Week 47: Woodcarving
“This one’s kind of interesting,” says Tom, handling a rough piece of wood with a dark dirt stain on it.
That’s the one, I know it is. I don’t say anything though, waiting instead for him to finish going through all the pieces. I’m making a wooden spoon today.
The woodcarving teacher, Tom Ford, is going through his available spoon-sized blocks of wood. One of them is home to my future spoon. And now I know which one. He’s picked these blocks up from the discarded pile of wood at a lumberyard in Los Angeles. Besides the wooden furniture he makes for clients and friends, Tom also makes these spoons and sells them for $92 apiece.
He also just started offering 4-hour classes as an introduction to woodcarving, with a finished wooden spoon to show for it.
This particular block of wood in his hands — a black walnut piece — is nothing special. But it calls to me. It’s large, just like the other blocks he showed me, and the yet uncarved spoon lies completely within it. This makes it hard to tell what the final piece will look like — within the block, the grain changes, the wood reveals knots, and it’s easy to miss the mark.
What is the mark, exactly? From the example spoons Tom just showed me, we hope for the grain to curve or even circle within the bowl of the spoon, and we aspire to form the handle in a way that also accentuates the direction of the grain.
Sometimes, Tom says, he is disappointed — the grain is completely different than he thought it’d be. Other times, the wood pleasantly surprises him. He’s only been carving for two years, but from his spoons and the way he speaks about the wood, it’s not hard to see that he has an intuitive relationship with it.
He moves over to the last piece available, also from a black walnut tree. I listen to him talk about what could come out of it. It looks more interesting than the one I know is mine — and truthfully, more interesting than all ten or so he’s gone through so far. But I do know which one is mine. I usually don’t like making decisions, but right now I feel like it was the wood that chose me.
Going back to the previous piece, I say, setting it squarely in front of me, “This is the one.”
“I felt it,” Tom says. Step 1, choosing the wood, is over.
I signed up for this class because, especially in the past few months, I’ve felt compelled towards the land.
Anything that has to do with the earth has captivated me this year: clay, the Japanese concept of forest bathing, labyrinths. But since September, I’ve felt pulled to the land. Just like how, today, I feel pulled towards this rectangle of wood.
Maybe it’s because I — historically a mind-dwelling person — have been trying to become more body-centered. I haven’t felt clear success, but I also know it’s a slow process, and perhaps this journey to feel grounded has correlated to, and manifested as, a connection to the land. The body is, after all, made of the earth.
Tom turns the wood over, sands it, and draws a rough sketch on top of the block, estimating where the bowl and handle will be. In this initial drawing, the handle curves left. But as we carve, the spoon will reveal that the handle is meant to sway to the right.
He is more confident about the bowl of the spoon’s placement, though, drawing a rectangle around it. According to what the surface of the wood is showing, which is not much, he feels that this would be the best place for it. “We’ll have to chop that end off,” he indicates to the area on the other side of the bowl.
He says he wishes the wood extended past what we have for the handle, so that it could be longer. We will soon see, though, that it the length is perfect as it is.
Now that we (really, Tom) have found the rough location of the spoon within the wood, It’s time now for step 2: using a power tool to cut off the extra wood on either side of the center block, which will become the spoon.
We go over to a large machine that stands alone. It is a bandsaw. We will use it to cut along the two long pencil lines you see in the above picture. Tom turns it on, resulting in the generation of an intimidating noise. Moving along the line, he saws off one side of the block to show me how to use it, and I do the other.
As I walk the wood through the saw, the wood pushes back. I love the resistance. Tom tells me that, from seeing how fast and slow I go at different points along the line, I have a good understanding of how much the wood wants to give at any given point.
I know why — it’s because I have practice.
Not with wood, but with a concept called creative opposition. Sometimes, in an embodiment-centered course I’ve been taking, we do an exercise with one or more partner to access this dynamic opposition. The exercise looks like people arm wrestling, except we stand palms-against-palms, as if pushing into each other.
