Saturday, February 14, 2015

"By Hand and Eye" by George Walker and Jim Tolpin

I have been reading and rereading parts of "By Hand and Eye" by George Walker and Jim Tolpin for a few weeks now, digesting the implications (available here: It is a fascinating read, and its effect on me has been a bit like an alarm call.  It is not the tune of the call (the book is longer than it needs to be), but it is the act of calling that is so significant (it wakes you up!)

Design prior to the Industrial Revolution was a very different process.  Before the age of machines, artisans very seldom measured anything: no technical drawings, only the crudest of rulers.  Instead, artisans dealt in geometry.  It did not matter how tall a column was, but that its height was five times that of the pedestal.  Design was not about precision, but proportion.  And everything was in proportion--from the smallest detail to the largest dimension.  These ratios were based on some fundamental "unit," an element of the piece upon which all other parts were related (in the case of a column, the pedestal).  The authors describe how, with a divider in hand, they explored various designs (furniture, architectural elements, etc...) and found all of these fantastic whole-number proportions: halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, eights.  Once you unlock the piece, that is find the unit, this sort of "frozen music" emerges, a symphony in form: "octave, fifth, fourth, fifth, octave."

The key tool in this type of design was the divider, with which you could step out these ratios.  And if you were going to reproduce a design, you just needed to know the "musical score," as there were no measured drawings: the width of the drawer is five times its height, the casing of the window is 1/6 the width, etc...  The height of this form of design was the "Classical Orders," and studying them was a crucial way that artisans educated themselves.  A bit like practicing the musical scales, drawing and redrawing Ionic columns and the like woke one's eye to these relationships and trained artisans in proper proportions.

Why did all of this end?  As the Industrial Revolution erupted, machines took over production from artisans.  Rather than tools being an extension of the maker, the maker became an extension of the machine.  And machines don't deal in ratios; they need cold numbers.  And so, measurement overtook proportions as the currency of design, and the "frozen music" of pre-industrial design was largely lost from made objects.

One interesting legacy of this age of designing "by hand and eye" had to do with counting on one's fingers.  Pre-industrial designers did not like counting by tens as we do today.  For adding and subtracting, tens are very logical, but for ratios, tens are very limiting.  You can only break them down into 1/2 and 1/5th.  Instead, designers preferred to count in twelves, which break down into all sorts of great ratios: 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6.  And so they learned to count to twelve on their fingers!  Using their thumb as a pointer, they would count the digits on the remaining four fingers, creating ratios of twelve.  I had always wondered why the imperial system was based on twelve inches.  Such an odd way to measure things (but a great way to create ratios!)

This has gotten me thinking about spoon design.  What are the proportions that work best for eating spoons?  What is the unit of measurement?  For a while I messed around with length as the unit, with each part of the spoon taking up one third of the total: bowl, stem, handle.  How long should an eating spoon be?  Taking a cue from Walker and Tolpin, I used a body measurement: the span of my hand.  (By the way, the metal soup spoons in my kitchen are about the span of a hand.)  This worked OK, but really the crucial measurement of an eating spoon is not its length.  It is the width of the bowl.  If you are going to put the spoon in your mouth, it can only be so wide (I realize some eating spoons are made for "sipping" and are not supposed to fit in the mouth).  Once you determine the ideal bowl width, all other elements of the spoon grow in proportion to that.  You scale it down for the details, and scale it up for the overall dimensions.

I will add some drawings I have made when I can get near a scanner...  More to come.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Notes on eating spoon design

I have been studying eating spoon design these days, trying to figure out what feels right to me.  Here are some of my notes:

  • How much should the bowl rise in relation to the handle?  About 15 degrees, so it comes up to meet the mouth.  
  • How long should the bowl be in relation to its width?  About 1.6 to 1.  
  • How long should the spoon be in relation to the length of the bowl?  About 3 to 1, though this can vary significantly.  
  • How about handle shape?  I like the tail of the handle to thicken and kick up a bit at the end, giving the hand something to grasp onto.  I also like a little concavity in the top of the handle where the thumb can register.  
  • As to the bottom of the handle, the transition of the the keel of the stem to the underside of the handle should have a little flat surface to provide the middle finger a place to rest, otherwise the spoon feels a little unstable.  
  • The plan view of the handle can vary significantly, though lots of decorative bulges and points don't always work so well in the hand.  I like a little bulge near where the index finger wraps around the side, giving it a nice purchase on the spoon.
So, what does this look like?  Not sure yet, but here are a few recent cherry spoons that I am liking:

The overall length to bowl length ratio on this one is a little under 3 to 1

This one kicks up ever so slightly in the tail.

Here my index finger has a bulge to wrap around.  Feels good!

Here my middle finger has a flat to rest on.

This spoon is longer than the above spoon, ratio now over 3 to 1.  It is nice for deeper bowls.  Reaches right in there!

This one has a great swell at the tail.  Feels very secure!
My index finger rests comfortably on that bulge.

I rounded the keel on this one a bit, so my index does not quite know where to sit...
It is OK, but not as nice as the first spoon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Study, fail, replicate

Barn Carder once inscribed "I believe in replication" in one of his spoons.   Like writing drafts of prose, replicating a spoon must help you pare away the superfluous, reveal weaknesses, and distill the full idea.
But honestly I wouldn't know--because I can't seem to find the time for replication.
I finish a spoon every week or two, from time carved out of my busy life.  Regretfully, I can't seem to take a weekend and just make a mess of spoons.  I know it would really help my carving, but work and family beckon.  Also, I definitely feel that my taste in spoons is still evolving.  I am still coming to terms with what makes a great spoon, and I rather not copy junk.
And so, in my case I have found that there is a step or two before replication:

  • Study: I have tried to carve a lot of different types of spoons--different bowl designs, different handle lengths, different angles.  It has been really nice to sit down with a wide variety of spoons and see what I like about each.  It has helped me inch towards a vision of a "good" spoon.  That, and studying spoons from master carvers.  I have a few spoons from the likes of Jarrod Stone Dahl, Don Nalezyty, and Oliver Pratt.  They have given me new ideas for how far I can push the material, what bowl shapes work, and how the handle interacts with the hand.  I don't love everything about all of them, but they give me great ideas.  I guess through study I am developing my taste.  Once I feel firm on that, maybe I will feel better about replication.
  • Failure: The other day my daughter asked for a bowl of ice cream, and while prying out a rock-hard chunk, my spoon split.  My daughter was horrified.  She literally moaned, "oh daddy, Oh Daddy, OH DADDY!"  My wife was cross and snapped, "Why didn't you use a metal scoop?!"  Me, I just shrugged and reached for another wooden spoon.  Yes the spoon represented a few hours work, but its failure brought me great insight.  I now see how the bowl was too thin for its short, straight grain.  With radially split blanks I need different thicknesses in different places than with bent crook spoons.  Seems obvious, and I understood it intellectually, but nothing like a splintery mess to drive the point home.

I recently received a spoon from Steve Tomlin.  It too was made from radially split wood.  It works perfectly and feels very comfortable in the hand and mouth.  The finish is top notch, with subtle details that belie its apparent simplicity.  And yet, my first reaction was that it felt a bit too chunky.  Too much material in the bowl and the handle, I thought...  Until now.  

Study, fail, replicate.