Samuel Alexander is one of the five New Makers that TOAST will be supporting and nurturing throughout the year. Originally from north Devon and now spending most of his time in east London, he creates wooden spoons and vessels from different kinds of wood, depending on what has been felled as part of local tree management.
“I enjoy the process of making more than the outcome,” says woodworker Samuel Alexander. He began creating wooden spoons and vessels as a form of cathartic therapy around seven years ago. “I describe it as an energy release,” he says. “Whether that is positive or negative energy, through making you use the muscles in your body to create something outwardly. I make my pieces as calming as possible to look at, as the process is me searching for a sense of calm.”
Drawn to organic shapes, he creates pieces from different kinds of wood, depending on what has been felled locally as part of tree management. Samuel works from his narrowboat on Regent’s Canal and at the community workshop London Green Wood at Hackney City Farm, London, where he also teaches workshops for beginners. “The nice thing about it being a cooperative is that there is no hierarchy,” he explains, and there is a library of tools that everyone can use. He also uses his own equipment, collected over the years, such as a clog-making tool called a twca cam hand-forged in Wales, with a long handle for leverage when gouging out the shape of bowls, and a traditional carving axe made in north Sweden.
The shapes are inspired by the rounded forms of fruit and vegetables. Growing up, Samuel used to visit his grandad on his farm in Devon, where he grew pumpkins, and now he draws influence from apples in particular. “As well as the shapes, I’m interested in their importance in different narratives, in religion and folklore,” he explains. Influence also comes from bulbous Egyptian pottery vessels, folk art, the creative spirit of the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston, and other makers at London Green Wood. “We really bounce off and inspire each other,” he says. “There is always something new to learn from different people, from different areas of making.”
Creating the vessels and spoons is a patient process. Firstly, to get to a roughed-out vessel from a block of wood takes Samuel around an hour. “I don’t measure, which which would usually be frowned upon by more traditional makers,” he says. “I begin by drawing a pebble shape, not a circle as they are too symmetrical.” Samuel studied illustration and animation at Kingston University, and often sketches inspirational forms. “Then, the idea of a stalk works so well ergonomically as a handle. The handles started off quite clumsy, but became more delicate and more refined as time went on.”
Then, the wood is left to dry out for two weeks, before the finishing cuts are made over a period of one to four hours, depending on how the wood has changed or warped. “The drying process is quite nerve-wracking, because the wood can crack, split or warp as time passes,” he says. Drying pieces slowly reduces this risk, so he places them in a drying cabinet in the canal boat where he lives, near the bilge. “It’s the closest part to the water, so it’s always cold there,” he explains. Then after they have dried, they are finished with a small amount of food-safe walnut oil.
The shapes are based on similar forms, with slight changes depending on muscle memory, but intriguing differences come through the natural characteristics of each piece of timber. Samuel finds birch the most malleable and reliable kind of wood for him to work with, but he also enjoys using plum and rowan. “They are all different in colour and texture,” he says. “The pattern and direction of the grain changes, which is quite wonderful.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Studio photographs and portrait by Suzie Howell. Other images courtesy of Samuel Alexander.