The point isn’t to win or use the most force. It’s to take a pulse of the energetic field between us and then respond to it. More than a pushback against another, it’s a meeting of energy between entities. What might begin as a light touch could turn into full pushing, and vice versa.
I don’t know who these people are, but it might look like this.
The purpose of creative opposition — ever so grounding — is to be met. And his wood feels like its meeting me. Which is no surprise: the earth, unlike air or water or fire, is always there to meet a person halfway. It will push back at times and yield at times, just like this wood is doing as I saw through it.
In feeling the wood speaking through touch, I’m reminded of how, in the book The Alchemist, the desert and the wind and the sun speak to the boy Santiago. The idea of land speaking always seemed mystical and Pocahontas-esque, but I am understanding more and more that it’s real.
And, as new as I am in trying to connect with the earth, I find careful listening elusive. At least Tom can converse well with the wood, which allows him, and me by proxy, to be a conduit for the art that wants to come out it.
The two side cuts have been made, and one of the blocks might even be big enough to become a younger sister to my spoon-in-the-making. Now, on the side of the freshly cut to-be-spoon block, Tom sketches a rough profile of the spoon. With curves and valleys, it will not be flat, and since we are next going to carve out the bowl of the spoon by hand, I cut away some wood by sawing along the black line that the blade is touching in the above picture.
Later, after carving out the bowl, we will return to this bandsaw and take care of the rest of the spoon’s shape.
We return back to the work table for step 3, using a curved gouge to carve out the bowl. While the bandsaw roughly cuts wood, these tools I use by hand allow for more precision and fine-tuning.
Tom gives me a lesson in carving in the direction of the grain. Yes, I hear, it does sound different than moving against the grain. I used to take bookbinding classes in university, and there, we learned about cutting and gluing paper according to the direction of the grain. I didn’t think about it then, but something clicks now: that grain is the same as this grain, because paper is made from wood. No kidding.
As I use the gouge, the wood shavings lifting from the bowl begin to look like petals of a flower.
And as I dig deeper, peeling those shavings off, the grain that will grace the bowl begins to reveal itself. First, curves appear in whispers, hinting at the secrets that lie a centimeter beneath.
After slow digging for the better part of an hour, I see the emergence of concentric circles within the grain. Circles! Not only curves, but whole circles!
As I carve the wood, I realise that this process is turning into a full conversation with it. Nature does provide plenty of conversation: pottery is a conversation with clay, and forest bathing involves listening to the forest, but this conversation with wood feels more faceted, more dimensional, than any I’ve had before.
In signing up for this class, I should have realised that, of course, woodcarving would be a dialogue with the wood. But I was so focused on the ‘end product’ aspect of the class — a wooden spoon — that I forgot about the process.
That Tom is a process-oriented carver is evident. He knows how to let the spoon emerge, talk, and how to respond to it in turn. And does this particular piece of wood talk! In my newness, I have no idea what it’s saying. It’s as though it’s speaking a foreign language — the language of the land — and although I can hear it, only Tom can understand.
I want a deep spoon, so I keep going. The circles, already evident, congregate around an innermost circle right in the center of the bowl. Tom had chosen the right spot for the bowl, but even he is astonished at its perfection.
As I’m carving into the wood, going deeper and deeper, the meditative action also brings depth to my thoughts. I think about how, in doing a lot of inner work this year — or at least, trying to — I’ve been realising that I’ve not been a very enthusiastic participant of this world.
Enraged upon being cut from my mother’s womb — there’s a picture of a newborn with a angry purple tomato for a head, as well as my mother’s testimony of hearing screams as her child’s first sounds — I don’t think my annoyance at being here has ever left me. Even though I’ve known deep joy, there’s also been a part that doesn’t want any part of this.
It’s not suicidal, though I see how it could go there if dark enough, and, though I’m introverted, it’s not introversion. It’s an aloofness, an escapist element that feels like being half-in and half-out of participation here. A qualified yes to life. “Yes, but really, no thank you.” My gravitation toward spirituality at a young age was nice, but how much was a desire to not be here? I think more than I’d like to admit.
