Interview with travelling craftsman - Dan Lawrence

Dan has been carving spoons for over seven years, and for the past two he's been travelling and learning from some of the best carvers in the UK.


In this interview I ask him how he has created his lifestyle as a journeyman, why he started carving spoons, what values he chooses to live by, and how adventure plays a part in his life.


What important choices did you need to make to create your lifestyle as a travelling craftsman?


One important choice came from University in 2007, seeing everyone go to places like South America, and I was thinking I’d never really been anywhere in this country, so I think part of the choice was a reaction to that. I’d made the choice to travel around this country.


Another instigator was living in a big house with lots of people, something I’d never thought I’d do, and paying rent to a horrible landlord who didn’t really care about the people who were living in the house. I thought why am I paying hundreds of pounds to live in this horrible house?


There were all these little markers that started making me think. First of all you sometimes realise that you don’t want to do something before you realise how you’re gonna do it.


While I was working in North Face I was living in a really beautiful house but having to work hours and hours in a job that you don’t really like which you barely spend any time in - doesn’t really make any sense. And then reading about the German journeymen style of doing things where they would finish their apprenticeship and then spend a year travelling around, working and earning money. And also a basketmaker who would spend a few months living in people’s houses making baskets commissioned by them, then he would get paid and move on. Then you look at all cultures who move around all the time, it’s not an unusual thing to move around a lot. Seeing all of that affects you.

Getting rid of a lot of things from my life, I remember getting rid of my book collection which was quite vast at one point. I remember collecting it since I was 16 or earlier. An important choice was choosing to do it, and then not having a house lined up.


The start for me was a three week trip in Sweden and that was a really good way of going away and not having a house or anything. You don’t know what you’re gonna do, but I did have Spoonfest where I would be earning money from teaching. I think something that really helped was having a good following on Instagram of craftspeople, and I knew that I wanted to travel around and hang out with other craftspeople.


An important decision was to live with very little money and to be scared - to not always know where I’m going to go next. Even now it’s difficult to see how things went from one thing to another. I think somewhat faith, you just trust that there will be something. I put a callout on Instagram and usually someone says hey yes come and stay here.


Why did you start carving spoons?


My mother used to buy cheap cutlery all the time and I really hated using it. So when I went to University I made a big effort to find a really good set of cutlery. I went out to all the markets and found some really nice knives and forks and spoons. I used to carry them around and take them to different houses that I lived in. Then working for the North Face I was able to have access to discounted multi-tool knives. I really wanted something to do, sat under a tree, making something out of wood. I found a little book of whittling and then most of the things I made were butter spreaders and letter openers and things like that. I didn’t really know what I was doing, no one taught me how to do it, but I was fairly used to just picking up a book or watching something on YouTube. After a few projects I made a spoon and I could make different ones. Someone told me that I could get a curved knife from a shop in Leeds and I could afford to buy it. I found Barn’s and Rob’s videos on YouTube.


Partly it’s my personality. If I get into something I want to get really good at it. Spoons are great because they’re infinite and they’re difficult. I like the challenge of making them good and using lots of different bits of wood. They’re really travellable and saleable. They’re lovely to make sat out in nature. A few of my friends do it now. You axe out a blank and go and sit and carve for a couple of hours.


There’s a certain level of mindfulness involved as well. It’s not just a physical thing that you’re doing, it’s a mental process going on because you’re working with a sharp tool you definitely need to focus in and be paying attention. It’s a little three dimensional sculpture with the added thing that then you can use it. From that comes the community of other people making spoons as well. It’s the idea that you can go into a wood, cut a small piece of wood, make something useful, maybe beautiful. You start opening up trees and seeing what’s inside them and you have a deeper connection to your environment.


Who are your teachers in life?


One of the reasons for doing this is to learn from other people in their direct environment. By travelling you have a different insight into the way people live, how they live, why they live, and you get to see them in the morning which is a unique time to meet people, and before bed. These are quite liminal times when there is space between consciousness and unconciousness. At the start of the day you see people when their cup is empty and then you see them when they are winding down. These are beautiful times to learn from people which is quite unique.


Everyone that I meet is a teacher, but Rob is really inspiring because he’s really passionate about what he does and he’s always striving to do more, he has a really rich view on life, really thinks about things, but also can really have a lot of fun and let loose. That’s definitely really inspiring.


I spent five years with my ex-girlfriend and we lived together. She’s someone that I chart as someone with a really big impact of giving me confidence and being someone who is very kind and generous and thoughtful.


What values do you choose to live by?


“Have strong morals and ethics, but hold them loosely” - that’s definitely something that I now try and live by. I do definitely have strong morals, ethics and ideas that I choose to live by but they are quite loose so they can change. One value is to be accepting of everyone and their choices in life at that time, because I’m only meeting them for a tiny slice of their life and I think allowing and giving space to people is a big value.


Another one is giving. I try to give as much as possible, without asking for anything in return and then having strong gratitude. Being grateful for small kindnesses, big things that people do for me, but also for just being able to sit here all day if I want.


One that has been on my mind a lot recently is time. One of the biggest things that people say why they don’t do something is that they don’t have the time. I think a lot of us do have the time but we’re choosing to do something else. A value is to really hold time very importantly - not necessarily to fill my time with lots of things or to make every moment count, sometimes doing nothing for three days is really valuable.


How do you feel about money?


When I have it, I value it. I don’t want to waste what it affords me. Money is an enabler. I have learned that it’s not the ultimate enabler because actually when I don’t have money I do really cool things. When you don’t have money you have a different experience, you travel differently. You don’t waste what you’ve got and you don’t rely on it all the time.


Sometimes I’ve really enjoyed not having any money, it pushes me to do things that I probably would’ve liked to do anyway. I don’t love or hate money, I have a much softer view on it. “Often in life, to do something of worth requires a period of unemployment” - that’s really stuck with me. When I don’t have much money I still try and live with an abundance mindset. I’ve learned that I can live with a lot of different money fluctuations.


What role does adventure play in your life?


To me adventure sits on a spectrum. You can have little mini adventures, big adventures, and then sometimes playing in the woods is an adventure, or finding an abandoned building is an adventure. I see my whole life as an adventure, I’m venturing out. There’s also the inner adventure where you’re trying to create yourself.


What are the ingredients for adventure? You’ve gotta have some fun, but then sometimes there’s type one fun and type two fun. There’s a bit of pain as well. I think sometimes adventure can have a look and a brand that doesn’t reflect reality. One of the ingredients is how you feel. Sometimes an adventure can be really calm and still, such as a meditation retreat.

I met Dan in a pub in Edale, Peak District, on a snowy winter evening as he played a Swedish boardgame with our now mutual friend Rob. Since that day his unique perspective on life continues to intrigue me.


We've been bouldering together, wildswimming, and enjoyed some great journeys and pub chats. He's a man that makes you think, who can inspire new perspectives and reminds you to appreciate the simple things in life.


See Dan's beautiful gallery of work over on his Instagram account.

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