Camilla Hibbert

Meet the Maker: Skapa Woodstuffs

by Camilla Hibbert At Thyme 24 Oct 19

We stumbled across Mike and Skapa Woodstuffs scrolling through Instagram and were mesmerised by the workmanship and beauty of his pieces, they reveal a remarkable passion for his craft and materials. 

Foraging for wood from the streets and parks of London, Mike began woodworking while doing his MA in Anthropology at University College London. Mike has been woodworking for 5 years now and all his research focuses on the role of technology in heritage craft. Every piece Mike makes is unique, because each piece of wood is unique – there is something in this that offers both Mike and Thyme great joy!

When did your interest in woodworking first begin?
My interest in woodworking first began when I was out gathering firewood for my mum in the forest near her house. I was chopping away at some logs with the sound of the axe ricocheting off of trees and that’s when I had ‘my moment’. From then on, I fell in love with working wood: hearing, feeling and smelling the material and being amongst trees. 

Can you give us an insight into a day in the workshop? 
My workshop is a small brick-and-mortar shed at the back of the house, as I open the door, woodchips and off-cuts pour out and the smell of greenwood hits me. I select the log I’d like to work (usually depending on what needs to be crafted) and set it up on the chopping block. Everything starts with the axe. If I’m making bowls on the lathe, I’ll rough out the shape with the axe. If scoops and spatulas are on order, then I’ll sketch them out onto the freshly hewn wood and get cracking. The floor gets increasingly carpeted with woodchips throughout the day, until my feet are buried. The smell is beautiful. 

What for you makes working with wood special? 
For me, I think what is most special about working wood is the boyish feeling of curiosity that never seems to disappear. By this, I mean that you can never completely predict how the material will appear (in terms of grain patterns, knots etc) nor how the design will turn out. The processes of making are completely negotiable and subject to change at every stage. Working with wood has the ability to take me back to that moment in the forest I mentioned, where the physical and emotional sensations of knowing trees, and crafting something from them, tap into something deeply provocative.  

Do certain pieces speak to you or have a special meaning or connection?
Certain pieces do have a special meaning and it is true that objects acquire a kind of voice, or language, that only you and it can understand. I cannot usually explain why a certain piece makes me feel a certain way – it just does and that’s all that matters. I usually hang onto those pieces until the time is right and I let it go. I suppose it’s a kind of emotional conditioning – training yourself to let go of something dear to you, to let someone else enjoy it. 

Where do you source your wood and what is your favourite wood to work with?
I forage all of my wood. I always make sure I get permission if it’s private land, in parks or people’s gardens. At the moment I’m getting quite a lot from York University Campus as I’m teaching there as part of my PhD. I think my favourite wood is birch – it is like a reliable old friend who’s always there for you. It’s easy on the hands, looks beautiful, has a long, long history of use and is usually quite readily available. 

How can we encourage people to understand the benefits of wood both in society and the environment? 
I’m not sure how we can encourage people to enjoy the benefits of wood other than by emphasizing the connection between objects and landscape – design and materials. The UK isn’t an especially heavily forested country and yet there is wood all around us. There needn’t be a reason to import tableware, usually made my machines or by people in extremely unjust economic situations, when there is plenty of material for us to work with if we chose to do it sustainably. I would suggest people adopt at least one wooden bowl or cup or spoon and just use it. They will hopefully then feel the benefit of knowing something was made near to them, from a woodland they might know, and that as a material it is far more pleasant to interact with when held in-hand. 

Can you tell us a little about the anthropological importance of wood?
The anthropological importance of wood goes right back into our evolution. Wood has always been there with us – in the handles of tools that were hafted to make them more effective; in the houses, camps and villages we built to keep us safe; in the boats that took us to new places. Woodlands provided us with food and trees brought us fire. Wood was all around us. Nearly every culture uses wood in at least one way or another. The woodworker is a universal human character (at least that’s what I tell myself). 

And finally, what is the ambition for Skapa Woodstuffs?
Purely and simply, the ambition is for Skapa Woodstuffs to be my sole profession, to be my own boss and to be my own man. I am studying my PhD because I want to use academia as a platform from which to advocate the use of wood and the appreciation of craftsmanship. For me, making and thinking are the same thing and so the practical aspects of creating woodenwares go hand-in-hand with understanding what craft does for us as human beings. My dad once told me: ‘No-one’s ever going to pay you to do what you love.’ Having started Skapa Woodstuffs with absolutely nothing to go on, I am working hard to prove my dad wrong.