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Japan! The Three Week Craft Adventure

jarrod dahl

Post edit- This blog post ended up being exactly what I didn't want, an epic story of our trip full of ideas and wild tangents. My very busy teaching season began just a week before this trip. I'm teaching classes coast to coast on top of my regular classes at North House Folk School. I'll also be teaching at Spoonfest in the UK.  Put all this together with the other big project which is writing a book on pole lathe turning (more on that later) and clearly my time is very limited. But I just couldn't pull off a short post. I really had to include the backstories and my thoughts and ideas that relate to what we experienced. It's a great way to process all that we learned too. With so much to share, it was hard not to include it all. I hope you enjoy reading my ramblings.

In mid-March, Jazmin and I traveled to Japan and stayed for nearly 3 weeks. This trip was a long time coming. I've had a very strong interest in Japanese culture and craftsmanship since I first started reading house design books years ago. Two books worth mentioning are Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings by Edward Morse and The Genius of Japanese Carpentry by S. Azby Brown. But there are many more. These books gave me an introduction into the making/design ethos in Japan. 

The first stages of planning the trip began more than a half a year earlier when I began the dialogue about teaching a few workshops with two important Japanese green woodworkers—Masashi Kutsuwa and Tomio Imaru. Both Masashi and Tomio are teachers, chair makers, and all around great people. Both caught the green woodworking bug years ago and even spent some time with Mike Abbott in England.

I first met Masashi in 2016 in Sweden at Täljfest. He was attending the event with his wife Madoka and their daughter Fuku. I attended one of Masashi's presentations there. Masashi is a woodworking instructor and associate professor at the Gifu Academy of Forest Science and Culture. He talked about his greenwood chair making and his brilliant shavehorse design, his apprenticeship in Scotland with a furniture maker, and his work with Mike Abbott. Madoka  also gave a demonstration on urushi lacquer. This is where I learned that urushi may just be the best completely natural finish for woodenware and that it's been used on woodenware and other things like baskets for over 7000 years. It's tricky stuff to handle because it contains urushiol. That's the same stuff in poison oak and ivy.  She told us that when she was first learning to use it her face swelled up so bad she couldn't open her eyes, but now she has an immunity to it. Yikes! Once urushi is cured, it is resistant to water, heat, alcohol and even strong acids. It also breathes and moves with the wood.

Tomio has been on my radar for some years. This was back when I was on Facebook, and also when the days of blogging were a very important part of the growing green woodworking scene. My friend Robin Wood talked about him a few times on his blog. I remember watching Youtube videos of him turning on a pole lathe and was very interested in his work. Tomio runs a green woodworking school in Fukushima that offers classes on pole lathe turning, chair making and spoon carving.

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After months of emailing back and forth, Masashi, Tomio and I finalized the plans. In Gifu I was to teach a 5-day workshop called One Tree. In Fukushima I would teach a 2-day pole lathe turning class focused on turning lidded boxes from green wood. In between workshops I would study in Yamanaka-Onsen with a master woodturner I'd been in contact with. Jazmin and I would also visit Kyoto for two days before the first class in Gifu.

The 5-day class is something that I've been teaching more frequently. In fact I'm about to head over to Port Townsend School of Woodworking in Washington to teach a version of this class. Later this summer I'll teach a similar class at North House where we will use birch. The bark adds a pile of other projects to the class. Then in the Fall I'll teach it again for the last time this year at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine.

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I've found that people are very interested in getting into the nuts and bolts of green woodwork and what a better way than to spend 5 days making all kinds of goods from one tree. In these 5-day classes we start off with riving the wood, then learning knife grips while making chopsticks, spoons and spreaders. We then move into shrink pots with fitted lids. Each class is a little different as the material dictates what is possible to make. We also make coat hooks, and cutting boards or small serving boards.  There is plenty of time to discuss sharpening, design, and all the other stuff that doesn't quite fit into a 2-3 day class.

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In Gifu we used Cherry and Magnolia (think yellow popular). We also harvested the bark from the cherry and Jazmin taught everyone to make knife sheaths. It was such a great class! The folks who attended came from all over the country. All who attended were very kind and very focused. I was a bit thrown off at first having to stop mid thought so Masashi could translate. But after the first day I learned to think about the more specific ideas I was intending to share instead of the stream of consciousness style I find myself using most times. By the third day folks began to ease into asking me questions in their best English and I tried to explain the answer the best I could. I became very aware of the many slang words, idioms and expressions that made no sense to Japanese folks. It was such a great experience to teach in this way. It really helped me to use very clear and simple language.

 It was a big class...

It was a big class...

 Traditional Japanese spoon carving tools and a spoon.

Traditional Japanese spoon carving tools and a spoon.

In the evenings Masashi took us to all kinds of restaurants to sample the local foods. We ate so much great food! We had udon with strong red miso, went to a place that specialized in grilled eel and had been serving it for over 150 years, ate various cuts and parts of pig grilled right in front of us (the grill was in the center of the table), soba noodles (one of my favorites) a few times and a fair amount of sashimi. Japanese food is generally served with a few small sides of pickled vegetables, or other goodies and a bowl of plain rice. Japanese people take the craft of cuisine seriously. Dishes were not only tasty, but also presented like artwork. It wasn't until we were on the plane back home, after opening up our chopsticks that came with our dinner, and looking at our neighbor who chose the plastic fork instead, that we realized we hadn't used a fork in over 20 days. 

