Chopping Wood

Chopping WoodChopping Wood

I n his Edgewood backyard, Reinaldo Cruz is busy shearing a piece of wood with a heavy knife. The forearm-sized-and-dwindling piece of red elm begins to take the shape it’s destined to become: a spoon. 

You may have seen Cruz before, at events like the Wooster Cherry Blossom Festival or the Westville Artwalk, where he sells his utensils. Made of scrap from downed and pruned trees, they retain the character of their source material, incorporating woody knots or following the curvature of the limb or trunk from whence they came.

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Puerto Rican by descent, Cruz was born in New York and grew up in the Bronx, then Connecticut. On moving to Puerto Rico at the age of 33, he started a farm. “I created an orchard, on land that’d been abused and abandoned,” Cruz explains. Using nature-friendly permaculture techniques, he says he revived the land, which, before he got to it, had only been fit for grazing cattle and growing plantains.

It was during Puerto Rico’s rainy afternoons that he began to carve. First, he started crafting things that could be used around the farm, like axe handles. Then, somehow, he found his way to spoons. “It’s such an ancient tool, the spoon. Man’s always needed it… We’ve made it forever, out of all kinds of different things,” Cruz says. “It’s a really cool challenge, to make a spoon.”

After returning to the States, Cruz continued to carve. As a carpenter of heavy-duty things for his living, he finds a more delicate creativity through the carving of spoons.

It starts with the wood, of course—preferably fresh-cut, or “green,” as he calls it. “You can still feel its moisture,” Cruz explains. “And you can smell it.” He says there’s a “different exchange” that happens when carving green wood, since it’s softer and more pliable than drier stuff.

When it’s time for carving, Cruz uses an actual meat cleaver. He got the idea from a Youtube video of a Japanese woodworker, who was carving a bird with a tool he could replicate simply by raiding his kitchen. The thin width of the cleaver edge is good for shaping the delicate curves of the spoon, while the weight still allows for a forceful chop. Cruz was smitten with the feel and the effect, but urges caution for others who might give it a try. “You have to approach it humbly if you want to get something out of your efforts,” he says. “It’s so easy to destroy something, or hurt yourself.”

The next step involves another kitchen item: a long, slender Microplane grater, which Cruz uses to shave excess wood and refine the shape. To free up both hands for this step, Cruz built his own shaving horse, an age-old carver’s device roughly shaped like the animal it references, which lets him stabilize projects at an angle that’s convenient for working. Shaving down the wood is how he identifies where the wood’s weaknesses or fissures lie, whose removal can in turn give the spoons unexpected, artistic contours.

Cruz then uses hook knives to give the spoon its final shape, scooping out the bowl and detailing the curves. As he dug into the spoon, a pale area emerged in the depression. Red elm is a two-toned wood, where the heartwood is red and tough. The surrounding sapwood is softer and white, allowing Cruz to give such spoons stacked colors, like the layers of a geode.

The last steps, Cruz tells me, are sanding the result and rubbing it with a mixture of mineral oil and beeswax called wood butter, which gives the spoon a gleam and makes it relatively water-resistant.

Cruz’s projects aren’t limited to utensils. Recent works have included benches and tables in his reclaimed natural style, as well as vibrant paintings and prints. He also hopes to return to Puerto Rico at some point, to run a permaculture workshop.

But he always returns to spoons. Whether using red elm, black locust or cottonwood, whether shaped to be long and spindly or squat and round, Cruz finds the process soothing. “It’s like a moving meditation in a way,” he says. “You have to clear your mind, not think of anything else. Clear your mind and just focus on what you’re doing.”

Reinaldo Cruz
(787) 567-4360 | cruztercero@gmail.com
www.cruzfarm.wordpress.com

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.

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A California native and world traveler, Anne came to New Haven for graduate school and discovered that New England is as cold as everyone said it was. She loves reading books, playing guitar, exploring new towns and taking road trips but only as long as she gets to pick the music.

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