Early into my carving, I found Greg Nelson, aka @chasing_the_grain73 , on Instagram and was impressed by his work. I bought a spoon and it came with this thoughtful handwritten note. I thought, “Man, this is what handcraft is all about. Something from a real person.” Months later, I went to the Driftless Spoon Gathering in La Farge, Wisconsin. I had cut up some windfallen black cherry and brought it to share at the gathering. Later, I saw some beautiful spoons that Greg had carved from it posted on Instagram. Oddly, I probably handed him the wood he used, but had no idea that it was him. Regardless, Greg sent me a spoon for the wood, and that sort of summed up who he is – a kind carver who by his very nature shares his knowledge and work. I was bummed that I didn’t realize that he was at the gathering, but I’m grateful that he was willing to take the time now to have a conversation with me here about his spoon carving.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I’m a forty-five year old stay at home father of two wonderful kids, ages three and five. I met my wife through Match.com when the internet was just beginning to really boom. Before marriage I spent most of my days in retail management and sales, though I do have a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in creative writing. Pairing those two interests of study didn’t exactly prepare me for a six figure salary upon graduation! Not to mention my other interests in classical guitar and songwriting. Through my own ignorance of the real world or my sheer stubbornness not to achieve those precious things most consider the American dream, I was woefully unprepared for the wonderful life I now find myself enjoying as a husband and stay-at-home father. My last stint in the real working world was a bit of social work that finally utilized some of my college training and background. While I don’t miss the heavy case loads, I do often miss the diverse folks I got a chance to work with and learn a bit more about real life from.
How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I began my carving shortly after the birth of my son. I played a lot of bad guitar at the time and needed something quiet to do during nap time. I was fumbling around the internet one day, doing research about carving walking sticks, when I bumped into something about hand carved spoons. I was already enjoying making walking sticks, but the hours of sanding and using a Dremel to grind out diamond willow sticks wasn’t for me. My decision to give up on walking sticks came down to the dust and the noise, not to mention the vibrations from the Dremel I could feel in my hands days after I’d done a lot of work. My interest in carving spoons like most, was peaked by the simplicity and quiet of the tools involved. There was no dust, only chips to sweep away and because the wood was green, it was easier on my hands. And so it was that I began doing some serious research about carving my very first spoon. Little did I know what would follow. I’ve been chasing the grain ever since!
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
With my new found hobby came the acquisition of some pretty crappy tools. Rather than buy quality, I did what most folks dabbling in spoons do first, I ran out and bought the cheapest and absolutely worst tools I could find. A year later after tons of research I found Hans Karlsson tools out of Sweden and never really looked to any other makers. I first acquired an axe from Hans Karlsson tools that I still use almost daily now, then a hook knife and last a sloyd knife from them. I love their tools for the simple fact that they are superb in quality and construction, are fairly priced and with a little patience, are actually quite easy to come by contrary to what some folks may think. If you save your money, and subscribe to their email update, about every six months or so they make a release. You have to be a bit patient and savvy to get to their web site first when the new tools release, but everyone gets the exact same opportunity to buy. Just make sure you’re committed to buying when the tools get released. If you snooze, they’ll be gone. I’ve tried other maker’s tools, but they just don’t feel the same in my hands. There are some really great other smith’s out there but I’ve simply grown accustomed to the HK line of tools. They were the first high quality tools I acquired and therefore have become the ones I’m most familiar with. It’s a bit like being married to my wife, I scarcely think at this point I could stand the company of anyone else! Other makers I really like include Svante Djarv, Dell Stubs, Deepwoods Ventures, and Mora. I’ve used all of these at some point along the way and they’re solid options if you’re just starting out. I’d like to try the legendary Nic Westerman’s tools but there’s about a two year wait and I’m incredibly impatient. I also feel that if a particular tool is working, there’s no need for another. I learned early on that I’d rather spend my time carving than searching for that elusive, perfect tool that’s going to some how make my spoons great. I’m a carver not a collector. But if anyone knows where I can get a Bo Helgesson hook, I’m ready to buy one!
Any suggestions of books or websites to learn about spoon carving or woodwork?
The only book I would really recommend for spoon carving is Swedish Carving Techniques by Willie Sundqvist. While the book is a bit dated, the photos and descriptions are excellent, and really capture the folk tradition of “Swedish Style” spoon carving and sloyd craft better than anything else I’ve ever read on the subject. A quick Google search will reveal a multitude of other spoon carving books and resources for further study, but Willie Sundqvist, in my opinion, is the best place to start. Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook are other good places to search as well to see what current carver’s are up to these days. These days many more folks are beginning to post live and recorded videos on various different internet platforms, some you can even join in and carve live over the internet with others. You’ll have to do a little digging but the content is out there for anyone that’s serious about carving spoons to discover it.
