I’ve been following Emmet Van Driesche since I signed up for my Instagram account last year. I admired his spoon carving, but I appreciated even more his generous nature of sharing his techniques and thoughts through his blog and Spoonesaurus videos. Emmet is is a busy man, so I truly the value the time he gave to answer some questions that I had for him.
Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
Well, when I was in college, a guy tried to woo my girlfriend away from me by giving her a wooden spoon, which I thought was weird. I came to carving through a desire to do something tangible and practical with my time that I was taking care of my second daughter when she was a toddler, almost five years ago now. She would be exploring the yard, and I looked at the firewood stacked on the porch and thought to myself that I could probably make some sort of spatula things that I could sell around Christmas. From there it took a few years of poking along low key, except that I was inhaling all the information I could find, scraps from here and there, until two and half years ago I decided to quit a seasonal job I had and thought I could fill in the gap in income by getting more serious about selling my work. That was when I got a smart phone, got on Instagram and started to really engage with the scene. That took a solid year of effort before i felt like it was working out, but at this point carving earns me more than triple the amount I was earning from that job, so I guess you could say it’s worked out.
It seems like you have a lot of irons in the fire – spoon carver, teacher, farmer, writer, editor, publisher, and father – how do you manage your time to do it all and still keep your passion and sense of purpose so strong?
I think the diversity is invigorating. I would be less engaged if I only did one thing, and I would miss the synergy that each of these endeavours brings to the others. Not to mention the fact that I would be more at risk financially. I prefer to have my eggs in lots of different baskets. But it does rather feel sometimes like I’m juggling a lot. On the other hand, it sure does get a lot of stuff done!
Related to your thoughts above, how do you balance having so many interests? I often feel like a “jack of all trades, but master of none.” Do you ever feel that way? And if not, how do you approach it so that you are successful?
It is certainly awkward to try to describe to someone what I do with my life, let alone for a living. One of the most useful things I’ve done is not try to give the carving a business name of its own. I’ve usually shied away from my name (Emmet Van Driesche is a mouthful) but by having all of the carving be just under my name, it focuses the career trajectory and expertise on me as a person, which has a different flavor than if I was operating as Such and Such Woodworks. I think people just ASSUME I’m some sort of expert (even though I try to be clear that I’m not) simply because I don’t operate under a business name. As for how I feel about myself, I think I have a surplus of confidence. So that’s never been my problem.
You’ve written that you start carving at 5 a.m. What’s a typical daily routine for you?
Just to be clear, I wrote that I would get up to WRITE at 5. I’ve never gotten up to carve so early. But I did get up at 5 every weekday morning from January to June this year to write my forthcoming book that’s being published this winter. That was hard, but it was also when I could create the mental space within a busy day full of family and work obligations to make this happen. It would not have happened otherwise, and I would recommend to anyone trying to do something and finding it is hard to stick with it, make yourself get up at 5 and spend two hours a day doing it, and you will be shocked what you can achieve. The brilliant thing about getting up so early is that there is no other reason you are awake, so you just get on with it.
A typical daily routine is get up at 6:30 or 7, whenever the puppy needs to go outside. I have coffee and make my wife tea, get the kids up and on with their day, then walk the dogs for half an hour. Often by 8:30 I’m starting work, which varies tremendously. Sometimes I’m carving all day. Sometimes I’m axing blanks for part of the day. I try not to axe all day because that is tiring. Sometimes I’m editing manuscripts or running errands or teaching. One day a week I box up orders and go to the post office, reconcile checks and deposit them at the bank, all of which takes about half a day. Throughout the day I capture moments for Instagram, and try to be mindful of what I need to promote and how, whether it’s the Spoonesaurus videos, or some announcement or just something funny. Orders come in throughout the day and I enter them into my day planner, which has all of my work and information about customers roughly laid out over the weeks. I tend to wait until 10 or 11 to eat breakfast, then eat lunch around 2 or 3. At 4:30 or 5 I stop and go walk the dogs again, then help get dinner on the table. If I am strapped for time, I might work in the evening editing, but I prefer not to carve in the evening because it’s harder on my hands to give them a workout and go to sleep, they are much achier that way.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
My kit is very simple, but over the years I’ve slowly, without setting out to, assembled a lineup of absolutely first rate tools. My axe is a Granfors Bruks Swedish Carving Axe, sent to me out of the blue as a gift by a young carver named Brian Dunbar. I use a Silky Accel21 saw. My knives are all made by Matt White of Temple Mountain Woodcraft, who is my business partner with Spoonesaurus. His Pro Grind Sloyd and Monadnock hook are amazing tools, made more special because many key elements, like the handle on the sloyd and the curvature of the hook, are things I had a hand in designing. Finally, I am very attached to my stump, although I’ve learned that the relationship is fleeting. I prefer softwood stumps and they can only take a couple of years of daily use before they break apart. But while they are there they have a strong hold on my affections.
