. In A. Stibbe (Ed.) The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy (pp.43-50) Totnes, UK: Green Books Ltd


  1. What a greta piece Thomas. I'm going to comment on it as a preliminary topic prior to visiting Spoonfest. Cheers :)

  2. That is a great piece of writing Tom with good well researched links. I particularly like 5 ways to wellbeing, thanks for that.

  3. The NEF report has moved: