Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Toasting spoons

I hope Don Nalezyty does not mind, but here is his post on "toasting" spoons to achieve a darker appearance and maybe a harder surface:

"The toasting process is quite simple. The basic idea is to kiln dry the spoon after it's completed, but not oiled and bring the temparature up just high enough to start to darken the wood a little bit. 

I generally start at a lower temp, which varies by wood, but around 300ºF is generally safe.

I give the spoon 30 minutes at that temperature keeping an eye on it to ensure it doesn't start darkening early.

Then I increase the temperature by 15º and watch closely. If after 30 minutes it hasn't started to darken, I repeat the process.

Once the temperature is getting around 350ºF, I'll increase in increments of 10º or even only 5º.

I like the wood to darken so slowly that I almost don't know it is happening. It takes a long time as I want the heat to saturate the spoon through out and have the whole thing change consistently.

When the color is right, I turn off the oven, but leave the spoons inside. When the temp has dropped below 300ºF, I'll pull the spoons out, oil them and through them back in for 10 to 15 minutes. At that point, I wipe away any excess oil and put them back in the oven to cool down overnight.

In the morning, the oil is dry to the touch and the spoons are generally a darker richer color. They're also ever so slightly harder, but it's enough that I do use liriodendron tulipifera for eating spoons. 

Of course once you know what temp a given wood darkens at, you can shorten the process and you can even stop just before it darkens and still get a slighlty harder spoon without the color change, which is what I've been doing with my latest spoons with the kolrosing.

Thanks for the inspiration, Don.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The American Chestnut

I don't often see my father-in-law excited.

Of German stock from upstate NY, Dave is stoic and hard, with a handshake that hurts.  He is a retired forester, having spent most of his life crashing around the Adirondack Park marking trees and surveying land for the state.  He has watched paper companies take more than they should for decades, using guidelines for tree harvesting that only apply in the lowlands, where trees grow a lot faster than up in the High Peaks.  He has witnessed species decline, the better tree specimens harvested and the worse left to reproduce.  While the Adirondack Park is as large as Massachusetts and in some ways a model of private/public cooperation, the tree stock is not in good health.  This situation has only augmented his curmudgeonly character.

Which was why over dinner last night I was so happy to see him, well, elated about the American Chestnut tree.

The American Chestnut used to cover the Appalachian Mountain range from New York to Georgia in such a density that people complained they could not walk up hill over the expanse of nuts.  When de Soto explored this area in the late 16th century, he proclaimed that wherever there are mountains, there are chestnuts.  These trees used to grow up to 120' tall, with base widths on average 4-7" in diameter.  Stump circles left by these giants indicate much larger diameters, up to 13' across.  The Chestnut also coppices well, a perfect ring of trees multiplying from a single felled stump.  The wood is rot resistant (due to high levels of tannin), light weight, hard, and as I have heard, beautiful for furniture.  It provided food for bear, deer, squirrels, etc..., and all the attending wildlife that in turn depended on them.  In fact, part of the reason for the extinction of the passenger pigeon was its loss of habitat: the American Chestnut.  The Scotch-Irish settlers of this region relied on the Chestnut for nuts to trade, food for pigs and wood for homes.
The American Chestnut was a keystone species of the region.

Tragically, in the early 20th c. Asian Chestnuts were brought to the US, and with them a blight.  The blight ravaged the American Chestnut, girdling young trees in the first five years of life.  Within fifty years, approximately 4 billion trees were killed, 99.99% of the American Chestnut population.  Wildlife populations collapsed, and an already poor people fell into desperate poverty.  The Appalachian peoples lost two of their major income streams (nuts and the pigs that fed on them), all in the midst of the Great Depression and World War II.  Today, only a few hundred trees remain over the original 200,000,000 range.  Literally every tree in the US is accounted for, registered by the federal government and monitored closely by volunteers.  Some have gone so far as to proclaim the collapse of the American Chestnut as the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world's forests in history.

For years, scientists have tried to create a transgenic variety of the American Chestnut that could resist the blight.  The American Chestnut Society has had some success interbreeding seedlings, trying to breed out the blight-susceptible gene, breed in a blight-resistant gene, and include all the great characteristics of the American variety.  They appear about five years out from their goal.  Also exciting to note, researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) discovered that a gene from wheat would do the trick.  This new variety of American Chestnut can resist the blight.  SUNY scientists are now going through a regulatory review process with the USDA, EPA, and FDA, but in the meantime they are trying to grow ten thousand seedlings so they will be ready to start planting if/when approval comes.

In my lifetime I might see the return of this keystone species.

And this has Dave uncharacteristically happy...

It also seems that the American Chestnut Foundation is having some success breeding a blight-resistant strain.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Half a world away, my friend Eugen from Transylvania ate breakfast with one of my spoons.

Through the Green Wood Spoon Swap Facebook group, Eugen and I were able to swap spoons and admire one another's technique.

He has dubbed it the "little ballerina," which I find wonderful.  While carving the spoon I was thinking hard about what my daughters would like, from the handle length to the bowl width to the kolrosing.  I find it marvelous that half a world away a man I have never met in person was able to pick up on that aesthetic.  Really goes to show that deep down, we all share a basic human connection.

Last week another on-line acquaintance experienced a tragedy.  Alex, a photographer, musician and woodworker, was away when his house burned to the ground.  He lost everything: his home, his shop and tools, his guitar collection, and (gasp) his photographic equipment and all his photos!  Such a loss for this guy.  Thankfully no one was hurt.

Well, the Facebook group stepped up and launched an auction this weekend, with all proceeds to go to Alex's Paypal account.  Objects and bids came in from around the world.  Would you believe they raised around $7000 in two days?  All for a guy few of us have ever met in person.

Some have said that the internet is the world's greatest experiment in anarchy.  Maybe.  In the individual sense, the internet is certainly anarchic at times--like the Wild West, everyone out for themselves.  But the internet is also anarchic in the social sense, where communities materialize around a common passion, are maintained with relatively little "government" (not to minimize all the hard work the admins did for the auction), and almost naturally serve the needs of the group.  Maybe these Facebook groups are an example of social anarchy?

Whatever you call it, it feels like community to me.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A few new turned bowls

Finally painted and oiled a few little turned bowls. Both only about 6" across.  I busted out a lot of blanks and started turning in succession (which for me is one a day), and it helped me with technique.  I still struggle to get a smooth inner surface, and the rim is always a tricky bit.  I am really digging the blue coming through the red on the bottom bowl.  Makes the read feel deep.  Like a "reinforced red."  Also, the surface of sanded milk paint is lovely to the touch.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why it took me years, I will never know...

Finally finished a carved bowl, a la Dave Fisher, several years after instruction from him.  It took me that long to build one of Dave's bowl horses and a carving bench to really secure the work.  Here is the bench:

Once the log was cleaned up and the form laid out with dividers and string, I set about excavating.  

And twenty minutes later, the basic bowl interior is done.  I should have taken more time to refine this shape while the bulk of the log was still on there, but I could not wait to get to axing (and I was worried that all that wood would start to check if I did not bring the bulk down a bit.)  Here is the rough form with some of the axing finished.

And after much refining, going back and forth from outside to inside, from the bench to the horse, from drawknife to gouge, I finally finished it.  I definitely need to streamline my order of operations.  Lots of inefficiency in this process.  Also, it is amazing how hard it was to make this without Dave looking over my shoulder.  Despite detailed notes on the process, I made many of the mistakes that he warned me about.  Sometimes it takes doing to really see how something is done.

And so, here it is--spalted bich, red over blue milk paint on the underside, flax and beeswax finish:

 Thanks for everything, Dave!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Its a wonderful world

In some ways I love this information age.  I started this blog, did a little work on the articles, started getting followers, including a nice guy from Romania.  I got him involved in the Spoon Carving, Green woodworking and Sloyd Facebook group, and he has been a major presence ever since.  And now that group is back at the spoon swap thing, and guess who I just sent a spoon to!?!  My friend Eugen.  No pics to show, in part because I don't want to spoil the surprise, but mostly because I did not take any.  Eugen, hope you like this little eating spoon.  Let me know what you think!  Oh, and maybe you can take a picture of it for me?

Friday, August 8, 2014

My new "favorite" bowl

Up early this morning, making tea, and saw this: bowls drying after a delightful family dinner last night.  A great sight.

That one in the middle is Hannah's new creation.  She fell in love with one of my recent little bowls and asked if she could paint it.  We got her set up yesterday in the shop, and wow, she did an amazing job.  Sanded back the base layer of turquoise paint to reveal the turning marks, and then added flowers and other details.  I love this bowl!

Birch, soaked in flax oil and beeswax, painted with love.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ending the silence

The summer has been busy around here.  I promised the kids more fun around the house, so we went wild: trampoline, slackline, zipline, and the platform for a treehouse!

The platform came together in about three days, and was a confidence builder for me.  I don't do much construction (well, any really), so I was happy to see this come together.  It was nice to build in a tree, where right angles don't count.  Sort of liberating.  A lot was figured out as I went, but the end result is solid! (2x8 joists, 2x6 decking on top, with some 2x8 when the span got over 36", all pressure-treated dimensional lumber).  I still want to get the railing and permanent stairs up before the end of summer, but there is still so much to do around the house (raised bed garden for one.)

I cleared a ton of trees around the house, letting in more light and air and filling up our woodpile for the winter.  It was hard to harvest so many birch at once, knowing I will just burn it rather than transform it into treen, but with acres more of the same, I don't need to worry.  Did save a few choice rounds and crooks for bowls and spoons though.

I have turned a few bowls this summer, but this week I need to get on it and bust out more.  I made one for my niece Camilla, who just turned 1.  Birch, flax/beeswax finish, two tone milk paint with green under blue.

Finishing up another for my daughter Hannah, who turns 9 in August.  And a third for the house.  Also finishing up a few spoons.  I have promised some bowls and spoons to the Natick Organic Community Farm folks for their fall auction.

Most of my spare time has been spent running in the mountains.  Way more to say about that, but not now.  Nothing like running across the tops of mountains...  Thanks to Eric Nguyen for the company and guidance.  It has been a blast.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Spooncarving with Peter Follansbee

Last fall, while visiting the Plimoth Plantation with my history students, I mustered up the courage to show one of my spoons to Peter Follansbee.  Peter is the joiner at the plantation, and I have admired his work from afar for a long time.  In fact, it was his work that inspired me to turn away from power tools and to try my hand at green woodworking.  Peter also carves spoons, and I got to see one "in person" while at Dave Fisher's.  I have always liked how Peter's spoons hold onto Swedish form but also "follow the fiber" of the blank.  Anyway, if you have not seen his blog or spoons, it is well worth your time.  Peter and I chatted about my spoon and woodworking, and he showed me some of the spoon blanks he was working on at the time.  He also offhandedly mentioned that he would be offering a spoon-carving class at Lie Nielsen the following spring.

Well, a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend Peter's first spoon-carving class (this one sold out, but another is planned for October).  Peter has a lot of experience running demonstrations and teaching about carving and joining, so he was well prepared.  His delivery is energetic, the sequence is organized and sequential, and he works the room well, taking time for each student and providing feedback as needed.  I know he admires Roy Underhill's presentation style, but he did a great job in his own right.  I dig the tie-dye.

It was also cool to see so many spoon-freaks in one place, both the newbies and the more experienced.  We made connections, passed inspiration around and generally bonded over our rather odd/marginal pastime.  Peter did his best to teach us, but honestly he had a hard time getting us to put down our knives and pay attention.  As a result, Peter never got a chance to demonstrate his chip carving or to discuss oil finishing, but we got an awful lot done in just a few days.

I should also add that the folks at Lie Nielsen put on a super show.  Several of the Lie Nielsen staff were on hand during course, circulating the room and trying to keep the number of cuts to a minimum (3 in a class of 15 over two days, and none serious. Not bad!)  I got to meet Lie himself, went out to dinner and drinks with the class and the staff, and generally had a good time.  The classroom space is also pretty impressive: timber frame, tons of light and displays along the walls with every single Lie Nielsen tool, all for the using.  Droooool.  They also had Nic Westermann knives for sale, and I picked up one of his sloyd knives.  That is one amazing knife and deserves its own blog post.  I did not think anything would work better than the old Mora 106, but this does.  Nic's hook knives are also really nice, but I am crazy about Del Stubs' knives and have a few more of his on order, so I passed.

I learned so much from the class it is hard to know where to start.  He taught a number of grasps that he likes a lot and a few I was unfamiliar with, including a cross-thumb grasp that is great for working on the finial and a sort of stabbing grasp that I like for chamfers.  We just whittled away at a stick for some time on the first day, practicing the gasps, and I found that exercise really enlightening.  To let go of making something and just focus on movements let me see much more clearly how the grasps work best.  For example, I started to notice that I was rotating my wrist on a number of grasps when I did not need to, and it was tiring me out.
Peter's "order of operations" is a bit different from my own, and I am thinking I like his approach better.  As I have written about elsewhere, Peter defines the inside of the bowl early on.  At this class he roughed out the plan and profile of the spoon with the axe, and then pretty much moved on to hollowing the bowl to near-finished dimensions.  The advantage of nearly finalizing the bowl dimensions early on is that it lets him be sure the bowl relates well to the stem and handle.  My traditional order has been to finish the plan and profile of the spoon first and then start hollowing the bowl, but many times the bowl comes out "off center" from the rest of the spoon.  Peter's order addresses this problem.
Peter also axes not just the plan and profile, but also the back of the bowl and the transition from bowl to stem.  I have always been shy of working too much beyond the plan and profile views until the very end of the carving process.  Start working at 45 degrees, and the dimensions of the keel and bowl start to shrink.  But Peter gets away with it...
Peter also pointed out that the orientation of the spoon in the blank (bark up or bark down) does not just impact the grain patterns, but the shape of the bowl when dry.  Though subtle, a spoon carved bark up will have a slightly narrower bowl once dry; bark down, and the bowl gets wider and slightly shallower.  The change is small, but something to consider.

Anyway, it was a great weekend.  I met some great people, got a chance to focus on my craft, and had a surprisingly good time sleeping in the Subaru.  Oh, and Peter stayed on at Lie Nielsen for the rest of the week to film a spoon-carving video.  Looking forward to that.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Carved Bowls with Bengt Lidstrom

Thanks to Drew Langsner for posting this excellent video on Swedish bowl making (and to Peter Follansbee for mentioning its existence!)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Musick Notes

I am sure many of you know about Country Workshops.  If not, take a look.  Their latest newsletter included a wonderful bonus: class notes taken by Dan Musick taken during what looks like a bowl carving class.

I love these notes, for their simplicity, for the ideas, but most of all for the lovely drawing.  Dan took real time to ink and letter the drawings, adding washes of color for visual interest.  He obviously has experience as an illustrator or an architect.  Great stuff.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Alyssa's Anniversary Bowl

Birch, soaked in flax/beeswax for ten minutes, "Red" milk paint.  Tensions during drying were too much, and it cracked in a few places.  Design inspired by Jarrod StoneDahl's Norwegian Ale Bowls.

 It also stacks with Mae's Snail Bowl

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mazie's Birthday Bowl

My youngest daughter, Mae, has been on a snail kick lately.  She is drawing them, getting books from the library about them, and hunting for them throughout the garden (they have yet to "hatch," or whatever snails do in the spring, to her great consternation.)  So, for her birthday, we had a bit of a snail theme with the gifts.  She received a very cool knit/felted snail made by a crafty Canadian on Etsy:

With that in mind, here is Mazie's birthday bowl.  Maple, I think, soaked for ten minutes in flax oil/beeswax bath, engraved and painted with "Granny Smith Green" milk paint.

Design profile inspired by Jarrod StoneDahl's Norwegian ale bowls.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Been experimenting with kolrosing recently.

For a tutorial, see Del Stubbs' site.  Basically you cut a line into the wood and drive pigment in (ground coffee works great, though I am experimenting with other effects.)  I am still working out a system so that my left thumb does not hurt so much as I push/lever the blade along.  I want to find a thimble that will fit my thumb, but no luck yet.  When finished you need to remove the excess pigment to reveal the lines beneath.  I have been shaving the surface with my knife, which leaves a nice, crisp line so long as you don't go too deep.  Others sand the surface to reveal the line, but I never got as crisp a result with sanding.  That said, Jarrod Stone Dahl suggested that sanding serves an additional purpose. It folds fibers over the cut and helps keep the pigment in place.  I did have some pigment fall out on the two right-most spoons, so maybe I will try that again.  He also said burnishing would do the same.  Must experiment with that.
Also, I have not tried sealing the wood, as suggested on Del Stubbs' tutorial.  Should try that as well.

Oh, here is another great resource:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

My piece of paradise

Photos from my snowshoe this morning.
Our house.  Morning light is just clearing the ridge and coming into the valley.
This is a fire pit.  Must be two feet of crusty snow.  It will be April before we see the ground!
Beech, when bent over, sprout ladle handles!
All I see are spoons.
... and kuksas.  I have had my eye on this burl for a while now

Ellie likes the view.
Frosty dog.
View from the top of "our" hill.
Don't let her smile fool you.  She is done with shoveling the deck.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Why We Make Things And Why It Matters" By Peter Korn

I have been teaching social studies for nineteen years now, and for whatever reason, I have been feeling a little despondent about my present "craft."  I am not finding it as fulfilling as I once did, and I often catch myself daydreaming about making spoons for a living.  Could I support my family making and selling treen?

As part of this fantasizing, I just read Peter Korn's new book.

Part autobiography, part meditation on the importance of craftsmanship, Korn details his evolution from carpenter to furniture maker to craft school founder, all the while outlining his philosophy of craft.  He proposes lots of interesting ideas in the book, including a quick summary of how the idea of the "craftsman" was born during the Arts and Crafts Movement as a reaction against the industrial world.  But his central argument is that making things changes our mental maps.

Korn argues that everyone understands the world by way of "mental maps."  We take on maps like a Mr. Potato Head, adding a bit from religion and maybe another bit from politics, and this conglomeration of maps helps us make sense of the world.  For example, recently there was a great post on a greenwood Facebook group that a follow.  It consisted of a photo of the US Capitol building with cherry trees in the foreground and a caption that asked what you saw: the US Capitol, or potential spoons?  As a history teacher I see the US Capitol, but now that I make spoons, I was also drooling over those cherry limbs.  Our maps are a prism through which we see the world, filtering and sorting information and helping us make sense of it.

These ideas are not new, of course.  Plato's theory of forms does a pretty freaking good job exploring this idea, and Wayne Dyer probably said it most succinctly: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."  Still, what Korn adds is the role that craft plays in our mental mapping.  He argues that craft helps us take charge of our mental maps.  He feels that the maps we inherit from society sort of have their way with us, and that the process of creation helps us take control of our maps, insert our values into those maps, and even alter society at large.  Through craft I certainly explore form and function, but I also explore values.  For me, making treen pushes back against our fast-paced, mass-produced world;  they are objects of integrity that transform everyday routines into moments of memory and love.  As Korn puts it, "However a person chooses to go about it, creative practice directly challenges the status quo of his mental map, impinges upon his core models of identity, and impacts the beliefs of others" (162).

But isn't this what I already aspire to do as a teacher?  On my best days students walk out of class with their brains stretched, stepping into a world different than the one they knew when the walked into class.  More importantly, I hope they leave the course with the tools to upgrade their own mental maps after they leave school.  I think Korn would recognize that work as much like his own, both his craft work and his educational work.

So, if this is the case, then why am I feeling unfulfilled with my teaching these days?  Why am I spending so much time thinking about spoon or bowl design, and even writing in this blog?  Korn says contentment comes from creative practice, but I am not feeling so creative in the classroom these days, thus not so contented.  Most of my creativity seems to be spent on spoons.  I think I need to stop coasting and throw myself back into my teaching.  I have known this for a while, in the back of my head, but writing this helps.  Time to get creative again.

But even if teaching brought me more contentment, craft would still hold an important place for me, and this place is something that Korn does not really touch on in his book.  Another hobby of mine is bike riding and racing, and I have spent many summers working in bike shops as a mechanic to fund/feed that hobby.  Wrenching on bikes was not simply about being close to bikes or affording a new wheel set; it also allowed me to use another side of my brain, working with my hands to transform parts into a working whole.  In find using my hands as hands to be very satisfying, especially since I spend so much time as a teacher living "in my head."  I am sure some have written about this, but I have not found them yet.  Any suggestions are much appreciated.