 One of Masashi's chairs.

One of Masashi's chairs.

After the Gifu workshop we traveled to Ishikawa Perfecture to a town called Yamanaka-Onsen. It's a hot springs town so all the hotels had hot spring bathhouses (onsen) to soak in. Hot springs are a very big deal in Japan. Folks go there for a kind of holiday to rest and eat. As I understand it every hot spring is a little different. The waters all have a different mineral content and temperature. We went to 4 different onsen while we were in Japan. The bath house has separate parts for men and women. Once you enter, you undress and in a small little shower with a stool for squatting you scrub down with soap and water and rinse off very well. Then with a little towel in hand walk over to the various pools of hot water and soak. You shouldn't put the towel in the pools, but place the towel folded on top of your head. When you leave you scrub down again with the towel. It's a really nice experience. If you ever find yourself in a hot springs town, I'd say go, don't hesitate, it's really nice.

 Takehito's woodturing workshop with all the bowl blanks waiting to be turned.

Takehito's woodturing workshop with all the bowl blanks waiting to be turned.

We were in Yamanaka for one reason—I was to train with a master turner there for 3 days. Yamanaka and the surrounding area is one of four major woodturning areas in Japan. Takehito Nakajima runs a turning studio that his father started years earlier. At the time of our visit he also had two apprentices working with him. They all worked to produce 1000's of wooden bowls and cups every year. There are over 30 of these turning workshops in Yamanaka and the surrounding area so that makes for a lot of woodturning. If you've read the article I wrote for Mortise and Tenon Magazine on "Mastery Through Production Work" for issue 4 this Spring, you'll know I have a great interest in the type of work that involves repetition. Takehito's skill was mind-blowing something that happens from making similar forms for over 27 years.

 Takehito explains the Yamanaka lathe.

Takehito explains the Yamanaka lathe.

 Piles of blanks.

Piles of blanks.

To me Japan has a strong wood culture. It seems odd to look at it in this way because wood still plays a major role for most of the world today from building materials, furniture and cabinetry to—of course the most common wooden household item—the cutting board. Ever notice that wooden plywood is used as forms for skyscrapers and highway overpasses?  But on a broad level wood is not used much in the form of woodenware here in the States. In fact people are afraid of it. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked if the wooden bowls or spoons can be used to eat with. As a bowl and cup turner I am very intrigued by the fact that the wooden bowl and other domestic woodenware has a special place in the Japanese home. Much of it is lacquered and to the point of such perfection that it can be mistaken for plastic. Of course the tradition goes back thousands of years before plastic. I tried to learn what I could about the use of woodenware there, but only got a small taste. There is so much more to learn.  Much of my interest is directly related to finding ways that I can promote the use of woodenware to a broader group of people than we see today here in the US. I find that the green woodworking world is just a very small part of a larger group of folks who use and are very interested in using woodenware. There is plenty of room for the market to grow and thus our culture of understanding of the forest, trees, and the benefits of using this beautiful material in our daily lives.

As some of you know I've built a Japanese-style electric lathe. It's been in progress for over a year. Just a few weeks before leaving for Japan I completed it and began using it in my production of woodenware. I can't remember when the first time I saw the lathe in use in my many wanderings on Youtube, but when I did, I became fascinated. They use a type of hook tool and a tool rest that sits on a table. The tool rest can be moved wherever the turner wants it to be. When I saw the tools in use I instantly recognised the technique as the same as turning on the pole lathe. On both lathes, for much of the cutting technique, the hook is used well below center. This is very different from Western electric lathes and part of the reason learning to turn on the pole lathe has such a steep learning curve.

My interest in this type of electric lathe is spurred on by the repetitive strain injury I have from turning for years on the pole lathe. I have nerve and tendon problems on my right side, most of which is in my standing leg. There were times in the recent past where the pain was very severe. I've grown to love turning so much that I needed to find a way to continue as I age. I tried sitting at the pole lathe, but found that the lack of power really limited the cutting, at least with the lathe design I use currently. I may just try to design a different lathe for sitting at instead of standing. The Japanese electric lathe is my compromise. Plus I can continue to design, forge and use hooks—in fact it's a very big part of either lathe. And the turning speeds are still relatively slow which is what I'm used to. I'm not interested in the high speeds and large horse power of the modern Western style lathes. I was born into wood turning on a pole lathe.

My time with Takehito-san was amazing. The first day we covered the lathe, tools, and cutting techniques. He demonstrated this while turning a bowl. After the demonstration I practiced on a small bowl and then we went to visit a cooperative that produces the bowl blanks for all the turners in the area.

Because of the quantities that are produced in Yamanaka and Kaga, the nearby town, this cooperative is very busy. There are a few other blank producers in the area too. When we arrived their was a small crew of people working through the various steps of producing bowl blanks. Two men were cutting 4-6in thick discs from a giant Zelkova (a type of elm) with a vertical saw mill. There was another man laying out the circles on the slabs avoiding any knots or trouble areas. He then cut each cylinder with a giant bandsaw by cutting in straight passes. After this first roughing the blanks were transferred over to two different duplicating lathes. These were powerful machines. After the blank is mounted in the chuck, the cutter (tail stock) follows a template and cuts the outside shape. The blanks then go to the next lathe which hollows the insides. After these steps, the blanks go into a vacuum kiln. There were giant piles of bowl blanks all over the warehouse. Takehito laughed as he mentioned he would come here and buy a whole pile at a time. 

