Spon: A Guide to Spoon Carving and the New Wood Culture
Words Ben Williams
Barn the Spoon on opting out, going homeless and learning to sell humility from a Hackney shop window…
With his trademark braces and beard, in an open-necked cloth shirt liberally seasoned with woodchip, Barnaby Carder – also known as ‘Barn the Spoon’ – might seem an unlikely exhibitionist. But he has been on display, a kind of permanently whittling spoon-carving installation, a huge man in the window of a tiny shop (at 260 Hackney Road, London), from 2012 -2017. The stage set is a pile of half-chopped wood and the assorted sharp ‘edge tools’ of an ancient trade, with Carder himself an object of fascination for the multifarious local community of hipsters, drunks, Lycra-clad trustafarian mums, rudeboys and refugees – not to mention the thousands of eyes each day peering from the red buses (26, 48, 55 to Leyton Bakers Arms) that often pause at the traffic lights outside his shop. Viewed in this way, Carder’s subtle performance far exceeds Marina Abramovich’s public exposures and suggests the longeurs of something like Sam Taylor-Wood’s film of David Beckham asleep. This may be the first time Carder has been compared to Beckham, but he has profile, from Japan to the FT; he has appeared on breakfast television and radio in the role of wistful woodsman – but pigeonhole him at your peril.
It has been a lengthy road to success for a man who was homeless for a time in the late 2000s – homeless by design insofar as he wilfully distanced himself from a biology degree, a drinking habit and a failed jewellery business as part of a mission to ‘live by the spoon’. Carder can reflect on his vagrant days, living in a wood outside Oxford, as, ‘In some ways the most perfect time of my life,’ tramping back from a day’s street selling to set up his bivouac and carve spoons alone under the leafy canopy. ‘I definitely got this sense of wanting to melt into the woodland,’ he says. Yet mother nature was slow to adopt him. ‘The first time I went to the toilet in the woods I got it all over my braces,’ he says earnestly, as if still surprised by it. But he soon settled into his pedlar’s progress. ‘[It] gave me enormous self-respect, that I could go out there with just an axe and a knife and make a living from it. It’s a very affirming thing to make a spoon in the morning and sell it in the afternoon.’
Today, Carder has his fingers in many pies, co-running a popular craft course provider, the Greenwood Guild, having just finished a book, Spon (the Swedish word for spoon). Carder is a savvy operator but, despite his feel for PR, seems most at home working silently on his spoons. His minute craft may include aspects of performance, but it is not an act. Carder sees his work as part of an artisanal tradition, which dictates that a thing should be made quickly, showing the confident axe and knife skills of the jobbing carver.
‘The evidence of human craftsmanship is in the cuts,’ he says. Indeed his signature is perhaps clearest on the backs of his spoons, with a neat thatch of individual marks suggesting the beaten convex bowl of a steel drum, or the neurotic attention to detail of the artist who works in miniature.
Carder admits he learnt a lot from his period of pavement trading. ‘Street selling taught me that lot of people highly respect craftspeople. They like us because we are humble – or seem humble,’ he says. ‘Some wealthy people like to commission something from a humble person. It’s a strange concept, that if you have privilege and money you can somehow acquire a hard-up craftsperson’s goodness and humility.’
Spon: A Guide to Spoon Carving and the New Wood Culture by Barn the Spoon (Virgin, £20) is out now; barnthespoon.com