An Interview with Greenwood Spoon Carver Tad Kepley


I recently had the good fortune to visit Pittsboro, NC for the inaugural The GreenWood Wrights’Fest, a weekend gathering of spoon carvers, timber framers, and basket weavers from across North Carolina and beyond. While at first those three crafts may sound dissimilar, the tie that binds them together is their use of “green” wood from a freshly cut log. The techniques of the greenwoodworker rely on the ease with which this wet wood can be immediately processed and shaped with hand tools, then allowed to air dry and be finished. It’s not a big leap to imagine why this style of woodworking was important to those who chose Western North Carolina as their home, with its plentiful hardwood forests. Folks around the world have long developed greenwoodworking skills to make everything from their kitchen utensils to their homes, relying on ingeniously simple hand tools: the axe, the froe, and the knife.

The modern day greenwoodworker may not need to hue a hand-built home out of freshly cut logs in order to survive, but she finds other essential benefits from the act of making things with hand tools. Spoon carving facilitates relaxation and mindfulness, and many carvers find themselves in agreement on the value of a handcrafted item that finds its usefulness in the simple act of cooking or eating. Popularized in the U.S. by Swedish greenwood carver Willie Sundqvist, and immortalized in classic books on greenwoodworking like Drew Langsner’s Country Woodcraft, spoon carving is a relatively inexpensive way to gain entry into the world of woodworking.

While in Pittsboro, I caught up with Tad Kepley of Lexington, NC, a veteran greenwood spoon carver and a bit of an evangelist for the craft. We talked about how he approaches spoon carving and what it means to him to participate in this type of woodworking. Tad is a popular instructor at the John C. Campbell Folk School, where he is teaching Greenwood Cooking and Eating Spoons in the Woodcarving Studio the week of August 7, 2022. Known as an enthusiastic and patient mentor, Tad’s teaching offers an entry point for the curious novice, as well as refined instruction for spoon carving enthusiasts looking to hone their skills. His hand carved spoons, with their polished knife finishes (no sandpaper here, folks!) and delicate forms, are quiet heirlooms that find their place in kitchens around the world.

Enjoy our interview!

Gabe Strand: What does it mean to have greenwood skills, versus woodworking skills?

Tad Kepley: I have both sides of a coin. Meaning that when I first saw a spoon that my brother had carved for my mother 20 or 30 years ago, it was made with dry wood and he sanded it and maybe even used a belt sander maybe even used a bandsaw. And so, when I first started carving spoons, all I knew was dry wood and the bandsaw and the belt sander.

I soon learned about greenwood spoon carving and this large community of greenwood carvers. I began to learn the skills of being able to do everything with just hand tools only. I no longer use sandpaper, I no longer use electricity. I can, in a sense, take my show on the road. What it’s done for me is it’s given me a greater connection with the past. It’s given me a connection to those who used to do this a hundred years ago. They made utensils that they could use on a daily basis because they had to. Even my grandfather, I’ve got my grandfather’s spoon that he made 75 years ago. And I have my mother’s spoon, and those memories, that she cooked with for 30 years. And so there the connection to the past, using hand tools, no electricity, using green wood that going to last till the cows come home. And you’re going to be able to pass that down.

It’s like Roy Underhill talks about, that we all have a connection with wood, we just sometimes have lost it and we’re trying to get back to it. And I think people are reaching for those skills to be something worthwhile, crafty with your hands, you’re building confidence.

GS: Confidence with hand tools you mean?

TK: For me in particular, it’s the ability to use a tool – the axe was one of the earliest tools that there was and using an axe as the primary tool to make a spoon out of green wood, and then finish it with a hook knife and a straight knife, there’s something that’s just a wonderful experience to be able to do that. And also, to be able to do something that not only is useful on a daily basis but also can be good looking and you can be proud of. And I think even more than that, it’s something you can use to cook for the people you love, or use for yourself, like an eating spoon.

GS: It almost feels like with spoons and bowls and green wood in general, it requires so few tools and it’s all to make useful items, it’s almost for someone who doesn’t consider themselves primarily a woodworker or a carver. You could be a cook or a weaver or any other kind of craftperson and get something out of learning to make these small tools with a knife, and just knife skills in general.