 Myself, Takehito, Fumi, Masashi, and Fumiko

Myself, Takehito, Fumi, Masashi, and Fumiko

I never did find out just how many bowls are being produced in the area but my VERY conservative guess in 20,000 annually. Takehito's shop makes a few hundred at a time and that takes just a few weeks. Multiply this by months and then factor the other 30 plus turners' shops and their apprentices. I think I read that Yamanaka produces more woodenware than anywhere else in Japan. Mind blowing in many ways. I love that the more mindless machines do the roughing, but the skilled makers do the finish turning. The designs are not altered for the machine. Isn't this what machines are for, to do the rough work? So many times in our industrial world design is compromised by the method of production. It's not the case in the woodturning world of Japan. Of course the business of woodenware is still threatened in some ways. Cheap plastics and cheaper foreign production will always be a threat. That shouldn't come as a surprise. It's the same the world over. 

The next day we visited Japan's only woodturning school which is in the same town. It's a place where students learn the trade of woodturning over a two year period. After this time students can attend for another year or search for work as apprentices in workshops like Takehito's. The school takes on students from all over Japan. Many of them return home to set up shops in their own areas. Another surprising thing is that many of the students are women. This has not been the case until recently. I think it's a really good thing too. At the school Takehito demonstrated how he forged hooks in their blacksmith shop. Takehito's new apprentice Fumi and a student at the school also took part in the lesson. We talked about tool design and all the subtle things that make a good hook. Like the pole lathe hooks I make and use, I've come to understand that they are far from simple. What makes a good hook and a great hook is often a very small detail that at first can be easily overlooked. I was invited to forge a hook under the watchful eyes of everyone in the room. Folks were very curious about my interest and desire to learn about their style of turning coupled with the fact I came all the way from America and I knew how to make hooks.

 This strap lathe was in use until very recent time—the early 1900's.

This strap lathe was in use until very recent time—the early 1900's.

I'm very interested in the idea of trade schools and have been trying to sort out a model that I can adopt. I have searched and found a few handfuls here in the States. Many of them focused on furniture and design or boat building. The U.S. is so big it's really hard to find what I hope or assume are many schools or trainings that are operating under the radar in other fields of craft. I'm not talking about art schools or craft schools that have that bent to their focus. My interest is in a full-on trade school or at the very least ideas on how to teach and train people on a professional level.

After the tool forging we went back to Takehito's shop and hardened the hooks. I then set out to sharpen them and mount them on a turned handle. The sharpening takes about an hour per tool.

 This electric lathe replaced a type of reciprocating lathe that was used in between the strap lathe and the electric lathe.

This electric lathe replaced a type of reciprocating lathe that was used in between the strap lathe and the electric lathe.

The third day I turned all day. Takehito demonstrated and then I practiced. The lathes at Takehito's shop are set up level with the floor with the sitting area below the floor level. So you have to step down and wiggle into the seat. Under the worktable are foot peddles that control the direction of the lathe. The direction in which you turn depends on the part of the bowl you are shaping or the tools you are using. The main thing to take note of is that most bowls in Japan are end grain oriented. This makes the cutting very simple in relation to the fiber and tool cutting direction compared to the more complicated tangential turning techniques I have more experience with—at least for bowls. 

The first step is roughing with a hook or two and also completing the shape. There are templates to help with the shape because they make quantities of the same bowls. After the shape is complete, the turner uses a kind of scraper tool that is difficult to control. It's sharpened like a card scraper, but it's a hook of sorts. Too much pressure and it'll catch. When using this tool you slip the belt with the foot peddle to slow down the speed. That's a tricky move too. The final step is to scrape the item with a custom shaped scraper made from a thin piece of used high speed steel industrial hack saw blade. There is little to no sanding at all after the scraper. The finish is very smooth because the scraper is actually cutting and makes a fine shaving. The hooks were very aggressive, so it took a steady hand and the tool handle pushed tightly into my armpit to control them. When moving the tool across the surface Takehito taught me to use my entire upper body to shift the tool. I only caught a few times—ironically it was when I was moving to reposition my body on the bench and not while turning. Once I ended up catching the tip of one of my new hooks on the bowl rim during one of these body shifts and broke it. I guess I'm used to the workpiece not moving when I'm not pumping it.

In three days I learned so much, and yet it was just a brief introduction. I learned about the lathes and how to set up the peddles better, which was one of my main focuses. Now is the hard part. I have to practice and turn more with my new lathe, I need to tweak some things, and also make more hooks. I've already made 6 but need a few more to round out the basic set for the things I'm turning.

 Cutting the foot on a rice bowl.

Cutting the foot on a rice bowl.

Keep in mind our friend Masashi not only translated my 5 day class, but also traveled with us to Yamanaka. All dialogue went through him. I'm so indebted to him for the countless hours of bouncing back and forth between English and Japanese—not only the everyday stuff, but also the very technical information related to turning, tool making, etc... If you are reading this Masashi thank you again! Arigatogoziamas!

