Tim Heil

Monday 9 July 2018

We recently came across Tim's wonderful functional pieces in the AAW journal and instantly knew that we wanted to feature him and showcase his

work within Woodturning magazine. You may have seen Tim's work on our readers' gallery page in issue 261, and a photo of his remarkable turned rolling pins, which whetted our appetite to see more of his fabulous pieces.

Once the communication was established between myself and Tim, I was thrilled to see that his work also included, amongst other projects, a pogo stick, a giant spinning top, a set of cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) pool balls and a crib for one of his grandchildren. I love the elegance of Tim's work and the fact that each piece he makes can be used – for example, Tim also lovingly and ingeniously turned the buttons for his club shirt!

Tim begins by telling me a bit about himself and his background. He explains that he has had the same job for 38 years and runs a small family trucking business. However, when his day job is done, he is ready to have dinner and get into the workshop. Tim tells me that he has always been driven to make things: “I built the house my family lived in for 23 years; I made the kayak I row and I also built a tennis court. I like the challenge and process of learning how to make useful things.”

Discovering turning

Tim discovered turning back in 1969 during his high school shop class. He says that he still has the very first item he turned, which was a small cherry (Prunus serotina) bowl. It is evident that Tim has continued with the theme of turning functional production pieces and has really taken this idea to a whole new level.

When asked to describe his turning style, Tim says that the majority of the work he turns is spindle work: “I like to make functional things, such as handles for tools, rolling pins, clothes pins, drums and Windsor chairs,” he explains. However, from looking at the gallery of Tim's work on his website, you will see that each piece he turns is crafted with a definite sense of precision. The timber is carefully chosen to highlight its natural character and beauty and the shapes he is able to create are pleasing to the eye, while still being extremely easy to use. Tim's pieces almost make you want to reach out and touch them, such is the finish he is able to impart onto each piece he turns.

Tim says that his work has become more detailed as his skills have improved: “I also think my sense of design has become more sophisticated.” I think Tim's designs are very much contemporary, with clean lines and fine details. Personally, I don't see what there's not to like!

Similar to that of a production turner, Tim says that he works in series: “I like to make several similar objects and explore detail and design options with each new piece. This method helps me critique my work and strive for satisfying design options,” he adds. According to Tim, the best thing about turning is all the great friends you make along the way. “I'm often humbled when I see what fine craftsmen they are,” he tells me.

Inspirational sources

When asked about sources of inspiration, Tim tells me that he considers himself fortunate to have been exposed to several ceramic artists: “I live with lots of handmade pottery that constantly speaks to me about good craftsmanship with attention to hand-made details,” he explains.

While Tim's pieces cannot be described as artistic in terms of the forms they depict, or echoing a specific theme, for example, I was still interested to see where he gets his inspiration. He tells me that he often goes to the hardware store for woodturning ideas: “After a recent trip I was inspired to turn doorknobs,” he says. In fact, Tim has realised that turned elements can be found in many different everyday objects, such as tool handles, paintbrush handles, fishing lures, etc. And of course, turning these items for yourself must be incredibly satisfying, as you can add your own personal details and really make each piece special. Why buy something turned when you can make an even better version yourself?

When I asked Tim how long, typically, it takes him to complete one of his pieces, he says that he can produce a screwdriver handle in under 10 minutes: “I need extra time to make a ferrule, add a finish and assemble the parts with glue, so the total time from start to finish for a screwdriver is 40 minutes to one hour.” Given the quality of the pieces he produces and the fact that he is able to make the wood 'sing' to such an extent, this is very surprising, but I suppose that this is what comes from years of experience, attention to detail and above all, skill. Tim tells me that he intentionally doesn't have a clock in his workshop as he doesn't want to be on a schedule: “I'm always willing to invest whatever amount of time is necessary to get a satisfying result.”

Workshop & work ethos

Tim explains that his workshop is intentionally simple, which doesn't surprise me given the style of his pieces and the fact that everything he makes combines an effortless simplicity with a fresh and clean look: “I don't want it complicated: I have one lathe, a bandsaw and a grinder.” According to Tim, good natural light, good air circulation and lots of table space are the essential ingredients of any workshop and he ensures that his working space contains all of these elements. “I keep a reasonable amount of wood in my shop, which helps stimulate new project ideas.” I have to smile when Tim tells me about the workshop broom that he inherited from his father-in-law. Although this is not a specialised piece of equipment, this is an item that he uses every day and because it came from a person he respects and admires, it is therefore his most prized workshop tool.

The character of Tim's work is functional and he reiterates this by explaining that he likes beautiful functional objects that get used: “It's a compliment to me when I see someone using something I made; it completes the cycle of making and using.”

When I ask Tim if he can describe a typical day in his life, he says that exercise is the key to starting his day. “It gives me alone time to arrange my family and work life, plus, it makes me feel better. I always look forward to going home at the end of the day and seeing my wife of 38 years,” he says.

Tim's working day consists of spending eight hours behind a desk and he sends or receives an average of 800 emails a week. So when his working day is over, he's ready to be in the workshop: “I spend a few hours everyday doing something related to woodturning, whether it be collecting wood, planning projects, sharpening tools, applying finish and, of course, turning,” he comments.


In terms of the highs and lows of his turning career to date, Tim refers to a turning accident he had which happened when he was making one of his drums. According to Tim, the drum he was turning blew apart and broke two large glass windows in its path: “Another time, my shirt sleeve got caught in the scroll chuck and I was forced to shut the lathe off by hitting the emergency off switch with a karate kick!” However, despite these harrowing turning experiences, it is good to see that Tim hasn't been put off. In addition to a few scary things happening in the workshop, he has also experienced his fair share of career highs, one being the time when a piece of his work appeared on the front cover of The American Association of Woodturners journal, American Woodturner. This was a proud moment for Tim who also had a photo of one of his turned Windsor chairs appear in Fine Woodworking magazine.

When I ask Tim where he sees his turning career heading, he says that he is looking forward to being able to spend more time in the workshop. “The more I make, the more ideas I seem to generate,” he says. Tim is also a turner who enjoys demonstrating woodturning to others, and he strongly believes that everyone can learn to make well-crafted, hand-made, delightful projects.

In terms of aims and aspirations for the future, as well as looking forward to having more time to turn, Tim also would like to travel to more woodturning events and learn more from other woodturners along the way. In his spare time, he is an active member of the Minnesota Woodturners and the AAW. He has demonstrated at The AAW International Symposium, The Utah Woodturning Symposium, The American Craft Council Show and The AAW Gallery of Wood Art. It is obvious that Tim's career in turning is only going to go from strength to strength, and we wish him all the best for the future. See more of his work on his website