An Interview with Ben Gancsos

Tell us a little about yourself:

I live in NYC with my wife, puppy, and my newborn daughter likely by the time you read this. I have a degree in computer science, followed by art school. Following a wide range of endeavors – automotive, landscaping, hospitality, building, tech before it was called that, journalism, art, I’ve now been an independent Architectural Photographer (@bsgphoto) for a dozen years. Perhaps it’s time for something new, again. Along the way, I’ve been a practicing maker and artist. Gut home renovations, darkroom work, making books, designing and building art installations and exhibits, always keeping my hands slightly bruised and slightly dirty. And, I make things from greenwood at @bgancsos.

How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?

I’ve been carving for about three years. Barn the Spoon has to be the one to blame. I was likely wasting time on Instagram when I came across this parallel universe, and quickly fell down the rabbit hole. Soon after, and about a thousand spoons later, I attended Greenwood Fest, put on by the wonderful folks at Plymouth Craft. It was there that I met Brianna Harden when Barn pointed out “hey, you’re both from NYC, why don’t you start a spoon club?” and a couple of months later, NYC Spoon Club (@nycspoonclub) was born in my back yard, with a small handful of folks who all met at the festival. We’ve long outgrown my basement, and now gather, more or less monthly, at the wonderful Makeville Studio space. This fall, we organized formal classes with JoJo Wood at the Brooklyn MakerSpace.

It’s been a wild and exciting ride. Also scary at times. I came to this field somewhat late, by accident, having missed the pilgrimages to see Wille Sundqvist or Bill Coperthwaite, learning fast through books, gatherings, and the social media outlets. And we’re very much urban. How is this stuff done amidst a city of high-rises? But then we realized there’s a small but eager community of like-minded folks here in NYC. Some of our members come from the more traditional route and have been great resources. It’s a community effort for sure!

What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?

Early on I realized that there are a lot of fan-clubs around various tool makers. And many silly arguments, to this day, about comparisons without having the tools in hand. I went on a quest to collect all that I could, and hold and use them side by side. This has been the most educational effort. There are so many components and subtleties to a hand carving tool that there is simply no way to compare them by specs alone. And everyone’s hand, and grip, and carving style varies, and even evolves! If you’re looking for a brand, just be honest about it and go for it. But if you want the tool that really works for you, try as many as you can and confidently settle on the one(s) for you! More spoons have been carved in the history of modern spoon carving with a Mora 164 than all the other hooks combined, yet it’s the most reviled in some ways. This is really interesting….

The important thing to remember is the profile shape of the hook. How open, tight, or compounded should it be? Where does the sweet spot hit when you’re in your default knife grip? There is no universal answer to this. So, as I am getting comfortable with the fact that one unicorn tool or another is actually hard for me to use, I am trading and selling them off. My preferred hook knife is the early Matt White Monadnock. What sets this tool apart is the uniform radius of the curve. It’s essentially a TWCA that you can choke up on. If you don’t like yours, this is an open invitation to get in touch and I’ll buy it from you!

For my tiny twig spoons, I need really small hooks. Svante Djärve to the rescue!

Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?

I’m a born book collector, unfortunately as they are really…. heavy! If you wish to buy two, Wille Sundqvist’s “Swedish Carving Techniques” and Barn’s “Spoon” will get you hooked pretty solidly. There are many other out there. The one observation I will make is that many were written just a year or two before really good hook knives became somewhat more available and thus show techniques involving gouges, chisels, and various other tools. My personal preference these days is to be able to do everything in hand with greenwood, axe, straight knife, and hook. A lot of books need to go beyond this, partly so they can actually… be a book…

A lot of resources exist online. Zed Sha’s videos are a treasure. And if you have not signed up for the videos Barn makes with Spoon Club you’re missing out!

Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?

At Greenwood Fest I won the raffle for a Jane Mickelborough folding spoon. It’s among my most prized possessions. I’ve since been able to buy or trade for many wonderful spoons from many wonderful makers. There is no way to make a list here that will not make someone sad. I look at all of them and try to find how different people solved different challenges in a spoon. How they resolved a particular part, how finished another…

Not being as rooted in the Swedish tradition as some of the greenwood community, my inspiration tends to come from the art world. I wonder what spoons Constantin Brancusi or Martin Puryear would be making. How do you find something essential in a piece of wood and make something that still respects the natural?