 Carved lacquered chestnut tray.

Carved lacquered chestnut tray.

On our way out of Yamanaka we visited Shinichi Moriguchi-san. Up until the late 1800's the rural folks spent their winter days splitting chestnut shingles. When they found the choicest pieces they would set them aside and carve serving trays from them. The making of these trays ended years ago, but Shinichi has been reviving the craft from this area and also teaching young people the techniques. His work with these traditional trays is very important because it is a true Japanese green woodworking craft. I'm working with North House Folk School to try to invite Shinichi and Masashi here to give talks and run a workshop or two. The trays are really sweet.

 Shinichi and an antique tray.

Shinichi and an antique tray.

 We visited his workshop and he gave me one of his trays.

We visited his workshop and he gave me one of his trays.

 Madoka teaches us how to use urushi lacquer.

Madoka teaches us how to use urushi lacquer.

After Yamanaka-Onsen we took a couple days off and stayed in Gifu at another hotel with an onsen. The famous cherry blossoms were blooming, so strolling around was very beautiful. We just wandered and rested in the hot springs. We also got a very short lesson in urushi lacquering from Madoka one afternoon before dinner.

 These handmade brushes are made from human hair and are specifically used in urushi work. There are only two individual makers in Japan today. The hair lies inside the entire wooden handle which can be trimmed away to get more bristle after extended use.

These handmade brushes are made from human hair and are specifically used in urushi work. There are only two individual makers in Japan today. The hair lies inside the entire wooden handle which can be trimmed away to get more bristle after extended use.

 Some of Madoka's lacquer work. The rough looking bowl was turned on an old strap powered lathe. The one in front of it I gave to her and it was turned on my foot powered lathe.

Some of Madoka's lacquer work. The rough looking bowl was turned on an old strap powered lathe. The one in front of it I gave to her and it was turned on my foot powered lathe.

 High end cotton yukata shibori. A 21 yard roll cost over $1000 because it was dyed with living vat indigo and tied by hand. Imagine the handwork labor and skill involved.

High end cotton yukata shibori. A 21 yard roll cost over $1000 because it was dyed with living vat indigo and tied by hand. Imagine the handwork labor and skill involved.

On our way to Fukushima we visited a town called Arimatsu. For a few hundred years it's main industry has been shibori (a type of tie-dyeing.) We walked around and stopped in all the shops where Jazmin bought some really nice fabric. We visited a family business that has been making shibori dyed kimono fabric for hundreds of years. There were 30 meter bolts of the finest silk fabric with such minute details and patterns that it took elder craftswomen 2 years just to tie it. This is no joke and simply mind bending!

 This is the kimono fabric. Each white area is wrapped with string before dyeing, little dots smaller than a pencil.

This is the kimono fabric. Each white area is wrapped with string before dyeing, little dots smaller than a pencil.

We traveled by Shinkansen (bullet train) and they do go really fast! Something like 200 mph. Inside the train it was quiet and smooth. I think Japanese people are very aware of personal space and in public spaces they are very quiet. This was comforting because travel can be intense for me.

Tomio and his friends picked us up at the train station and drove us about 45 mins to the ryokan where we stayed for a couple nights. A ryokan is a traditional inn which serves breakfast and other meals. We were in a small town so the hostess could not speak any English. But Tomio helped set up some protocols. When it was time to eat or take a bath (shared bath, but private) she would knock on our door and give us hand signals for each. We stayed in many ryokan on the whole trip and although many offer western style rooms with tall beds we always opted for traditional rooms with futon beds on tatami mat floors (tightly woven straw mats) and a low table for sitting. 

 Tomio's school in Furudono, Fukushima.

Tomio's school in Furudono, Fukushima.

In Japan the shoe thing is very real. You take them off when entering homes, some restaurants, ryokans and just about everywhere. There are piles of slippers for folks to use. I found that my feet are much larger than the average Japanese foot so the slippers where always quite awkward to fit into and walk around. I just kinda dragged my feet as I walked to keep them on. I wasn't the only one to do this though. Some Japanese men didn't fit the slippers either which made me feel less self conscious. The next visit I'll be bringing my own with me.

The two-day class at Tomio's Craft House School was attended by about a half dozen people all who had previous pole lathe turning experience. This was important as we were making lidded boxes like those I saw in Sweden last fall. The design is pretty universal though so the basic shape fit well for folks. The trick with making tight fitting lids out of green wood is to use large diameter trees. The bigger the better. Then you cut or split it up so that the radial plane is parallel to the top of the box and the the top of the lid. This is also known as quarter sawn in some circles. Orienting the fibers this way allows only a little movement across the width of the "board" or box and lid body. When dry, if you've cut precisely, the lid should fit and with a twist also lock. It's like putting two ovals inside one another and twisting one. They act kind-of like a cam and lock together. Folks did great! Everyone finished and had a great time.

 Tomio shredding up the the hunoki log.

Tomio shredding up the the hunoki log.

 Eager folks turning away. The man second from left is the president of Japan's Green Woodworking Association.

Eager folks turning away. The man second from left is the president of Japan's Green Woodworking Association.

