I’m very happy to share the following interview with Ed Mallam.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I grew up and currently live in the west suburbs of Minneapolis, MN. I live with my sweetheart and our German shorthaired pointer, Stella. I attended the University of North Dakota to become an airline pilot, but that dream was dashed by forces beyond my control. Over a decade later, I finally found my calling when moving to a heavily forested city, where most homeowners have woods on their property. We came to find out very quickly that half of our flora consisted of invasive plants, so we learned how to manage the land through education with our city. After years of practice, training, education, and consideration, I went into business fighting invasive plants and restoring woodlands for the betterment of the local ecosystem. I now operate Ed’s Buckthorn Control, which puts plenty of fresh green wood in my hands! I like to carve invasive species such as buckthorn and mulberry to show how they can be put to good use and feed us, rather than to consider them to be a plague that has no redeeming qualities. Unfortunately, the invasive woods are not ideal for carving. It’s tough to get a quality result from any of our common targets.
How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I carved my first spoon in 2015 after watching Ray Mears bushcraft videos and going down a wood carving YouTube rabbit hole. I immediately bought a starter kit from Del Stubbs (Pinewoods Forge). I came to find out these are some of the finest tools available and are very reasonably priced. The initial infatuation of the ideal was eventually replaced by the addiction of carving a worthwhile end product, which came in June 2018, and now I carve almost daily. However, I cannot keep up with the wood supply and ideas in my head. Maybe that’s why carving wooden spoons is so addicting: the more you do it, the more new ideas you want to bring to life, thus never reaching a satisfying finishing point.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
Del Stubbs knives (pinewoodforge.com: sloyd, short sloyd, right and left parabolic hooks, open sweep #1. I also use mora 106 sloyd and 164 hook knives, and a large loop knife called the Lee Stoffer scorp, which is like a left and right hook combined, and great for finishing the bowls of kuksas. I swing a Gransfors Bruks carving axe, which is ideal for me since I noticed with lighter axes, I was adding so much downward force it exhausted my arm. The shape of it is just right for me too. I axe, saw, and gouge on a chopping horse made by Alex Yerks, which I purchased after taking his excellent class at the Milan Spoon Gathering. Also, in my tool kit are my great grandfather’s compass for outlining the shoulders of the bowl, plexiglass strips for drawing a straight edge while still being able to see through to the wood, and a smooth Lake Superior rock, which I use to polish my finished products.
Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?
I have used many different sources and gleaned at least something from each of them. I recommend anything about how to sharpen better, and there is an excellent YouTube video about axing spoon blanks with Emmet Van Driesche. Setting up a blank with the right orientation and angles made a huge difference for me. Instagram is a great place to see others’ work and to practice refining the eyes for design elements. The carving community is very much alive on Instagram! I’m no pro, and the learning never ends. The best things I learned to advance my carving speed and quality so far are, in no particular order:
Learning how to sharpen! It’s difficult to know exactly what you are doing to the edge without looking through a microscope after each pass, so it has helped me to use a marker on the edge to see what is being removed. I recommend learning with a flat or hollow grind knife. I tried to learn sharpening with a bushcraft or everyday knife that has a micro bevel at the edge, which is impossible to feel. I just ended up rounding it, and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. It may even help to sharpen a wooden or plastic knife with sandpaper for quicker feedback to get the right idea. It’s all about finding your angle and keeping that angle every swipe as you gradually work through the grits to make finer and finer scratches on the blade.
Choosing easy wood. When I started out, I would spot a pretty piece of wood with crazy knots and ripples, which would have been lovely if I was using machines and sanding. Instead, I recommend newbies get a straight-grained, green piece of birch that is clear of knots and use sharp tools. You’ll get faster results, tire slower, and get less frustrated than you would with harder, drier, wavy grained, knotty wood.
Beginning with the end in mind. I recommend copying a spoon, so you know exactly where the design is going. I used to leave room for creativity later in the process, and just let the wood take me where it would. This made for an extremely long process, and following the grain led me to difficulties. I recommend drawing the shape as exactly as possible early in the process with a sharp pencil and stick to it. I try to get a clean top surface and draw so precisely that I only draw once.
Going as far as you can with a very sharp axe. I go right up to the drawn lines with the axe. Unless it is much less safe or efficient than using a knife, every extra cut with the axe saves a ton of time and energy. Once it is time for the knife, looking twice and making deep, decisive cuts will reduce the amount of time and effort lost to shaving a spot to clean up the surface, only to change the shape again.
