Late last fall, I ordered the newly published The Art of Whittling: A Woodcarver’s Guide to Making Things By Hand by Niklas Karlsson. It was different from the spoon carving books that I had read and soon became one of my favorites. It had simplicity yet depth, and after reading it, I had a deep respect for the author and his woodworking.
I wanted to know more about Niklas Karlsson, so I sent him a few questions and he was kind enough to send me his answers that I’ve shared the below.
Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I´m 47 years old, living in the middle of Sweden, in a place called Undersvik, with my girlfriend and two kids. I use to say that carving/slöjd is a part of my family’s culture. My father comes from a small village in the north and my ancestors were settlers, so craft/carving/slöjd is something that my dad and uncles did as recreation. I have been carving since I was a boy, but in my early twenties I started carving again and was so hooked on it that I decided to make it my living. I work with building preservation and carving now. In 2017, I wrote the book The Art of Whittling for the English publisher Carlton Books.
How does whittling take you back to your Sami heritage?
To tell a little about the Sami heritage; my ancestors were Sami people that became settlers. A big part of the Sami culture were lost in the 1800s. The Sami culture in the high mountains is the only one that survived really and that´s why you associate Sami culture to the high mountains now. My ancestors were probably forest-based Sami. I don´t know much about how my ancestors lived except that I think they probably lived much like other settlers, and I feel very close to that culture. And it feels more like when I started to whittle in my early twenties it made me feel closer to my own history, the lives that my father and grandfather, and all my uncles and aunts have lived growing up in the almost roadless country where they all grew up.
In your book, you mentioned that you got a whittling knife around 8 or 9 – any thoughts about safely teaching kids how to carve and why its so important now when kids are glued to computer screens?
Oh please don´t get me started! No seriously, I think it is a big problem with the digitalization of young peoples lives. I have two kids that are 11 and 13, and they have just had nearly three weeks Christmas holiday. And I feel totally exhausted now. It´s like nothing can surpass the attraction from the screens and the digital distraction. And as a parent I know it´s not really good. Research show that too much digital input trigger depression etc. general anti-socialness.
Well… it is a struggle to try to offer something else, because it is nothing that happen by itself. I think my kids would choose to draw or whittle if they were not so tempted to go back to their screens. A lot of their capacity is never developed.
I started to let my kids carve when they were 5 or 6. The older one was ready at that age, the younger one had to start later, because he just didn’t have the same motor skills at that age. So I had to tell him to wait a year or so. He wasn’t as controlled in his movements. I think you should teach the kids to just carve away from them at first, and have them sit on a low chair so they get support for their arms on their legs. Also give them a knife that fits their hands. Most kids like to just make a lot of chips. So I don´t have any expectations on the result.
When I was a kid I saw a children’s program about a father and a child who made a wooden toy canoe with an indian in it and they put it into a small stream in the high mountains and it floated out into the sea. So my father and I made a wooden toy canoe. But it was so good we never let it out. I still have it. It was fun to make something together.
Share a little about “the pact you made with wood” that you mentioned on page six of your book?
When I went to a course with Ramon Persson in my early twenties, before I had started to carve, but I was into sewing leather, Ramon told me that he saw I knew how to use a knife. And I thought “I do?” So I started to think about it, and I figured I must have learned to carve without knowing it. And that is where the “pact” comes in. I just learned to carve from the wood itself. Somehow. Just by being in the woods, playing. And that time I cut myself was the price I paid. I had a big folding knife, hunting knife, and I slammed the blade across my fingers when I was folding it back.
I know what they mean. Totally. I use to say that about the settler culture, or the Sami culture. All they had was wood. It is an interesting thought, something to imagine; what would your relationship to wood be if it was as common to you as plastic is to us? I think it is hard for us to imagine how natural and easily they would have approached some things that we think are really special. I think that “wood culture” is about taking back some of that confidence.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
I use the Mora slöjd knives. My favourite spoon knife is one by Bo Helgesson, but I also use Robin Wood spoon knives, and I have a spoon knife by Svante Djärv, but his knife needed a longer bevel to carve good, so I had to grind it.
Share your thoughts about the spoon knife not being very efficient. Do you always use an adze and then a spoon knife later?
With spoon knives you can´t use the really powerful grips that you can use with a regular knife. I think it is a tedious work to get the first recess in a spoon blade with just the spoon knife. With the adze I just make the start. After that it is much easier to get the spoon knife to cut efficiently.
Besides your book, do you have any suggestions for any other books to read about carving or woodwork?
Swedish Carving Techniques by Willie Sundqvist is the only book you need really, I think, when it comes to techniques and tools. But then you need some inspiration, right? I really liked Barn´s book, Spoon: A Guide to Spoon Carving and the New Wood Culture. He is a philosopher about spoon carving and can often express what I think in a really sharp way. Like his thoughts about commercial boundaries. I have also felt that. I also liked Spoon Carving by EJ Osborne, Hatchet+Bear.
Talk about the carving group in Järvsö. What do gain when you carve with other people? What about when you carve alone?
The social aspect is important to me. I need to have a network around me, of some kind. It can be people who sell my things, customers, people who want me to do talks, other carvers, random interested people. The carving group is a place where I can see peoples errors too. Some of those who come there are really good carvers, but some are not so experienced, and it is an opportunity to see what they need to progress. I´m not there to learn or become a better teacher, but I can see that it is something that I do along the way. I´m really just there to chat and drink coffee. I carve way too much alone!
Are there any particular spoon carvers that inspire you in your work?
I admire the spooncarvers who seem to be good at selling their work. Who are good at telling an interesting story about who they are and what they do. Who are charismatic and really passionate about it.
Any tips for new spoon carvers based on what you have learned?
No thoughts! Don´t think. Be fearless.
Why has spoon carving become so popular, especially in the last few years?
I don´t know really. I have been carving and working with wood for a long time, but then I got hooked on spoons. So I guess it is because of the community and that you feel a connection to other carvers. A common interest with others.
Are your spoons and other woodwork for sale? And how can someone buy them?
Yes, I have a webshop, and I sell at Stenegård in Järvsö. Maybe the webshop is most interesting? I sell mostly spoons, but I will probably sell other things too, just give it some time. Go to www.ahardslojdlife.se or straight to the shop ahardslojdlife.tictail.com. You can also follow Niklas on Instagram to see more of amazing carving and woodwork. And buy his book! I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Thanks Niklas! 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.