Important life lessons from sucking at woodcraft!

13 light grazes, 6 sliced fingers and 2 small chunks of flesh and what do I have to show for it? 3 spoons too large to be practical; 3 small wooden mice that look like they’ve suffered the wrath of a mousetrap; a mushroom that might actually pass as a mushroom; and a wooden hedgehog that ended up hibernating in the chipping bin.

It’s fair to say that I am in no expert when it comes to woodcraft. And I’m happy with that!

Until recently, I’d never thought of woodcraft as a hobby. I’d never handled an axe or whittling knife. I’d never even considered turning a block of wood into something useful or unique. In fact a few years ago I would have scoffed at the idea. Why would I spend such an inordinate amount of time making something?

Sure, other people do. Other people make utensils. Other people make benches and sculptures. Other people build entire houses out of wood. Other people do it ‘so I don’t have to!’ I thought. In fact I doubt I ever went as far as thinking about it. Like the vast majority, I consume. Other people make things — I consume them. It didn’t even warrant a thought. It was just life.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that my partner suggested I try and whittle a spoon. To some, this may seem like an odd request, but at that time she was deep in her training as a forest school leader. So in my efforts to be supportive, I agreed to become an eager student for the day.

It started with a log — sweet cherry to be exact. Cut from her uncle’s garden a few days before. We began by splitting the log, which in itself proved more troublesome than I’d accounted for. With a small axe and mallet in hand, we lined up the centre grain of the log, aiming to split through the pith. With what I considered a ‘mighty’ whack, I made the tiniest of dents.

It was pitiful. I made more of a dent in my pride and sense of manliness than the actual log.

“Keep hitting” she said. It sounded pretty sinister, but I did it anyway. I was the eager student after all. Lo and behold, with dented pride and 3 whacks later, the log split. 2 pieces of clean, cream heartwood stared back at me, offering a blank canvas for our intense artistry. A few more minor cuts with the axe to make a crude spoon ‘blank’, and we were ready to whittle.

Now I’ve seen people whittling before. I’ve been to craft fairs and country shows. I’ve seen the re-enactments where a gruff, bearded woodsman would be sat alone in front of a glowing fire. A distant, nonchalance on his face, engulfed by the smoky woodland.

I always assumed the guy was just pissed. I mean, having to sit in the damp while thousands gawked in vapid judgement, who wouldn’t be! Now I realise that all was not as it seemed. This distant look was not so much nonchalance, but the embodiment of pure artistry. This pissed off persona was the outward appearance of pure inner joy. As well as being proof that resting bitch face has existed for many years!

Countless tiny whittling cuts later and I’ve lost track of time. The craft had consumed me. I zoned in, my dry tongue protruding from my mouth, as I made cut after cut. I didn’t notice the strain on my wrist, or the graze (number 1) on the end of my thumb. I don’t think I’ve ever been so focused in my life.

It carried on like that for a little while. I switched to a crook knife to scoop out the bowl, and later cleaned up the handle. What I ended up with was something that almost resembled a spoon. I felt a sense of accomplishment. As silly as it sounds, it was a life changing moment.
In reality it was a useless lump of wood with a bowl on the end, yet it still left me with an amazing feeling. I’d taken a log and made it something that it wasn’t before. It does sound silly, but it doesn’t change the fact.

On any projects, ideas and paid work, I used to spend a long time obsessing over purpose and perfection. I was one of ‘those people’ that would waste weeks if not months on processing and planning. If the plan wasn’t flawless, it was never started — needless to say nothing ever was.

After years of missing the mark with my day to day work, my general motivation had dwindled. Whittling that first spoon was a revelation.

There was no plan, there didn’t need to be. A vague idea of shape and size would suffice, and the log was only there by chance. There were no plans to gift or sell what I had made. There was no ‘perfect’ outcome save for something that resembled a spoon.

I had been liberated. It was just me, a couple of sharp tools and a block of wood. Did it matter that what I made was little more than shapely kindling? Not in the slightest! It wasn’t the outcome that mattered; it was enough to just finish.

I guess in some strange way there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere. Maybe something about how you can find happiness is in making things, not in consuming. It seems a stretch but I’m sure there’s something — let me know if you find it!

All I know is that taking up this hobby that I knew nothing about before, opened my eyes to my own stupidity. I had been setting my expectations too high, and my ideas were too grandiose before they had even left my head. My focus on perfection was crippling my happiness.

I’ve since come to realise that in the real world, universal perfection doesn’t exist. That’s a story for another time.

13 light grazes, 6 sliced fingers and 2 small chunks of flesh and what do I have to show for it? You tell me!