A Beginner’s Manifesto
story by Katrina Emery // @katrinaemery
There’s a spoon in there somewhere, I thought as I held the blank piece of boxy wood, almost like a lego version of a spoon. Big and bulky. Waiting to be carved.
The first few cuts were a bit clumsy, but strangely addicting. A few more cuts, and suddenly I was carving a spoon. I brought it camping with me and discovered it’s a beautiful thing to whittle away the afternoon by a river or in front of the evening fire. Soon, my chunk of wood was looking distinctly spoon-like. I worked on it off and on all summer, feeling like a pioneer woman minus the butter churn.
It took a long time. I needed tips.
To find out more, I met up with Russell Clarke, a Portland spoon carver who works by day as an arborist. He started Portland Spoon Company after seeing so much raw material go through the chippers. Now he makes and sells spoons from local trees: “People bring me stuff at work, piles of plum from Eastmoreland, pine from Tigard, apple from Sellwood. There’s an infinite source of wood.”
With so much passion for his craft, Clarke wants to inspire others. He teaches spoon carving at Wildcraft Studios in Portland, hoping to pass the skills along. “I wish there were more people carving. If no one ever bought my stuff again, I’d still carve.”
When we met, he was leaning against the wall outside the bar, carving a spoon outside while he waited. Russell Clarke doesn’t mess around with his free time. He showed me the almost-finished spoon and some other examples, all smoothed with short knife strokes, as we went inside and chatted about his practice.
Beginners, he says, tend to finish their first spoons in 3-4 hours. By the end of his classes, most people go home with useable spoons. It takes him about 30-45 minutes per spoon. (I don’t mention that I’ve been working on mine literally all summer, on and off, and barely finished recently.)
For the spoon, you need wood. “Follow the sound of chainsaws and chippers,” Clarke jokes, emphasizing the abundance of material around any city. If you don’t get in the way of arborists and ask nicely, they’ll often give you wood for free. Out in nature you can look for fallen branches, but don’t cut green wood from trees. Good woods to use are ash, juniper, black walnut, maple, and fruit trees like apple, pear, and plum. Birch, being soft and easy to find, is especially great for beginners. You need nothing more than a 3” diameter branch (about the size of a bar coaster, he neatly shows me), split in half, with the soft pith in the middle taken out. Square it off, and that’s your spoon blank! If you’re just getting started, you can also purchase blanks that are ready to go.
Now to carving: The best advice is to learn how to hold a knife and how to move with it. Look it up, watch a video, or take a class. “Learn how you make the cuts. Don’t get stitches,” Clarke advises. “If you cut yourself, you’ll probably not want to come back to carving again. Take it slow. Pay attention.” As someone who just sliced through three fingers in one move, I concur. Don’t be like me.
The end goal is to make something functional and pleasing. Your spoon should feel good in your hand. Perhaps that’s the most important part of this hobby. This thing I’m making feels good—I want to use it. It’s pleasant to hold, with a nice shape and weight.
And, as Clarke says, don’t be afraid to give your spoon some personality. Every carver he comes across is different, and every spoon is, too. “People used to want uniformity. Nowadays, a lot of people want the wonky spoon.”
I’ve got big plans for my new hobby after my three Band-Aids come off. I’m imagining a kitchen full of butter knives, spatulas, coffee scoops, and stirring sticks. Gifts for everyone! A never-ending dose of that sense of hipster self-sufficiency!
In the meantime, I enjoy the process. The meditative swoop of each cut, the feel of the grain, the way the wood takes shape. I can see why Clarke keeps carving.