Lynette Breton, of Lynette Breton design, displays a selection of handcarved kitchen utensils in her workshop on Great Island. (ERIN O’MARA PHOTO)
Power tools fascinate me, call me and repel me. I’m drawn to the power and potential. I love that an electrified saw makes quick work of tough jobs. I’m also sure if I use one, I’ll cut my hand off.
I haven’t had experience with tools more dangerous than a can opener since I stuck a gouge through the heel of my hand in sixth grade art class. So when a friend suggested I check out Lynette Breton’s woodworking class, I was cautiously interested. I love learning but realize I gravitate toward new-ISH challenges. When that meme asks, “What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” I know exactly because I’m doing something I’m pretty sure I can master. Hand-carving falls well outside of my circle of talents.
Lynette Breton, a masterful woodworker on Great Island, started carving spoons so she could share her craft with people she loves. She just can’t give everyone a custom-crafted banister. Now she teaches monthly classes and people from all over come to make spoons in good company. I’ve been one of those people, three times now.
The first spoon was a spatula, entry-level carving since the business end of a spatula is flat. The second spoon in the series has a shallow bowl, just like something you probably have in your kitchen. The third is a serving spoon and the final is a giant ladle. Doc Nettie (that’s Lynette’s unofficial nickname — I think it will catch on) takes joy in all the details of her craft and wants her students to find joy too.
And the tools! A key tool to spoon-carving is the spokeshave, a hand tool used to strip away one wood curl at a time. When going with the grain, the motion is smooth, the sound mellow. The gentle sameness is mesmerizing until a new grain pattern emerges and the spokeshave cuts and studders to a stop. It always happens as soon as I get too confident, the moment I feel like I know what I’m doing and I’m on the fast track to Spoonville.
Doc Nettie roams the shop, offering pointers and answering questions. The first and constant rule of carving is to listen to the wood. My problem is I don’t seem to hear anything and I’d prefer the wood to listen to me. But nature doesn’t lay down fiber with a future carver in mind. When the grain confounds me, Doc Nettie guides me. She explains how the planes of the rounded spoon back need to meld together and helps me understand the invisible lines I need to follow.
Doing things within my wheelhouse is magical because I know which rules matter, and which are merely suggestions. I know shortcuts and if I don’t, I have Google. But the internet’s no help here and I can’t plug in my hands to make them more skilled. I’ve spent hours on the bowl of a spoon, working through layers, removing what I don’t need to uncover what I do. The sustained focus makes my brain itch with a case of neural hives that can only be cured by switching my attention to videos of adorable, romping puppies. But there are deep tool marks where the grain spoke, and I didn’t listen. There are faint scratches and ripples in the wood surface that won’t go away on their own.
I’ve tapped into reserves of patience I didn’t know I had and made two spoons that are beautiful. Really, seriously beautiful.
I gave the spatula (left-handed, just ask Doc Nettie about the handed swoop) to my brother and his entirely left-handed family for Christmas. We had a pandemic Zoom to open gifts and when they opened the spatula and I told them I carved it, my brother said, “It’s hard to tell over video that you’re joking.” He didn’t know I could carve a spatula. I didn’t either.
Before I rehomed the spatula, I picked it up every time I walked by it. I ran my hands over the silky walnut surface and showed it off to my partner over and over, forcing him to find new ways to praise it. My second attempt is even more dear since the rounded bowl was a challenge and I spent hours beyond class to complete it. Finally oiled, the birch took on a deep amber tone ribboned with dark grain. The wood is smooth to the touch, the handle is elegant. It’s satisfying to hold and it’s on the way to my mother for her birthday.
My third spoon still looks more like a weapon than something for serving stew, despite hours of shaping. And though I’m sure I’m slower and my brain itchier than most, I’m not alone. One night at Doc Nettie’s shop, in the company of real woodworkers, I puckered my lips into a knot and stepped back from my work. Bob, working from the other side of the table, looked up and told me to breathe. He checked on my work, taught me how to use my fingers to feel for imperfections and even took out his pencil to show me how to shade the raised parts for better targeting. When I told Doc Nettie she said, “There’s nothing more bonding than the act of creating and connecting at the same time.”
And there it is.
I’m using tools, including a gouge, and to date, not even a flesh wound. I’m learning to channel my strengths and overcome some weaknesses and when that’s frustrating, I’m learning to breathe. I get to see a different part of me in the reflection of my carved, sanded, burnished, oiled, one-of-a-kind spoon. I gather these gifts in good company.
And Doc Nettie’s workshop is full of giant, sharp power tools. Sometimes I’m even band-saw adjacent.
The possibilities are endless.
For information on Doc Nettie’s woodworking classes, visit lynettebretondesign.com.
Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the board of Harpswell News.