To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn

by Carole Wirszyla
February 2018

Woodturners share their time, knowledge, and equipment to help others learn

A woodturner crafts attractive, functional art much the same way a potter does, using wood and a lathe instead of clay and a wheel. Both artists see potential beauty in the medium, the possibility of a complete transformation. Like all artists, woodturners develop a keen ability to envision the crafted piece in raw material.

Many woodturners focus on the grain when selecting wood; others see the possibilities in firewood castoffs, rotten logs, or random pieces of gnarled driftwood. Using tools held with bare hands and heavy machinery to turn the wood, experienced craftsmen skillfully execute this transformation.

The hard work begins by cutting the logs into manageable pieces. Then the lathe becomes the workhorse, and the gouges and scrapers become the tools of the artist.

tuart Kent, the featured presenter at a monthly gathering of the Wilmington Area Woodturners Association (WAWA), fearlessly rose to the challenge of turning a log, scarred with a deep hole, into a set of bowls.

A bowl is often the first piece for a beginning woodturner, but there is a learning curve that starts with some basic techniques. Kent is no novice; having worked with wood for more than 25 years, he makes the craft look easy.

Kent takes a roughly shaped log of water oak, which still has bark attached and isn't spherical, and fits it to the lathe by attaching a circular faceplate to the cut surface of the log with screws. He adjusts the tool rest and cranks up the lathe. The log wobbles uncertainly as it turns, slowly at first. As he brings the carbide tool in contact with the log, the noise of metal on wood reverberates throughout the room. Ribbons of wood spin off with the ferocity of stones fired from a slingshot.

Safety is a priority in woodturning workshops. Operators wear goggles to protect their eyes from showers of shavings and curls of wood; ear protection to minimize the noise of the bandsaw, grinder, and lathe; and respirators to protect against the clouds of dust that can be loaded with harmful fungal spores. Dust collectors and ambient air filtration are other precautions to minimize the potential to breathe in wood dust.

Dust is just one of the hazards of the craft. Other problems arise from the wood itself. Cedar and water oak are prone to cracking, which can put an abrupt end to hours of work; rotten wood creates a weight differential that can make the lathe shake; and wood that warps can lead to some interesting shapes. But, for an experienced woodturner, these irregularities make the process interesting.

The rudimentary process of woodturning and the cuts used are the same regardless of the end product. The first of the three basic cuts, which creates a convex curve, is called a bead. Kent uses this technique to shape the outer surface of his log into a dome shape, gradually working outward from the center. He takes the shaped log off the lathe, flips it over, and reattaches it.

Working inward from the outer edge, he makes the second cut, known as a cove, to create a concave curve that forms the inside of the bowl. Kent uses this cut to carve two smaller bowls from the inside of his dome-shaped piece of wood.

The wood becomes thinner as he removes layer upon layer from the inside of the original dome, and the challenge of the deep hole is apparent. For greater control, Kent slows the feed rate of the turning. Finally, he flips the wood one more time and carves a third bowl from the base of the main bowl.

He uses the last of the three basic cuts, a flat cut, to shape the rim and make the base of the bowl. He'll then soak this bowl overnight in a water and dish soap solution to shape the wood and lubricate it before the finishing process. After rinsing and drying, he'll return it to the lathe to fine-tune the depth and thickness. The final stage is sanding then staining, painting or lacquering the finished piece.

Kent makes it look easy. It takes him just a few hours to create one large bowl and three smaller ones.

Of course, beginners aren't likely to produce pieces of a similar quality in the same time. Woodturning is a very labor-intensive process, and it requires time and patience to become proficient.

Still, practitioners say their craft can be learned by anyone who is willing.

"It's something you can do at any age, whether you're male or female," says long-time WAWA member Bob Dougherty.

yron Rosbrugh, the WAWA president, is a former property developer who had no woodworking skills before he retired. But he took to woodturning like a duck to water. Rosbrugh prefers to use salvaged wood, especially spalted wood from diseased or distressed trees, or wood with wormholes.

He also loves to experiment and repurpose wood.

"Panera Bread stirrers make great teapot handles," he says, pointing out he only brings home the ones he has used to stir his coffee.

The WAWA was founded in 2004 by a small group of artists. Its 127 members gather monthly for workshops, to exchange tips and tricks, and grow in their craft.

"Our mission is to train our members to be good woodturners," Rosbrugh says.

Some woodturners create products good enough to sell, but most people do it for the love of the craft.

"Someone once said, 'To make a small fortune woodturning, start with a large one,'" 30-year veteran woodturner Jean LeGwin says.

The initial costs may seem daunting, with startup costs of $1,000 or more. However, many members will invite you to come to their workshops and try it for free. Beyond the basic equipment similarities, every workshop is different.

"[Rosbrugh] has a bigger shop but I have a better view," LeGwin laughs. From her perspective, a workshop with a picture window overlooking Pages Creek wins hands down.

emale woodturners are still in the minority because of misconceptions about intimidating equipment and tools, but LeGwin works to dispel this myth. It can be physically demanding, but she says for women it's not how big your lathe is or how many tools you have, it's more about the artistry.

"There are many opportunities for creativity: carving, sculpture, piercing, staining and painting," she says.

LeGwin, whose father was a woodworker, maintains anyone can learn to turn wood.

"If you came for a lesson, you would have a product within half a day and, with practice, would develop intermediate skills within six weeks to six months," she says.

LeGwin took up woodturning as a hobby after retirement, but it's turned out to be more of a second career. She also became a pioneer of sorts. She was the only woman in the WAWA when she joined, and became a founding member of the "Women in Turning" committee for the American Association of Woodturners (AAW). She served on the board of directors for AAW and is still an advisor.

Other female woodturners are now stepping up. Scarlett Rouse was the first female professional demonstrator from the WAWA to present at the North Carolina Woodturning Symposium in November.

Her presentation, "Woodturning Therapy with a Twist," reflects her interest in helping children with critical illnesses. Rouse volunteers her time and resources to Beads of Courage. The program gives beads to children after surgery or when they complete a treatment like chemotherapy. Woodturners make specially designed boxes for them to store their beads.

"Each box is made a certain size, but they can be different shapes or have different designs to make them individual," says Rouse, who donated her first boxes to one of the seven participating hospitals in North Carolina in June 2016.

ommunity involvement is a crucial component of the WAWA's mission, whether providing boxes for Beads of Courage or simply sharing their skills to grow the craft.

"Woodturners love to share their time, knowledge, and equipment to help people learn," Dougherty says.

A few years ago, Dougherty developed a continuing education course for Cape Fear Community College. He and fellow WAWA volunteers assist during classes. One club member designed a mobile cabinet equipped with a lathe and a basic set of tools -- the perfect starter unit for students -- and the club provided the college with 11 of them.

After the instructor provides safety instruction, students are introduced to the woodturning tools and learn the three basic cuts -- beads, coves, and flats -- before embarking on the five assigned projects: a honey dipper, a candlestick, a platter, a bowl and a goblet. The skills are easy to master.

lub members also help with Kids Making It, a Wilmington after-school program for at-risk youths ages 13-18. WAWA volunteers mentor the teens and teach them how to safely turn wood into pieces of art they can sell in the KMI shop.

"The kids get really excited about making their own pens," says Natalie Mozey, WAWA member and KMI volunteer.

Not only do the students earn 100 percent of the profits, they can come back as apprentices to develop skills for employment when they age out of the program.

Younger children can learn how to turn wood, too. The WAWA held its first summer camp at CFCC for children ages 9-15 last August. Dougherty says the children were very enthusiastic and he hopes to continue this community program in 2018.

 


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