This may not be a huge secret, but my family didn’t move out to Colorado until I was 8. Up until then, I was a bit of an oddball in NJ. I preferred toolboxes to purses and kickball to gossiping. After school I would swim in the lake behind our house or dig in the mud with my brother, leading to a tug-of-war between said mud pit and one of my brother’s shoes. (The mud pit won, and there will be a fossilized Nike running shoe in a century.)
In the NJ world where lawns are manicured and the houses are packed in tight, it is hard to find a peaceful outdoors space. I was really lucky. Long time Pines Lake residents, John and Dorothy Knippenberg owned a 30 acre lot a few houses down from us and made it into a beautiful arboretum originally known as Laurelwood Gardens. It was full of great wood chipped paths, beautiful exotic trees, and hideouts where I could just sit and daydream. It became my workout arena during the summers, and the best place to walk the dog.
Towards the end of her life Dorothy donated the land to the town, making it an official park. The arboretum had a large burl that they were saving for display. My parents suggested that they have a bowl turned for the education center, and they knew someone to take on the project; I instantly signed up. Luckily I was able to find a lathe to turn the bowl and finish it, but the best part was crashing one of their volunteer meetings and presenting the bowl to Jojo, the lead arborist. Just look at the smiles all around.
I know this moment can’t even begin to give back all the magic that Laurelwood Arboretum has given to me, but hopefully it can inspire some magic for others.
I love the process of turning wood bowls. Each piece of wood has a story to tell, from the woods where it grew to the process of harvesting the wood and the bowl shape that it suggests to the turner. While I was visiting Hanover, I took the opportunity to turn a few bowls.
The first step in turning a bowl is to acquire wood. Now, this would be easy if I owned a nice tract of land with all sorts of wood species, both standing trees and fallen spalted trees (the cool figuring that is from slightly decomposed wood). Alas, this is not the case, and so I have gotten creative. I would put notes on trees that the school grounds keepers were taking down to see whether I could get a chunk. As I began to turn more bowls, I met lots of really cool people who had access to woods, and we would harvest wood together from some fallen dead including one really big walnut tree that I helped fell.
For these particular bowls, however, I was given a unique piece of wood. Not just any wood, mind you, but a a massive Empress burl. My parents met the horticulturists of Laurelwood Arboretum and asked about a large stump in front of the The Knippenberg Center for Education. They had kept the Empress Tree stump with the burl attached, hoping that they could find someone to turn it. Empress is a tree originally from Japan. It has some interesting lore in that you are supposed to plant one for every daughter you have. I wonder what the tradition is for your daughter turning a salad bowl out of one?
My parents brought the burl to Hanover, where I could work on it. Once I have a log (or a giant burl in this case), I need to get after it with a chainsaw in order to get it into a small enough piece to turn on the lathe. Crosscutting this particular piece was a breeze with Rob’s Dad’s extremely sharp chainsaw.
Once I had it in a chunk, I was ready to get over to the wood shop, and make it round on the band saw. Only then was I able to actually put the wood on the lathe.
The first step of turning is to mount the wood to a faceplate and turn the bottom of the bowl. This is when I make decisions about how the wood grain is going to look in the final bowl. I can either make the bottom of the bowl from the middle of the tree, the outside of the tree, or have the bowl actually go with the grain of the tree. Choosing the outside of the tree as the outside of the bowl is traditional and is what I have done with most bowls. It gives me the most wood to work with and makes the final dried shape of the bowl a nice oblong as the wood shrinks towards the pith (center of the tree).
If I put the bottom of the bowl in the center of the tree, I can make the edge the natural shape of the log, and even keep the natural bark on the bowl. The challenge with this is that I have to turn the foot while the bowl is pinched, not held on by the faceplate, with the wood spinning at 500-1000 rpm while held onto the lathe by two pincers –eek. The other challenge is that with the natural edge of the wood, the weight is never going to be even, so the lathe vibrates aggressively when the rpms are turned up. The final product can be worth all of the hassle.
I have only turned a few bowls along the grain. This can be cool because the grain runs circumferential to the bowl, and I can still get the natural edge if I want. The weird part about this method is that even when turned green (wet), the shape doesn’t get oblong.
I turned the Empress burl with the second method. I turned the outside of the bowl successfully, taking off huge curls of wood at the beginning when the bowl was very out of round and progressively smaller curls as the bowl got closer to the shape. With the roughing done, I used a shear scrape method to get the bowl smooth so I wouldn’t need to do as much sanding at the end.
After finishing the outside of the bowl, I took the bowl off the faceplate and mounted the bowl into a 4 jaw chuck to start turning the inside. To turn the inside of the bowl, with the natural edge, I need to be really patient and try to keep the cut straight, even though the bowl isn’t evenly weighted or under the cutting edge of the bowl gauge the entire rotation of the lathe. The resulting feeling and cut is very chattery. The tricky part about cutting the inside of the bowl is that I am cutting in a slight shear. If I am not careful, I can end up ripping grain instead of cutting. I cut the inside of the bowl with a repeated process – cut the side of the bowl, hog out the center, wet the wood to prevent cracking, then sharpen the gouge to get ready to cut again.
After rounds and rounds of this process – about 3 hrs of having wood fly at me, that incidentally smelled like gherkins pickles, I had the bottom finished out. Once the bowl looked finalized, I pinched the bowl on the lathe, with the bottom facing out and turned the foot away.
With the bowl finished, all that is left is to dry it over a couple months, sand it to a really fine grit, then finish it with some polymerized tung oil. It should be beautiful!
I always try to make a point of making a collection of bowls every term, and I wasn’t going to let a busy senior spring get in the way. I don’t know when I might be able to turn bowls on the lathe again! What do you think of the latest bowls?
Since my neck injury, my range of motion has been limited, not the biggest shocker in the world. But while I was home in Steamboat I knew that it was my chance to get some amazing physical therapy. My PT, Brent Yamashita at Johnson & Johnson has helped me a lot over the years. With his skilled help I have been skiing, biking and enjoying all my outdoor activities.
With this last injury I felt like I not only let my friends and family down, but him too. He has picked up the pieces and put me back together so many time that I felt guilty that I went and hurt myself again. I felt like a real pain in the neck, hah! I came in and he once again started putting the pieces back together. I gained some thirty degrees of range to the right and have a whole list of things to work on before I head back to school.
I wanted to give Brent something special for all his help. So I finished an aspen bowl from wood harvested in Steamboat. My family and I are very fortunate to have Brent and Johnson & Johnson in our home town.