TK: I agree with that, because I don’t have any woodworking skills, in other words, when I came into it, I didn’t bring anything to the table. I came at it with no skills with an axe or a knife, or a table saw or a bandsaw, no furniture building, no toymaking, not any skills with wood itself, so I came into this and learned a skill without having to know about woodworking or any modern-day tools. And I think that’s the attraction, that with only three hand tools you can make something from a tree that’s useful in a relatively short period of time.

GS: The tree part is important too because you said you came into it with no woodworking skills, and maybe you haven’t gained any conventional woodworking skills as far as a normal woodshop. But you’ve gained wood knowledge. You learn more about wood than you do about woodworking in a sense.

TK: Yes, I think so too. I mean, I probably learned a lot more about trees, and things about grain direction, etc than I really realize just working with green wood. Whether it be wild cherry trees, apple trees, of course those are very typically tight grains that we use for making cooking utensils and eating utensils. But I think you’re exactly right about that, you don’t have to have any prior skill in terms of woodworking. This is a whole new approach and you just have to have an open mind, and in a relatively short period of time you can learn some skills that you can continue to work on. That’s what I did. The reality is that you learn some skills quickly enough that you’re going to be able to make a spoon.

GS: How many have you carved?

TK: I’m somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 spoons now in about 7 years. I carve a lot of hours a day, six days a week. And that’s because I love it, there’s no work in it.

GS: That’s why I ask, it sounds obsessive, it’s addictive!

TK: I would use these words more than addictive: I would say relaxing and therapeutic. At the end of the day, you can sit down in a chair, and you can get lost in your carving. It’s a good way to relax and at the same time be able to make something that’s very useful and you can be proud of, that others can use it to make food, to eat food.

GS: Which also is a relaxing, fulfilling feeling.

TK: Yeah, I mean that connection, I agree. And what we’ve seen, particularly over the last 10 years or so there’s just been this emphasis towards getting back to working with our hands and this connection with wood. Not just handmade, but hand carved. And using just very basic tools.

GS: So, is there a carving community around here [Pittsboro] that you’re a part of?

TK: I’m in Lexington, North Carolina, so I’m in the middle of the state. It’s a fairly small community locally, but when you start looking at it across the state, and of course folks in Sweden and the UK have been doing it a lot longer than we have. I have friends across the world that I would have never had met had it not been for this green woodworking community. So, it is a large community when you look at the big picture, and we all share something in that love of working with a few hand tools to carve spoons. There’s a growing community on the internet, greenwood carvers, and although they might be in Sweden they’re like your next door neighbor.

GS: There’s also something about sitting around carving spoons with other people, which is how we do it at the Folk School, for a whole week, with no agenda but to be with other people and carve.

TK: I think you’re right! Also, I think there’s the idea that you carve something that you’re going to use, you don’t just set it up somewhere to collect dust. That’s a big part of this. They’re made to be used.

GS: Is it hard work?

TK: I wouldn’t say that it’s hard work physically. You wouldn’t want to overdo it too much at one time. Obviously for me, there’s no work in it. If there was work in it, I wouldn’t do it! It’s all enjoyment, it’s all passion for what I’m doing and what I can create. And my goal is to get others to hook in and be able to enjoy the same feelings that I get from it.

GS: That’s why you teach?

TK: That’s right! And honestly the only reason I teach is to get other people excited about it and understand there’s something you can do that may be the most relaxing thing you’ve ever done, or you need something very therapeutic at the end of the day.

Check Out Tad’s Upcoming Woodcarving Class at the Folk School in August!

Greenwood Eating and Cooking Spoons

with Tad Kepley
August 7–12, 2022

Learn to carve spoons from green wood, using just a few hand tools. Start with a hatchet, straight knife, and a hook knife and carve a cooking spoon, eating spoon, and spreader. Learn a new hobby or sharpen your skills with a relaxing and therapeutic craft and leave with functional items that can be used every day. All levels are welcome and tools will be provided.

Learn more and register today.

View more of Tad’s work on Instagram.

All images courtesy of Tad Kepley.

The post An Interview with Greenwood Spoon Carver Tad Kepley appeared first on John C. Campbell Folk School Blog.

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