Dan Braniff

Monday 9 July 2018

Dan Braniff bought his first wood lathe – a Beaver with 12in swing and 36in bed – from a friend in 1956 for $35 including a dozen carbon-steel turning tools. For in those days Braniff's interest in woodworking extended to making household accessories for his family.

Fast forward then to a decade ago…

Braniff recalled: “A hands-on with Richard Raffan who was touring Canada changed that forever. I had read books and magazines about woodturning, but three days with the Master was the piece de resistance. In one exercise he got me so close to the lathe that I felt like he did; the lathe and I were as one, dancing to some mystical rhythm. I remember his words: 'Get closer, don't be afraid, get your body in harmony with the machine, tool handle fixed on hip, move smoothly…'

“On the third day, I got so close that the threads on the out-port of the General 260 grabbed my clothing and almost took off my left nipple as it tore the shirt off my back. The ragged shirt now hangs in my studio as a cautionary reminder that dancing with lathes can be dangerous. I also will never again work without an out-port guard over the exposed threads.”


Braniff ranks form and scale alongside grain, colour and texture. He said: “In my later work I spend increasing amounts of time and effort shaping, forming and carving off the lathe. Machine work alone could not satisfy creative forces within.

“Reminiscent of when I would whittle and shape things with my father's knife, I realised that my hands needed to join more closely with the wood. The more I handwork, the more I become a part of my work. In my Black Coral Series only about 10% of time is spent on the lathe.

“It is absolutely exhilarating to start a new piece. My hands actually tremble with anticipation when I mount a blank on my lathe. I have discovered that my best pieces evolve when I have great trepidation at the beginning. If I do not feel a sense of stimulation I reconsider the design idea and start again.

“I love the feeling when pressing my skills and material to their limits. Many disasters testify to the experience. Pieces of the Box Elder Vase were recovered four times from the floor of my studio. My knowledge of using pigmented resin allowed me to add more character every time it was reassembled and remounted on the lathe. Each time I would have to add more and more temporary glue and tape to hold it together. Imagine my great surprise when Lee Valley Tools requested permission to use it on the cover of their prestigious catalogue.

“I agree with Michael Hosaluk who claims, 'There are no mistakes in turning, only design opportunities'.”

Turning alabaster

One of these design opportunities is turning alabaster. Commented Braniff: “To reveal the seductive quality of alabaster turnings I found that thinner is absolutely better. My success ratio is 50%. The last finishing cut on the lathe hitting an invisible quartz crystal often triggers ultimate disaster. Half filled with pulverised gypsum powder, the piece explodes into a great plume of calcite flak and dust. It takes about 60 seconds for the air to clear. Picking pieces of stone imbedded into my walls really gets my nerves on end. It takes days to restore my courage to try again.”

Technical mastery is the key that enables him to push the design envelope ever further. “I do not have sufficient natural talent to be self-taught. Career and competitive sports experiences indicate it is imperative to learn from proven experts in the field.

“We turners have access to the best in the world. These talented experts are dedicated to help us and generously share their knowledge and skills. I know of no other field of endeavour that has a better reputation for sharing its insider secrets.

“Accordingly, I have become a seminar junkie attending woodturning events throughout North America.”

Tutor list

His tutors include Richard Raffan, Al Stirt, Clay Foster, Frank Sudol and Mathew Calder and he never fails to see 'the Great Ones' at the AAW Symposiums.

“For more intense experiences I attend weeklong sessions at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Kentucky to merge with other Great Princes of the Lathe. In March 2001 I spent four half days with Lyle Jamieson at his studio in Traverse City, Michigan. Lyle's multi-axis work is absolutely mind-boggling. Learning his simple control principles and laser-guided boring-bar techniques greatly enhanced my confidence. In April I attended a week-long design seminar by Michael Hosaluk. In between I had a private tutorial with Jack deVoss of Australia when he toured North America.”

Braniff believes commonalities between experts outweigh differences.

“All emphasise the power of the tool's cutting edge and how it can work incredible things if you but understand the simple basics. The most important is that a sharp edge is invisible, therefore you should never be able to see it. This is the essence of all cutting tools.

“It took me 40 years to get this through my thick head!”


Andrea Hargreaves

What is your work philosopy?

Dan Braniff

There is a spiritual link between what we create with our hands and who we are. This quotation from Ross A. Laird, author of Grain of Truth, The Ancient Lessons of Craft, explains my feelings about my work: 'Creative work is a fiery tremor, a promise, a vast song guiding your hands to forge shapes to your liking'. Woodturning is my expression of inner self in the context of the world around me. It is the link between the intangible and the tangible, the known with the unknown, the conceived with the yet to be conceived.

I believe the beautiful things that move us are gifts of thoughts and ideas. I find it mentally compelling to try to express these thoughts in my craft. Sometimes this evolves into something as simple as pure form, the selection of a piece of wood or the harmony of grain around knots.

As my work progressed I tried to add the complexity of thought with images, textures and carving. It is like I am sharing my soul by giving life to my new creation.


Where do you get your inspiration from?


I turn to nature. I carry a digital camera wherever I go because I can't anticipate when mother earth will provide me with a clue. As a side benefit I have become more sensitive to natural beauty, enjoying things around me much more. It may be an image of a curve, sunset, bird, texture or just a digital record of the feeling I had at the time.


As a technical engineer, how do you compensate for lack of art training?


Books help fill the gap. Reading and rereading Esther Warner Dendel's Designing from Nature helps me see things abstractly.

Betty Edward's book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, is a constant reference. Betty's book teaches me how to see more than it teaches me to draw. Most importantly, it provides the confidence to express myself in my work. Because I am formally trained in the left brain, my journey to the right has been a slow romance leading to a fast dance… often bringing me perilously close to disaster.


After retirement you became founding president of The Canadian Council For Native Business. How influential has that been in your work?


My role was to bring economic development to aboriginal people. I confess I may have learned more from them than they from me. First nations people tend to connect their work and all they do with nature. Some consider this to be primitive but I sense that many modern artists do the same. Lord knows that we are just beginning to understand how modern society is negatively impacting our environment. In aboriginal culture an artist believes that nature and his soul direct his hands to draw and shape his creations.