I met Joseph Mayhew at the Driftless Spoon Gathering this past September. I really enjoyed our conversations while carving and at the campfire. I’m honored that he took the time to answer some questions I had for him about his spoon carving.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I live in St. Paul, Minnesota, married with three adult children and three cats. (Max, a large Maine Coon, is my faithful carving apprentice. He is always by my side when I am in my basement workshop. He sits in one chair while I carve in the other.) I have been an architect for about forty years, mostly designing large commercial projects. Maybe that is why I am attracted to the humble act of carving of a spoon.
How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I started less than two years ago. A couple of months before, out of the clear blue, I said to my wife, “I think I am going to start carving spoons.” I don’t recall what inspired that statement. I must have seen something that subconsciously clicked in my brain. But it changed my life. I now have this passion.
Since then, I have thought some more about why I got so addicted to spoon carving. There are four reasons.
First, all my adult life, I’ve been dedicated to designing buildings, and I’ve always worked very hard in this relatively stressful profession. I now realize I needed something that took my mind off work for a while.
Second, I have always dabbled in woodworking and have all the basic machinery, but I have never really cared for powered equipment. Noisy, high-power machinery makes me nervous, and using it is a bit of an unpleasant experience. Even though I like the precision power tools give me, the end result is a little soulless. (However, I must admit, now in the hunt for green wood, there have been times I wished I had a chainsaw.)
Third, my wife is an avid knitter, a hobby she can do it anywhere and while socializing. I needed a hobby like that: a hobby that I can do almost anywhere, with just a few portable tools. Something that doesn’t require holing up in the basement workshop.
Lastly, I never had a hobby. Thinking about the future and retirement, I want to make sure that when I get there, I am active — mentally, physically, and socially — and what better way to achieve that than the Sloyd way!
In the first eight months, I just dived in without any knowledge of what I was doing. How hard can it be! I did not know that there was this whole community of local green woodcarvers, and my only resources were YouTube and Instagram. I initially cut myself a lot and made a lot of butt-ugly spoons.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
I have been trying to avoid getting caught up in buying a lot of tools or trying to snag the best tools in the world. Even though I want the best, the long waits, the expense, the difficulty of ordering, if you can order them at all, has made me a little frustrated. Besides, I have always liked buying local if I can. So I have been keeping my tools to a minimum, keeping what I have as sharp as possible. I started out with a $40 Schrade axe, and I was perfectly happy with it. However, by chance, I got myself a Hans Karlsson carving axe, and I admit it has been a pleasure to use. Then, this summer, at the Milan Spoon Gathering, I went crazy and bought a couple of beautiful sweep knives and a Sloyd knife from Del Stubbs, Pinewood Forge. So lately, I only use those three knives along with my very first hook knife, also from Del. I still use my trusty Mora 106 for those big spoons. Del’s knives are wonderful. Plus, the handles are beautiful. I may be mistaken, but I think he told me that he picked up the pistachio wood, used for two of my knives, in California in the 80s. I like to think there is a lot of history there.
Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?
Before I took any classes, I discovered the Zed Outdoors video of Adam Hawker’s step-by-step spoon carving. I watched it over and over again, wrote down all the steps, memorized them, and made them my spoon carving process. Results were much better than the willy-nilly carving all over the spoon that I started out doing. As in architecture, I learned that you really need to take a systematic approach. For me, it improves my chances of getting a good functioning spoon and gives me better control over the direction of the design.
The book I refer to often is the bible of wood carving: Wille Sundquist’s Swedish Carving Techniques. I also enjoy perusing Barn’s Spon: A Guide to Spoon Carving and the New Wood Culture. I like his clear, elegant writing and beautiful photographs. Carving spoons based on the designs he describes and illustrates are great practice and very satisfying.
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
Just about everyone I meet inspires me. One totally unexpected discovery I made that pleasantly surprised me when I started spoon carving, and now is maybe more important than any of the reasons that I gave earlier as to why I got into it, is all the people I have met in the spoon-carving community. I have met so many wonderful men and women at the Milan Spoon Gathering, the Driftless Spoon Gathering, the American Swedish Institute, and the North House Folk School. Everyone is so talented, so willing to share their carving knowledge, and so willing to share their stories, as well as interested in you and in your work. No egos. All of the instructors I’ve had — Fred Livesay, Paul Linden, Adam Hawker, Jarrod Dahl, and Alex Yerks — have deeply influenced me. Not only have I learned so much about the art of carving but also how to be a better person. They all live and breathe the Sloyd philosophy. I am amazed at how accessible these great carvers are.
How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?
It has gotten a lot better. I have a long way to go, but with each class, I have taken, my spoons have visibly improved. Today I am more conscientious of every stroke, less forceful, more relax, more systematic. Of course, there is no limit to what there is to learn, but I am getting a good feel for the nature of the wood and the use of the tools.
As often stated, spoon carving is a gateway drug. I am now trying my hand at carving bowls and kuksas, and someday soon, I hope to try my hand at pole-lathe turning, shrink pots, birchbark crafts…and the list goes on. There is so much the trees have to offer and so little time!
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I am torn between the elegance of the unadorned spoon and the amazing detail and uniqueness you can add through chip carving and kolrosing. Kolrosing reminds me of intaglio printing, which I did a little of in my college days, not only in the process and the incredible detail you can achieve but also as a medium for telling a story. I have seen some beautiful kolrosing and chip carving and would like to add more decoration to my spoons. I’ve gotten a couple of quick but valuable lessons from two amazing kolrosers, Adam Hawker and Liesl Chatman. I really just need to learn patience and find the time to do it.
I have never been interested in milk paint. I just can’t bring myself to cover up the beauty of the natural grain and color of the wood.
What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?
I am not an expert on Sloyd, but I do think it is a way of learning that not only teaches lifelong practical skills but creates confidence in who you are physically, mentally, and socially. I was unaware of any of this when I started greenwood carving, but I now wholeheartedly embrace it. The greenwood carving community, as well as artisans in related folk arts, truly embodies the Sloyd philosophy.
If you had to pick a few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
I don’t really listen to music while carving. I kind of enjoy peace and quiet, conversation with others, or the sounds of nature when I am outdoors.
Lastly, why do you carve spoons?
First, it is the people in the greenwood carving community. They are the best. Second, greenwood carving is physical and requires focus, yet at the same time is relaxing and meditative. It is a retreat from the stress of my professional work while allowing me to be still creative.
Thanks Joseph! You can follow him and inquire about purchasing his spoons on Instagram at @joewhitebear_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.