Justin Mrazik is a Bay Area-based industrial designer who chooses to work in wood because of the life and warmth that it brings to everyday objects.
The life and warmth his products exude can be felt with one visit to his kitchen. The small wooden spice shelf. The salt serving spoon. Kitchen Utensil I prototypes in each drawer. A hand-turned bowl here. Plenty of cutting boards. Making a meal in such a place is a great pleasure. You can’t help but emulate the care and craft Justin has put into his spoons and utensils in the meal you are preparing.
Unsurprisingly, Justin takes wood-working skill development very seriously. Every time we talk he seems full of newly-acquired skills from just having attended another wood-working class. He has developed a habit of carrying a rough spoon and a few carving tools on his person just as most artists may carry a sketchbook and pen. Our interest was perked. It is not every day you see someone walking through San Francisco carving a spoon.
Here is Justin giving us the low down about crafting spoons and kitchen utensils from wood.
SS: Why spoons?
JM: Spoons and utensils are a great projects because you can get the satisfaction of making something in a relatively short amount of time with a basic set of tools. Things like furniture take a great deal of careful planning and energy to build whereas a spoon you can hash out in an afternoon. The scale of utensils also lends itself to the quick iteration of form and ergonomics. With a spoon, I can quickly make a shape or a joint that I’ve been thinking about or test the way a cutting tool will interact with a type of wood. They are playful sketches for bigger ideas. Spoons are also great because they are such common tools; you can get them into people’s hands right away and learn something from how they are used.
SS: What is involved in the process of making a spoon?
JM: You are starting with a wooden blank. This is usually a small piece of wood that has already been joined and planed to a certain rectangular dimension. I usually start by sketching out a rough form that I am trying to attain on the surface of the wood. Then I clamp the material to my workbench and begin carving out the bowl of the spoon. It is helpful to carve the bowl when the material is still flat; giving you more access to the material for clamping.
I use a range of gouges, with my favorites being a 15mm Michihamono spoon gouge and Pfeil D7L x 10mm bent gouge, to carve the spoon bowl. I work cutting across the grain and gently remove wood, moving from the inside of the bowl towards the outside rim. It is careful work maintaining the lip when you reach the outside of your bowl.
After getting the bowl to your likeliness, you can then rough out the shape of the handle, neck, and rear of the bowl on the bandsaw. When your spoon is roughly close to its final form, it’s helpful to have a bench hook where you can continue shaping the spoon with a carving knife. A bench hook offers resistance and a softwood fence upon which you can anchor your spoon while carving.
You can continue to use files, chisels, carving knives and sandpaper to give your spoon final details; from here its a conversation between you and the material. What does the spoon feel like in my hand? How does the heel transition the neck of the spoon into the bowl? How does the spoon rest when placed on a table? Does the rim of the bowl hold it’s contents? Does it let them slip out freely? These are important spoon questions.
SS: How many Justin hours does it take to make a spoon?
JM: Justin hours, hmm. Not counting the hours I daydream on spoons, I can get carving results that I am happy with in about 4 hours. Usually longer.
SS: Are there any famous spoons we should know about?
JM: Check out Turkish Sherbet spoons. They are some really unique spoon compositions in materials we wouldn’t use today like horn, ivory, shell, and corals. They were used for serving dried fruit. Other than that, I’m still waiting for them to come out with a spoon emoji.
SS: What is some of your spoon inspiration?
JM: I look at the shapes of plants. I visit garage sales and pick up old things. I look to the work of a handful of Japanese woodworkers. I give spoons as gifts and get a lot of great feedback from friends and family.
Some of my original utensils were based on the shape of the Gingko leaf. There was a gingko tree outside of my apartment where I used to live in Gwangju, South Korea and I would collect it’s leaves. The leaf is a beautiful shape. Another shape that I recently discovered is the leaf of the triangle fig plant (Ficus Triangularis). There is a great nursery, Flora Grubb, down the street from my studio in Bayview that I visit every Saturday for coffee where it’s easy work finding these beautiful forms.
To name some of the tableware that I keep my eye on, I’d have to include the work of Takashi Tomii and Ryuji Mitani in Japan, the sculptural kitchen tools of Joshua Vogel in the Hudson River Valley, and Heath Ceramics here in San Francisco. The list goes on but these people understand their material first and foremost.
SS: These spoons are not cheap – who buys these wonderful things?
JM: These spoons are not cheap. The cost is a representation of the time spent selecting, transporting, milling, shaping, sanding, finishing, photographing and marketing a piece of wood. There is a great deal of energy, skill and dedication involved there. The question then becomes “what is the value of the personal energy I have put into this object?” In addition to the cost of the material, the pricing reflects that value.
The people buying my utensils, spoons and bowls usually have a special occasion in mind – a birthday, a wedding, a holiday – that they want to celebrate with a great gift. I like the idea that people buy and exchange my work to mark occasions in their lives. These kinds of objects take on a meaning; they get passed down between family members, stories get told about them, they get used. There is a great level of value there both for me and the recipient.
SS: What’s next spoon-wise or woodworking-wise?
JM: Spoons are ongoing. A rice paddle is somewhere in the making. You can also count on an influx of wooden bowls and turned objects. The shop where I work in San Francisco, Hunt Projects, just acquired a new Oneway lathe so there will be plenty of turned objects to come. Aside from these smaller objects, my focus is also on building a small bar and wine cabinet as well as an easy chair in white oak.
You can follow more of Justin’s process and woodwork by heading over to his studio site.
More recently, Justin has teamed up with three studio mates under the brand Upwelling Designs to manufacturer a collection of furniture designs. If you’re in the Bay Area, be sure to keep an eye out for Justin and the Upwelling Design crew at the upcoming West Coast Craft Show at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.