Recently, I listened to a Mortise and Tenon Magazine podcast that included an interview with Ben Strano. During the podcast, Ben mentioned his interest in spoon carving and his goal to carve a new spoon every week for the next year. I wanted to know more about Ben and his spoon carving, so I contacted him and he was kind enough to take some time out his busy life to answer my questions.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in southwest Connecticut, went to college in Boston, and move to Nashville for a 15-year stint working as a recording engineer. During that time, I picked up woodworking while trying to fill our house with furniture. Eventually I started thinking about woodworking non-stop and music started taking a back seat. Around four years ago, I started doing some audio work for Lost Art Press, and when Chris needed someone to edit a DVD he came to me and told me to learn how to edit video. Eventually that brought me and my family to Connecticut when the web producer job opened up at Fine Woodworking. For all intents and purposes, I have an absolute dream job. I get to make videos with some of the world’s best woodworkers every day. It’s been an absolute honor to handle all of the web and video duties for Fine Woodworking and every day I’m excited to go to work. Recently, I took over the hosting duties on Shop Talk Live, our podcast. That’s a blast as well.
You actively participate in the world of new technology and traditional craft. How do find balance between digital/video and woodworking hand tools? How does working with one contribute to working with the other?
I actually don’t think of the two as opposing forces. Digital/video is merely a medium that carries information. It’s the information that is truly important, not the medium. I make videos about woodworking. If I did it ten years ago, they’d be released on DVD and ten years before that on VHS. Ten years from now, we’ll inject them into your brains during a nightly download or something. The information is what’s important to me. If I’m eating ice cream with a handmade-wooden spoon, the ice cream still needs to be good. Sure, the user experience is different with the wooden spoon, but dang, I want good ice cream. The spoon is a carrier for the ice cream, same as the internet is a carrier for woodworking information. I know that without the internet spreading the gospel, I don’t think we’d see the resurgence in hand tools that we have today.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
I don’t really have that many, so ask me in a few years and I’m sure that my answers will be different. I have a couple of Mora 106s, one in the living room and one in the shop. I can’t imagine ever needing more from a knife. I’ve tried a couple of other ones and the 106 just seems perfect to me. For hook knives, I have the Robin Wood compound curve knife, and a Pinewood Forge hook knife that Dave Fisher gave me. I use the Robin Wood most of the time, but there are times that it’s too open and I’m very glad I have the Pinewood Forge knife. As for axes, years ago my wife got me a Gransfor Bruks wildlife hatchet after we watched Peter Follansbee on the Woodwright’s Shop. It’s great, but recently I realized it was too small for what I wanted it to do and I picked up the Gransfor Swedish carving ax on a work trip. It’s one of my favorite tools in the world. It feels great, and does what I ask of it better than any other tool I can think of.
What does “wood culture” mean to you? What does craft mean to you?
I’m not going to lie, I don’t know what “wood culture” means to me even though I hear an awful lot about it. If there is a wood culture I think it’s safe to assume that there is a fiber culture, or a metal culture –or I don’t know–a pizza culture. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been drawn to people who are passionate about something. My wife is a professional weaver, and what’s important to her is what is important to me. Sure, that might be because we are married, but I have a hard time believing that everyone wouldn’t get along if the wood culture gang walked into a fiber culture bar.
I don’t care what your medium is, how you do it, or what you do with it. I want to be a part of the “passionate people culture”. I like people who have a hard time sleeping at night if they didn’t make something, be it a recipe, a song, a garden–whatever it is–just produce more than you consume and we’ll get along.
Tell us about your yearlong 52 spoon project? How is it going? What have you learned so far?
I stole the idea from Matt Kenney! A couple of years ago, Matt set out to make 52 boxes in 52 weeks. To some that might not sound difficult, but if you’ve seen the boxes that Matt makes, his designs, and his level of execution–well, it’s from another place. It was a challenge that–I think–wore him down, but took his craft to the next level. My challenge is similar, but entirely different. At its heart, it’s skills based. At my current level, there isn’t a whole lot of designing that goes into a spoon. Usually I’m just trying to make a dang spoon. That’s enough! I wanted to hone my skills, all of them. Wood procurement and selection, axe work, knife work, sharpening, and to be honest, time management.
I think we’re in the 11th week of the year, and I’m about 11 spoons in. I haven’t posted all of them to Instagram yet, and there are a few in various stages of production. I think that right now, I’m still just learning how to make a spoon. I’m starting to focus designs and styles, but an important part of this challenge is to just keep carving. If I’m on the road for a week I fall behind, so I can’t take time off from carving when I’m home. It sounds silly, because there is people out there carving ten spoons a day. One a week should be easy, but my family and my job have to come first. Also, most days I spend time in the FWW shop making flatwork. For my job, I can’t really let that slide either.
If I picked one element that is finally starting to make its way into my head, it would be the fact that wood selection, and grain selection dictate EVERYTHING about a spoon. I finally have a fairly large source of green wood so I can be pickier. Before it was what I could find in the firewood pile, and it was never truly green.
