Carving Out a Niche: Sweet Gum Co.

Carving Out a Niche: Sweet Gum Co.

Sweet Gum Co carving table

Joseph Huebscher didn’t consider himself an artist when the tornadoes came through Chattanooga, Tennessee, five years ago. Thousands of trees were downed during the devastating storms, and like many in the community, Joseph volunteered to help clean up the damage, cutting up trees to make roads passable. As he cut into the trunks of dogwoods, hackberries, walnuts, pears, and sweet gums, he was struck by the beauty of the wood. 

“There were so many different colors and textures in [the wood from] the trees — I couldn’t bring myself to cut it into firewood to burn,” he said. Joseph was particularly impressed with a large sweet gum tree that had fallen during the storms. The star-shaped leaves and spiny seed balls, and the interior that had spalted — a fungus inside the tree had left a variety of dark, intriguing patterns in the pale cream-colored and amber sapwood.

Joseph and his father, a teacher and carpenter, bought a portable saw mill and began cutting the wood into lumber and storing it to dry, a one-year process. “We didn’t have any plans for the wood, but figured we’d come up with something by the time it dried,” Joseph says from his garage-turned-woodworking shop. Pieces of scalloped wood litter the concrete floor, and a noisy industrial fan pulls sawdust outside. A philosophy scholar at Vanderbilt, Joseph smiles as a feral cat meows and saunters past the open doors. “That’s Siger,” he says, nodding at the scruffy black cat he named after a 13th century philosopher.

When the wood he and his father had cut was finally dry, Joseph ran his hands over the richly colored boards. Almost on a whim, he made a cutting board out of maple and cherry as a hostess gift for a friend, Beth Kirby. It was nothing like anything you’d find on the shelf at a typical store. Joseph had shaped it with a curved neck and irregular sloping shoulders. The cutting board he presented to Beth was more like a sculpture than a utilitarian piece, but he insisted she use it for chopping vegetables and peeling fruit, rather that leaving it to sit on a shelf. “I want my pieces to be used!” he said, almost shocked that they could be revered as art. Beth loved the board, and she did indeed use it, featuring it in food photographs on her website, Local Milk. A proponent of the art of slow living, Beth has an eye for true beauty, a trait she recognized in Joseph’s work. She describes him as “finding the sacred in the mundane and the beauty in daily life.”

The gift of Joseph’s cutting board whetted her appetite for more of his work, and she begged him to craft wooden spoons. He refused, telling her he didn’t know the first thing about carving spoons.
Her requests persisted. Finally, he gave spoon-making a try. “I just got tired of saying I couldn’t do something,” he said. He took a block of wood and found a spoon in it. “It was very rough,” he quickly said, pointing out that the bowl of that first spoon was too thick, slightly cumbersome. His current work illustrates how far he’s come since that first attempt, just a few years ago. Now, he sells dessert spoons, tasting spoons, stirring spoons, jam spoons, serving spoons, oatmeal spoons, herb spoons, coffee spoons, and salt spoons through his company, Sweet Gum Co., and he offers almost as much variety in scoops and spatulas, too.

The tools he makes are works of art. Some of them have long graceful handles with smooth necks and perfectly round bowls, and others have short chunky handles and bowls that resemble aspen leaves, full and ending in a jaunty tip. Some of his spoons are delicate enough to feed a baby, and some are sturdy enough to stir great pots brimming with hearty stews. The woods he chooses range from chocolate brown and rich chestnut to pale alabaster, and sometimes his pieces have a combination of all of these colors. Even though the spoons may have the same proportions, none of them are the same. The swirls and grains and patterns in the wood, and the shapes he creates, make each piece something to behold. 

“Once I started carving them, I found that I really liked doing it — it’s an odd mixture of demanding and really relaxing and meditative, and it becomes kind of addictive,” Joseph said. “I started carving them when I didn’t really have an outlet for selling them, and in a certain sense, I started selling them simply so that I could make more of them.”

He’s not sure if he finds the pieces he creates, or if the pieces find him. “If I have a shape in mind, I’ll look for the right piece of wood. Or sometimes I’ll see something in the wood first, then I’ll make it.” He never knows what he’ll find in the wood, what patterns spalting might make or how the grain of the wood might curve, lending itself to a particular shape. “Not knowing what I’ll find makes it fun,” he said. Often he’ll make something from a piece of wood that falls as excess from a piece he’s carving. He picks up a little L-shaped block of wood from the floor, and traces a curved line on it with pencil, the beginnings of a smart little scoop.Carving each spoon requires about seven different hand tools, ranging from a hook knife to a pocket knife, and takes over an hour to create. The scoops take a little longer because the bowls are deeper and longer, meaning about two to three hours of carving time. And that time doesn’t start until after the wood has been cut into lumber and dried for a year. There is nothing quick about Joseph’s work. 

His rise to fame, on the other hand, given that he’s only been creating his pieces for a couple of years, has been quick. Food and Wine has given his delicate spoons a nod, and Garden and Gun calls them “labors of love that will last a lifetime.” Chefs have taken notice as well, and his spoons have found homes in quite a few premier restaurants. Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, famed for its multi-course tasting menu, offers Joseph’s tasting spoons for sampling exquisite bites. At the open-kitchen counter at Catbird Seat in Nashville, Joseph’s spoons set the tone for a transcendent dining experience. Smyth and the Loyalist in Chicago use his canapé plates, simple rectangle rimmed pieces of wood. Rene Redzepi, the former chef of Copenhagen’s Noma, ranked the Best Restaurant in the World for multiple years by Restaurant magazine, uses Sweet Gum Co.’s dessert spoons for sampling kakigorie, elaborate Japanese shaved ice creations. It is only fitting that the most acclaimed food in the world be served with artful utensils.

Joseph Huebscher Sweet Gum Co.

Joseph Huebscher

The exhaust fan bellows in the shop, and Joseph takes out a hook knife and begins to carve one of eight tiny spoons a restaurant in Chicago has ordered. He rubs his thumb over the piece of pale sweet gum, almost pure white except for the thin black etching just below the rim of the bowl, circling it perfectly. He holds it out at arm’s length, and the late afternoon light illuminates it like a treasure.

This artisan feature was published in Spoonful’s Winter ’16 issue. Subscribe today for more compelling stories like this!

Photos by Nicholas Gang

Ferris Robinson is the author of Making Arrangements, her debut novel about funerals, flowers and forgiveness in an old Southern town. She is the editor of the Lookout Mountain Mirror and the Signal Mountain Mirror, and is the author of several cookbooks and anthologies, including Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity and Mothers and Sons - Stories of Love. She lives with her husband and two dogs on Lookout Mountain, the perfect distance from her three grown sons.


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