I’m very happy to share the following interview with Sue Ackerman.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I was born and raised in the Midwest, mainly Minnesota and Iowa, with a brief run in Missouri. I’ve been a lifelong, sharp-stick-by-the-campfire carver since childhood. I was married for 14 years to the father of our five children, aged 17-28 years. I have two grandsons, 1 yr old and 10 mos. Currently, I work from home as a medical coder primarily doing surgical coding for a group of spine surgeons in the Twin Cities since 2006. I stumbled onto my career path by chance and connected immediately in much the same way I stumbled onto spoon carving. I tend to go where connection leads me, be it with people, careers, hobbies, etc. If the connection is there I am compelled to see where it leads, good or bad! If I don’t feel a connection, it isn’t meant for me. I was remarried again briefly in 2016, which I refer to as the biggest mistake I’m glad I made. That marriage was life-changing and forced me to take a good look at myself, the path I’d chosen, and the choices I was making. It was the initiative I needed to make global changes to improve my overall well-being. As it will, life took unexpected twists and turns, which makes “Tell me a little about yourself” a little hard to reign in. I’ll keep it as closely related to the spoony topic at hand, although it feels a lifetime has led me to my true passion: the wooden spoon.
How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I carved my first spoon almost by accident, with no initial intention of making anything in particular. I had a cousin whom I’d grown close to while we were both hanging out in the local bars in Southern Minnesota and Northern Iowa playing pool. I learned more about shooting pool with him than anyone prior or since. We spent countless hours shooting pool in the bar. It was our bond. Rob was a colorful character full of stories and anecdotes with a smart, quick humor. Sadly, Rob died unexpectedly in 2015 leaving a permanent void. A year or so after his death out of the blue and on a whim, I asked my aunt if I could borrow Rob’s woodcarving gouges. I’d never used a gouge and had no clue what I was doing or even how to hold them properly. After several practice cuts I started to envision a spoon taking shape. And so it became. Literal blood, sweat and tears went into my first spoon and a passion was born instantly. I remember saying out loud to myself, “Well, this is what I do now.” I believe Rob led me to this and no one will convince me otherwise. At that point, I had no idea that spoon carving was even “a thing.” Clueless, I googled spoon carving and, after that, became a sponge. I watched YouTube videos day and night. I liked to think it was a healthy obsession (but it probably had some unhealthy qualities at the beginning.) I had found my people! Everything about it resonated with me.
I’d found a connection to something so personal, so deep and special, it went beyond description or explanation. A safe place. An inspiration. Kindness. Solidarity. Something more fulfilling to my mind, body, and soul than anything I’d experienced. My many years of alcohol addiction had taken so much from me, emotionally and financially, and now a light shone through and I saw a way out. After years of feeling ashamed of myself, it helped me finally see a future that didn’t include booze or the bar. I genuinely believe that spoon (and Rob) saved my life. I had a new hobby and purpose and something I could be proud of. I carved my first spoon in January of 2017. In July 2017, with the unwavering support of my family, I found the strength to leave my ex-wife. On October 31, 2017, I set my empty glass on the counter of the bar and knew I’d taken my last drink. I was finally ready to be done with it. I held myself accountable for my mistakes and my addiction, forgave myself and took back control of my life. I’ve restored my financial situation, I regained my self-respect and my confidence and all thanks to a wooden spoon?? WHAT???
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
Ooooh, tough one. There are so many beauties out there. My current go-to hook is the Woodspirit by Reid Schwartz. Ahhh, the Woodspirit! It has the perfect shape and strength for most spoons I make and holds its edge longer than any tool I own. You just can’t argue with perfection. My other go-to lately is Matt White’s Monadnock. That is truly a thing of beauty. A work of art from the blade to the handle to the handcarved wooden sheath. It’s a beautiful tool that is a pleasure to hold and use. My favorite straight knife right now is a simple Mora 120. I like the 106 also but for most cuts I prefer the length and strength of the 120. I also really Like Del Stubbs’ Pinewood Forge short sloyd for some finer finishing cuts. I use a 8L/25 Pfiel bent gouge for deeper, big-bowled spools. But my all-time favorite tool and the first thing I’m saving in a house fire (sorry kids) is my Julia Kalthoff Small Carver axe. It was love at first sight. I can’t imagine why I’d ever need another carving axe. I have a couple others I use for splitting or debarking, but for carving….mmm mmm mmmm, love it!!!
Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?
I would direct any new or experienced carver to this website – www.woodenspooncarving.com – and www.spoonclub.co.uk. Any experience level can garner a wealth of knowledge and inspiration from both sites. There are hundreds of years of experience combined among all these carvers, and how better to learn? I would also suggest a subscription to Spoon Club. The amount of information on that site for that price is unbelievable! What a tremendous resource that I can’t recommend enough, even to a seasoned carver. As far as books, I would agree with most anyone that Swedish Carving Techniques by Wille Sundqvist is the gold standard. I enjoy everything about that book quite frankly. I also love my copy of Spon by Barn the Spoon. Tons of great info! I cherish Drew Langsner’s books Green Woodworking and Country Handcraft. I have dreams of making several projects from those books but I somehow manage to mostly just make spoons. I adore Sean Hellman’s Shave Horses Lap Shaves and other Woodland Vises. My shave horse is an amalgamation of his Dumbhead Plank design and Drew’s shave horse design in Green Woodworking. I took parts of each and worked it out. Next, I’d like to make the Easy Rider from Sean’s book. Goals!