On the Mortise and Tenon Magazine podcast, you mentioned watching a video of Wille Sundqvist and his comment on the challenge of keeping spoons symmetrical. What are some challenges that you have faced and overcome in your carving? Are you still looking for the symmetry?
Symmetry is still big for me, but only where it counts. I recently carved a spoon from a squirrely piece of wood. The spoon followed the grain and the handle is fairly twisty, but on the bowl, my goal was still symmetry. It sounds crazy, but the biggest challenge up till now has been finding wood. I never spent any time learning to identify trees and I didn’t want to just start cutting stuff down. My first 6 or 7 spoons are from an autumn olive a friend ID’d, then another friend brought me a chunk of walnut a few spoons came from. Recently though, I hit the mother lode with a birch on the side of the highway. Now I’ve got more than I can probably use!
Regarding the 52 spoon project, how do you decide what to carve each week? Do you have designs that you want to work on or is it more spontaneous?
It’s fairly spontaneous, but that’s about to change. I need to narrow down my designs if I’m going to get better at carving. My skills won’t grow if I only carve what is easy to carve. I think in the end, there will be far more eaters than any other style because making them feel good to use adds another dimension, and that really intrigues me.
Do you feel more pressure to create now that you have made a commitment for specific results? Or is it a motivating push to carve on a regular basis?
I don’t know. I’m naturally the type of person who wants to make stuff, so making stuff is easy. Sure, there is pressure but I’m fine with that. As for specific results, well, I work with Mike Pekovich and Matt Kenney, and eat lunch with them every day… there is always pressure to make nice stuff. I’m used to it.
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
I’m pretty sure that Dave Fisher is incapable of making something ugly, and he’s about the nicest guy I’ve ever met. His work inspires me, but his outlook, and ethic inspires me far more. I love Dawson Moore’s spoons and his use of facets. The decorations of Danielle Rose Byrd’s work floors me. But probably most of all would be the simple perfection of any Swedish style spoon. The form itself inspires me.
I remember your story about carving hooks for your family. What do you think about when you are carving spoons?
In all honesty, that’s been a downside of this challenge, I don’t let my mind wander as much. I used to just start carving a spoon, and eventually I’d find myself thinking about a friend or family member. Most of the time, that person became next owner of that spoon in my mind. I have a bunch to send out actually. I think that spoons are just about the perfect gift. They only take a couple of hours to make, and that is probably the perfect amount of time to spend reflecting on your relationship with someone. The good times, the bad… the laughter. I have found it really therapeutic to carve a spoon destined for a friend, and think about them while doing it.
We both have kids around the same age. What do you think children gain from watching their parents learn and practice a craft? Also, has your son started to carve? If so, any tips for teaching kids to carve?
My son is 4 ½-years old, so to me, a bit too young to carve. We still build things together. We actually did a video for Fine Woodworking featuring him and a few other kids from work making Shaker step stools. I think that the important thing is that he sees his mother and me making things every day. He’s growing up in a maker household and I hope he keeps it up, but that’s up to him. I love it when he asks if we can make something rather than buy it. Kids today are inundated with commercials everywhere they go. It’s awful. We won’t let him watch YouTube videos because he always wound up on some stupid channel watching kids play with toys. Man, you’ve got those same toys… why are you WATCHING someone play with them… PLAY WITH THEM. It’s all very gross. At the very least, he sees us making things. It doesn’t seem weird to make something. That’s important.
Any suggestions for books or websites to learn about carving or woodwork?
Well, FineWoodworking.com of course! I’m incredibly proud of the work we do there and especially the long-form video workshop series. If anyone wants to watch a master at work, Dave Fisher’s bowl carving video is incredible. If flatwork is more your thing, Matt Wajda’s North Bennett Street toolbox is another favorite of mine. But we have an insane amount of information available on the website and I really do think it’s a great resource for any woodworker.
YouTube is also a great place for information, but you need to work for it a little harder there. You have to dig to figure out what is good and what isn’t. Spoon Caving with Tom is a fantastic channel that unfortunately hasn’t uploaded in awhile. Jarrod Stone Dahl’s older videos are great as well as his video for Popular Woodworking. I’m excited that Dawson Moore has started uploading too.
For spoon carving books, I really got a lot out of Spoon Carving by EJ Osborne. Peter Galbert’s Chairmaker’s Notebook is a must have, as is John Alexander’s Make a Chair From a Tree. I’ve been on a kick lately trying to buy up all of Drew Langsner’s stuff… it’s all fantastic.
Are your spoons for sale? And if so, how can someone buy them?
Nah. They’re ok, but they’ll probably be nothing more than gifts for quite awhile. There’s a lot of great spoon makers out there selling spoons for really reasonable prices. I’m more interested in buying more from them than I am selling spoons right now.
Where can people find you online?
Thanks Ben! 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.