Are there any particular spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
I could endlessly name other spoon carver’s that have inspired me to keep on chasing the grain, but the truth is they’re all equally inspiring. From beginners to experts, I’m simply amazed that folks are making time in their lives for traditional craft. I think our reasons for carving spoons are quite different these days than they were in the past. Most folks are simply looking for some kind of connection with others today, and spoons provide that positive link. Very few folks make a living carving spoons today, though I think that’s starting to change. Obviously I’m inspired by those folks at the top of their game, who can sustainably live off of what they make but I’m really more interested in seeking out those fantastic carvers I haven’t yet discovered and aren’t yet very well known. Every day I’m searching for new and inspiring folks to keep my creative wheels turning about the kinds of spoons I want to carve.
How have your spoon carving techniques changed over time?
I think my spoon carving techniques have basically stayed the same over time. I started out using the grips that I learned from reading Willie Sundqvist’s Swedish Carving Techniques. I’ve added a few modifications, and tricks that just came natural to me over the years. I don’t use my hook knife in a very traditional way. I use a thumb technique, that I don’t see other carvers using. Part of that style developed out of the hook I’ve chosen to stick with, a bit of ignorance, luck and bad habits in the beginning. I’ve stuck with it though and feel it makes my carving process more of my own now. I’ve tried more conventional techniques with the hook knife, but they just aren’t as comfortable for me. I guess if the results are good, I figure why mess with what’s working.
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I think a lot about this question. I’ve never been very interested in having a lot of decoration on my spoons. I mostly carve eating spoons these days and I want them to be functional first. Decoration is always an afterthought for me. I find it hard enough to get clean shapes, crisp lines and symmetry just by itself, let alone adding more work on top of that. Much of the cherry wood I source has color and grain so beautiful to begin with, I think that any thing else I added to it would just be gaudy. I’m not a flashy person and I want my spoons to reflect my quiet personality. I also just think that other folks do those decorations much better than I ever could. Once in a while I’ll add some extra decoration to a spoon just to experiment and see what folks think, but I always end up returning to some pretty basic bowl shapes and traditional handle styles. Experimenting, and playing around with the basic form of a spoon is where it’s at for me. The wood on its own is almost always enough decoration for me in the end.
What do craft, sloyd, or wood culture mean to you?
Those are three pretty big ideas! To me, carving spoons has always been more than just carving spoons. The whole process is about becoming a better person. It’s a never ending process of discovery and learning. I often tell folks it’s my “ikigai” which roughly translates from Japanese to “one’s reason for getting out of bed.” I think of spoon carving as a catalyst for change. If we want to make the world better, I think sitting down and carving a few spoons together is a good place to start. I’ve watched very disparate folks from varying backgrounds and viewpoints sit around carving spoons and by the end of the day really begin to understand each other. It’s funny how something simple, common and meditative can do that. Perhaps today’s world leaders should sit down at a spoon carving summit together.
If you had to pick few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
Right now, just about any song by Wilco will do! I’ve also got a long list of Tom Petty songs I like to cycle through when I carve. I like to have something going in the background with an energetic beat, usually acoustic and with lyrics that prompt me to think and feel a bit deeper. I want music that inspires me to use my emotions while I carve. I want the final spoon to be a direct result of what I was thinking and feeling at a particular moment in my life. If a spoon doesn’t project that energy when I’m done, then it’s not a very good spoon, even if it’s technically perfect. I can live with a few mistakes if a spoon projects a feeling of energy and emotion. Spoons are a lot like poems to me. I carve them with care and attention to detail making sure they look and feel great in the end, but I also want you to feel that underlying music every time you go to pick it up in your hand.
Lastly, why do you carve spoons?
I carve spoons in order to keep my life in balance. The world is a hectic place. Amidst all of the confusion, noise and distractions vying for my attention, spoons are the one constant source of peace, tranquility and relaxation that I can always return to. An hour of carving spoons let’s my mind wander and go for a saunter through the woods again. I begin thinking about all the things that are truly important in my life, the people and the places I deeply care for. For me it’s a form of meditation. Sometimes I hate to leave, and I think that feeling of being connected and aware of my surroundings, mind and body is what brings me back time and time again to hand carved spoons. At the end of each spoon, there’s always a feeling of accomplishment, however small. I congratulate myself on a job well done and before I know it, I’m already thinking about the next chance I’ll get to carve another spoon. Time doesn’t exist in that moment I’m creating a spoon. There’s only the this babbling conversation between my hands, the tools and the wood.
Thanks Greg! You can follow him and inquire about purchasing his spoons on Instagram at @chasing_the_grain73 . Oh yeah, and Greg, I’ll look forward to seeing you at the Driftless Spoon Gathering in the fall.
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.