I’m very happy to share the following interview with Joel Larabell.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I was born and raised in northern Michigan and moved down to Tennessee after high school. I formed a band in college and used my degree to wait tables and tour in a van for about seven years. It was great but got tired of that. I met my awesome wife. We started a tea shop slash herbal apothecary called High Garden in Nashville, TN, and have been doing it for the last 8 years, and I couldn’t be more grateful. We also created a small folk school a few years ago on our small farm. My wife teaches herbalism, and I teach carving and axe skills. We just had a baby boy named Woods seven months ago, something we never thought we’d get to experience, and that’s just made life even more beautiful. And exhausting.
How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I guess I started messing around with it five or six years ago but have really only been more driven with it for the last three. A friend randomly suggested we carve wooden spoons one day. I went home and looked it up and found some old blog posts with spoons on Robin Wood’s website and a wonderful instructional video from Jarrod Dahl, and I was off. My friend has still never tried to carve a spoon.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
So you definitely don’t need a lot of tools, keeping it to only a few that you get really comfortable with is good and smart for several reasons, but honestly, I just love tools. And now that I have a son, I can use him as an excuse cause I’ll pass them down to him someday.
I became a Gransfors Bruk axe dealer about 3 years ago because I enjoy them so much and want to be able to share that. If I had to just pick a few that I use most often nowadays, it would be hooks and straight knives by Del Stubbs, Reid Schwartz, Matt White, and Nic Westermann and a brilliant scorp by Lee Stofer. Axe-wise I was using the Swedish Carving Axe by Gransfors long before becoming a dealer. It’s a great axe if you want something with some heft. I think the Hans Karlsson’s sloyd axe is extremely well designed and a great lightweight option. I was lucky to get one from country workshops before they retired. Julia Kalthoff makes a beautiful lighter weight carving axe as well that I’m just getting acquainted with, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to become a favorite. The Gransfors wildlife hatchet is another great lightweight hatchet, and I think a good way to start out as it’s relatively affordable and available, and if you find out spoon carving isn’t your thing you still have a perfect camp hatchet.
Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?
Well, that video from Jarrod is still great and can be purchased from his website. Barn makes beautiful, informative videos in his spoonclub.uk subscription which is very much worth it. Wille Sundqvist’s Swedish Carving Techniques is a classic for a reason. And honestly, I’ve learned a lot from pictures on the ol’ Instagram but maybe the most from buying, and swapping, spoons from experienced carvers, and using them daily. And then comparing how my own spoons feel and function side by side. I may or may not use several spoons to eat one bowl of granola and milk.
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
Oh, there are many. But the folks who I blame the most for watering the seed of this obsession would be Pat Diette, Darrick Sanderson, Jarrod Dahl, Yoav Elkayam, and Nate Baour. I bought spoons, or was gifted them by my extremely amazing and encouraging wife, from each of them early on after I’d been carving for only a little while, just long enough to start to appreciate the level of craftsmanship that went into their spoons, and they really helped me realize what was possible and what to shoot for in my own work as far as functionality goes and the basics of design. As I’ve moved a little further down this road, other folks who constantly inspire me would be Adam Hawker, Sven Kramer, Tom Scandian, Lee Stofer, Bradley van Luyt, Maryanne McGinn, Don Nalezyty, Adam Kowalsky, Dawson Moore, Reuben Goadby…this could go on and on.
How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?
Honestly, I don’t think my techniques have changed all that much after I got a handle on the basic knife grips. I definitely leveled up, especially on axe work, when I took a course with Barn at Greenwoodfest a few years ago. That changed the game for me quite a bit. But I think what keeps developing the most with experience is my eye and the ability to see and appreciate the subtleties of better, more functional, and pleasing forms.
And I don’t think there’s a shortcut for that, which I like. My spoons were almost as well carved three years ago as they are today as far as finish goes and being able to get a smooth bowl and all that, but my forms and understanding of what makes a spoon a pleasure to actually use have greatly improved.
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I like it and appreciate it when people do it well to embellish an already well-crafted spoon, but I don’t do any of it. At least not right now. Every once in a while, I’ll try some sort of chip design or decorative carving, but I never feel like the spoon is better because of it. And I bought some milk paint years ago, and it is still unopened. I guess I’ve just been obsessed with simple, comfortable spoons with smooth lines and good form, and I suppose I don’t feel like I’ve got all that figured out quite yet, at least not to the extent that I’m aiming for. Probably never will. But if I were good at the “fancy” stuff, I’d probably do the hell out of it.
What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?
I just know that for me, it’s been good to have this creative, productive, healthy hobby that gives my brain and hands somewhere to focus their energy. It was basketball when I was growing up. Music in my 20’s. And now this. I think craft, in general, is so valuable for people’s mental and physical health, and I’m glad I found one that suits me so well. I like geeking out with other crafts folk, and I really like the deepened connection to nature and trees that this craft encourages. It definitely scratches a very deep itch.
If you had to pick a few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
Hah well, I’d consider myself a happy person, but I kind of like what my wife would call sad music when I’m carving. Usually late in the evening by myself in the barn, or more recently standing in the kitchen under a lamp watching a baby monitor. Very calm, quiet places. The first two Bon Iver albums, Gregory Alan Isokof, Radiohead, The National, The Black Angels, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, maybe my old band Dead Sea Empire If I’m feeling nostalgic, and then some political podcasts if I want to get fired up, but I’ve had to cut way back on that cause it makes my eye twitch.
Lastly, why do you carve spoons?
I just really enjoy it. I like the process and using the tools as much as using the finished product. I like how the different woods smell. And how the tools sound when they make their curls. I like how it calms my busy mind. I like how sometimes a spoon just doesn’t work out quite right for some hard to describe reason, or sometimes they go all the way to shit and get to go hang out in the wood stove, but sometimes they turn out just right, and it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. I like how spoons age. But mostly I just really like to eat, and a good wooden spoon makes even a bowl of granola and milk something to savor.
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.