Spoon carving at the Driftless Folk School

Last year at about this time, my sister and I took a class on sweet grass basketry at the North House Folk School. This learning vacation together, we took a class on spoon carving at the Driftless Folk School in Viroqua, Wisconsin. I took some pictures as we worked to be able to share.

The class was taught by Terry Beck and Tom Wheeler, in the Driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin (“driftless” refers to glacial activity, or rather lack of glacial activity, which means lovely varied scenery). We started out with safety: “Keep your flesh out the line of travel” summed up the tips. What was most helpful for me to remember was to keep my elbows in, so your torso essentially acts as a stop, as your range of motion is decreased even when using force while carving.

We carved green wood. In the picture below, Tom is using a hatchet to quarter-saw a green log – green is important, it is much easier to carve green wood as wood hardens as it dries. You can carve dry wood, it’s just more work. Cutting the wood in this fashion means getting a section of the log that is more like it’s cut like a pie, rather than a plank.

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Here, Tom and Terry both each have essentially a club of wood in their hands. They were working together with Tom holding the piece of wood while Terry was splitting the blank. For more control, Terry placed the hatchet, and used the club to hit the hatchet to create the split.

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We went inside the building, and used the hatchet to take off the bark and begin shaping the piece. Rule of thumb: each minute you can spend carving with the hatchet would be equivalent to doing 10 minutes of knife work.

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Draw a rough outline of your spoon, and then a small hand saw is used to cut some stops – to hopefully keep you from cutting off the spoon’s handle.

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I’m working in sumac, a beautiful wood. Note: sumac, NOT poison sumac!

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A little more is done at this point. I’m still using the hatchet. The sharpening on this has been modified. Usually a hatchet has two bevels, one stepping in from another, kind of like a classic barn roof has two angles that meet at the tip. This is more like an A-frame, one shallow, sharp bevel. Also, I am carving holding the hatchet right up at the head, and have my thumb on one side of the head, and my finger on the other.

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Still working with the hatchet.

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Now I’ve progressed to the sloyd (or slöjd) knife. It a very short, very sharp knife. Slöjd refers to the handcraft tradition in Sweden; here’s a post I wrote about slöjd for the American Craft Council.

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Now I’ve begun working on the bowl of the knife with a hook knife. It looks like you imagine, a rather scary looking curved blade that enables scooping out the bowl. You can see that this work isn’t as smooth. Between the picture above and this picture, we went to lunch. An hour of drying, plus a new tool to use, and I had some difficulty. You start carving the bowl by drawing its edge, and then scooping from that edge towards the center.

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I have finished carving. I used a rasp, and some cabinet scrapers on the bowl, to smooth out some of my tool marks. These tools aren’t needed though – to carve a spoon, all you truly need is a hatchet, a small handsaw, and the two knives. Sanding or not sanding is a matter of preference. I will be sanding this later this week, and then it will be oiled and cured/hardened for a month before use. When I finish, I will post a picture of the final project with the knives, which I omitted photographing in process (I liked photographing with the hatchet I see!).

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Finally, here are some of the other spoons that were carved, the top left three by the instructors.

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There aren’t as many places to learn spoon carving as I would think, because it is such an achievable project. This is one day of work, though an experienced craftsman can complete the carving in less than an hour. See if you have a local folk school, or perhaps a Scandinavian store or museum, if you are interested. I recommend it – and the Driftless Folk School and Terry and Tom!

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Snowflake for 2014

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Every year, I make a snowflake for my Christmas tree. Here is this year’s edition; my design.

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Ornaments, 2014 edition

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So, I’m taking three (?) shortcuts. Using my phone to take a picture. No light tent. Blogging on my phone. What’s the saying? Perfect is the enemy of good? I wouldn’t at all say that this picture is good, but perhaps good enough for a little project.

Back to the beadwork! For one of my jobs, I make ornaments for my coworkers. (For the other, I make truffles.) These are this year’s edition; herringbone beads make great ornaments/pendants.