Any suggestions for books or websites to learn about carving or woodwork?
Is there where I can toot my own horn? Matt and I run an Instagram account called @spoonesaurus where we create tiny, nerdy useful videos about the nitty gritty details of spooncarving that is a resource I wish was around when I was starting out. A more comprehensive source is our magazine we are just starting, Spoonesaurus Magazine, which has a combination of detailed articles, essays from other craftspeople, and interviews with professional carvers that are similar to this interview here. It’s a real, analog magazine that you can read on the couch without your wife feeling like your phone is tearing your relationship apart, and you can subscribe to it by visiting our website, www.spoonesaurus.com.
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
Yes. My two favorites are Dan Lawrence and Reuben Goadby, both in the UK. Both of these guys have an incredible grasp of what dimensions are critical to function and which you can mess around with. Here in the US, I admire both the work and the tone set by Tom Bartlett and Darrick Sanderson. There are a number of other carvers who I love and admire, including Peter Moule, Matt White, Yoav Elkayam, Eamonn O’Sullivan, Amy Mungler, Matty Hart. There are a number whose work doesn’t inspire me in that I don’t feel called to try to attempt what they are doing but I love it just the same, including Ty Thornock, Amy Umbel and Dawson Moore.
I’m relatively new to spoon carving, but I often feel a bit like an imposter since I created this website about it, yet barely can carve a decent spoon. I created this site though as a way to learn and help others as well, but also to be part of a craft community again. Based on your experience, apart from letting your work speak to the crowd, what suggestions do you have for someone who is new to the spoon carving world, yet eager and excited to be part of it? How can you best join the community of carvers?
This is a tricky one, because what you are saying is when do you start sharing what you know, given that we are all on a spectrum or a journey, and we will always know more next year than we know today? I think the trick is to just start. The nice thing about spoon carving is that the learning curve can be pretty high, and as long as you ease into the more didactic side of things, starting out by just sharing what you do, then by the time you’ve thought about it and done it and engaged with it enough to truly have an opinion, you will know it and can start firming up those statements. There will always be people who feel like you are getting too big for your britches. But I think as long as you are real and genuine with everyone and polite and kind and generous with your knowledge, you will always come out okay. I see a lot of holding back in people just starting out, in part because there is an element within the scene that can be less than welcoming unless you pay your respects and wait in line. I don’t like this aspect of the scene, and I work every day to change it and to set the tone I want to see. So I would say that joining a community is just that, about being a good human first, and a good carver second.
How has your technique changed since you wrote your informative blog post “How I Carve Spoons”?
Only in small ways, to be truthful. I got lucky there. When I wrote that was an arbitrary decision in terms of timing, I was just starting my blog (which is always linked to my Instagram account, @emmet_van_driesche) and felt like it was a logical place to start. How I articulate things has refined somewhat, and what I pay attention to and shoot for is different, but the order of operations is the same.
Your spoons are beautiful but unembellished. What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I’ve tried it. It’s not for me. I love color and pattern, but I find it keeps me from appreciating the object as something whole unto itself. It starts to be a canvas rather than a thing. Also, it adds an element of risk into the end of the process that I find unacceptable given that I’m trying to keep my prices reasonable, not to mention the extra time.
How have your sense of design and spoon forms changed and evolved?
I used to really chase the facet and the clever detail, and as I’ve gotten better at making the wood do what I want, I’ve really backed off of this. Now I’m fascinated by forms that are not driven by facets, but rather are curves meeting other curves with distinct lines at the junction. I’ve also homed in on the forms I want to explore, and find that by holding more and more constant, it gives me a more intense thrill of exploration to mess around with one tiny detail. I’m obsessed with making wooden spoons feel totally normal to non-wooden spoon using folks, and find that this has led me to a very simple set of shapes, where the feel has to be perfect and the finish as flawless as I can make it. The trick is to get good enough to make the flawless seem easy. I’m getting there.
In your blog post, “Perfection“, you wrote, “I want to own it to the point where things don’t need to be perfect to be perfect.” Please explain and have your thoughts changed since you wrote that?
Ooh, I should have read this question before answering the previous one. So for awhile I have wanted to push towards a mastery that doesn’t need to chase absolutely precise lines and symmetry but uses confident cuts to achieve sweet lines. As I’ve gotten better, though, I’ve come to realize that part of this imperfect perfection IS THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION, at least in the sense that each spoon strives to be better, cleaner, more sweetly proportioned than the ones before. But I don’t obsess about the current spoon. I obsess about the trajectory.
