I’m elated to share the following interview with Stephen Lewis.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I spent the last 25 years working as a professional illustrator all over the world. But, in recent times, I noticed a change in myself. The need to be working outside with my hands became stronger. I became disillusioned with my work because I seemed to be just sat at a computer. The process of my work changed from using ink on paper, to being all done in Photoshop on the computer, which really wasn’t my preferred medium.
I had a longing to be outside, and the more time spent outside, the more I wanted to be outside. While out with my dog, I’ve always foraged wood for the fire, so I was used to being out in the forest, chopping wood, and creating woodpiles. But although I enjoyed it, I was thought that there was something more there that was niggling me… something was missing. I’d be outside chopping wood in the winter listening to the radio, which made me feel like I was in the right place, but I also thought that that was something else I should be doing – something that would take it further – because I’ve always liked handling and working with wood.
How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
A couple of years ago, my girlfriend started spoon carving as a hobby. She went away for the weekend with friends, and while she was gone, I picked up her tools and immediately took to spoon carving – it just felt natural. And I haven’t looked back since.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
I only use five tools: my Nic Westermann twca cam, a Mora Outdoor Woodcarving Knife, a Mora Wood Carving 120 Knife, my Gränsfors Bruk hatchet, and a Flexcut KN13 Detail Knife. I’d say that my Nic Westermann twca cam is my favourite tool.
Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?
Sorry, but I really don’t! I try to avoid screens at all costs. I’m not just saying that to be cool. It sounds smug, but I really don’t. I’m self-taught. However, the only book you’ll need is Swedish Carving Techniques by Wille Sundqvist. And HewnandHone.co.uk has some great advice on tool sharpening.
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
I’m a big fan of Éamonn O’Sullivan of Hewn Spoons because it’s a level of carving I’d like to one day reach. Also, I admire the work of Patrick Alan Diette (Klipnocky Woods), not only because of his spoons but because of his work ethic and lifestyle choice.
How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?
I used a lot of sandpaper, but now I go with the wood’s flow a lot more. I felt like a bit of a charlatan using sandpaper, like it was cheating somehow. I found myself sanding a spoon for the same amount of time as I was taking to carve it, realizing that the sanding was hiding a lack of skill. I knew I could attain a finish with the sandpaper that I couldn’t do with a knife back then. So, I put away the sandpaper and practiced like a demon and became a better carver. I like Picasso’s ethos of the fact that you have to be good at something to be able to deconstruct it. It’s not just a case of producing a spoon. It was more about mastering the craft entirely. I learned that when using sandpaper, I was almost aiming for a perfection that didn’t feel right. It felt fake, so I had to take a step back and realize that I was sanding away all the character from my spoons. As an artist, I have learned over the years when to stop. I used to be guilty of overworking something, but now, I know when a piece is complete.
I realize that being totally self-taught doesn’t really leave me with many interesting anecdotes to pass on, but I hope that doesn’t mean that I can’t be an inspiration to others. I guess what I am trying to say is that it’s not rocket science, anyone can do this. The weird thing about it is how much it takes over your life. You have to take that step and believe in yourself and think that you’ve got something to offer, and then you practice and practice and practice your craft until you’re happy with what you’re producing. For me, it’s never been a case of “that’ll do.” I am my own worst critic. I guess I’m a perfectionist, but I’m working on that.
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
Although I respect fellow spoon carvers for their kolrosing work and decoratively carved handles, for me, that’s still unchartered territory. My spoons are simple, functional designs, and I like to think that they are being used and not hung on a wall for decoration. I love to cook too, so I am always thinking of the practical function of my spoons as part of my process. In every aspect of life, as humans, we like our tools, and when we get into something, we buy the best tools for the job.
As I mentioned earlier, I have the utmost respect for the carvers who use these techniques, but it’s not for me. However, I would never entirely rule it out from my process. I have an interest in these techniques because of my illustrator background – I can draw. The thought of combining illustration and carving are always in my head, I would love to incorporate spoon craft and illustration at some point. After having drawn detailed illustrations for the past 25 years, it’s a joy to move away from the intricacy that involves, and spend my days carving simple spoons. I strive to make my spoons aesthetically pleasing, but more importantly, they are utensils that are meant to be used.
I have tried paints; some have been awful and ended up taking up as much work as the carving. I do now believe I have found a new wax-based paint, which I am enjoying using on my spoon handles. It’s nice to offer my customers variety. I use Fusion Mineral Paint, which I believe is Canadian.
What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?
There’s always room to learn. In a world of chuck away culture where plastic is king, I think it’s important to teach the younger generation about these old, heritage crafts. And anything that gets people outside and working with nature is also a great thing.
As a starting point for anybody carving, I think Sloyd is a fascinating programme, but it’s not how I have approached it. As an autodidact, I didn’t really do any study of any kind. I come from a more organic angle. However, these have crafts have been going for hundreds, even thousands of years, and to be part of that tradition is an honour, and I feel it’s my duty to pass on what I have learned as much as I can.
By my own admittance, I am a bit of a hermit. I don’t really go in for crowds or big social gatherings, but I think the new wood culture is a great thing. It’s brilliant that people are getting together for spoon clubs all over the world and talking to each other online. Let’s keep that going. I am actually more interested in Sloyd now than I was when I started because I would love to share my skills with others, and for me, Sloyd is a discipline, and I have no discipline! With hindsight, if I had gone down the path of Sloyd, it would have saved me a few hand wounds and broken spoons! I approach my work the way I always have done – slightly naïve… I still make mistakes, and I am still learning. So, I like the idea of having a process that I’m finding myself. But I can certainly see the benefits of the Sloyd programme when it comes to teaching others.
If you had to pick a few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
I am a huge fan of John Fahey. That’s the stuff I go to when I am working. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I think it’s because the music is as organic as the carving. It has transcendent qualities. It gets me in the zone. I love the flow of instrumental music, I can’t listen to too much singing while carving, I find it too intrusive. I also love the jam-based East Coast scene of Garcia People, Elk Horn, Chris Forsyth, Ryley Walker, and pretty much anything featuring Ryan Jewell on percussion. It’s because that music consists of instrumental jams that go on and on, and on… And in the same vein, I can’t mention the Grateful Dead. I love the Grateful Dead.
Lastly, why do you carve spoons?
Spoon carving means everything to me. It’s taken over my life, and I am so moved by the attention my work has been given. I am moved to be answering these questions. It’s a great feeling to know that people are actually taking an interest in and like what I’m doing. It also combines my passions of making things with my hands and being outside in the hills and forests. I spend hours at night over a beer or two just examining that day’s freshly carved spoons and making notes to rectify any errors the next day.
Sometimes you can make a spoon that will break or split and end up on the fire, but there’s a strange sense of accomplishment through the process. Even if it does end up as firewood. Although the entire day was spent up to this finale of the spoon being broken, it wasn’t a waste of time because you come away with a day’s worth of knowledge and experience. You’ve learned something, even though sadly, the result is a broken spoon.
All my spoons are unique – no two are the same – I always let the piece of wood dictate what I make. Each day means new wood, a different style of spoon, and a fresh challenge.
It’s also the realization of how big a part woodwork plays in everyone’s life. We all use spoons, and woodwork is all around us. For example, the reason I beveled my spoon handles is because I stare at a beveled wooden roof beam every night. I sat there thinking, ‘if I take the corner of my spoon handles like that beveled beam, it will soften them and make them more tactile.’ The more you get into woodworking, the more you start to notice it everywhere around you, and not take it for granted. You begin to observe and understand the skills and techniques that go into making these beautiful objects. It applies to the humble spoon, although you wouldn’t have thought it would.
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.