Finishing in one go. I have noticed that if I stop halfway through the knife work and put a spoon aside for a day or more will disrupt my mindset, and I end up carving a different design from the one originally intended, which makes for ugly spoons and less efficiency. The thinner a chunk of wood is, the less likely it is to crack. Of course, if I get sleepy, grumpy, or fatigued, then it is time for a break.
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
There are so many! Some of the best spoons in my collection are made by Alex Yerks, Adam Hawker, Fred Livesay, Mike McGonigle, Charlie Littlebird, and Greg Nelson. There are so many more that I appreciate and want, but this is a small sample of top-notch spoons I own and use habitually.
How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?
Enormously! My first spoon was carved from a dry maple half log out of the woodpile, without axing a blank first. This was a poor choice, and I’m surprised I ever attempted a 2nd. I puttered along, usually not finishing any spoons before they got too dry and hard… or ugly. The main things I gained during this time were hand strength, coordination, and safe, powerful, controlled cuts with limited follow-through. I also learned the value of choosing high quality, freshly green, straight-grained wood that is clear of knots by trying to carve the opposite. The first major paradigm shift happened at the Milan Spoon Gathering in 2018, when I learned how to sharpen to a much higher degree of precision, thanks to Paul Linden. At the same gathering, Del Stubbs gave me some pointers, inspiration, and cherry blanks. Sometime in the same period, I learned about axing crank first, which almost entirely does away with cutting along the grain, risking tear-out with every cut. Then, I was off to the races. That next year, I carved about 5 dozen spoons, more than doubling my total production from the past 4 years. I still have much to learn, improvements to make, and a style of my own to find, but I felt like I knew how to carve a decent spoon worthy of a gift or sale by fall 2018. Quality and speed have come a long way even since then. Recently, I started collaborating with my lovely lady, who is handy with a wood burner!
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I have never painted or chip-carved, but I would like to try both. I usually appreciate the natural characteristics of the wood so much that I might not be able to bring myself to covering it with paint. I have done a tiny amount of kolrosing, mainly just to sign the back of the handle. I appreciate basket weave kolrosing but have never tried it. My sweetheart, Stephanie, has decorated about a dozen spoons with her stunning wood burning! Her idea was to take an invasive species, carve it into something useful, and adorn it with the native species we are working so hard to save. We call it the Native Treasures series. It is so much fun to collaborate, and I am always shocked to see how life-like her pyrography results are!
What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?
Pleasant company, high quality and artistic products, and connection with nature. Most of the time, I carve alone, but my favorite times spent carving have been with other carvers. Whether it be a virtual meet-up, a small organized group that meets periodically, a couple carvers meeting up in the back yard, or a large organized event, there is something about interacting with other spoon carvers that is inspiring, motivating and exciting. Good spoons come from good vibes.
Spoons I have received from other carvers are extra satisfying to use, especially if we formed a relationship, and especially if we traded. One of my favorite parts of the Milan Spoon Gathering is getting to know someone well enough that we want to make a swap. Good spoons have good friendships in them.
There is a certain feeling that comes with a hand-carved spoon that is unattainable by mass-production and power tools. Sloyd means that the maker had a relationship with the workpiece. Good spoons are imbued with the soul of the artist.
I usually remember where special wood came from, and using that spoon takes me back to that place to relive the story.
The best spoons are the ones that bring life back to fond memories.
If you had to pick a few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
I usually have some kind of sounds going when I carve, because my listening and carving are easy for me to pay attention to at the same time, somehow. Either I put on the jazz radio station, listen to audiobooks/podcasts, or listen to TV and visualize what is happening, pausing to get a peek here and there. When indoors, I carve next to the fireplace, so quite often, I get to listen to the crackle that goes so well with carving.
Lastly, why do you carve spoons?
I think this question should come first, so I wrote this response first. The WHY is the most important thing in life, I think. I started carving because I saw a video somewhere online and thought it was a neat idea. Monkey see monkey do. It was frustrating, took a lot longer than I expected, required sanding, and the end result was nothing like what I had hoped. I was proud of it, though. Since then, it has become a much quicker process, and the results are much more satisfying to me. The main reason I carve is because I like to create things from raw materials, especially wood. Wood has some kind of charm to it that affects many people, but few can explain it. The process is good for the soul, and it gets my mind off of the unimportant things. Zone in to zone out. Or is it “zone out to zone in?”
Also, personally, it helps me focus and feel less frazzled. A bad day can be cured by a good spoon.
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.