Barn the Spoon, Spoon Carver
Barnaby Carder – widely known as Barn the Spoon - sits in the window at 260 Hackney Rd carving spoons for eight hours at a stretch. He sees the rush hour go one way and then he sees the rush hour go the other way, and in between friends pop in for a chat.
All this time Barn whittles away placidly, surrounded by an ever-growing tide of wood shavings as his pile of completed spoons increases. “I can’t imagine a life without making spoons,” he admitted to me when I sat down beside him yesterday while he worked, “I made my first spoon twelve years ago and now I’m addicted to making spoons. When I’ve made a good spoon I feel good within myself, but a good spoon doesn’t happen very often - maybe once a day. It’s a beautiful thing.”
In one sense – sitting here in the Hackney Rd in an area formerly renowned for its woodworking industry – this is natural place for Barn to be yet, in another sense, it is entirely un-natural because, given the choice, Barn would rather be out working in the greenwood. “Thirty-five years ago, all the guys who were doing this were dying out but thankfully it is being reborn,” he explained to me, “My great teachers have been old spoons, they’re full of information. I can look at any spoon made anywhere in the world and I know what tools have been used to make it. The stuff I do is really folksy and it goes back a long way.”
It all started for Barn when he was thirteen and his neighbour, who was a woodturner, taught him how to make bowls. “I really enjoyed it,” Barn recalled, “And I’ve done a lot of woodwork with twentieth century machines in the past, but I let go of it because it wasn’t right. People have got lost because of the industrial revolution when machines were designed to replace skills and it took away the dignity of the worker.” Instead, Barn did an apprenticeship with Mike Abbott, a greenwood chair maker in Herefordshire. “I learnt you don’t need a workshop, you can work outdoors,” Barn enthused, “The beauty of greenwood work is a deeper relationship with the material. I cut down the trees that need to be removed for the sustainability of the forest, chop them into sections, split them when they’re green, and then work them into spoons with an axe and a knife.”
After his apprenticeship, Barn tramped around the shires for three years, carrying his tools in a backpack, sleeping in the woods and carving spoons from timber growing there. “It’s the dignity of being able to make your own living. All I had in my life were my skills, but it has worked out for me.” he confided with a quiet smile of satisfaction. Lacking navigational abilities, Barn walked along canals thereby avoiding getting lost, and ending up in cities where he could find a market for his spoons. After street selling with a pedlar’s licence in the East End, Barn saved enough money to open his tiny shop three weeks ago. He has found a way to bring his greenwood skills into the city, teaching in a school a couple of days a week and using timber harvested from Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park to make his spoons. Becoming an evangelist of traditional spoon carving, Barn co-founded Spoonfest an international gathering of spoon carvers each summer in a wood in Edale.
Barn operates in a vernacular tradition, working quickly to produce vigorous carving – creating functional objects of obvious utility and grace but that do not draw attention to their design. Starting with a twisted chunk of green wood – sycamore, birch, alder, cherry, french maple, hazel or willow – split from a tree, he places it on his block and chips away quickly with breathtaking confidence, using a razor-sharp axe to shape the outline of the spoon while chatting playfully all the time. “The function, the tools and the material create the design,” he revealed, taking out his knife, “The ones I get excited about are the Roma spoons where you know they’ve bashed out a lot of spoons, and I prefer those to the pricey ones produced by craftworkers, because they show an empathy with the material that others can only dream of.”
The next stage of the work is centred around carving the bowl and for this Barn uses a semi-circular-bladed knife to create a smooth surface which makes the spoon pleasant to eat from. Snatching up a couple from the pile on the bench, he showed me the two designs he prefers at present – one based on the Roma spoon with a flat handle in which there is a notch between the handle and the bowl, and another with an octagonal handle in which the neck connects smoothly to the bowl. “I’ve spent a lot of time making spoons,” Barn said, thinking out loud as he contemplated his handiwork, “I sit here for eight hours a day and what I’m thinking about is the shape of the spoon. They’re so completely fascinating to make. I could talk about spoons for hours. I would consider it an insult if somebody doesn’t use my spoon.”
Much to my delight, when I told Barn the Spoon about the former industry of woodworking in Shoreditch, he contradicted me. “But it’s all coming back,” he declared, “And with a passion.”
Visit Barn the Spoon at 260 Hackney Rd, E2 7SJ. (10am-5pm, Friday-Tuesday)
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