Related, you wrote about how we only see carver’s successes on Instagram, so talk a little about failures or disappointments you’ve experienced with your own carving and how do you cope with ongoing challenges of learning to master a craft.
For me, the challenges have always been social. It’s been sticking with Instagram even when no one was there, continuing to promote my work even when no one was buying, and pushing through the times when I’ve tangled with other egos. Those failures are hard. Having a spoon fail is nothing really, just a few minutes of my time. It’s the larger arc of whether it feels like it’s working out or not that matters. Thankfully, I’ve persevered to a place now where I feel like this is a success. It always takes longer than I think it should, and that is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again.
You’ve written in the past that you dream that sloyd will be a deeply understood and respected way of understanding our humanity. What does “new wood culture” and sloyd mean to you?
Eh. I’m less crazy about the Scandinavian side of this heritage than most. I’m a mix of a lot of ethnicities, but none of them are Scandinavian. So I’m naturally skeptical at the preponderance of those cultures represented in the scene. But I do think it’s a wonderful thing to gain a comfort and familiarity with working with your hands, and that’s something I’ve had for much of my life. I used to work on trail crews and then sailing ships and then farms, so working with my hands has always been more about how you interact with the broader world than it is about making precious objects. I think, in fact, that this is what I love about spoons, at least how I make them: they aren’t precious. They are just everyday objects, made to be just a nice detail in someone’s life. And I’m acutely aware that that life is rich and full of many important and wonderful things, and that my spoon is not really one of them. It’s just a spoon.
You share a lot on social media and are very good at using it to inspire, instruct, and market your businesses. How do you personally balance the analog and digital worlds?
Hmm. Well if you asked my wife she’d say that I’m bad at that. I do try to be mindful of being present for my family, but I also know that Instagram and how I use it is responsible for more than a third of our income and a much greater proportion of my opportunities going forward. So I try to be disciplined about it, and thoughtful about it. I also find that my community on Instagram is a great deal of my social interaction for the day. I work alone, for the most part, and it is nice to chat with friends and acquaintances online while I work. But (and this is a big but) it is also quite addictive, so I do feel that tension. I try to be in a position of using the app, and not letting it use me.
You’re a very active writer. Share a little about your recently launched spoon carving magazine Spoonesaurus. Why did you want to create a print publication about spoon carving and how can people get a copy?
Ha, another question I foolishly answered too soon. The part I haven’t addressed is why I started it. I started it because I wanted it to already exist. Sadly, it did not, but I realized that I was maybe crazy/stupid/optimistic enough to be the one to start it. It also felt like the timing was right. I realized almost immediately that I didn’t want to do it alone (although technically I’m doing about 90% of it by myself) so I called up Matt White (who I started @spoonesaurus with six months before) and said that I wanted to start a magazine and could I stick it under the Spoonesaurus umbrella. He thought that was fine, and I like the idea that we are building something bigger than either of ourselves. While it’s nice to have the spoon carving be under my own name, for the really big, foolhardy, brash projects it’s nice to have a partner in crime to give you cover.
If you had to pick few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
I go lots of different directions. There’s an amazing Scottish trad band called Talisk, whose amazing track Abyss I just carved a spoon to on a live Instagram Stories thing in ten (10!) minutes. You can find that on my YouTube channel. I just wanted to see if I could carve in the way that these musicians play, so fast it seems unreal, and at a level we as spoon carvers don’t even think about yet. On the other end of the spectrum, I have a deep love of pop music, and not just the retro cool stuff, so you would find me listening to Meghan Trainor, Michael Buble, that sort of thing. I’ll be the guy singing his heart out. Don’t sneak up on my if I’ve got earbuds in.
Where can people find you online? And how can they buy your spoons?
My website is just my name, www.emmetvandriesche.com , and that had a million different ways to get in touch. My books are closed for spoons for this year actually. I’m running about six weeks out, and then in mid September I pivot from spoon orders for non-local sales to getting my Christmas tree farm up and running and doing some carving for stock to sell during the holidays. I am booking work in January already, so if you want something, don’t hesitate, because it wouldn’t surprise me if by the time New Year’s rolled around this year I was working with a two month waiting time. My website has a shop that is not enabled, but it does have pictures and up to date prices on all of my options. To order, just get in touch.
What’s next in your busy life?
Well, the magazine is just getting off the ground, and my book is in the editing phase, so Matt and I are starting to discuss how we can educate ourselves in making high quality videos that are both beautiful and informative, and package them in a way that is most useful to people while still paying us for our time. So expect to see that, my guess is some time next winter.
Any final thoughts on pursuing a craft like spoon carving?
It’s not about the spoon. It’s about you, and what you get out of it. Pay attention to that, and the spoons will take care of themselves. And thank you for giving me this opportunity, I really appreciate it.
Thanks Emmet! 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.