Monday 9 July 2018
When I started turning in the autumn of 2003, a year and a half prior to retiring from the US Navy, my 'plan' was to take a year off and combine my passion for fishing and dabbling interest in woodturning since junior high school wood shop to make wooden fishing reels – modernised depression-era Sidewinders – from exotic hardwoods. After getting a lathe of my own and finally having the the time and resources to pursue woodturning, a new Woodcraft store opened nearby. I serendipitously learned about burls and that there were many areas of woodturning I never knew existed, specifically, turning hollow forms. By the time I retired in June 2005, I was turning large winged bowls and hollow forms and importing Australian burls. My interest quickly morphed into obsession and I began working to build a successful home business and woodturning career.
During the autumn of 2008, people stopped spending and I had a hard time myself justifying spending a lot of money myself turning a large, expensive burl with the ever-present risk of failure. The financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath forced me to consider more efficient and conservative use of my burl supply from both a woodturning and sales perspective. I started turning smaller, something I could rationalise and justify more easily, and found that I really enjoyed the challenge of seeing just how small I could turn while adhering to the same standard of quality, developing my own tools in the process. Instead of viewing burls in terms of producing a single finished product, I began to look at maximising their usage, seeing many pieces I could produce from a single small burl. And because as a burl business owner I could not select all the mostly aesthetically appealing burls for my own use and maintain credibility with my customers, I specifically selected burls that were unappealing or had not sold for whatever reason. This was a blessing in disguise, because by cutting the unappealing shaped burls into smaller chunks for hollow forms I could effectively achieve the heartwood/sapwood contrast that really appeals to me. As I further tested my limits, I began turning from scrap burl or cutoffs, pieces I previously would have likely discarded. In fact, 9 of the 11 pieces pictured are from scrap stock. But displaying small pieces was problematic until I thought one day about a comment a customer made about making burl shelves, and I adapted that comment to my need for an effective display. I experimented with small burls and oblong burls that don't sell easily, mounted on an African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) base to display multiple small and miniature vessels.
I start by roughing out pieces – attached by epoxy gel to a waste block mounted on a 55mm faceplate – as quickly as I can, with only minimal effort to shape, including rough hollowing. It's rare that I spend more than 30 minutes on a piece at this stage. After roughing out a dozen or so pieces, I place them in a homemade kiln for at least 30 days before final turning and final hollowing. Then comes the challenge of developing a complementary finial and shaping it to match the contour and proportions of the vessel. When I'm not turning a piece with natural sapwood contrast like the largest one on the display, I usually try to achieve contrasting interest in the finial to complement the vessel.
A selection of small and miniature hollow forms, 38-150mm dia., in cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) burl (4), York gum burl, thuya burl, Russian olive burl, spindle mallee burl, yellow cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) burl, paela burl, and crab wood displayed on on a red mallee burl pedestal with African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) base (PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM SYVERTSEN)