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Context is Important

jarrod dahl

This is good....

A few weeks ago I taught a 3 day pole lathe turning and a 2 day spoon carving workshop in upstate New York. I've been back home for awhile now and I'm still reflecting on my experiences from the trip. There is something about meeting new folks, carving together and sharing stories about life and craft that strikes a deep feeling in me.  These experiences solidify the many facets of what I call Realcraft.  It's the people, food, stories, skills, life, the sharing, etc.. the real life backstory to the images on your favorite social media platform or "how to" video on Youtube, blog, etc... that defines Realcraft for me.  I find that the information age and all that comes with it, at times, depicts the craft objects separate from the whole story.  I don't think it's intentional, it's by default, unless we go out of our way to explain it or to look for it.  But I do think that when taken out of the full context - craft is misunderstood or over simplified. There are many angles to craft but at the least I like the story to include us, the folks, and our individual context we bring with it, whatever that might be.

We make things for different reasons. This is a fact. As a professional, I may have very different reasons for making the things that I sell than someone who is enjoying the weekend sitting around carving spoons as a way to relax between family life, work, and all the other stuff daily life brings. At some earlier point those reasons may have been the same.  It's hard to say without individual personal dialogue and I dare not assume.  Some of the reasons for making could be parallel,'s complex. But when I continually search for folks like me, I come up short. There just aren't that many folks that take the professional road. This is ok as it's the way it is.  But when I want to talk about turning handled cups on a pole lathe with someone else on a technical level, as a peer, there are only two others that I've the world. I've looked long and hard.  One is in the UK (my friend Robin Wood) and the other in Spain, but he doesn't speak very good English and never replied to my inquiries. There might be more but either way...not many. To be clear, this is my context, with no intended offense to anyone who makes for other reasons.  I'm looking for folks who have put skin in the game in a similar way as I have.  Earlier this winter, after I stated I was probably the only person in the world making a turned wooden flask that day, I was asked by Charlie Ryland, a craftsman who was staying with us, "how it felt?" to which I replied, "lonely".  I don't think it was the reply he was expecting. While at first thought one would think it's special to be the only one, I don't.  I'm very interested in the rise of the traditional craftsperson, and on a professional level. There needs to be more of us.  But this takes time.

That's the backdrop to what's context should be clear.

Derek Sanderson is someone I met over the internet within the green woodworking social media network. We had a few personal dialogues via Facebook messenger before we met face to face. Derek and Oliver Pratt (another very talented spoon carver) both stopped by to visit before The Spoon Gathering last June. They traveled about 250 miles out of their way to visit.  This is the problem with the U.S. in that it's way too big.  They still found the time to stop by and we fell right into it, carving and turning, too.  It is always good to meet face to face as it brings the context to the written words.  I find considerable enjoyment with meeting folks in 'real life'.  Going out of our way to meet face to face is important and I pay close attention to those that do go out of their way to participate.  It ties back to the Realcraft ethos.  For me, folks that are putting skin in the game are worth paying attention to.

Derek put me up for my stay in New York and after my arrival and an hour or so of catching up I noticed the hundreds of spoons sitting delicately on top of Derek's cabinets with all the tips of the spoons peeking out. There was also a big basket of spoons in the background. It hit me as he handed me one of his current spoons that all these spoons have lead up to the spoon in my hand!  This was Derek's continuum of spoon carving progression.  In comparison, I sold all the spoons I made over the years, as I made them.  I have no body of work to look at or to be reminded of the progression that happens, save for memory or photos that I never really look at. But here was a makers progression...all intact, there to see, and handle.  I was taken aback.

The spoon Derek handed me was a really nice spoon; I'd say exceptional in many ways. I recognized this instantly but I also knew that there is always more to the discovery - things I cannot see or recognize instantly. These subtle things become clear with time and use.  This is the tacit part of it.  I own a few of his past spoons that he's carved over the past few years.  The experience from their use also adds to and ties to the present comparison, or story.  As I write, I've used this latest spoon fifty times or more and while used it was fondled and studied.  I'm still a bit blown away by how nice the spoon is and then I remember all the spoons on the cabinets. 

Over the 4 years Derek has been carving spoons, he's made about 1400 of them.  He's saved nearly all of them. For whatever reason Derek's context is for carving all these spoons - I won't go into here. You can ask him yourself if you meet him. Being able to see what led up to his most current spoons is a pretty rare opportunity and I really enjoyed seeing this. This may also be a context folks tend to forget about with all the quick images that we see every day. If you want to be good at something it takes time, practice, and dedication, but I'd also add honesty, humility, and knowledge of the backstory, too. Whatever the combination is, the fact is, there is a context in all our stories that we need to consider.

Thanks for the spoon and sharing your story Derek!

Derek's spoons on one cabinet

More spoons from the other cabinet

Derek's sweet spoon with lot's of subtle curves

Derek's sweet spoon with a few carefully chosen engraved lines

Derek's sweet spoon more curves but not to much....

