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Artisans of Michigan: Carving spoons by the thousands

Jul 28, 2017

Paul Rutgers with some of the utensils he carves at his shop.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Stateside's most recent stop in its "Artisans of Michigan" series brought us not too far from Kalamazoo, where we visited Paul Rutgers of Rutgers Wooden Spoon and Utensil Company.

Rutgers did not start out with a passion for carving spoons and ladles. He worked in construction, laying tile. Then the Great Recession hit and work dried up. Money was tight and he thought instead of buying gifts for family, he’d make some wooden spoons for them. They were a hit. His friends liked them and wanted Rutgers to them some spoons, too. 

“Just one thing leads to another, and the next thing you know, I’m carving spoons for a living,” Rutgers said. “It was kind of an accident. I’ve never met anyone, other than maybe my kids, that thinks I’m going to carve spoons someday.”

Rutgers remembers his first time setting up shop at a farmers market. He had some spoons, but not really enough money to pay the $50 fee for setting up a booth. He approached the market’s manager and told her, “I’m sure I’ll sell something; can I pay you in a couple of hours once I sell some stuff?”

She agreed.

Rutgers ended up selling $600 worth of spoons. He never dreamed he'd sell that many.

“I’m feeling shocked, I’m feeling excited, I’m feeling relieved,” he recalled.

A popular "Michigan" set of spoons for tossing a salad.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Rutgers knew he was on to something. He paid some bills. Made more and different wood utensils. Sold some more. Bought some better tools.

This success was a total surprise. He’d intended to carve duck decoys, nice ones that you’d put on display. He says he didn’t mind the switch at all.

“I like carving spoons as much as I like carving ducks,” Rutgers said.

He feels the most rewarding part is when he goes to work every day and it doesn’t feel like work.    

But it was nerve wracking at first. He had a family to take care of, and a rainy day at a fair or a farmers market could mean little or no money. He was used to a steady paycheck, and this was not that. On the other hand, a good day would mean enough sales to make up for those bad ones.

So who buys the spoons and spatulas, pie servers and ladles? Everybody.

“You know, a lot of people are really into food, right? Foodies and stuff. And really, I can’t really judge, pick a person out at a show or something and say this person is going to buy a spoon from me or not,” he said.

Paul Rutgers grinds out material as he makes a ladle.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Along the way, he’s stumbled onto tools that have helped make things more efficient. For instance, he uses this ball shaped grinder on the end of a high speed drill to hollow out ladles. It was actually designed to rough up big truck tires for patching. It’s loud. It kicks up a cloud of saw dust. And it really makes things go faster.

“That’s the really nice thing about that grinder,” he said. “Probably the first five thousand spoons that I made I was using a gouge and a mallet,” Rutgers said.

The first FIVE THOUSAND spoons? I had to know just how many spoons Rutgers has carved.

He says he really hasn’t kept track, but he estimates over ten years, he’s carved between 35 and 40 thousand utensils.

That’s a lot of spoons.

You can find Rutgers Wooden Spoon and Utensil Company on Etsy. Or you can follow the company on Facebook and find out the next farmers market where you can find the spoons.

Some Rutgers pie servers.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Support for arts and culture coverage comes from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Artisans of Michigan is produced in partnership with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum. Paul Rutgers was a master artist with the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program in 2011.