Tomio's place is an old day care center so the workshop was a very large room with great light. He set up a bunch of lathes with bamboo poles for the class. Tomio and his wife Junko were kind hosts. The last three nights we stayed with them and ate more great food. I sampled some fine sake too. Tomio spoke pretty good English, but there were times when we had to take it slow and consider just what was trying to be said. 

 Jazmin looking at all the baskets

Jazmin looking at all the baskets

The last day before leaving we visited a bamboo basket maker who had been weaving baskets for 70 years! He was in his mid-eighties and moved around the workshop like a teenager. All the baskets he made were utilitarian. We made some small serving baskets with him and Jazmin made a hex weave basket. It was amazing watching him work. Splitting bamboo is very challenging especially as fine as these weavers were. He said it took about 5 years of solid work to really get the hang of it. We ended up buying a few baskets to bring home. The prices were very affordable.

 Check out this drawknife grip.

Check out this drawknife grip.

 I had to try it. It worked very well.

I had to try it. It worked very well.

 I kinda felt like Gandalf in a hobbit's home.

I kinda felt like Gandalf in a hobbit's home.

We spent most of the next day traveling to the airport and then heading home to the Mid-West.

 The awesome goods we brought back.

The awesome goods we brought back.

Two days later I traveled to North House for the annual instructor retreat where I was teaching a class with my chum Fred and I haven't really stopped since.

This trip has changed me. What I've seen cannot be unseen. What I've felt there cannot be forgotten. I don't often use quotes, but I recently read this in a magazine Jazmin reads called Selvedge whose focus is on the textile world. This quote has deep meaning to me: 

"The cult of the craftsman is alien to most of those with a western art eduction; where ideas and creativity are everything, even for those who don't have the skills necessary to communicate them. This concept is turned on its head in Japan, where skill and tradition are more highly prized." Polly Leonard, Blue Collar, Selvedge Magazine, Issue 81

The art world of ideas and creativity has heavily influenced the modern American craft world. Even in the traditional craft world makers alter their utilitarian objects because originality and highly decorated or even sculptural items tend to get more sales—or at the very least a lot of compliments. What about a world where people respect the craftsperson for making the same thing over and over again? Like many of the pottery traditions in Japan, the wooden bowl's shape  and form there has also remained relatively unchanged for generations. Each maker gets only a tiny claim to its evolution. No where have I felt so at home.  

 A wooden cup that I bought in Yamanaka-Onsen. Its as thin as a paper cup!

A wooden cup that I bought in Yamanaka-Onsen. Its as thin as a paper cup!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apprentice Up

jarrod dahl

I've always thought that apprenticeships were a good thing. But what does the word mean in this day and age? The ideas of a 'traditional' apprenticeship are pretty much dead in the Western first world. Classic apprenticeships basically ended with the guild systems hundreds of years ago. But you can still find a few of them today in the tattoo and pottery worlds to name a few. When I was learning I got paid for it. I think there is a difference between a job and an apprenticeship, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Do they attract different types of people? Folks that desire to gain something a little deeper than a paycheck maybe? I'm not sure. I do know that when I was hired in the boat shop 20 years ago, I was paid a very small amount. This was to insure I was a certain type of person. The type that wanted the job real bad. Boats and boat building attracted all kinds of wannabes, dreamers and yahoos. My boss knew this, so he posted the job at something like 2-3 dollars an hour. This was a way of protecting himself from the trouble of dealing with folks who were more in love with the idea than the work. I'm not sure how well his strategy worked, but I did take the job. 

I just finished up a making stint with apprentice Tom Bartlett, who worked with me for over four months. As a way of reflecting on that experience, I'll share a little backstory and some of my usual ramblings.

In the past I've always been open to the idea of having folks come and learn from me. For years I had an open door policy. Even though I never actively advertised for it, folks came asking on a regular basis. They liked what I was doing, wanted to help and learn a little in doing so. This worked fairly well for years. At that time I was homesteading with my ex-wife April. We always had things to do around our home in addition to the many tasks related to the craft business. Pounding ash splint for April's basketry was a fail safe project for folks to help with. I also had a band saw and asked folks to make spoon blanks with it. It was a simple enough task without much oversight or instruction. All they needed to do was split and rough hew the billets then take them to the saw with template in hand. I had garbage bags filled with blanks stuffed in the freezer, all ready to carve.

The idea to get some help in exchange for labor was a good thing. However, the skill of the people helping limited just how much help they could do. Setting someone to sharpening and tuning up all my teaching knives was not an option. In quick time not only would my knives be farther away from sharp, my water stones would be messed up as well. In no way would a short term labor exchange like this work without me also getting the short end of the stick. But I did want to figure out a way in which it could work, both short and long term. 

I ended up developing a work-trade option. This allowed folks to come and work off the price of a one-on-one workshop. It also meant that the work could be unrelated to craft. The common projects were splitting firewood or again, pounding ash splint. With this arrangement I got some help with my day to day chores. This freed me up to spend more time doing business/craft work. This in turn helped me make more stuff, which paid the bills.

After a while, I grew hungry to teach about more in depth subjects like fine tuning knife skills or sharing my process of refining a design. To do this I needed more time than just a few days. I started offering 5-day workshops at places like North House Folk School and Port Townsend School of Woodworking. This year I've also added the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. Increasing the duration of my classes beyond the normal 2 to 2.5 days was really nice. It took the pressure off folks to complete their projects and it gave me more time to go in depth about the skills I wanted to share. I now had ample time to address subjects like sharpening, painting and decorating. I had more time to spend with each student. And I didn't have to cut short my wild tangents on various essential subjects like art and craft, zen, parenting, good music and movies— things that are part of our very real and very human experience.

