I’m very happy to share the following interview with Martin Ryan.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I married the love of my life 25 years ago. We have 3 children, my eldest daughter is studying physics, my son recently graduated with his degree in cabinetry and wood technology, and my youngest daughter will be studying environmental engineering when she leaves for college this fall. Other than family and green woodworking, I enjoy camping.
How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I started green woodworking around 3 years ago. My first project was a pot hook while camping, which led to a very crude spatula, which led to an even worse spoon. I found out about green woodworking from a local arborist and learned more from a bushcraft website. I became very accomplished at turning large pieces of wood into smaller pieces of wood. Occasionally I make spoons, but I really enjoy making bowls. I carve bowls with an axe, adze, gouge, and knife. I recently started turning bowls on a pole lathe, although my lathe has bungees rather than a pole. I recently grabbed a very nice ash trunk, so I’ll be attempting a Jennie Alexander ladder back chair soon.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
I built a spoon mule from the plans that Dawson (aka Michigan Sloyd) sells. I added a shave horse head from Tim Manney’s plans. Then I cobbled together a bowl horse head based on articles that David Fisher published. They all ride on the same base and are interchangeable. As this work holding device allows me to work on bowls, spoons, tool handles, and soon to be chair parts, it is most likely my favorite tool.
As far as sharp steel is concerned, it depends on what I am currently making. I use a new to me Gransfors Bruks carving axe and an old hewing axe I acquired on a trip to Maine. For carved bowls, I start most projects with Jason Lonon’s large bowl adze. Roughing gouges from Hans Karlsson are workhorses and can do some great finishing work. I finish most of my carved bowls with swan neck gouges from Nic Westermann. For turned bowls, my hook tools are from Jarrod Dahl, Sharif Adams, Matt Whitaker, and Jason Lonon. When I make spoons, I use Nic Westerman sloyd and spoon knives.
I recognize that it is quite a few tools. You don’t need all these tools to get started. I started with a no-name hatchet and a Mora spoon knife. As my interests expanded, so did my tools. Once I acquire a new tool, other tools usually get sold or given to new carvers. I look for used tools whenever I can, but I also believe in supporting the blacksmiths that serve the green woodworking community. For me, the important thing is that all the tools in my shop get used regularly.
Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?
I believe the best online sources of information are Barn’s Spoon Club and anything craft related found on the Zed Outdoors YouTube channel. Both cover a range of green woodworking topics, and I think expanding skills from spoons to bowls, furniture, and other useful projects is important.
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
For me, the most influential person is Peter Follansbee. I took a spoon carving course from Peter, and that experience had a huge impact that I still feel. Amy Umbel’s work is always inspiring. Amy taught a great class at the Maine Coast Craft School that has helped me explore paint and color, an area I have very little background or competency. JoJo Wood inspired me to explore facets and the light and shadows they create. I was lucky enough to take a class with David Fisher. I learned so much about bowl carving, and even more about what it takes to learn and become proficient. Pat Diette helps me recognize that a sweet curve and a subtle form is all that is needed to make a great spoon. Karel Hekrle’s work makes me want to explore different forms. Danielle Rose Byrd makes me want to be much bolder in my bowl carving, especially using texture. Yoav Elkayam, Artiza’Mat, Logan (James River Sloyd) all make me want to turn a better bowl on a pole lathe.
How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?
When I started carving, I most likely re-carved every project 3 or 4 times as I hadn’t realized I needed that one part of the project to base all my other carving. When carving a bowl, or kuksa, or spoon, establishing the rim helps me to see the wood that needs to be removed from both the inside and outside of the bowl. Working in three dimensions usually means that when you take a piece of wood from one part of your work, you are going to need to take some from another to balance. So learning what in the project will be used as the foundation for all other carving helps me to produce the desired result and do it efficiently.
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I love wood grain. To me, good carving or turning enhances the wood grain or creates a line or shadow in the wood that shows off the wood. Most of my work is simply oiled. Not everyone feels the same as I do about wood grain. I am trying to add more color, kolrosing, and chip carving because I believe there are times that they attract a broader audience to what I make. I’ve spent the last few months experimenting with adding some decorative carving to wooden bowls and using Milk Paint. I still have a lot to learn.
What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?
On craft, I believe that if you are going to do something, do it well. Take the time to learn. Recognize that you are not going to be good at it until you have developed your craft and developing a craft takes years, not days. I think this is a good lesson for people of all ages.
I like to think of sloyd as the ability to take what you have and make what you need. I think the American culture of consumerism has left us with a lack of problem-solving skills and creativity. Yet everyone knows that one guy in the neighborhood that can help solve a problem or fix something that you can’t get at the store. So there is hope.
I believe the wood culture has a real chance to flourish as more people recognize that most manufacturing practices are harmful to the environment, and using sustainable resources is one of the solutions.
If you had to pick a few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
I have 4 playlists; Funk, Classic Rock Guitar, Jazz (Monk, Miles, Coltrane), and 60s & 70s Hippy Dippy. It depends on my mood and what I’m doing. Axe and adze work usually is accompanied by Eric Clapton and others. Finishing gouge work needs some Miles Davis.
Lastly, why do you carve spoons?
Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I made the dining room table we still use. It shows all the meals, homework, and the daily wear and tear of a family. As my children grew into young adults, there was a hole that needed to be filled. Green woodworking allowed me to learn something new that I could do at home. I cannot understate the mental health and overall health benefits of making. Spending time and energy focusing on transforming a log to something useful and occasionally pleasing to the eye clears my mind, is good for the soul, and keeps me active.
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.