“50 Things to Do With a Penknife” is one quirky guide.
Even if you’re not into whittling, there is something beguiling about the slender new book and what’s behind its forest-green cover.
For starters, the author isn’t another bushcrafty type extolling survival hacks. Matt Collins’ background is in horticulture (he was a consultant to the Garden Museum of London). And there is a sophistication in his words as Collins takes readers through his hobby and a gamut of projects to try, from tent pegs to earbud spools to chess pieces. The simple how-to illustrations by Maria Nilsson have a retro guidebook quality and complement Collins’ words. Nice touch.
Collins said his previous book was about flower gardens. The publisher, Pavilion Books, pitched that he take on wood work. Collins said Pavilion didn’t know at the time that whittling was one of his hobbies.
“I assumed that every book that could be written about whittling or carving has pretty much been written,” said Collins, “but I was really pleased that they were hoping to do a new one.”
Below are edited and condensed excerpts from a recent phone conversation:
What inspired this book?
Most of my horticultural excitement and inspiration came from that period when I was writing (a blog called The Orange Tip), when I was running a private garden and got to be hands-on all of the time. Trees became really important to me. There was a really big section of the garden that I was running at the bottom end of London in Richmond (Park), and they had a huge amount of trees in the garden and a small wood. So I spent quite a bit of time, especially during winter, playing with wood, learning about trees, learning about different properties of wood, and making a lot of things out of wood. Just engaging with the plants in that way.
You write about the “elemental simplicity of creating,” the joy of doing something connected to the outdoors. What about the importance of the outdoors in your life?
I’m someone who’s sort of in between the city and the country in that I grew up on the outskirts of London. My dad is from South Africa, and my mum is from a very rural part of Wales. I spent all my childhood going to this part of rural southwest Wales. I never think of myself as a city person, but I’ve not actually left the city yet. It’s full-time living. For me the country has remained an escape, always a happy place. It’s been unfair on the city — my happiest times are always escaping to the country and being immersed in countryside. When I get to go down to [southwest Wales], it’s always a really positive experience. So it is romanticized in a way, but getting to work in horticulture in London and the Garden Museum [of London] that sort of helps out, as well.
Your book will resonate with Minnesotans. What is your favorite wood to work with?
You can work with what you get. It’s more to do with what you find. It’s really what I come across. There are benefits to so many different ones, but I was given a chunk of western red cedar that was just amazing. It was tougher work, but really enjoyable to work with. Ash was great. Hardwoods, semi-green, are fantastic. I have quite an affection for the ash tree in general. Softwoods like the coniferous trees [in parts of Minnesota] are tricky when you have sap running and things.
Did you find that you had a lot of options for project examples?
I think keeping them within certain categories meant that there was quite a lot of whittling down of subject. We ended up chopping quite a bit from the introduction, but when it came to actual items, they were limited by the step numbers. There were certain [creations] I would have loved to have done, more elaborate. But I am not a master at it in the slightest.
A lot is made of younger generations spending less time in the outdoors. Were you thinking of young people when you wrote this book?
I think it is funny that you raise that because I don’t think I consciously thought much about my audience in that respect at all. And that’s really interesting because subconsciously I was thinking of young people, 100 percent.
I think it is such an innately childlike thing to do, is to pick up a stick and make something with it or bash something with it. Everyone picks up sticks, it’s such a tactile pursuit. I think anyone who mucks about with woods and sticks is reverting in some way to kind of childhood appreciation of nature. There’s a lot of nostalgia in being outside.
I guess when I was writing it, I was probably writing with an element of nostalgia without realizing it. And I think when I was a gardener, I probably felt quite childlike in a way, and I quite like that. There is something very simple and wonderfully innocent, no matter what you are doing with it, about engaging with nature. I guess I am hoping it will have a young audience. I think it needs to be simple, and it is simple. I didn’t want to overwrite it, and didn’t pretend it was some glorious, magical pursuit, because it speaks for itself, wood does and trees do and the outdoors does. I hope that the simplicity of the book will engage people to explore it for themselves. It’s sort of a starting block for people to go off and do it. To find it for themselves.
What’s the last thing you’ve whittled?
I went through a period of whittling a lot of rings. There is a ring in the book. I recently got engaged. I went through quite a few variants of the ring. I proposed with it as a backup in the end. As a consequence, I really enjoy whittling them down into finished objects.