I like stories. I think they are a big part of what craft is. One of the highlights when I’m on the road teaching or attending events like the up and coming Greenwood Fest, is hearing stories. Craft objects are more than just for utilitarian use and this is because of the stories that are bound to them. Sharing stories is how we learn and have for so millennia. Craft is very personal this way, but add everyone up and it’s a culture. 1000’s of individuals. I like to look at and consider what the collective ideas and thoughts may be. It’s just something I like to do.
In this spirit I will share my part of the story of the spoon mule.
I’m not sure exactly, maybe 6-7 years ago, I was going through a phase of purchasing woodworking books. This happens every few years for me. I’ll spend some serious coin on out of print and hard to find books. Usually it starts with a book I’ve been considering buying showing up for sale somewhere online. This time was when the famous book, Swedish Carving Techniques by Wille Sundqvist, was out of print and was for sale at $125-$250. I ended up buying Wille’s book and another titled Carving and Whittling Swedish Style by Gert Lunberg. Gert’s book is a pretty good although not as popular or as well known as Wille’s.
Wille’s book is tied to another story some may be aware of which is worth mentioning briefly. It’s a good story and at some point I hope it will be told more completely. That story is linked to the reason most of us are carving spoons today and it revolves around three people and their meeting, the late Bill Coperthwaite, Drew Langsner, and Wille Sundqvist. If you could track your own reasons for spoon carving, where your inspiration comes from, most roads lead to these three individuals and what came out of their meeting thirty plus years ago. I got to hear this story while accompanying Wille to the airport after the first Taljfest. I sat next to him on that train ride and I listened. I’ll tie this leg of the story in later….
Within Gert’s book was a photo of a production spoon carver. The photo showed this old man working the neck of a spoon with a drawknife. The spoon was being held in a device and was pinched by two pieces of wood along its neck. The photo didn’t show much else. I couldn’t see the whole device and how it worked, but I knew that whatever it was, it was very important. The problem carving spoons with a drawknife and common shave horse is that as the head clamps the spoon it also blocks the drawknife from getting at the full length of the spoon. Yes there are tricks to getting around this, but I find them all a little cumbersome when trying to carve quickly and that was what I was after.
At that time, mainly under the influence of my friend Del Stubbs of Pine Wood Forge. He stressed that some production work should be taken up as it is a great way to take your craft and skill to the next level. Before Del’s current profession as a knife maker he was a world class wood turner and his ideas about production work came from that experience. I had already been exposed to the idea and kind of blown away by Robin Wood turning his bowls in this way using his spring pole lathe. At that time Barn the Spoon was also setting up shop in London and doing the same thing, cranking out lots of work. I remember we had great conversations at the first Spoonfest about the idea that large volumes of work may be part of the answer to how to make a decent living at spoon carving and possibly growing the market as well. This is nothing new if you are a potter, but within the adolescent green woodworking scene back then, production work was really not heard of. Even today production work in traditional craft is not done by hand in most of the first world, it’s left to the so-called fair trade items we buy from the third world. There are exceptions, of course, but a common method of making a living from craft today is to make and market one’s work as one-off art pieces, made by hand or with electric tools. This is a great subject for endless debate and arguments with no right or wrongs, so I won’t go further here. I find myself running that gauntlet as most of us do.
Back then I was selling lots of spoons at my local farmer’s market and at a few retail gallery spaces. I was settling in and getting very comfortable with production work. I began to understand that production work was very important for skill building like Del had pointed out. I also began to be aware that there were other skills I had overlooked, one of which was my mental attitude toward my work. This sets the tone for the long haul, being comfortable with a life of repetitive work to the end of my days. I think that attitude was paramount for me and I’m sure I have wrote about it in the past. This attitude helped me relax into my profession in ways I never felt before. I knew that whatever the device was in the photo, that it was very important for the type of work I was doing. It wasn’t until a few more years of asking around that I found some answers.
One of my teachers, a Swede, Ramon Persson had the answers. I can’t remember exactly, maybe I asked him in an email or in class if he knew about this device, but he sent me some plans for the ‘sked marr’. The drawing didn’t have much detail, but I finally understood what this device was. It was a long awaited answer. I set out to design and build one of them and began to explore how it worked.
Around this time I was attending the Skedfest in Sweden that I learned from talking with Jogge and Ramon that the word mare in Sked Marr (spoon mare) was not a nice word in Swedish. The word is derogatory in some way. Perhaps it’s like the word nag. I don’t remember for sure, but somewhere in that conversation the name spoon mule was thrown out as a good name. That’s what I began to call it.
Eventually I put up a Youtube video of the spoon mule I made along with a few other short videos of it in use. I felt a device like this needed to be shared with the larger spoon carving community and I hoped that my Youtube videos were all that was needed for people to build their own.
Today we see its use here and there by folks interested in production work, those that carve who don’t have the strength and prefer to use a drawknife, or those that fetishize things like shave horses and work benches. You can see these spoon mules in use by others on Youtube as well. Some of these seem to me pretty flimsy and they don’t look like they would take the long haul of hard production work. I think they need to be designed and built better. Folks sent me emails asking for plans and tips. I toyed with the idea of selling plans, but I knew my drafting days were over.
This brings me to Dawson. He is rolling on Instagram as Michigan Sloyd. He’s cranking out some sweet spoons and using the mule to do it. Dawson messaged me a few months ago asking if it was ok with me if he sold plans for the spoon mules he's designed. I don’t hold any idea of ownership on the mule. I am just a part of the continuum as is everyone in this story. I really respected his attitude on this. I gave him my full support. He had taken the basic design of the mule I made from my videos and put it on the body of Tim Manney’s shave horse (which has another long story of development, ask Tim).
Dawson’s idea was brilliant. His mules are top notch. Why? because they are made from select lumber and precise joinery, and they have proven themselves through his production spoon carving work, day in and day out.
I recently got to meet Dawson and to try out one of his mules at Wood Week at North House Folk School this past March. Dawson is a great guy and talented woodworker. I love it that he’s into the production mindset too. I have a lot of respect for that and it’s refreshing to see more folks taking green woodworking and spoon carving on as a profession. Dawson is selling spoon mules and I think plans are in the works too. Check out his website here and get on Instagram (if you are not already) and give him a follow. You can ask him about having him build you a mule or sell you some plans.
As far as Dawson’s story that’s for him to tell, and I hope he does.
I think most of us agree that it feels good to meet folks in person that we know only through the social media networks. I always think that at some point one needs to put skin in the game and go meet face to face. This has great meaning in the way of intent not just in reference to participating within a community on a very real level but also reflects a level of understanding or maybe a certain perspective in regards to our craft as it ties to sharing stories. At some point we need to look at each other in the eyes when we talk about skills, design, and technique. The sharing of our stories face to face connects us to others. It helps to keep the continuum intact. In this day and age it’s really easy to go to the internet to learn and research (we all do it) and leave it at that. I would encourage everyone at some point to go meet people face to face, carve together, take a class, get to an event, organize a carve-in, whatever it is you are interested in, take it to the next level, make it a point to meet your people.
The spoon mule made it into the open for everyone’s benefit because at some point I left my house. I left home to go hear the stories of others and I returned home to share them in my own way.
If we can follow the example of those three individuals who lead the way we may come to realizes that experiences are not just for ourselves nor are the stories we tell. We need go out of our way to look at each other in the eyes like they did. There is power in it.