This extra time to talk revealed that working with our hands has a way of bringing us together. It has a way of knocking down our personal walls. When this happens its a little easier to hear each other's points of view, even if those ideas are opposed to our own. Finding common ground in this day and age seems harder and harder, so it's worth the extra effort to plan for it in my workshops.

And yet, the 5-day workshop still didn't get to the deeper levels I wanted to address. I hoped that working with someone for even longer would go to that place. In the last 3 years I've had 3 'apprentices'. Two of the apprenticeships lasted for about a month each and the latest one lasted 4 months. The shorter 2 were more experimental. I've learned quite a bit from these experiences—and on the whole it has been positive.

There is one negative experience I have to mention and I believe it happened because I was too open and naive, too trusting with the information I was sharing. That information continues to be distorted from it's truth and used in ongoing attempts to defame me both publicly and privately by one of my past apprentices. This has been a really difficult thing to deal with because I've grown very cautious about what, how and with whom I share my knowledge with. I guess it comes with the territory. I partly question myself for wanting to bring it up here, but I feel the need to acknowledge it so I can move on. Ok, I'm done.

The four months working with Tom was a really great experience. I was able to use our time together to increase my production and at the same time offer quality skill building opportunities for him. This is what I have been craving. It's hard to get into the details with someone because many of them are minute. These subtleties are revealed through making the same designs over and over. When you have a pile of these objects, all intended to be the same, you can then compare them to each other. This is when you can see the difference between the ok, the good and hopefully great. I recently went to listen to the world renowned designer Ingregard Råmon speak about her work. She talked about working within millimeters and that the difference between good and great is sometimes very small changes in form. She also did not use ornamentation at all. Pure form. When I heard all of this I was filled with confidence. I was in the right place in regards to how I see my own work and what I was sharing with Tom.

Through the help with my production of bowls, spoons and both birch bark and turned boxes Tom's technical skills increased many times over. Tom was also really receptive to feedback which I think was key to his rapid improvement. He understood what I meant on the first day when I discussed that we will be critical of designs and ideas, but not each other personally. This was very important to understand because critique is often misunderstood and taken for a judgement of one's own person. We are not our thoughts and we are definitely not the things we make. After the daily work of helping with my production I challenged Tom to make one bowl or cup a day. Some times I prodded him to make the most perfect bowl he could. Some days it was to make the smoothest finish possible and then make it smoother. These things need to happen over time if they are to be lasting. He rose to the challenge every time with such a great attitude.

We also had a few critique sessions of my work. After every run we would set out all my work and find the best and worst. We would explore the whys both objectively and subjectively and then move on. When his time was coming to an end we did the same with his work. I believe that giving and receiving critique is so very important to being a good craftsperson—back to the idea that we are not what we make. We also spent time discussing the behind the scenes part of running a business. Because Tom is already running a fairly successful craft business we had a lot to share with each other. I really appreciated Tom's honesty and perspective.

In the end, even though I subjected him to too much sludge metal and other weird music that I listen to, he enjoyed his time with me. I can't wait to see what he will be making in a year's time after it all settles in. But you don't have to take my word for it. You can read about every day he worked with me on his blog here. 

I'm still left with questions.

Is there a need for apprenticeships today? Are they really just paid employees called apprentices? How do we teach folks about the business side of things in the craft world? Those skills are arguably just as important as the hand work. How do we share or pass on our skills with others on the deeper levels? and also when? after a few years or ten, twenty? Any thoughts? Please share them.

I'll be offering up the position (minimally paid) again in the fall. If you're interested check it out here. But it's not as simple as just asking questions via email. If you think you'd like to learn from me send me the info requested and we'll go from there. 

 

 

Workshop for Spoon Carving Instructors

jarrod dahl

It's been interesting to be part of the growing spoon carving scene. When I carved my first spoons back in 1991 or 1992 I used crazy tools to do the job. My girlfriend's dad suggested I make them for Christmas gifts and handed me a thick piece of air dried maple timber. I didn't know where to begin and ended up using the tools on hand in his cabinet shop. I cut out the spoon shapes with a bandsaw and hollowed the bowls with a horizontal mortising machine built the early 1900's. To smooth the horrible mess that the mortiser made I used a carving burr on a Dremel tool and then moved on to sandpaper. A few of those spoons are still around, returned to me after my grandmother passed away. I still remember feeling so excited about those spoons I gave her as Christmas gifts and so proud. But they were poorly designed, thus ending up in the back of the drawer until her death. My mom has some as well and again they are never really used due to poor design. We call them 'clubs' in the spoon carving circles I run in. 

 
 Some of my first spoons, found in the back of my mom's kitchen drawer.

Some of my first spoons, found in the back of my mom's kitchen drawer.

 

It wasn't until years later, maybe the 2001 or 2002 that I started carving again with great momentum. Still with no instruction. I made better spoons. But at that time I preferred spalted wood and I'm afraid folks loved the wood more than the spoons. This is a common thing in the woodworking world. Spalted and figured wood or highly decorated spoons always win over plain, simple and well designed spoons to the uninitiated. Of course there can be great spoons made from figured wood or that are decorated heavily, but mine were not. This time I used gouges, a small adze I forged myself and an axe to carve them. It was again very inspiring and exciting to make them. I was hooked.

