Featured Artist: Steven Schüler
Words by Brittny Hilbun
Dr. Steven Schuler, an English professor at the University of Mobile and a father of four, has been dabbling in woodworking for many years. Of all of his work, his handcrafted spoons are certainly a necessity for proper southern living. Two Ant Farm members met with him and his family one brisk evening in his charming Chickasaw home, as he demonstrated his process at his workbench. Along with spoon making, he has also crafted many items around his home, as well as refurbished almost all of his wood working tools with love in a beautifully handcrafted toolbox. What started as a handy hobby has now become an ever-growing, seasoned skill.
What birthed your interest in woodworking?
I started working wood in earnest while in graduate school, about ten years ago. My Walmart bookshelves were collapsing under the weight of my books, and I couldn’t afford to replace them with anything sturdy. So, I built my own. Eventually I took a couple of classes at a local living-craft village called Homestead Heritage, where I learned traditional joinery techniques using hand tools. I bought a few hand tools, built a small workbench that doubled as a kitchen island, and I went to work making bookshelves and boxes. I read every book on hand tools I could find, and I joined an online woodworking forum; but my skills developed largely through trial-and-error. My woodworking has since grown from a hobby to a true vocation.
How has woodworking been a handy skill?
Handmade items make great gifts, and when you’re on a professor’s salary being invited to half a dozen weddings every year, simple woodwork becomes a real money-saver. I also sell my woodwork once in a while. Although I still consider myself an amateur, I think that my woodworking just about pays for itself now. It’s an asset to the household economy, not a drain on it.
When we moved to Alabama, we bought a fixer-upper of a house, and I’ve used a lot of my tools and skills to fix up the house— everything from fabricating wooden siding to building wooden screen doors. All the wooden spoons in our kitchen are ones we have made, and we all sleep in beds I built. Nearly every room has at least one thing I’ve made in it. My kids are always a little surprised when I tell them I didn’t make something in our house. I think it’s given us all a deeper appreciation for handicrafts, as well as for skilled labor in general.
Oftentimes, when I’m working at my bench one or more of the children will want to “help,” or do their own woodworking. Under my workbench, I have a tool box with dedicated “kid tools.” They’re all real tools, but most are a little smaller than my tools. The kids will set up shop with a small bench and some wood scraps and amuse themselves drilling holes or making chips and shavings. My oldest has helped me complete a couple of projects now, including a Memory Box to hold her keepsakes. It’s a great way for them to spend time with me, and it gives them something to talk to me about.
Explain the spoon making process. How long does it take to make a set?
It’s all hand-tool work. I begin with a block of wood that looks like it might have a spoon in it. I plane one face of the wood smooth and draw out the shape of the spoon— I have a couple of templates for standard sizes, but sometimes I draw them out freehand.
I hollow out the bowl with a large gouge, and I shape the underside of the bowl and the handle with two tools, a drawknife and a spokeshave. Both of these tools were widely used by makers of chairs and wooden wagon wheels a century or two ago, but they are ideal for spoon making as well. I then smooth the surface of the wood with a card scraper— a rectangular piece of tool steel with a sharp edge. Finally, I sand and oil the spoons. It takes me between forty minutes and an hour to make one spoon.
The traditional way to make spoons is ideal for settings like sitting around the campfire, or hanging out in the park and involves carving them out with just a couple of knives: a straight one for the handle and a hooked one for the bowl. This is always done using freshly cut wood, which is easier to carve than wood that has been allowed to dry out.
What is the best wood for spoon making?
My favorite wood is local and free. I frequently salvage bits of promising wood from neighborhood trash piles, and I’ve found some beautiful pieces. I’ve used all kinds of woods, including black cherry, soft maple, hard maple, Osage orange, black walnut, pecan, mesquite, popcorn tree and many others. Cherry and walnut are fairly easy to carve, and they hold up pretty well in the kitchen. But harder woods, such as pecan, are really durable and, in my opinion, worth the extra effort to carve. I think hard maple is the ideal wood for kitchen use, but it’s hard to find down here.
Where outside of the home has woodworking taken you?
I have an article on spoon making coming out in Woodworker’s Journal this winter, and I had a short piece on woodworking with children in WOOD Magazine earlier this year. I’m a moderator for WoodNet Forums, one of the most active woodworking forums on the Internet, and I keep a regular blog The Literary Workshop. A couple months ago, my wife and I volunteered to run some A/V equipment for a woodworking convention in North Carolina. I do like to stay connected to the larger world of woodworking.
What are some inherent skills one must have or cultivate to excel in woodworking?
It’s funny, but I was never very dexterous or artistic as a kid. That stuff developed along with my woodworking skills. The one skill that I did bring to woodworking was the ability to mentally rotate a 3-D object and therefore to draw basic isometric (3-D) shapes. My wife tells me I’m good at matching colors and seeing what kinds of things visually fit together, and I’m sure that helps when selecting wood for a complicated piece of furniture. Otherwise, it helps to have a strong back, a little patience, and a lot of curiosity.
You may purchase some of Dr. Schuler’s work from his Etsy shop.