If you ever need an excuse / reason / argument for why you spend so much / too much time carving, here is the perfect scientific explanation.

Therapeutic Benefits Of Wood Carving

By Jenny Rudell of The Spoon Crank

Graeme Hamilton is working in Technical Studies and Counselling at Oak Bay Secondary School in Victoria, Canada. His master’s thesis from the Simon Fraser University is called “A phenomenological study of the therapeutic benefits of woodcarving”, and is the starting point of our conversation. It’s early morning in Canada and late afternoon in Sweden when we connect via Zoom.

Are you from Canada originally?
Yes, I was born and raised in Vancouver and now live in Victoria, BC, Canada. We moved here about seven years ago, a little after I wrote the thesis and finished my masters in counselling psychology.

So you are now working in counselling?
Yeah, but my background is that I’m a tech ed teacher. It used to be called industrial arts. I taught wood work and metal work.

As a woodshop teacher I always thought some really magical things happened when kids create something with their own hands and develop pride and a sense of accomplishment.

I had been teaching for about 10 years and was starting to go through personal change and looking for a career change. I didn’t wanna become a bitter teacher. I did some self-reflection and personal work through counselling, and ended up talking to some of the high school counselors that I worked with and thought, this might be something I’d be interested in.

I did my masters at University of British Columbia and the thesis at the Simon Fraser University. I pitched the thesis idea to the admissions committee and they accepted me, and then I was kind of like, now what do I do?

Would you like to explain how you did the study?
When I started to do the literature review and research, there wasn’t a lot out there about counselling psychology and the benefits of crafts. There was quite a bit about art therapy. But that’s a bit different, you know… Everyone would have a different experience with that, but the way I look at crafts is that they are activities based on everyday living. There are artistic elements to it of course, but they primarily come from skills and activities that everybody used to do as part of life.

Art and craft used to be one. They were the same. And probably a couple hundred years ago, maybe before the industrial revolution, artists became specialists versus everyone being an artist.

To be honest, it was a bit overwhelming at times that this whole field of crafts and psychology is kind of untapped in academia, but let me back up a little bit…

I knew there had been programs where indigenous carvers were working with students and that wonderful things were happening there. So I thought, wouldn’t it be great to study that process and its benefits? I reached out to a couple of programs but didn’t hear back.

As I talked to some indigenous carvers, I realized that in the past, academics had sometimes come into indigenous communities and taken information without proper acknowledgement.

So I shifted the focus a little… Instead I decided on what they call a hermeneutic phenomenological study, which is a mouthful, but basically the phenomenological part means it studies the phenomenon of woodcarving, the lived experience of the person engaged in it.

Hermeneutic phenomenological research, as outlined by Max van Manen, basically looks at four areas of the lived experience: the lived time, the lived body, the lived space, and the lived relation.

Did you talk to different carvers, did you watch them?
Yeah. I developed some guiding questions and did interviews which lasted about 45 minutes. I just let the conversation go where it naturally led. Half the participants were members of a carving club in Richmond, BC, one woman and three men. And four of the participants were indigenous carvers. One of them was a professor at University of Victoria and a therapist and used carving in his therapy. I reviewed the interviews and looked for themes that came up, a process called coding in academics. I then categorized the themes.

You have identified six different benefits, grouped into four areas: carving time, carving body, carving space and carving relations. Would you like to elaborate on those concepts?

Carving time refers to that when someone is engaged in an activity which they enjoy, they can lose themselves in the moment, and that is very beneficial. I’m sure most of us have experienced it, whether it’s through sport or whatever. In psychology this is called Flow.

Carving body, refers to how carving can reduce stress, help us process emotions and promote positive emotions. Many carvers would say that as they’re carving, thoughts would come into their head about maybe an argument they had, or that they were stressed at work, and I think it’s similar to what happens in dreams. Sometimes we have these weird dreams and it’s just our subconscious processing the events of the day. People usually feel better after carving.

Two aspects in relation to Carving space came out during the study. Firstly, that woodcarving as an artistic activity is inherently therapeutic. This has actually been studied quite a bit in the arts therapy area. Secondly, woodcarving fosters a connection to nature. Especially when carving green wood. The carver becomes part of where the wood comes from.

Carving relations, refers to that carving provides social engagement and cultural meaning in one’s life. This can be a huge aspect for some, and for others it’s very small. In the carving club, they would meet and talk and get to know each other. Let’s say someone doesn’t know how to carve or sharpen a hook knife, then someone would share their expertise and both people would benefit. And that’s just a wonderful positive thing. We’re all on our phones today and disconnected. There’s a really powerful documentary that was done in the 70s about a community in Haida Gwaii whose cultural traditions of carving were almost extinct, and they were reignited through the raising of a totem pole. The documentary, Now Is The Time, is available to stream for free on the National Film Board of Canada website.