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
Where to even begin? Seriously there are just so many! When I was first starting out, I learned the most from Zed Shah’s “Zed Outdoors” YouTube videos. They included Adam Hawker, Jill Swan and Lee Stoffer among others. What an invaluable, incomparable service Zed is providing to the sloyd community with those comprehensive tutorials. THANKS ZED!!!!! Those were my go-to resources because they’re free and available to anyone with internet access. As my experience and skill progressed Barn and Spoon Club was a sound investment. A wealth of information covering everything from carving to sharpening to kolrosing to chip carving to finials, etc. etc. etc. Wille Sundqvist’s The Spoon, the Bowl, and the Knife is an excellent DVD, and Jogge Sundqvist’s The Sloyd Tradition is excellent as well. Also I was fortunate enough to get to know Ty Thornock and meet his family a couple years ago at his home. I’d purchased one of his spoons on Facebook, and since he lived close enough, I asked if I could pick it up in person. A great guy and a brilliant kolroser. I also purchased an eating spoon from Adam Gruetzmacher who happened to be selling spoons at a show outside my work while I was there for a meeting. He also makes exceptional pottery, but we got to geek out about spoons and tools. His spoon has inspired me to go much thinner in my bowls and try a few new decorative carving techniques. I haven’t even scratched the surface of inspiring carvers and sloyders. I do have to mention a few names in no particular order because their work is absolutely delicious!!!! Pat Diette, Jane Mickelborough, Maryanne McGinn, Kim Fejgin, Alex Yerks, Jarrod Dahl, Per Noren, and so many others.
How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?
Like anything, my techniques evolved as I became educated and with practice. Also, as my confidence grew, and my sharpening skills improved. I started out making chunkier spoons because I feared to go too thin. I sanded my work because I didn’t know how to sharpen my tools properly. The more I practiced and built up my skills the more risks I was willing to take. I still sand an occasional spoon, but now it depends on the finish I’m looking for as opposed to skill level. To learn, I tried to mimic other carvers’ work. I learned the most by trying to replicate someone else’s work. I didn’t do it to steal someone’s signature style, just do improve my own ability. It’s a technique I definitely recommend. It’s interesting to see how my work has changed in the past two and a half years or even since last year. It’s essential to be open to constructive criticism. I value it. To date, my mother and brother are my best critics. They’re okay with saying if something isn’t comfortable or is unbalanced or where it might need more work. Contrarily they’re also my biggest cheerleaders. I’m definitely my harshest critic, so it’s nice to have someone else look at it who hasn’t been staring at it up close for three hours. That’s my other piece of advice…put it down and walk away. Pick it up again later and look with fresh eyes. It makes a huge difference!
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I adore many of the decorated spoons I’ve seen. I think they’re brilliant. For the most part, I’m a simple girl with simple carving tastes. I’ve done both chip carving and kolrosing, and there’s no shame in saying there’s certainly room for improvement!! I struggle with some aspects of both skills and I intend to learn more at a later date. For now, I’m happy and comfortable making nice, simple spoons. My carving style is mood-based. If my mood tells me to kolrose, I kolrose. If I push it, then I don’t enjoy it, and it won’t turn out well.
What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?
I have to say it means the world to me. It’s given me my life back. As exaggerated or contrived as it may sound I was a lost soul. I envisioned myself sitting on a barstool well into my old age. With only that vision that is surely the future I would have manifested…until I carved a spoon. Now I see all the trees, I see the spoons in the trees. I drive by a downed tree certain that I must harvest it and carve it. I’ve tried many hobbies in my life, and nothing has connected with me the way this has. It affects me emotionally. I have carved spoons and cried when they were complete. It’s a release. I’m beyond grateful to have a connection to the earth, to something organic. Putting all technology aside and being at peace with the wood fibers and the knife or axe is fulfilling. It captivates me and compels me to create something beautiful and functional. I’m inspired by so many wood carvers, spoon carvers, crafters, and sloyders. This community is something I had no idea I needed. Creativity, I believe, is essential to the human experience, and to be able to do it with something natural is a blessing to me. Being a part of a community that builds each other up and promote and inspire each other is what life is all about.
If you had to pick a few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
Songs huh? Hmmm…The Eye by Brandi Carlile, Hard Times Come Again No More by James Taylor, Made Up Mind by Tedeschi Trucks Band. I might be a unicorn, but I don’t typically listen to music while I carve. I either carve in silence, listen to stand-up comedy, or “Friends.” Yes, “Friends.” I watch each season from start to finish and then start over again. Probably super weird, but you asked! …sort of.
Lastly, why do you carve spoons?
I carve spoons because not carving them isn’t an option anymore. It’s who I am now. I’m a mom, I’m a grandma, and I’m a spoon carver. I carve because it brings me calm and joy, and if anything I make can bring someone else joy, then all the better!
Thanks Sue! You can follow her and inquire about purchasing her spoons on Instagram at @midwest_spoons.