In the late 1990s, when JoJo Wood was just a few years old, her parents moved from the county of Essex, northeast of London, to Edale in the Peak District of Derbyshire, between the industrial cities of Sheffield and Manchester. A tiny village in a remote corner of north-central England, Edale attracted hikers, especially during late summer and fall, when its hills were cloaked in purple heather. Many of these visitors also turned out to be interested in another local offering: spoon carving courses taught by JoJo’s parents, Robin and Nicola. When JoJo was about 13, the family moved from a stone cottage “in the middle of nowhere – the last house on the Pennine Way” – to the village center, where they taught their craft in the village hall. “Rob would do all the axing and rough carving, and then Nic would finish them. She has a design background and eye for aesthetics.”
They often roped their daughter into helping. JoJo can’t recall exactly when she started using a knife, but she knows it was when she was “definitely very young. I had quite a short attention span,” she continues, “so I never really made objects. It was mostly swords and spears to fight my brother with.” (That’s her younger brother, Ollie, now 24.) People would come for the courses and stay in the village, carving spoons during the day, then tack on a couple of days to go walking in the hills.
Robin’s teaching wasn’t limited to the village hall in Edale. He taught in other parts of England, as well as internationally, and always tried to take the family with him when he traveled. That’s how JoJo came to meet famed Swedish woodcarver Wille Sundqvist, whom many consider one of the fathers of green woodworking, when she was just 8 or 9. While she appreciates the honor of having met Wille in person, she admits that as a kid, “all the talk about knives got boring.” Still, when their hosts brought out knives as gifts for her and her brother, she accepted hers graciously and says “That was my first knife of my own.”
Fast forward a few years. “Every teen-ager goes through a stage where everything their parents do is the least cool and they want nothing to do with it.” So she explored other things. JoJo took the GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) at 16, then went to what Brits call college – usually what’s known as technical or community college in the States – in Chesterfield to study art. “I struggled a lot with my mental health,” she says, acknowledging a challenge faced by many at the transition to adulthood. As a result, she didn’t get far before dropping out. The following year she tried A-level studies (roughly equivalent to junior and senior high in the States) but dropped out at the start of her second year due to depression and anxiety.
“I was later, in my early 20s, diagnosed as autistic,” she explains. “That probably has a lot to do with my struggling…. This undiagnosed autism made me not fit in very well. It helps me be kinder to myself about some things, because I really struggle in a lot of situations. I remind myself that it’s not my fault; it’s just the way my brain works.”
At 18 or 19 she dropped out the second time. “I spent time in my depression hole,” she continues. While JoJo was growing up, her mother attended graduate school, where she earned a doctorate designing multimedia resources for teaching craft skills. She always spoke about how great it was to go back to university as a mature student. Thanks to her mother’s perspective, JoJo understood that she could return to the world of formal education someday if she needed a qualification. “That was a different opinion,” she says, from the prevailing assumption that anyone who did not complete a degree straight after high school was something of a failure. “It’s kind of sad that that’s how everybody viewed me when I didn’t go to university.”
She spent a summer assisting Mike Abbott, who teaches chairmaking in Herefordshire, southwest of Birmingham. “You’d spend a week living in the woods, cooking on wood fires, sitting around the campfire, and you’d make a chair. Assistants help with projects, make tea, and so on. There I spent more time doing woodworking and also my first big teaching, although informally.” After helping people to make chairs and understand how wood “works,” she showed them how to carve spoons in the evenings.
When her dad was organizing the first Spoonfest with his friend Barn, she found herself once again roped in to help. She’d carved a few spoons by that time but “nothing that seriously.” One of her jobs was to put together the festival T-shirt, which had to list the instructors. “They’re all men,” she noted. It struck her as odd – those who’d attended her parents’ courses were fairly evenly mixed by gender. But there didn’t seem to be any women carving spoons professionally at that time, she says. “So…in a fit of feminist stubbornness, [I] decided that by the following year I would be good enough to teach.”
She spent the year practicing, and sure enough, was teaching that following year, 2013. “I was hooked,” she says. “Couldn’t put it down.”