My absolute favorite three are Marie Eklund (@marieeklundhandicraft), Daniel Wester (@danielwesters), and Mark Reddy (@toftmonkey).

How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?

The biggest shift has been to get past one specific carver’s workflow. Everyone I know who teaches, teaches a specific set of steps needed to make their specific spoon. This is not a bad thing, you need to have some structure to be safe when learning. It is something to be aware of, though. Two different carvers, will teach two different ways. Neither is THE way. At some point its important to just let go and simply internalize the basic grips and safe techniques. Then use these as building blocks in your own way and sequence. This took a while to realize. Now, I just think “where’s the power, control, and stop” in any given cut.

What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?

Some of it is truly beautiful, some of it classic and traditional, some of it is trendy, and some a flat out gimmick. Most of it has been around for longer than our species. I think as far as aesthetics go, it’s a very subjective thing. And some people like highly decorated things some like very clean and minimalist things. I love all the mentioned techniques in the right context. It just has to make sense with the design of the spoon.

I prefer to see some tool marks and some indication that this object was made by nature and organically altered, kindly, by a human. If you pour liquid resin in any form, please block me on all social media.

What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?

I find craft such an important part of life, a part that is being more and more outsourced, or simply eliminated. The idea that we can do things with our hand that does not involve a keyboard simply blows some people’s mind. And this is so sad to me. The pleasure and fulfillment that one gets from making or mending something, however poorly, is beyond compare! Learning to do it well, and then being able to adapt it to other aspects of our daily living, is worth more than 1000 “likes” anywhere.

There are many philosophies to quote, often out of context and as if others don’t read, when it comes to craft. From Richard Sennett, to David Pye, to Coperthwaite, to Roubo. The list goes on! But nothing can match the welling up of feelings from making something by hand, and then perhaps carving through the bowl, with tools that you then sharpen yourself. It’s the most mysterious sense of fulfillment from doing something that is, at it’s core, no mystery at all.

I do have to mention, without trying to offend, that we’ve also encountered a bit of macho “bro” sloydering out there. “Dudes with viking axes” is not what this is about. Belittling someone who has not paid some sloyd dues or another is not helpful. It’s ironic that the most vocal, and sometimes abrasive, members of the gatekeeping crew, those who insist on a certain type of orthodoxy and purity of tradition, often not their own, are doing it on an iPhone. Tradition is sacred and we should learn and use as much of it as we can. But let’s be honest, if we were still in the days of the Mary Rose, we’d all likely be dead by 40.

It is so wonderful to be able to take skills that are ancient, and go back to before our species (homo sapiens are axe-natives, we were never without it as it is a Neanderthal tool) and adapt it to our modern times. Now, I can’t coppice my own wood, or even walk around with a sloyd knife dangling from my belt here in this city, but that does not mean I can’t treasure and practice some of these crafts and values.

If you had to pick a few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?

Living in NYC is loud. Actual silence is generally a surprise. So I generally like to carve in silence as much as possible. That said my taste in music can range from American Blues, to Guy Clarke, to Jean Michel Jarre and Zbigniew Preisner. If I had to pick something now, it would be anything by Nick Drake.

My all time favorite is a rarity by Davey Graham. His “City and Suburban Blues” feeds my constant nostalgia for the countryside, overlooking the sea, a place I’ve never lived.

Lastly, why do you carve spoons?

It’s meditative. I get to take something that (here in this city) at best would get chipped, but more likely just taken to the landfill, and make something that can be used or displayed. I don’t need fancy tools, I make no dust, little noise, and it’s portable. And it brings such joy not just to me, but also to folks who hear about it.

And then there’s the “What the hell is that guy doing? I can’t stop looking!” reaction…

Thanks Ben! You can follow him and inquire about purchasing his spoons on Instagram at @bgancsos.