A Revelation

One of the reasons I was most looking forward to Greenwood Fest was for the opportunity to look over Dave Fisher’s shoulder as he did some letter-carving. Dave is a maestro at this work (for example, herehere and here). He has even done a blog post specifically about lettering. But a blog just didn’t quite give me the confidence to try it – I wanted to see it in action.

To be honest, I have tried letter-carving in the past, but I was never particularly happy with the results. In fact, I actually carved my initials into the very first spoon I ever carved, six years ago in 2010. I had no sloyd or spoon knives at that point. I carved the whole thing with a gouge and a drawknife, and then I carved the letters with a chisel. The spoon is quite good – I still use it every week:

6 JAT
Despite being made from a soft, open-pored wood (catalpa), this thing still does an admirable job of scooping mashed potatoes onto a plate.

And the letters are neat enough, but also pretty bland and lifeless. Not something I really want to showcase on all of my spoons:

7 JAT

I didn’t try to carve letters again for three more years. When my first son was born in 2013, he spent nine days in the NICU. There wasn’t much that I could do for him, but could carve a spoon for him. I decided to try carving letters again. By this point, I had proper spoon-carving knifes, so I attempted to do the letters with the tip of my sloyd knife. The sentiment was laudable, but the execution was not. It’s the thought that counts?

8 Elam
Sweet sentiment, sloppy execution. Sorry, Elam.

Anyway, after that I was pretty much ruined on letter-carving until I had some proper instruction. After quizzing Dave about his tools, techniques, and unspoken wisdom, I was ready to give it another go. The biggest takeaway? A knife with a short blade and a rather tight radius near the tip seems to be mission-critical. He uses the tip of a pen knife. I had this little guy which seems to be close to the proper geometry:

1 Pencil
The radius of the tip could be a little tighter, but it’s a lot better than a sloyd knife.

After sketching a simple design that I liked, I did my best to follow the lines, being careful not to cut too deeply (but also not being too timid either. No need to go over the same cut five times to get to the proper depth). Long, flowing lines like this were actually pretty easy to execute. It’s the stopping and starting that makes it tough!

2 Chips

3 Elam
Elam’s new spoon: a significant improvement.

I was pretty pleased with how Elam’s new spoon turned out, but the cursive lettering was tricky. I highly recommend starting with all-caps font. Straight lines are a lot more fun than tight curves. It might be impolite when sending emails to your co-workers, but it’s perfectly acceptable to shout on a spoon.

5 Ellery
My daughter’s spoon turned out even better.

I was on a roll, so I decided to keep going. I carved a quick spoon while I was at Greenwood Fest and ate with it all week. Peter Follansbee made it “famous” on his first blog post after the event (sixth picture from the top). In honor of its provenance, I decided to give the spoon an appropriate name:

4 Green

So now I have a new skill that I’m not altogether embarrassed about. Score one for the home team, and Tip o’ the Hat to you, Dave Fisher.

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2 thoughts on “A Revelation

  1. Dave Fisher is amazing, almost to good.
    His work it at such a high level it has almost lost the human element.
    I think slight imperfections is what gives a piece character
    your children will cherish those spoons forever because their daddy made them

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  2. Thanks, Chuck. It’s funny, Dave and I were actually talking about the spectrum of, lets call it “improvisation vs. precision” at Greenwood Fest. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you fall on, you tend to have some ideal outcome in mind when you start on a project. Some people let themselves freely deviate from that idea as the project unfolds (Peter Follansbee comes to mind), while others hold more stringently to their vision. I’m going to botch this quote, but Dave said something to the effect of “Sometimes I wonder why I’m so rigid with my work. Jögge (Sunqvist)’s work is so free, so much vitality, and I just love it. But I finally realized that I just have to be me, and this is how I work.”

    And he’s right. If you have a natural tendency towards the “precision” end of the spectrum, it just won’t feel right to leave “mistakes”, and I think that hesitance would show up in the work to a critical eye. On the other hand, for a person who tends towards improvisation, the deviations seem very natural and appropriate. I would disagree that Dave’s work even approaches a loss of the human element, though: It’s strikingly obvious when you hold his work that it is the result of highly skilled hands and an equally skilled eye. I don’t think that the improvisation vs. precision should be confused with human vs. machine. Just my $0.02.

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