If it seems a stretch to go from a remote village in the countryside of northern England to teaching internationally, all without the benefit of conventional higher education, JoJo’s trajectory is a little easier to comprehend when you go beyond her parents’ example and how they immersed their daughter in craft from her earliest years to consider the passionate interest and ambition her father demonstrated in researching and reviving a branch of woodcraft that might otherwise have been lost to history. Google Robin Wood and you’ll find he has “MBE” (Member of the Order of the British Empire) appended to his name, a great public honor recognizing his contributions to the survival of traditional British craft. For much of his life, Robin has made a living by turning bowls. No ordinary bowls, these; Robin revived the craft of pole-lathe turning last practiced by George Lailey six decades earlier. After Lailey died in 1958, his workshop was moved to the Museum of English Rural Life. Robin studied Lailey’s lathe and tools and reverse-engineered them, in effect teaching himself from scratch. He took his foot-powered lathe with him to craft fairs to demonstrate the process. The power of such an example, as well as the opportunities Robin shared with his family, should not be underestimated.
Going farther afield
JoJo stayed in Herefordshire during her early 20s. By that point she was teaching internationally; one year she taught courses in England, France, Germany and Sweden, in addition to the United States, where she was one of the instructors at the first Greenwood Fest in Plymouth, Mass. She’d visited the States a couple of years before with her dad; they spent a few weeks with Jarrod Dahl in Wisconsin, building a birch bark canoe, an experience she describes as “amazing! Really cool.” They also traveled to a spoon gathering in Milan, a tiny town “in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota and to Northhouse, where Robin taught a course. Peter Follansbee took that course. “In the evenings we did spoon carving,” JoJo goes on. “Peter’s spoon carving background is from the Swedish bent-branch world; at Northhouse, he was carving from a straight piece of wood. “I probably said something fairly unflattering – I can show you a better way to do that.” Instead of being insulted, he was impressed, she says. “We got on great.” So when he was organizing Greenwood Fest, he invited her to teach spoon carving.
The spoon carving world is quite a small one, JoJo says, though it’s getting bigger. “Everybody seems to know everybody. We were all on Facebook and Instagram, posting about our various things.”
“I’ve been very lucky. I grew up around amazing craftspeople and have been lucky to get to know everybody. A lot of the woodworking community is dominated by old men. When people are looking to book some people to change the demographics a bit, I bring the age significantly down. And I don’t have a beard, which is a change,” she laughs – “ticking two boxes at once!”
Pathcarvers: enhancing mental health through making
With her partner, Sean, she operates Pathcarvers in Birmingham, where she moved in 2017. Pathcarvers teaches woodcarving as a way to help people with mental and physical health challenges – “a tool for positive social change.” Through Pathcarvers, they set up events that give people access to craft. “The act of making is intrinsically human,” JoJo points out. “A lot of people don’t have creative outlets that can really help. Jobs are becoming more screen-oriented. People get home and put the telly on or Netflix because we’re so tired. Making is something that can be beneficial in so many ways.”
They work with groups as well as individuals, bringing together people from diverse backgrounds. “You sit down and do some carving. It helps you talk about things. You have to concentrate on that sharp thing in your hand because you don’t want to hurt yourself. It gives you space to quiet your brain down.”
When she was teaching elsewhere, she says, she’d notice that there always came a point where “everybody goes silent because they’re so focused on what they’re doing. The world disappears. At the end of the course, they’ve got this thing in their hands that they’ve made. They can go away and use that in their kitchen and be reminded of this experience. So many people never get to experience that. They don’t even know it’s an option. Pathcarvers is about making this as accessible as we can, and making it affordable. With craft courses there are endless [opportunities] to go away in the woods, but there’s not that much in the cities. [Thanks to Pathcarvers], people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to do it can do it.”
They are a social enterprise (known in the United States as a non-profit). Until now, they’ve been self-funded. Course fees have made it possible for them to subsidize training for those who can’t pay. After woodworker, author and lawyer Kieran Binnie took his life in April 2021, Christopher Schwarz, Megan Fitzpatrick and Rachel Moss (Kieran’s spouse) wanted to do something to memorialize him and create a positive legacy. “He’d brought so much to so many people in his life,” JoJo comments, “and we wanted to continue that. Kieran lived in Birmingham, too. It seemed a good fit. He, too, thought about community.” Chris and Megan put her and Sean in touch with Rachel Moss, Kieran’s wife. “It’s been really amazing, the amount of support,” JoJo says of the contributions brought in following a post about Pathcarvers and the Kieran Binnie Memorial Fund for Craft. The fund will enable them to do more work free of charge, and to work with other organizations to help people with their mental health.