A few years later I gave up building houses and went into craft full time. This time there was the internet and I had found Del Stubb's website. It was loaded with all kinds of spoon carving resources. I spent days and days looking at every page and following every link. I learned a lot just by studying the photos. Sooner or later I got a copy of Wille's book. It was still out of print and I payed over $150 dollars for it. I was serious about spoon carving!

I also attended my first Spoon Gathering in Milan, MN the second year they held it. I think they are on year 11 or 12 now. It was attended by maybe 20 carvers. This is where I met—now good friends—Del and Mary Stubbs, Fred Livesay, Tom Dengler, Jim Sannerud, Yuri Moldenhaurer and Rod Termaat. I was blown away that there were other 'spoon freaks' as I called myself, obsessed with spoon carving in the midwest. It was great to visit, carve together, and learn. What I learned from Fred and Tom particularly changed the way I carved spoons forever. Tom attended Wille's spoon carving workshop at Drew Lagsners's years earlier and Fred had been carving spoons since a very young kid, and was influenced by one of North House's Founder Charlie Mayo. These guys carved Scandinavian spoons. Over the next year I adopted the style and began to add my own tweaks and twists. I never looked back.

I guess it's been a few years now and I've carved many spoons since then. I spent years carving them for market and craft shows before getting turned on to pole lathe turning. I carved lots of spoons and made them quickly. I didn't have access to much crooked wood so I focused on straight wood. I started teaching here and there eventually teaching all over the world. It's pretty mind blowing really. I remember getting strange looks from folks who asked me what I did for a living and my reply was "I carve wooden spoons".

I started teaching basketry with my ex-wife, April back in 2001. Over the years I have probably taught 1000's of people. I have become good at what I do and I'm quite proud of it. I have had many great years of teaching awesome folks how to use their hands to make things connected to the earth and our very ancient human experience.

I'd been developing some pedagogy for teaching teachers of spoon carving over the last few years. I'm pleased to announce that I'm offering a workshop this spring for spoon carving instructors. I think that as the spoon carving craft grows so does the need to teach and share with folks about how to teach too. It's a natural progression to want to share what we know, but with the risks in carving I think it shouldn't be taken lightly. Being able to carve is a great skill to have. After that, being able to teach and show people how to carve safely is another very important skill to develop. And don't forget that honing your sense for spoon design is again another step. 

I won't say too much more here, I'll let the description speak for itself, but I hope that folks that are interested in teaching, have taught a little already or folks that have taught a bunch will all be able to take something back to their workshops and classes from this Course for Teachers of Spoon Carving.  

If teaching isn't your thing I'm also offering a spoon carving workshop here in Ashland too. It'll be full of all the good stuff -how to carve and design spoons. The details are here for Spoon Carving Ashland

 

Pole Lathe Turning: Teaching in England, Sweden and Home- Part 3

jarrod dahl

 The demonstration at the Skara museum

The demonstration at the Skara museum

It's been far too long since I've sat down to write for this blog. I have mixed feelings about it, but I've also been super busy. It takes a lot to run a small craft business. I don't think there is enough time in the day to do it all. There is no outside income from a spouse, trust funds, big grants, savings or business loans to help keep this thing going. It's all work and a lot of it. The business administration side of is quite complicated—scheduling sales and workshops, marketing them, finding materials, taking product photos, website stuff, bookkeeping, and the all important budget (there's a difference) the list goes on and on. Even with Jazmin taking on a good portion of the admin work, I spend almost equal time with admin as I do making. And what about my personal life, wait is there a difference? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Because my time is so limited I've had to pick and choose between spending time writing my newsletter or this blog. The newsletter wins out most of the time as it's more tied to engaging with more identifiable customers and patrons, as brutal as it sounds that is tied to sales and that is what keeps the margin in the black. 

Looking forward I am planning to write a few posts back to back over the next few weeks to bring you, dear readers, up to speed. I still really appreciate folks following along even though I haven't been that active here over the past few years. I'm getting into a nice rhythm these days, though, so there might be a little extra time to breathe some life into this blog. This rhythm is in part because I'm writing a book on pole lathe turning. I sit to write every day of the week and have done so for about a month. Things are flowing and I'm feeling more comfortable. I'll share more on the book in one of the aforementioned posts. The other reason for rhythm in the workflow at 'Woodspirit Handcraft' is that I have an apprentice helping me with production. Tom's been a great help and is learning a lot while he's here. Again I have a post started on that aspect of my business too. 

We left off 2 months ago with a post on my teaching tour last fall. For those who don't know, I taught 5 pole lathe turning workshops over about a month's time. I last wrote about the England part of the trip. This post is about the Sweden leg of the trip.

It's hard to pick a favorite because the whole European trip was a blast and each leg had it's own highlights. They all contributed to the whole. But having said that, my trip to Sweden was pretty special because it tied some of my past research and views on production work together.

 Anders and I in Kviberg.

Anders and I in Kviberg.