Tom brings me out of my reverie. It’s time to smooth out the spoon’s bowl. Because the gouge is curved, its deep cuts leave plenty of ridges. I’ll use a cabinet scraper to smooth them out.
The rounded edge of the scraper hits all the high edges without interfering with the lower spots, so that eventually the spoon is smoothed down to the lowest points of the cuts I made with the gouge. A variety of curve steepnesses along the scraper’s edge means that I can use different parts of it for different slopes within the bowl.
As I scrape, I fall back to my thoughts.
Where was I? Somewhere about how I am not quite a gung ho attendee of planet Earth.
Yes, well, so my main intention in the last year or two has been to become a more embodied — grounded — person, but along with it I’ve noticed that I have begun to begin to accept my place here. And I’ve been wild about connecting to the land. I wonder if it they are all interconnected, and I can’t help but feel they are.
It makes sense that practicing exercises to help me feel embodied — and not in ‘stuck in a body’ kind of way — would translate into feeling a connection to the earth. Which might translate into me accepting that I’m living a life on earth…instead of wishing I was not here.
As I carve, a quote bubbles up to the surface of my mind, one I keep turning back to. One that has become, in essence, my quote of the year. It’s one a friend sent to me in a two-sentence email. The second sentence read: “Embodiment is essential for transcendence.”
Actually, it read: “Embodiment is essential 4 transcendence…lol.”
Lol. Her way of writing it underwhelms it’s meaning, which, when I read it, made the profound-ness all the more obvious. Like, duh! To reach spiritual perfection on this plane, one must accept their position here, duh! One can’t reach a higher understanding while ignoring the signs of the body, duh!
“Embodiment is essential for transcendence.” So many spiritually-minded people try to circumvent the earthly plane. I was one. To recognise the importance of the body — with its intuition, its wisdom — on a path where the saying, “You are not your body,” is so common, felt like clean, fresh air.
We may not be our bodies, and the saints of the world may be able to ignore their bodies, but for the rest of us, our bodies are our guiding lights. They are so important in getting us to where to need to go.
The gut feeling, the automatic step backwards from that person, the whole-body YES feeling to that decision, the relaxing around this person, the muscle stiffness in that encounter — these are all divinations of the body.
Of all material elements — ether, air, fire, water, and earth — earth is the grossest. It is the most material of them all, and a relationship with it is, now I see, so vital to cultivate before trying to go anywhere else. We are here, after all.
So, connecting with the earth has become a kind of spiritual practice for me. It means embracing where I am and where the instrument of my body came from. Rooting here, like a tree, like wood, in my body made of earth, will in time take me to the stars. And beyond.
By now, my hands have smoothed the wood and the wood has smoothed my mind. The bowl is completed — the first part of the spoon done! — and now, we consider the handle.
Originally, Tom was thinking that the handle would curve left. The first round at the bandsaw exposed an injury in the wood — a black mark that you start to see in the bottom of the above picture — and this was further reason to move away from the right.
But I had wanted it to be part of the spoon. I’d wanted the spoon to wear it as a badge of honor, so I’m happy when, on closer inspection, Tom voices that incorporating it might not be a bad idea. I tell him I'd like that. It seems the wood has reminded him that the history of the tree, even a small scar, is important.
So the spoon will curve right. And I’m right-handed, so my spoon and I will get along.
Now that the top surface of the bowl is done and the handle direction decided upon, we move to step 4: using the bandsaw to cut way more wood, this time along curved lines that will reveal the three-dimensional shape of the spoon.
“What is the injury?” I ask. Tom doesn’t know. I wonder what this tree went through to receive this little injury.
Tom says that sometimes people, while cutting wood, suddenly see sparks flying and wonder why. Inspecting further, they find metal — lodged bullets, or nails used to hang signs — embedded in the wood. Trees just grow around those injuries.
At the bandsaw, I start with the spoon facing up and saw away at the wood surrounding its shape. Turning it on its side, I then cut along the line that, when sanded, will form the bottom arc of the spoon.