Birch Bark Bread Basket

jarrod dahl

-Originally posted on Instagram on Feb 3, 2016

Last night we had our first real snow storm of the year. April and I had been trying to plan a night were we could sort some birch bark for weaving bread baking baskets. This was the perfect time. As the snow fell and over a glass of wine, we went through a big roll of bark we harvested this past summer. April had been after me to weave her a bread baking basket. So after the sorting we prepped some strips for weaving. Once we had enough, I wove this basket.

I’ve been working with birch bark for over 12 years and when working with it I’m still constantly in awe of its subtle feel, its flexibility and the many other great qualities. It’s no wonder why that in earlier times wherever in the world the birch trees grew, its bark had a very important place in the lives of the people living among them. The bark was used to make all kinds of things needed for daily living; from woven shoes, a multitude of different styles of canisters and baskets, and of course, the iconic birch bark canoe.

This basket is designed to bake bread in. It’s just a touch smaller than a regular loaf pan. Once it’s oiled and seasoned, kinda like a cast iron pan, it’ll be ready for baking in. The finished bread will have a nice woven imprint on the underside. I’m not sure if this type of basket has a history before bread pans or not, but I think it’s still pretty cool.

A woven birch bark bread baking basket

Cut it to See It

jarrod dahl

Instagram post on Feb 16th of so....with slight editing. This was before I figured out how to get the format right on Instagram.

A little extra learning this morning. This exercise is the hardest for beginner turners to do, especially pole lathe turners, due to the extra energy and skill involved. We have a lot invested in our work. But in the end lessons that give us more information to base a comparison on are very important. 

I would argue that if you don't do this once in awhile you may be missing a lot. Chop or cut the good bowls and the bad, we need the comparison in order to improve our skills to 'see'. 

I was pleased with tall tumbler.  I use a pole lathe and basically have the wood I turn between two centers, I need to leave a small spindle of wood on the inside of the cup until it's complete then cut it off. So when turning I can only see and feel with my tools what I'm doing on the inside. For me cutting it in half helps me see how well I did at getting just a slightly different inner cup compared to the outer. 

These end grain cups have been used for 1000's of years and I'm proud to be using the same technology as back then, a foot powered pole lathe. Using this type of lathe is not some over idealistic notion of the past, but the search for a aesthetic and ethos that can create objects that don't look so ‘machined’, as they do on an electric lathe. Because objects on my lathe moves back and forth, there are natural anomalies in the surface when the direction changes. These anomalies add something that I think our eyes enjoy looking at, even if it's happening on a unconscious level. I'm always digging deeper into my craft. There's no hurry, just careful steps forward. Every object building on the other. I'm in this for the long haul so cutting one cup is much more valuable than not. This is the story of #realcraft and the #riseofthecraftspersonclass

The Instagram Essays...

jarrod dahl

For folks following along on Instagram you've already read these short post. For those that aren't following along, I've been trying my hand at long form posts on that platform. Instagram is a great place for crafts, great photos and connecttions with folks if your not on Facebook. I left the Facebook world last year for reasons too many and too opinionated to mention here. 

But I thought I'd post these past Instagram posts here. I've been digging the confined limit. I think it's like 125 words including spacing and paragraph breaks. So they have to be short and sweet. I wish I had the time and energy to write some in depth blog posts's not in the cards right now. I've been working on a few posts and as I transition into really heady and in depth subject matter relating to craft, making, skill, etc.... I'm finding that my writing skills aren't up to the same speed as my thoughts and ideas. The ideas are too complex to give them all the back story I'd like in order to give context to the subject matter. 

So.....short essays for now if you will.

I'll post these every time I post on on the ol' Instagram. But, hold on as I'm about a dozen deep over there already. I'll get caught up with them here on my blog over then next week or so.....

Here's one from a few weeks ago......

my collection of eating spoons

This morning I was thinking about spoon design, spoon carving techniques, and various tools used to make them.

One of the things I pride myself on is my always growing collection of spoons, from makers around the world. I never even thought to before, but a few days ago I put them out in one pile to look at them all together. They usually sit in a big drawer and we let them flow from there to our two spoon racks that we grab from when we want to eat or need a spoon.

I own over 80 eating spoons. Wow! I never counted them until then. Only about 5 are mine. All the others are by folks I’ve met and traded with, bought online or at spoon carving events, or were gifts. They all have something I thought was interesting wether it be the ways of doing certain cuts, addressing certain design issues or sweet decorations. They all have great things about them, all of them.

What makes a good eating spoon? Is it subjective? Maybe to a point. But they still need to have certain design elements to work well. They are still tied to a finite function. Some of the spoons in this collection look great, were made with a high level of skill but don’t work very well, some look fairly simple, misshapen, and don’t have clean cuts and work very well. It’s interesting to see the spoons that get the most use and explore why. Many times it’s not just pure function that is the deciding factor. Then there’s the ones in between.

I believe our eyes can, in part, deceive us at times. So I used to try them out eating yogurt with a blindfold on to see what I could feel (what spoons are balanced in use, where the bowl of yogurt ended up, etc…) Sometimes the yogurt ended up in on my chin or the yogurt was hard to get off the bowl of the spoon.
In the end it seems like what makes a good spoon is largely subjective.. or is it? What’s for sure is that there are no absolutes.