Last year sometime Anders Lindberg, a well known Swedish craftsperson and author, emailed me to ask about attending a pole lathe class I had scheduled in New York. It ended up he couldn't make it, which was ok as I had to cancel the workshop anyway. It was full, but the spoon carving class that was in tandem didn't fill so the trip wouldn't have been worth it. Anyway... Anders thought that maybe he could talk to our mutual friend who worked for Västarvets as a Hemslöjdskonsulenter.  This is a government organization who's job it is to promote handicrafts in the country. Anders wanted to see if they could help bring me over to teach. In 2014 when I went over to Skedfest I also visited the same region Anders lives in. It has a very rich turning history. I wrote about it here and here. For over 300 years it was Sweden's turning center. Records show that something like 30,000 turned boxes and as well as other impressive quantities of different craft goods left the region to be traded all over Sweden every year. Learning about the craft industry of that area helped to inspire my ideas about production work and also set the tone for my business today. So the trip that Anders was hoping for was really exciting to me. If I could help inspire folks to turn using the same techniques of the past and breathe a little life into the old and lost traditions of that area, my work would come full circle. Sharing what I'm learning is a key part of my ethos as a professional woodworker/traditional craftsperson. 

The hard part of teaching pole lathe turning is that the lathes are big and heavy and the tools needed to turn aren't something you can buy from a tool supplier. So part of the plan was that Anders needed to build the lathes before I arrived. He and I emailed back and forth for a few months sorting out construction details before he began to build them. 

 Center: Sara Degerfalt, Craft Consultant, during a radio interview in Boras.

Center: Sara Degerfalt, Craft Consultant, during a radio interview in Boras.

 Four generations of Slojdar!

Four generations of Slojdar!

I'll leave out a lot of the little details and just say that it was a busy week. The whole trip was organized by Sara Degerfält, a craft consultant, who took us around and made sure everything was in order. Thank you Sara! I gave two talks with a photo slide presentation about my current work which is very much inspired by my research in Sweden back in 2014. I also gave 2 turning demos at 2 different museums in the area. Both were very well attended. It was exciting to see the interest. In one demo there were 4 different generations in attendance. This was powerful to see. I  also had a chance to visit a museum archive where I looked at more turned goods. Then there was the course I taught on pole lathe turning.

As far as I know there hasn't been a pole lathe turning workshop in Sweden since my friend Robin Wood taught one at Saterglantan over 15 years ago. There are also just a few folks that I know of turning bowls on pole lathes in Sweden. I find it a little surprising since the craft scene in that country seems to be very well supported and holding strong.

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The workshop was filled with young people! This is not always the case with  hand tool related events so it gives me a lot of confidence to say that the trip was a great success. I know these folks will keep at it and hopefully the use of the pole lathe in Sweden will grow.

Someone who has been turning on a pole lathe is Daniel Lunberg.   I'd been following him on Instagram (@storslojd) for some time and has a few years of experience turning on the pole lathe. He began turning during his time at Saterglantan, and learned on one of the pole lathes left behind from Robin's course all those years ago! That's just insane. I mentioned to Daniel that I was working with Anders and that we were going to have a class in Goteborg. Daniel came down from the north, helped with set-up, was my assistant in class, traveled to help with the lathe demos, and visited the museum archives with us. He is not only a great guy but is also a very talented woodworker, an attentive teacher and was a great help in the class. We had some good laughs too. 

 Daniel and I goofing around before one of the demos

Daniel and I goofing around before one of the demos

 It's been a few years since I trained in Aikido but can still stretch....a little...

It's been a few years since I trained in Aikido but can still stretch....a little...

All in all I met some really kind and generous people. Folks that choose to steep their lives in craft and the handmade-this could be anything from shoes and clothes, houses and furniture, to the love of wooden spoons that we all seem to have in common. I can't help but think that people, at least in this scene, desire to know where things come from and how they are made. They will search for quality (and that comes in many forms) in those things and add what they can to their everyday lives. They understand that those things give us a certain quality of life.

We had 2 extra days at the end of our trip and because Jazmin has never been to Sweden before, we spent those days wandering around Stockholm. It's such a cool town. To top it all off we got to see the new Blade Runner on the big screen there too. Ha.

 Stockholm

Stockholm

 Jazmin and I wandering around 

Jazmin and I wandering around 

Once home we turned around and headed up to North House for one last turning workshop. It was nice to be in my home turf. Ironically there was a visiting instructor from Sweden teaching that week too. Stefan Nordgard was the guest instructor for about a week. He is the turning instructor at Saterglantan and uses modern electric lathes. It's also wild that he was responsible for inspiring Daniel to pursue pole lathe turning when Daniel was a student. So this trip had a few paths that came full circle and intertwined together. These are the experiences and stories that make this world seem small at times. It's amazing.

North House is an amazing place. It usually brings a few folks from all over the country to attend classes there.  It's great meeting folks from all over. Sharing stories is what ties us all together. I always feel pretty inspired after teaching.

I hope my stories will inspire you to get out of the house and your town, go travel, meet people, carve together, learn together, share....

 Stefan and I traded bowls.

Stefan and I traded bowls.


 Demo in Borås

Demo in Borås

 The workshop in Göteborg

The workshop in Göteborg

 Workshop at North House

Workshop at North House

 North House class proudly showing off there hard work.

North House class proudly showing off there hard work.