Teaching Spoon Carving to Kids

Every woodworker who has kids or grandkids has probably experienced the feeling of wanting to share our love of making things with the kiddos, but we also don’t really know the best way to do it. If you have a shop full of power tools, those are obviously “right out” for a seven-year-old. They’re hazardous and loud and pointless unless you’re in some mode of production. Hand tools are more approachable, but they harbor dangers of their own. Giving that seven-year-old a sharp chisel or hatchet is equally foolish.

Working through the final copy edits of M&T’s newest title, Greenwood Spoon Carving by Emmet Van Driesche, I couldn’t help but be struck by Emmet’s clear and thoughtful articulation of this subject – specifically, teaching spoon carving to kids. He devotes an entire chapter in this book to the concerns of age in spoon carving, for both the old and the young. While many take the approach that the best thing to do is to give a young kid the tool and let ‘em at it with close supervision, Emmet spells out a thought process that resonates with me and how I’ve approached teaching young children, especially my own. “This will probably come as a shock to many of you,” he says, “but I don’t think teaching kids spoon carving is a good thing, for a number of reasons.”

 OK, Emmet. Tell me more.

 He talks about judgment – specifically, that ONLY experience can teach good judgment. When we carve a spoon with these exquisitely sharp tools, he says, “All of the experiences we’ve had with kitchen knives and carpentry tools and camping and cutting open cardboard boxes comes into play.” It’s true. My use of a slöjd knife is driven by the embodied knowledge that some things are safe, and some are not. The “Spidey Sense” is activated when something doesn’t feel right. That instinct is built of experience.  He continues that “we fail to recognize that these experiences play a tremendous role in our ability to take up something like spoon carving and do it safely.” For children, safety is not found in our being super vigilant in watching them do dangerous things. It is found in their learning to hone wisdom, street smarts, “spidey sense,” through experience. Spoon carving carries with it many nuanced techniques that must be practiced to be safe – carving with a hatchet, slicing towards your hands with a hair-splitting blade, scooping shavings with a spoon blade from a piece of wood nestled in the palm of your hand, etc. Without a tremendous amount of what runners call “base,” or accumulated time-on-your-feet built up over years, these exercises can do permanent damage.

 “Kids don’t have that foundation yet, and that is quite frankly where we need to start,” Emmet says. “So, if you want to teach your kids to carve spoons, teach them to cut up a cucumber with a chef's knife. Teach them to safely cut a bagel in half. Teach them how to chop down a sapling, or split kindling. Teach them how to saw a board or a Christmas tree. Give them a drawknife and a shaving horse and let them have at a stick of wood. Give them a pocket knife, a small one, and let them whittle sticks into nothing and cut their fingers. Let them whack their fingers with hammers, and drop screwdrivers on their toes by accident.” The small mishaps that result, he says, build up that situational awareness in the world that is necessary to advance in the craft, a sense of the danger and repercussions of things. “These are how they become ready to use an axe properly. Not because you placed it in their hand and then watched them like a hawk.”

This is a great book. You can pre-order it now and get free domestic shipping, an offer that ends July 3. Go do it.



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