The top surface of the spoon bowl, when carved out with the gouge, revealed concentric circles in the grain. The freshly cut wood along the bottom of the bowl now catches those same circles on the flip side.
The handle begins to reveal its own grain pattern as well: as I cut away at the length of the spoon, the grain curves in perfect unison, forming a peak that coincides with the end of the spoon. Tom sees it before I do. The handle was never a centimeter too short, after all. It is perfect.
It’s like the spoon was sitting in that piece of wood for so long, waiting to be carved.
After I finish the last cut on the bandsaw, it’s time to smooth it all out with sandpaper. While the bandsaw is my forté, the belt sander, I find out, is not.
This belt sander, which we consult for step 5, is the beginning of the smoothing out process for everything but the inner bowl, which is already complete. Tom and I go over to the grass where the tool, essentially just sandpaper on a conveyor belt that moves with electricity, sits on a stand.
He tells me that constantly rocking the spoon along the belt helps to smooth out all the edges without sanding away too much.
But my hand doesn’t pick this part up easily. It’s hard for me to get a feel of the high ridges and low spots just by looking at the spoon on the moving sandpaper. I can’t see, without feeling the spoon, which way to move it so that it stays even and consistent.
Even as an expert carver, Tom is impressed with this opinionated spoon so as to wish to save it from impending doom, so, seeing the danger that it’s in, he takes over the sanding.
Meanwhile, I ask Tom if he finds woodcarving therapeutic. To me, this is more forest therapy than my forest bathing experiences were. The level of interaction with the wood, a once-living organism; the relationship I feel with this spoon; the resistance and fine-tuning; the roughness and softness — it all feels like heaven to me.
“Yes,“ says Tom, “the word I think people use is cathartic.“
After ten minutes here, we are done with the ‘rough’ smoothing out that the belt is meant to achieve. Now, with step 6, it’s time for final touches. This takes the form of sanding by hand. I learn that sandpapers have different grits: the lower the number, the courser it is. We start at 50, which is considered a courser texture. At 80 — a medium texture — my spoon begins to feel soft. It looks like it’s done, but Tom says not to let that fool me. We have more sanding to do.
At 120, the beginning of the fine sandpaper, the wood looks like it’s shining.
This entire experience has been technical and simultaneously intuitive. It has involved many of the senses: touch, sound, sight. And now, they all coalesce with this final sanding: at 240, the soft sound of the sandpaper coupled with its feel in my hands reveals a spoon that is so bright, it looks varnished. Five minutes at 240…
And then, it’s done.
The spoon is a miracle — it is perfect in every way. I can’t help but remember how ordinary the piece of wood that called to me seemed. From it was born this gift. And that’s exactly what it feels like — a gift from the tree that once lived somewhere around here.
“Maybe the tree was born to make this spoon,” Tom laughs.
I think this, on a smaller scale, is what having a baby must feel like: all of a sudden, there appears this perfection that I had some hand (but not really) in creating. It feels surreal — like the process happened on its own, and I just watched it come to life.
Even the injury, now a centerpiece on the handle, is breathtaking. The circles are perfect. The grain along the handle, coming to rest at the very tip of the spoon, is exquisite.
While I’m admiring my spoon, Tom tells me there is, in fact, one thing left to do. So I move to the last step, step 7, which this video captures:
When I go home, I tie a bow on my newborn spoon and go in the front yard. It needs a photo shoot. The tree out front has a little groove that my spoon can nestle in, and it’s appropriate: the tree, this basic form of life, cradling a gift its sister tree has given.
I could say that a wise lesson from this experience is that the most exquisite beauty (I’m clearly in love with my spoon) can be carved from rough, tough, raw material.
It’s true, but for me, it misses the points of this experience. It is only through relationship, only by listening, that artwork — whether it’s physical or in the form of a relationship with someone — can be born. The spoon wanted to come out, and I’m grateful I had a teacher who knew how to facilitate it.
And, while I was working on the spoon’s physical shape, the spoon was working on me in more subtle ways. While I carved the wood, the wood was carving me right back.