Hall Penn loves to spoon
Inman Park-based artisan picks up branches on his running route and whittles them into spoons
Hall Penn can't sit still. When the Inman Park resident isn't working on freelance design projects or running god-awful distances, he whittles wood into spoons. He gathers most of his materials from fallen tree limbs, often finding them during jogs through his neighborhood. Onlookers might think he's a little "off" when he grabs a branch and sprints away, or maybe they appreciate the free yard clean-up. Either way, Penn saves orphaned branches from being stuffed into lawn refuse bags.
Penn's appreciation for do-it-yourself projects dates back to childhood, when he watched his father and a friend build a cabin in western North Carolina from the foundation up. "That showed me the value of making things yourself instead of having someone make them for you," he says. Perhaps as a result, Penn always has gravitated toward eccentric makers and doers. "The weirder, the better," he says. In high school he worked among a quirky staff at a print shop where he learned not only how to run a press but also the design aspect of the business.
In his early teens, Penn used a pocket knife to carve designs into walking sticks, but his hardcore penchant for creating something from nothing blossomed at Brevard College in North Carolina. After quitting the soccer team, he revived the Clarion, the school's moribund "newspaper" that came out only once a year at the time. As editor-in-chief, he revved up its publication frequency to twice a month. He and a friend also founded the college's cycling club, which became so popular the school formed the Brevard College Tornados cycling team — now well-known for regularly winning national championships.
Penn didn't get serious about woodworking until a few years ago, when a storm blew through the city and pummeled a huge magnolia tree behind the Inman Park MARTA station. After a Field of Dreams moment, Penn salvaged the branches, chopped them up, and carved his first official series of spoons with a basic tool set he received as a high school graduation gift. When a friend visiting from England saw them and insisted on paying for two to take home, Penn realized he could monetize his hobby. In spring 2015 he opened Penn & Knife, an Etsy shop containing coffee scoops, measuring spoon sets, serving spoons, cutting boards, bowls, and a few prints comprising cycling-inspired designs and phrases like "Get Shit Done." (Since he lives by the mantra, a "Get Shit Done" print Penn produced hangs in his own home.)
Penn is the opposite of that little brat from The Giving Tree, as all of his material is sustainably sourced or reclaimed. For example, he stocked up on walnut from a furniture maker in Old Fourth Ward who was going to burn the offcuts. A recent maple supply hails from a yard in Cabbagetown and his pecan inventory, broken limbs in Freedom Park. "I don't want to cut down a tree because I don't really need to, and I want stuff with a story or local origin," he says.
Even though Penn corrals wood from within a relatively small radius, independent boutiques from across the country have discovered his Instagram account and ordered his merchandise in bulk; he most recently shipped wholesale orders including heart-shaped maple spoons, walnut ladles, and dogwood and walnut coffee scoops to California and New York. The majority of Penn's customers are attracted to kitchen accessories carved from smooth, dark brown walnut, but he considers and appreciates each piece's original form in addition to the finished product. "The best part of magnolia is that it is twisted and odd, and I can retain the feeling of the branch in a spoon," he explains. "People love walnut, but it's not as interesting when it's a tree."
Penn usually whittles in Freedom Park with Lucy, his beloved German Shepherd mix who sometimes steals branches and chomps them into messy bits, failing to imitate her owner's intricate movements. While in the park, Penn uses one of 10 gouges to sculpt each spoon's bowl and a traditional knife to refine the handle and body overall. Back at his in-home workshop, he sands them by hand, soaks them in walnut oil, dries them in a vat, and buffs them out with a mixture of beeswax and walnut oil. All those steps might sound tedious, but Penn enjoys meditative activities. "If it's a new type of wood or the grain is really twisted, I have to focus, but it's nice to be able to zone out for a little bit," he says. If he has ingested a couple of beers, Penn says he wears a Kevlar glove while carving.
Penn recently left a soulless job as a publishing company's in-house graphic designer to pursue woodworking full time. Even though sales fluctuate from week to week and festival to festival, putting hours into work that concludes with a physical product is more gratifying than the steady income that accompanies sitting idly at a desk. "I got tired of working on a computer and doing nothing that felt real," Penn says. "I never thought this could be successful, but now it's going well and I wish I had taken the steps to do this earlier."
In addition to the Etsy store, Penn's merchandise is available at Made Again, a marketplace in Inman Park that carries upcycled and handmade goods. Plus, now that festival season is in full swing, he will set up booths at the Atlanta Cycling Festival Night Market on Sat., June 18, at the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark and the Summer Indie Craft Experience on Sat., June 25, and Sun., June 26, at the Georgia Freight Depot. Go ahead, pick up a coffee scoop and ask him where it came from. He probably can remember during which run, through which neighborhood, and from which piece of discarded wood that otherwise would have been forgotten.