Woodturners exhibit their carvings from scrap to sphere

by Lee Adams

Every first Tuesday of the month the Piedmont Triad Woodturners Association meets at the Leonard Recreation Center on the west side of Greensboro. A large lathe is wheeled out of its storage area and into a room that holds tonight’s 39 attendees. A blue tarp is placed on the floor underneath the lathe to catch the shavings from this month’s demonstration and video cameras are set up to give both a side view and overhead angle of the process.

On two long, fold-out tables members place items they made for the monthly ‘instant gallery’ for all to see ‘— items they have turned over the past month and will get to show off tonight. It’s kind of a show-and-tell for big kids.

As the items are placed on the table turners chat with each other about their processes, their equipment and materials used. The items are exquisite ‘— true works of art. For me, it’s like the first time I set foot in a professional photography studio and was wowed by the large, incredibly detailed prints that inspired me to study the craft. The bowls, vases, platters and other objects swirl with intricate patterns caused be the grain of the woods used. There are many different colors as well ‘— dark browns, light browns, reds, greens. Some are finished with thick glosses that shine with a deep luster that pulls the eyes deep into the swirling patterns.

Mike Evans has turned a bowl that has blood-red patterns amongst the light-colored wood. It’s a natural color ‘— several other turners ask if it’s been stained. The wood is box elder, a relative of the maple, and contains the colors that are revealed when the raw materials are carved into shape.

He also has with him a black bowl. Made from white pine, Evens ebonized the bowl using a process combining iron acetate he made from steel wool and vinegar, and tannins he bought from a wine store.

Jim Tuttle brings in a few small, wooden canisters with lids. One is made from eucalyptus ‘— I put my nose deep into the canister and inhale. The other is made from mistletoe, which his son shot out of a tree at his home in Charleston, SC. It was just a knot of wood as big as his fist, Tuttle tells me, but now it is a light colored piece with dark, swirling knots scattered about it. It smells good, too, like no other wood I’ve smelled before.

Bert Rau has brought an interesting piece he made using a piece of an old palette found at a lumberyard. Someone thinks its lace wood. Rau doesn’t know what it is.

‘“It’s hard as a rock and destroyed my tools,’” Rau says. But it’s beautiful ‘— dark in color with lacey streaks running over the surface. He made it using a technique called inside-out turning where he first made a pattern of four parts, turned them into a minimal shape and then split them apart and flipped them around 180 degrees. The whole piece is then put back into the lathe and a base is turned.

Glenn Marceil brings in two wooden vase-like pieces: one dark and one light. Using pieces of scrap wood that he’s put together Marceil has created a sine curve like rows of Vs and is interlocking. Through trial and error and precise measurements Marceil used a router to perfect the shapes, a process that has taken him countless hours. After he makes and assembles the pieces together he puts the entire form into his lathe and shapes it into these vases. He also makes goblets and onion domes with interlocking pieces of varying colored wood and then polishes them to a high-gloss shine.

Vickie Tanner is one of the group’s few female members. She paints her beautiful bowls and vases with an alcohol-based Piñata Paint. The translucent leaves of red and green she paints on the tops of her pieces are also sometimes combined with gold paint from art pens, giving them a metallic sheen that resembles a piece of fine, Oriental china.

Everyone is so talented and every piece unique and beautiful. The urge to go out and buy a lathe is instant and one I must fight due to an overwhelming schedule.

Bob Muir is the association president and the one doing tonight’s demonstration. As he turns a ladle with a handle and a spherical bowl all from one piece of solid cedar he makes the process appear as easy as checking the mailbox. Using precise measurements he lines off the wood where he’ll carve, and soon enough he has a handle with a perfect ball on the end. He then uses a piece of wire to burn rings around the end of the handle for aesthetic purposes. Taking the piece out and mounting it back in the lathe by the sphere, Muir begins to cut away half of the ball, then hollows it into a ladle that will be functional.

Muir began carving in 1997 after his son bought a house with a large garage out back. His son planned to put a woodworking shop in the garage and Muir’s interest was piqued. The two found a newspaper ad for a used lathe, planer and radial saw. They couldn’t decide on which to buy, so they bought all three. The lathe came with a video and a set of instructions for building a stool, so Muir went to Sears, bought a set of tools and enrolled in a woodturning class at GTCC where he turned the stool.

He was hooked, and soon afterwards found a woodturning group in Raleigh, which he began attending. There he met Roy Fisher, who gave him hands-on training on turning wood. The two were soon driving to meetings in Hickory and well as Raleigh. Muir says his wife claimed the outings as ‘“old men’s night out.’”

After meeting several Triad wood turners in another groups Muir sent out letters asking if anyone would be interested in starting a group here. About 15 people showed up at a first meeting at Woodcraft near the mall. Their numbers grew and they had to move to a larger space, so they used a garage for a couple of years. Then a member found the Leonard Center and asked if they could meet there.

The association now has around 80 members and is still growing, and ages range from folks in their early twenties to age 85. As well as meeting together to learn from one another the group also gives of their talents. At every meeting members bring in tops they have made for the Tops for Tots program, in which the tops are given to children’s hospitals across the country. The program was started by the Klingspore woodworking shop which holds an annual show. Wood turning chapters are invited to set up displays and in turn are asked to bring tops.

Wood turning is a craft that Muir insists anyone can learn. Once you get the hang of it, Muir says, you can start and finish a project in a couple of hours.

For beginners there are classes available at community colleges and woodcraft stores. A small lathe only costs between $200 and $300 and tools can vary depending on what you get. For the pros there are lathes that are computerized and range between $5,000 and $6,000. Some even make a living turning wood.

For Muir it’s a very relaxing hobby, and that, he says, is the best part about wood turning.

‘“It gets your mind off your troubles,’” he says.

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