For many, their craft is a huge part of who they are and how they live their life.

This thesis is just scratching the surface and many of these areas could be studied further.

Can you make use of this in therapy? You mentioned someone who does.
Yeah. First I’ll just mention a key piece that I read in your interview with Daniel Clay. I really like what he said about that human beings are animals that are wired for and meant to create with their hands. I think that’s a fundamental piece to this whole idea of the benefits of crafts. Over the last couple of years, I’ve started getting into private practice with counselling and I still work in education as a high school counsellor. But yes, I think there are huge benefits to it. It doesn’t have to be woodcarving, it can be other activities too such as cooking.

About five years ago, I was at a high school teaching jewellery making. You could feel the vibe of contentment while working away. It was magical.

What do you say to people who feel like arts, crafts and sports are takinging up too much time in the curriculum, that we need to focus more on maths and English and those traditional subjects?
Usually, it comes down to money. We live in a more competitive society. Students have to be more academically capable. I think maybe there’s a piece to that, but I guess my question is, what is the purpose of school?

Are you creating a bunch of little workers, or are you creating citizens?

I think the Greeks, and indigenous peoples and all societies have had to face this question, what is the purpose education? Here in Canada, a lot of students will go into engineering at universities, but they’ve had no exposure of using a tool or they don’t know how to use a tape measure. They’ve never cut a piece of metal.

What I would ask people that are posing that question is, I would ask them to reflect, deeply, on what their rationale to get rid of creative subjects is. The cynic in me would say it really comes down to money. As a tech ed teacher, we are the most expensive program, having all the machines and stuff.

I think there’s a big resurgence of people going back to traditional activities for their soul and their spirit and reconnection.

What do you think can be done in society, by individuals and by professionals, politicians, and corporations to learn about the positive benefits of engaging in craft?
It’s a big question but a good question. I was looking at possibly doing group carving with focus on personal development and therapeutic benefits. Dr France, who was one of the participants, did it to help with residential school survivors*. They would carve, but at the same time, process their grief and trauma of past experiences. It creates a space where people can talk. Especially boys and young men often find it difficult to talk about their emotions, and so when you’re actually engaged in an activity it loosens up the tongue.

In Canada we’re very fortunate in so many ways. We’ve got a great government, but COVID has shown that it’s not able to pivot and adjust to rapid change. So I think the answer is in community, at a grassroots level and then we can inform and tell government what we need. I don’t think it will happen from the top down. I think it will happen from the bottom up.

Personally, I have to look at my life and what my priorities are. I’ve got 20 things on my To Do List and I’m not gonna get them all done, and it stresses me out. And this is not good. So if I choose five of them and really lean into and make time for them, that’s what’s important. I mean, our lives today are so busy and it’s easy to get lost.

When it comes to policy and government, how do you measure this stuff? If we give you $1,000,000 to carve 100,000 spoons, how do we know this is going to benefit our country?

It’s hard to measure the benefits of crafts in society, which maybe is one of the problems we’re dealing with. My wife and I were talking about capitalism, and we feel that society is at a point where growth is no longer beneficial. We have a finite planet, but we are caught up in the growth mindset.

I deal with young people in the school and ask them, what interest do you have? They respond video games and doing stuff online. I’m like, well, what else, what brings you out of the house? But they don’t. It terrifies me that they haven’t had the opportunity to discover these enriching experiences.

What are parents’ responsibilities in relation to this? What can parents do?
God, Jenny, tricky question! Should parents try to do anything? Well, of course they should. I’m coming from a place of privilege where, you know, I have a decent income. My wife is able to go back to school. We have time.

We have the privilege of time because of our privilege.

There are families where both parents are working 10 hours a day, and they come home exhausted. And so they put their kids in front of the TV because that’s the best they can do. Though in Canada, there’s talk about more access to early childhood childcare. Really, it’s a community thing. Like if parents are so exhausted that they can’t do it themselves, where in the community are the people that can step in to do it? The bottom line is that we need to be in this together, and at least in North America we have this “I need my piece of the pie first” mentality and it doesn’t serve us well and it doesn’t bring happiness. There’s a point where, yes, having more money can bring happiness. But there’s a point where it doesn’t bring gratification anymore.

Looking back on my own life, I remember a school field trip where we went to the Museum of Anthropology and met some elders from the local community, and they showed how they traditionally used to cook salmon in boxes with hot rocks, and also I remember as a kid seeing how wool was spun and how candles were made. I was fascinated with this stuff. I loved it. Those were highlights of my childhood.

You may contact Graeme on graeme@heartwoodfamilywellness.com or via his Psychology Today profile.

Therapeutic Benefits Of Wood Carving By Jenny Rudell was originally posted on Sep 5th 2022 on The Spoon Crank