Fred Albert, namesake of “Mr. Albert’s Wooden Spoon Shoppe,” sits where his creations come to life.
Note: As of March 2, 2017, Fred Albert has paused making and selling spoons. The post will be updated when they are for sale again.
MERRIAM WOODS – Cracked and weathered, Fred Albert’s fingers proclaim a love of woodcarving without words. Those hands, trained by time, are responsible for transforming cherry, honey locust and other forest-found gems into works of art. But his pieces — known as treenware — are more likely to be found in kitchens than museums.
“Treenware goes back thousands of years, because before they had metal and plastic, they had to make their utensils out of wood,” says Albert, who regularly creates bowls, spatulas, larger-than-life forks and ladles.
And spoons. Lots and lots of spoons.
Albert may not grow those spoons in his backyard, but that is where they’re cultivated. The space, cluttered with piles of wood and other items, causes Albert to pause. “I am not organized,” he admits — but the reason for that is simple. “It’s because I want to work on my spoons and not get organized.”
He grabs a couple of boxes, places them down on one of the piles and pulls out several spoons. Spread like a fan, these ones are made from honey locust, he says, proven by the range of color evident throughout the batch. “It’s like Neapolitan ice cream, when you kind of stir it up a little bit,” says Albert. “It’s naturally in there, when most woods will just have one color.”
“These sell the best,” says Albert of the honey-locust spoons in his hands. “This has tung oil on and it’s sanded up to 800 grit, which is high.”
Next to him stands a little hut made of metal and plastic sheeting: A flip of the “door” reveals a workshop packed to the brim with half-finished projects, tools, and a desk.
“That’s where I sit all the time,” he says, settling into the desk’s chair. Things are simple here: For example, instead of expensive gadgets, he’s flanked by two box fans that keep the sawdust at bay.
“I’ve gone to some people’s shops and they have like $500 or so in a little air catcher,” he says. “And they come over and see me, and here I have a $12 fan from Walmart. It just depends on how elaborate you want to look…”
He pulls out a pair of headphones from a nearby thrift-store-find cabinet; he wears them while he works, nearly always tuned to Christian-based Bott Radio Network. But then there are other times, when Tony O’Connor and Cusco music comes through instead. “(They’re) what I play when I don’t want to hear the preacher on Bott radio,” he says with a laugh.
Everything in the hut serves a purpose, including the plastic sheet in front of him: It prevents distractions. “It’s surprising how much you have to concentrate in making these,” says Albert of his spoons. “I see a lady at church who can just talk to everybody while she knits. I can’t do that while I’m making these. I can’t talk to people. I’ve got to really concentrate on them.”
He notes this picture isn’t conventional, but he also believes that everyone has their own system. “This is comfortable for me,” he says. “You take what you have and you do it. And it works. And if it works, I don’t want to change it.”
But there is one thing he needs to do. “I need to build a better door,” he says.
Creating the carver
He knows how to make that door, too: His background is in construction, a career which he began after moving to Missouri from San Diego in the early 1970s.
“I was raised right down by Tijuana, and right by the ocean,” says Albert. “Right on the corner of the United States.”
The sun and sand weren’t enough to hold Albert. “I wanted to come to a place that had four seasons, but I still wanted to have water around me,” he says. “And so this had three lakes and it had the four seasons, so I came here when I was 21.”
It was his career in construction that led to his carving: He started fiddling with spare two-by-fours and a utility knife on breaks. That work also led to a devastating fall from a roof, leaving him with serious injuries — so serious, in fact, that “I couldn’t do anything,” he says.
During that time, the carving provided an outlet. “I had to keep my hands moving, or my body was stopping,” he recalls. “So I went into woodcarving, because then my hands were moving.”
That distraction turned into an fascination: As soon as he could walk, he joined a local carving club and the rest is history.
“I was just eating it up,” he says. “I was just a glutton for it. … I was just obsessed with it. My family was like, ‘Oh, Dad, just be quiet.’ Because that’s all I wanted to do.”
Today, he still carves seven days a week. After all, making something from wood takes time: There are numerous steps involved to get it from felled to finished.
Once the wood has been cut, Albert draws the designs onto the cut blocks. Next comes removing the extra wood and shaping the pieces. “I’ve got to cut out the inside and shape it,” says Albert. “I will knock the handle roughness off first, so I can handle it easily.”
Then there’s hours of sanding involved, even going up to 800 grit, before pieces are smooth enough to suit Albert. “And that’s where the artwork comes in, to make sure that it’s all even,” he says. “And also, that it’s appealing to the eye.”
Next comes three layers of tung oil, “and then I’ve got to let it dry each time,” he notes. “And then I’ve got to buff it up between them and then I’ve got to shellac it. It’s a long process. I mean, weeks and weeks process.”
Sharing his spoons
In the past, Albert used to take his spoons to shows: One two-day event particularly proved how much people liked his products. “The first day, we were sold out,” he says. “And we were like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ And that felt good. We went out and had steak.”
In 2012 and 2013, he was even an exhibitor at Silver Dollar City for several weeks each fall. However, he doesn’t really do that these days, partly due to the stress that ongoing events can bring. But he’s also working on some projects that require him to stockpile spoons — at least momentarily.
One of those projects is a poster that features pictures of his spoons. “Because where in the world would you ever see this many spoons together?” Albert muses.
He also plans to use the images to make postcards, which he’s done before and have proved popular — with more than just his customers.
“My kids went, ‘Wow, Dad! After you pass away and your spoons are all sold, we can continue selling your postcards and calendars…’ I thought that was pretty cool,” says Albert.
Once those posters and postcards are done, Albert plans to go back to shows. Right now, however, the only place people can buy Albert’s spoons is at White River Coffee Company in Rockaway Beach.
But for Albert, the economic aspects aren’t the fun part of the process anyway.
“The selling I don’t like, because I don’t like parting with them,” says Albert. “The working with them is good because I am being creative. The camaraderie of getting the wood (with someone) is the best.”