Photographing a Boston Woodshop
Tell me this doesn’t sound cool.
Navigating the twisty turns of a coastal road, watching the edge lest your car drop off into the ocean, you arrive in a tiny windswept town. Somewhere before the town center, you begin to slow down, searching for the house your GPS can’t quite find, looking for a mailbox, a porch with numbers, anything. It should be right here. You hang a left down a dirt alley, and emerge in the rear of…a…church?
Well, yes, but not a church anymore. The structure remains, but what is happening here in place of a Sunday service is a different kind of reverence, no less sincere but more…well…loud. Instead of incense, the scent is of warm wood, linseed oil and sawdust. And the celestial hum is more of a buzz, coming from the biggest saw I’ve ever seen in someone’s backyard. And logs are everywhere.
This is Spire Woodshop, the creative space and collaboration of Alyssa Pitman and Winston Daddario, who create everything from spoons to the table to place them on. Alyssa and Winston have a strong vision for their work – beautiful, finely executed, highly functional objects made from wood that otherwise might have been wasted. Alyssa says: “Most of our products are created from locally sourced urban lumber, trees that are already being cut down or would have otherwise been discarded. We are interested in not only giving trees a second life but also telling a story of the community we live in through the furniture and goods that we create.”
Often an artisanal woodshop will be limited by size, since it can be hard to procure and process large trees on your own. But Alyssa and Winston have turned their backyard into a small lumber mill that can handle just about anything that comes to them – on this particular day, a large fallen birch tree with a trunk as wide as my arm’s length is lying next to the saw, wood red from the rain, its potential re-newed for having been salvaged by Alyssa as she headed back from a camping trip in Maine. I’d love to see that thing go through the mill.
I’m here for a different reason though, and that is to create an editorial photography spread of Alyssa carving a spoon for Place…in the Making magazine. I have no idea what I am getting into, my personal knowledge of carving is limited to thinking I knew how to do it when I was a kid and nearly slicing my thumb off with a steak knife. But I’ve always been a lover of wooden objects, so I’m excited.
Alyssa starts the process in the yard with a moist log about the size of a low stool and a sharp hatchet. First, she peels the bark off as easily as if it were a can label. (I’m already riveted.) By looking at the rings on the cut side and the knots on the peeled side, she can see things about the way the tree grew and makes informed decisions about the best place to make cuts – working with the grain, the unique growth aspects of this log and the structural strengths of certain areas above others. Quickly she decides on the ideal spot to create her first ‘blank’ – the roughly cut block the spoon will be carved from – and dives in.
I am immediately stunned by the extent and precision of the hatchet work. Alyssa does so much more than rough cutting and broad shaping with her tool, which is far far sharper than I ever expected it to be. Yes, it ‘hacks’, but in Alyssa’s capable hands it also cuts, and peels, and planes, and chips, and smooths. In almost no time, the rough block is a remarkably refined spoon. Astounding.
After a period of time and level of detail that I never expected from a hatchet is achieved, more exacting tools show up – a carving knife that is familiar in shape, and one that looks as if it was bent around a soda can. Both are used with very specific hand and body positions designed to increase accuracy and limit injury. (Where was this info when I was creating havoc with that steak knife?) Here again, Alyssa makes it look easy – her hand strength and tension causes long and even chips of planed wood to drop from the handle and bowl with elegance. I am reminded of the idea that sculpture is removing whatever doesn’t look like the thing you are trying to make. That’s definitely the case here – with every stroke of the knife, non-spoon disappears and spoon remains.
Soon, its time to head into the shop for sanding and waxing. This is another treat. We pass through spectacularly heavy red wooden doors with windows made from old ship portholes – Winston’s work – into the basement of the church where tables and smaller saws and a whole array of tools greet us. So does Billy, the precocious Siberian Husky.
Alyssa begins to sand the spoon using progressively finer grain sandpaper, re-moistening the wood as she goes. When she reaches a certain point, it is time to wax it and let it sit for 24-48 hours. So we wander over to an old crock pot on a side table. The 1980’s straw yellow color of the pot matches its contents almost perfectly, a molten mixture of linseed oil and beeswax. It smells divine, and makes the wood’s color bloom, the little imperfections of the grain magically transformed into beautiful detail. The smooth spoon gets a generous coating of the stuff and is set aside to absorb. Long after I have gone home to process my photographs, Alyssa will slake off the wax, rub it down and add another coat or two. There are finished spoons on the table, each wonderfully weighted and a pleasure to hold. Totally satisfying.
The entire process seems to have flown by. I could watch this process for days and never tire of it, and I haven’t even seen Winston work. I’d also like to do some serious inspecting of the giant raw planks of wood against the wall that look like they are well on their way to becoming a table. But I have to leave everyone here to their work and go do mine. I’m determined to take one of their carving classes soon though, and try to redeem myself from my youthful ignorance. I will never make the wood chips fly like Alyssa, but after watching her work, I’m inspired to give carving a try.