I was recently contacted by PCC, the largest organic food store co-op in the Seattle area, about the possibility of producing 140 spoons for them…at a wholesale price of $15 a pop.
My head spun. To the south of me, a warm frontal system of flattery rose upwards, while, to the north an icy finger of exasperation slid under it, and I was caught in a funnel cloud of greenbacks, swirling just out of reach.
Why, you ask? This is your Big Break, Chris. Hooray! You hooked a Big One! Pull the lever and start cranking them out!
Oh, if only there were such a lever.
In life there are things you do for love and things you do for money, and happiness is balanced on the razor of knowing when to not mix the two. But Capitalism is a sultry woman who sidles up to those things you do for love, complimenting your efforts, whispering in your ear to make more, but…at a price. And the real price is to change the way you produce, which changes your product, which changes you. And if you follow her back to her hotel, suddenly you wake up, and you realize that you’re the one whose traded what you loved for money.
I make wooden spoons because I love to make wooden spoons. I love finding the trees, marking off my saw chainsaw cuts with my hatchet, the smell of gasoline and the roar of sawdust piling up at my boots. I love riving the rounds with steel wedges, pulling apart their bark like Christmas wrapping paper and seeing, for the first time, what I’ve got. I love reading the grain, deciding what each wedge of wood will be, and taking it to the bandsaw so I can rough out the blank. I love clamping the wet wood to my workbench, picking up my wooden mallet, the faceted handle of my #6 gouge in my other hand, and the rhythm of the two echoing in my workshop. I love taking this half-shaped spoon to my shave horse, pinning it to it’s polished wood, and drawing the spokeshave toward me like a rower, the curls of wood falling to the floor like little whirlpools in my wake. I love toting a spoon in my back pocket, a sloyd knife in another, a crook knife in a third, just in case I have a moment at the beach, or on the lawn of my daughter’s school, waiting to hear what happened at kindergarten that day.
Making things by hand takes time, lots and lots and lots of time. Machines make widgets quickly, cheaply, and uniformly and for 95% of American consumers, that’s good enough. Can I compete with a Chinese LC/500 that cranks out wooden spoons at a rate of one per second? Of course not. So why try?
As a woodworker, there’s a saying I believe in: Craftsmanship is integrity you can touch. When you pick up one of my wooden spoons, you may not have the vocabulary to describe it, but something in the way it feels in your hand will tell you that it is different. It just feels good. And perhaps the handle curves, ever so slightly, following some color in the grain. Perhaps you’ll turn it over and notice how there is strength in it where it’s needed most, or how the head is angled slightly, giving you leverage. And what about that skewed working edge, allowing you to get at the bottom of a pan? Pick one up, turn it over, and wonder out loud about the finish. Listen how I steep them in organic flax oil and beeswax, because the food you eat is organic, so why shouldn’t your cooking utensils?
Making spoons makes me happy, but even if I thought making $15/hr was a living wage, I can’t make eight of them a day. Like an organic farmer at a farmer’s market, I’ll stick with marketing and selling my spoons directly to my customers. If I sell one every once an awhile that took me three hours to make for $35, then perhaps that’s okay. I’m not doing this to get rich. I do this because I love it, so when I hand you a spoon know that I’m also handing you a piece of my heart. Treat it well, give it oil when it needs it, and it will be there for you again and again and again.