If we are honest and of a certain age, wooden spoons bring forward two mental images: a beloved parent or grandparent stirring a favourite recipe in the kitchen of our memory; or that same relative pursuing us furiously for some misdemeanour, threatening ‘you’re going to get the wooden spoon around your backside’.
But the history of spoon-making goes back thousands of years. Ancient cultures carved spoons from wood or bone. Wooden spoons have been discovered in Roman ruins. Spoons can be as simple as a straight carved utensil, or an intricately worked lovespoon, which in Welsh and other cultures are given by suitors to their intended loves.
Paul Ryle makes wooden spoons, but he’s so much more besides. A passionate advocate of green woodsmithing, as he calls his practice, he’s as much a social historian and preserver of old trades as he is a craftsman.
He’s one of the 80 artisans discovered by Visit Ballarat for their new campaign Made of Ballarat, aimed at encouraging more Melburnians to visit the city and region.
Ryle’s Buninyong workshop walls are lined with hatchets and axes, froes and adzes, drawknives and bowlknives, all hand-forged and increasingly rare. There’s a treadle-powered lathe and benches for woodshaving, and his pride and joy, a recently-made, rather dangerous-looking stock knife.
“I love all the old skills, what are called the rare or lost trades,” Mr Ryle says.
“I’ve had an interest in it for over 30 years, making anything from chairs to rakes to spoons to bowls.”
Originally from England, where the heritage of woodwork was passed down through generations, Paul Ryle spent his younger days hunting down the last practitioners of traditional trades such as clog making and spindle turning. These were rustic but highly professional skills, though the people practising them were rarely paid well.
The skills of putting together a windsor chair from scratch might be beyond the beginner, but Mr Ryle says his classes in spoon making are popular, and the craft has taken off worldwide.
“You can start with just a hatchet to shape the blank roughly, and then move onto the knives,” he says.
“Last month, the annual world gathering of spoon carvers took place in Edale, Derbyshire. Literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of people descend on this little village for Spoonfest. They come from all over the world.”
If Paul Ryle has his way, many more people will be aware of the wonderful world of bodgers, spurtles, travishers and treen, billets and shavehorses, and the continuation of a quiet, contemplative tradition of manufacture.
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