I’ve enjoyed seeing the spoon carving of Aaron Sparks on Instagram (@sparks.spoons) for awhile, so I contacted him and he was kind enough to answer my questions about his woodworking.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I consider myself a Minnesota native, but I was born in Colorado. After growing up in Minnesota I was lured to Santa Barbara California for college – undergrad and then a few years later for my PhD. I now live in Durham, NC with my wife, two young daughters (3.5 and under a year), and my dog. I’m happiest when I am outside whether it be backpacking, climbing, hiking, camping, or just in my backyard carving a spoon. By day, I am a political science professor at Elon University. Being a dad is the best, and I also look forward to bedtime when I get a chance to carve.
How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I have been carving since September 2017, so closing in on two years, but I wasn’t really sharpening until winter 2018. About ten years ago, I was living with a buddy who was in to bushcraft and had a Mora hook knife. We messed around a little bit carving spoons while camping in central PA – they were really rough but worked well enough to scoop beans into our mouths.
Fast forward a few years to when my first daughter was about to be born. I felt the urge to make something by hand for her. I realized a toy or teether was out of the question without more tools than I had the money or space for and thought back to spoons. I ordered a Mora 164(?) hook – the one with the double-edge – and tried to carve a spoon out of a 2×4 without an axe or stump, just the hook, a saw, a cheap chisel, and a Mora 120. I guess it was a semi-functional scoopy thing, but the experience was terrible so after a little try using redwood I gave up for a couple more years.
My first job out of grad school was at a university in a very small town in northwest Ohio. No beach, no mountains, no friends. But, there was a good supply of greenwood. So, I did some very important trimming of our landlord’s maple and mulberry trees and snagged some walnut from the neighbor. I spent many a very cold night in our garage and finally started to improve. For the first couple months I was just using a puck to sharpen the knives and a light tomahawk. (I wish I focused on sharpening earlier on in my learning process).
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
Mora is great for getting started and I still use the hook – with one edge rounded down – for finishing work on deep bowls. I use Matt White’s Souhegan pro grind for rough work and Phil Fuentes’s sloyd for finishing. I love my Reid Schwartz (pre) Woodspirit hook. I recently purchased a Deepwoods Ventures 50 mm twca cam and it seems great but I haven’t really figured out how to use it yet. My beloved axe is the Gransfors Bruks Swedish carving axe.
Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?
Books and videos are great, but the only way to learn is by carving spoons. Pay close attention to the primary safe grips displayed by the masters and then just carve. For learning, I also think, it is very useful to get a few spoons from carvers you admire, learn what works and try to copy it. I only have Wille’s book and Barn’s book. Anyone doing tutorials on Youtube (especially Tom Scandian) or Instagram (Tom again, and Emmet come to mind).
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
Honestly, everyone out there trying to make a useful spoon. I get a lot of inspiration from people representing non-white male groups. I hope we, in this craft, can learn more from them and elevate their work and be a more inclusive community.
How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?
Hard to say… I guess a little safer – though I currently have a big gash on my left thumb from my hook – and a little quicker. I have probably gotten better at using leverage and finesse but it is hard to put my finger on how. The other important technique is sharpening. Starting out, it easy to not know what a sharp knife is like and get too lax in keeping the edge sharp. My biggest advice to new carvers is to work on sharpening, it makes all the actual carving easier and more fun.
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I like it! Most of my spoons are plain because I don’t trust myself to add anything beyond what the natural wood grain already has. I’d like to be better at kolrosing and chip carving, but I don’t currently see myself getting into painting.
What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?
I’m not embedded enough within this culture to know.
If you had to pick few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
Typically, I don’t listen to music while carving. It is either the sounds of the backyard – we have a lot of birds – podcasts, or baseball on the radio (go Twins). The podcasts I listen to are mostly educational and so allow me to be productive towards my work while also carving spoons.
Lastly, why do you carve spoons?
Maybe I shouldn’t listen to politics podcasts because a big reason why I carve spoons is relief from my day job. Paying close attention to the daily news cycle is a lot of work and a lot of worry for the future of our democracy. Additionally, so much academic work takes so long to see any fruit whether it be improvement in students or a paper getting published. Carving a spoon gives me a creative outlet and a project I am proud of that can be completed in a few hours.
Thanks Aaron! You can follow him and inquire about purchasing his spoons on Instagram at @sparks.spoons.
As I have said previously, my goals with this website are to learn more about spoon carving and connect with the great community of spoon carvers out there. I welcome carvers to contact me if you would like to be interviewed to share your thoughts on the craft of spoon carving.