Woodturning is perhaps one of the most artistic of the wood crafting family of skills. That’s not to say that traditional woodworking; or certainly wood carving is not artistic. They can, in fact, be very artistic. Look at the sculpted lines of a Sam Maloof chair, or the graceful style of a Craftsman table and wood carving is art by definition. What sets woodturning apart is the basic tool of the trade, the lathe.
Woodworkers employ any of a considerable number of power and hand tools to create tables, chairs, bookcases, boxes, etc. The number of tools makes the possibilities endless. Wood carvers use fewer tools but still have a fairly large selection from which to choose. These can include chisels and mallets, handsaws, bandsaws, even chainsaws, routers, and rotary tools.
Woodturning, on the other hand, is limited to one power tool, the lathe and a selection of hand tools. The lathe is in a stationary position and simply rotates the block, or length of wood into the tool held by the woodturner. So, what’s so creative about standing in one place with a sharp tool while the lathe does all the hard work of turning the wood? If you’ve ever seen a wooden vase, or a wooden cowboy hat in the window of a gallery you might get an inkling of what makes woodturning so unique.
Most of us see only the most basic of turned wood projects in our day to day experience. We see the turned legs of a poster bed, turned spindles on the staircase, turned baseball bats at the ball park. We don’t think much about them because they are so ubiquitous and we figure, and rightly so, that most of them are turned by automated lathes. Probably the closest we get to something more interesting and original is a turned salad bowl. (That’s assuming you have something other than the pressed kind you get in a restaurant.)
To get a real feel for the possibilities of artistic woodturning we need to step out a little bit and go looking in the windows of higher end gift stores and art galleries. Here we might begin to see the turned candlesticks and goblets that will get us thinking that there just might be something to this woodturning business. Woodturners often use chunks of wood that a woodworker would find unsuitable. A piece of walnut burl for example that is neither long enough, nor stable enough to use in a chair, can be chucked onto a lathe and turned into a beautiful bowl. Those splits or knots that made it inappropriate for a chair can become intriguing aspects of a decorative bowl that might just become a display piece in your home.
Woodturners are forever expanding their form of art. Experienced turners are noted for developing unique tools to help them achieve unexpected forms. I have seen delicate urn shaped vases, hollow throughout and wondered how the turner could have possibly managed to get a tool through the thin neck to hollow the wider portion of the base. To my eye, it is all but impossible and yet, there it is thin enough to allow light to seep through illuminating the natural beauty of the wood.
One of our best known woodturners, Rude Osolink was famous for his wood vases
turned from domestic hardwoods. If you didn’t know better, you would swear these pieces were some sort of painted porcelain. After all, how could one piece of wood be shaped, inside and out, as if it were pottery? And, not just any pottery, delicate, finely detailed pottery. Rude Osolink was a master and an inspiration to woodturners all over the world. His pieces are in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and one of his bowls was actually presented to the Queen of England by the US Government!
For as amazing as woodturning can be, it’s actually not hard to get started. Think of it like chess, the rules are easy to learn, even a child can play and yet. a true chess master works a lifetime at his craft. To begin, you just need a lathe and a few chisels.
Furthermore, lathes come in a broad range of sizes so that you can find one to fit even the smallest space. Of course, you won’t be turning a big bowl on a small lathe! And, recently Oneway Manufacturing, a maker of high quality lathes, has developed a full sized “Sit Down” lathe. This is a lathe that can be used in a traditional standing position but the headstock can also pivot and lock in position for someone who cannot stand. This opens the world of woodcraft to persons who might otherwise be excluded because of disability.
Woodturning is an excellent hobby, one that many woodturners find not only relaxing but also artistically fulfilling. If you’ve been searching for that perfect hobby that is both useful and creatively fulfilling, why not consider woodturning? A word of warning, lathes can be quite expensive and, as your skills grow so will your investment in tools. You might want to consider finding a local class on woodturning and/or checking out a woodturning exhibition at a local wood working show. An excellent resource is the American Association of Woodturners. They can be found online at www.woodturner.org.
Go ahead, give it a try, you never know what might “turn” up in your shop!