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Additional baskets from “Sharing Traditions” at Yosemite National Park

I limited my basket photographs in my last post to baskets made by the three main demonstrators at Yosemite in the last 80 years, Maggie Howard, Lucy Telles, and Julia Parker. There were other baskets at well, rooms of them. Enjoy!

Carrie Bethel was Mono Lake Paiute, and these baskets were made in the 1930s and 1940s.

Tina Charlie, Mono Lake Paiute, also made these baskets in the 1930s and 1940s.

Nellie Charlie, Mono Lake Paiute, made these beaded baskets in the 1920s and 1930s.

Jennie Washington was Southern Miwok/Chukchansi, and made these baskets prior to 1940.

Alice Wilson made these baskets in the 1920s. The basket is well-known because a photograph of her infant son inside the basket was sold in Yosemite as a postcard.

Finally, here is some work by unknown artists, various tribes.

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“Sharing Traditions” exhibit at Yosemite National Park

“Sharing Traditions” tells the story of 80 years of basket making in Yosemite National Park. I was fortunate enough to see this exhibit in the summer of 2012, and took pictures to share. Yosemite National Park has an 80-year tradition of basket-weaving demonstrations, and this exhibit celebrates that legacy and the three primary basket-makers – only three! – who demonstrated all those years. From the website: “Sharing Traditions depicts the history of weaving demonstrators in the park from 1929 to the present, examining their critical role as American Indian liaisons to the public and giving visitors the opportunity to connect to the region’s culture,” said Don Neubacher, Superintendent of Yosemite National Park.

Maggie Howard was the first of the three women. She was a Paiute born at Mono Lake, spending most of her life in Yosemite. She worked at the Yosemite Museum from 1929 to 1942, demonstrating acorn preparation and basket weaving. The University of California online digital archives includes one picture of Maggie preparing acorns, with baskets around her (presumably some, at least, are hers).

YosemiteNative1 posted the video below on YouTube, entitled “Bread from Acorns” by Guy T. Haselton, featuring Maggie Tabooosee Howard. Its copyright date is hard to decipher.

Lucy Telles was Mono Lake Paiute and Yosemite Miwok. She was the second artist, and demonstrated from about 1930 to 1956, and is perhaps best known for making the largest basket in Yosemite Valley. At 36″ wide, made of sedge root, bracken fern root, redbud, and willow, the basket was completed in 1933 after four years of work. It was exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939, and is now on display at the Yosemite Museum. Postcards of Telles and her basket were sold at Yosemite, and ranger-naturalists brought tourists to her house to see it. For scale, see this picture of Telles and her basket (perhaps the one sold to tourists?), also at the University of California online digital archives. Less impressive because you can’t see the scale is my picture of the basket below. The workmanship is immaculate, and those who does any sort of structural craft knows that these kinds of things are not easily scalable to large size – there are structural difficulties in making something this large.

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Lucy Telles (1933), 36″ wide

Julia Parker, the current basket maker, is now about 87, and has been demonstrating at Yosemite the longest of the three, since 1960. She is Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo. Julia married Lucy Telles’ grandson, and shortly after their marriage, moved to Yosemite Valley and began learning from Lucy. SFGate published a story about Julia in June 2013, if you’d like to learn more of her story, and see some pictures of her.

She was there when I visited, and I was a bit starstruck. I’m sure I could have taken a picture of her, but I felt intrusive doing so. Julia was weaving a basket, but when children came by, she stopped what she was doing, and taught them how to play essentially a dice game with acorns, if I remember correctly. From the June 13, 2013 Mariposa Gazette, “When visitors leave I want them to have a better understanding about the baskets and about the plants we have in Yosemite,” she said. “Then they’ll have more caring and more love for the Valley that has protected these plants for us.”

The exhibit was just recently installed before I visited, and appears to have no end date. If you are ever in the matchless Yosemite National Park, please stop at the Yosemite Museum and enjoy the baskets. And perhaps you too will be able to see Julia Parker.

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