Tom Henscheid: The Artful Craftsman Who Solves the Impossible

Tom Henscheid: The Artful Craftsman Who Solves the Impossible

MAKER
Tom Henscheid
LOCATION
Seattle, USA
MATERIAL
Wood

Depending on the day, Tom Henscheid is a carpenter, welder, sculptor, contractor, furniture-maker, restoration specialist, cabinet-maker, teacher, or inventor. On most days, he is a carver of spoons.

In his workshop, stacks of notebooks teeming with watercolor sketches and still-life photos sprawl across the tables. Each page unravels to capture a moment in time, a sentimental memory, a landscape or texture that inspires. On a table nearby, another form of sketching takes an unconventional form—spoons from his morning ritual become a canvas to experiment with new techniques, wood finishes, and shapes.

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Tom in his workshop

Growing up, Tom built whatever he could imagine, repaired anything that was broken. When others might lose heart, Tom possessed a sticktoitiveness that could keep him occupied on a gnarly project for weeks. Often covered in saw dust and grease, Tom treasured weekends on his grandfather’s farm. “If there was something needed, I’d just build it. I didn’t give myself the time to hesitate,” Tom says. “Things only seem impossible when you haven’t found the solution.”

Under the tutelage of potter John Takehara, Tom learned how to balance function and art. The soft-spoken professor often encouraged, “it's more important for works to be ugly and interesting than perfect and boring.” This teaching emboldened Tom to try his hand at mastering the emotional dialogue between artisan and material. Drawing on touch, Tom relied on his hands to converse—the clay’s response to his touch sparked spontaneous reflection, and enlivened his artistic expression.

“Craftsmanship transcends mere functionality,” Tom says. “I didn’t always realize it when I was younger, but it requires openness—an ability to pause—and then, in that stillness, the material speaks. It is only in that space where you can discover the interesting.”

Today, Tom is an in-demand craftsman to Seattle's rock legends and tech elite. “I’m not hired to do the ordinary,” he says. “I’m hired for the impossible.” Within the organized chaos of the construction site, Tom is the precision striker, the tactician. With his practiced hands, he plays with materials, forms, and finishes to make sure every detailed specification is met or improved.

A true renaissance man, he restores historical homes and postwar buildings—meticulously preserving architectural details of the past while ensuring structural integrity. From specially-commissioned Rockwood tile fireplaces to the baronial great hall of Seattle’s Leary Mansion, his artistry is on full display as he brings to life the personality of the home through his work in wood, metals, and stone.

His studio is reminiscent of a Willy Wonka-esque wonderland of spoons, gadgets, chemicals, and machinery—each housed deliberately in a special corner of his workspace. In one corner, an in-progress mid-century modern-style cabinet with brass legs; in another, a table brimming with wooden spoons. Small buckets of liquid rust, oxide, and other chemical agents for Tom’s wood finishes are stacked to the ceiling. Throughout the shop, wood and metalworking machinery, saws, and power tools are organized for movement based on Tom’s specifications.

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Tom’s workshop and tool bags

Tom’s tool bags sit on top of one of his many work tables for easy access. Filled with hidden compartments that are chock full of Mr. Fix-It instruments, Tom holds up different tools and demonstrates how he’s improved upon the initial invention. For some, he’s created his own removable attachments. For others, he’s molded lengtheners for hard to reach nooks and crannies.

As he picks up one of his many hook knives, Tom shares the story of a chance encounter with Native American craftsman, Frank Guthrie. After witnessing the rudimentary shapes of Tom’s early spoons, Frank taught Tom to forge a double-edged hook knife to better scoop out the bowl of the spoon, dramatically improving Tom’s spoon carving technique.

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Tom sharing stories of his repurposed hook knives

Tom carved his first spoon in 1978 after reading the Willie Sundqvist chapter of Drew Langner’s book Country Woodcraft. Since then, he was captivated. “Spoons are like toys to me,” he says. “They give me so much joy—in an hour, you can go from wood blank to something resembling a functioning spoon.”

No surprise, Tom’s favorite classes to teach new woodworkers is spoon carving. Tom’s ability to reference Miles Davis, speak authoritatively about art theory as quickly as he can deadpan a good “dad” joke makes him a popular wood, metal and stone instructor at Pratt Fine Arts Center.

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The Wood Studio at Pratt Fine Arts Center

When Tom speaks about his students, his energy is palpable. He boasts his greatest professional accomplishments are not the homes of Seattle celebrities, but rather, the thousands of students who have come through the doors of Pratt. Some of his students include Michael Alexander and Elizabeth Weber, both leaders in the local Spoon Club who share Tom’s love of spoon carving. Another student is Anne Briggs, the creator and producer of popular YouTube channel, Anne of All Trades.

“Tom has an uncanny ability to relate to anyone, and help them fall in love with the joy of creating,” says Kim McIntyre, former student and Pratt’s Wood Studio manager. “If he’s explaining a technique to a skier, he’ll talk about carving corners using the analogy of cutting corners on a ski slope.”

To Tom, his students are now his ultimate legacy. A family member once motivated a young Tom, “Ordinary folks can create amazing things — so why not you?” These words became Tom’s rallying cry. And now after 45 years of craft, and many amazing things later, it has become his mission to help develop the next generation of craftsmen.

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How to Carve a Basic Spoon

Tom recommends spoon carving as the ideal entry to making, a universal object that is full of possibility. For Tom Henscheid, this utensil represents something intrinsically universal. The spoon is a communal creation of shape, texture and form created by scores of artisans from the past—and something easy to create.

Materials

Carving Knife (Tom's recommendation: Morakniv 120)

Hook Knife (Tom's recommendation: Morakniv Hook 164)

Spoon Blank (Tom's recommendation: Cherry wood soft and easy to find)

Sandpaper (Tom's recommendation: 150-grit inside and outside of the bowl, 220-grit sandpaper for entire spoon)

1. Design your spoonDraw a pattern of the spoon onto the wood. This helps define the shape of the spoon and makes it easier to carve.

Design Spoon

2. Scoop out the bowlUse a hook knife to carve out the bowl using a sweeping technique on the growth ring layer. Use small wrist motions, drawing the blade upwards. Continue to check the depth of the bowl for thickness.

scoop

3. Carve the handleUse the carving knife to shape the handle. Make sure to carve in a downward fashion onto the parallel lines of the grain. If the wood seems to be tearing and your knives are sharp, you are likely carving in the wrong direction. If that happens, turn the around your spoon and carve in the opposite direction.

Carve

4. Refine the spoonUse the carving knife to continue to shape the handle and the back of the spoon. Use the hook knife to continue to scoop out bowl of the spoon.

Refine

5. Sand and seal spoonFinish the spoon by sanding it first with sandpaper so the spoon is smooth and then sealing it with oil so the spoon is shiny (and protected). Any “food grade” oil will work, such as linseed oil, walnut oil, or pure tung oil.

Sand and seal