"Life without industry is guilt and industry without art is brutality” John Ruskin
The Craft and the Tools
Green woodworking is a craft technique which stretches back to the first time a man whittled a piece of wood with a flint tool; and up until recent times in some places it was still happening that way. If you needed a new spoon, you probably made it as well as you could.
Then the Industrial Revolution arrived and mass produced metal and latterly plastic items could be churned out in great numbers to identical patterns of which we are all now familiar. Even wood ware can now be machined to a flat and soulless replica of it's artificial counterparts.
The traditional crafts did however survive in some rural areas, particularly in woodland based cultures such as Scandinavian and Eastern European. Even here in Wales where I live and work, I remember my niece showing me a small sycamore cawl spoon which her grandfather had made for her from a tree growing on the farm.
So, the skills were still alive when an interest in owning and using well-crafted day to day utensils led to a resurgence in the traditional crafts.
Green, freshly cut wood is easier to work with hand tools than seasoned timber and lends itself perfectly to carving utensils and treen products. I collect it locally as and when it becomes available, so I tend to make what the natural properties of the wood suggests rather than attempting to force what I might imagine I want from it.
Here in Wales where I make my utensils and pieces,I try to limit myself to what is probably about late medieval work practice.
No noise, no dust, no unnecessary waste:
The fresh log is split to size depending on what it is most suited to become-a spoon, a ladle from a bent piece of branchwood or a clean log for a hewn bowl.This is then shaped down using sharp axes or hollowed with a hand adze until the rough form has been achieved. A fairly fast and intuitive process, it's important to get the wood as near to its finished dimensions as possible at this stage because when it comes to the drying out which follows this first shaping, thick wood with a heavy wall thickness is likely to split or crack.
Then the drying: might take six weeks in winter for a large bowl which has to be nursed carefully through this to avoid any disasters. A small spoon often sits above the stove overnight and is perfectly dry and light as a feather in the morning.
The finishing which follows is carried out with finely sharpened tools and is the most intensive and to me the most satisfying part of the process. The piece is slowly carved into its final form adding a few embellishments where they work and leaving carving facets and tool marks which give it unique character. This is where the maker can make his mark!
I rarely approach a workpiece with a rigid form or set of dimensions in mind but prefer to allow the set of the wood's natural grain to dictate the final results.
Perhaps I will add a small design of chip carving or some colour to set off the natural wood grain.
Even though freshly carved wood is a beautiful thing, I always treat the utensil with a good soaking of hot flaxseed oil to penetrate and protect the grain and give it water resistance before it goes into service. This is a natural culinary oil which oxidizes, dries in the wood and is lasting. Bowls which call for it may get a coating of beeswax and oil emulsion which adds a shine.
I see making, using and owning unique and long lasting day to day utensils as in line with the slow living / slow cooking movement which is gaining such a following throughout Europe despite the pressures of a disposable, fast food world. A step forward by choosing the best of the past.
Fresh Cherrywood logs being split for bowl making
A tough hawthorn ladle roughed out to shape
Using an axe to carve out the basic form of a cooking scoop from Sycamore
Tools of the trade. A carving knife with a good, Swedish blade and a selection of hook knives which I make with different profiles for hollowing and shaping the interiors of spoons and bowls.