John Wessells

Monday 9 July 2018

John has always enjoyed working with wood, discovering it at school. However, I learnt that his background is in aeronautical engineering, and he subsequently had a career as an airline pilot. He found woodturning again when he retired. John lives with his wife, Jane, on a farm on the coast in South Africa, near a village called Wilderness.


John starts by telling me how he grew up in Johannesburg, in a suburb that was on the way to the airport. “After completing my schooling in Johannesburg, I did my military service as a storeman with the air force, as problems with my ears had precluded me from becoming a pilot,” he tells me. Once his military training was completed, John was able to re-take his final year of schooling to gain the credits for a university entrance, after which he enrolled at the University of Stellenbosch, where he graduated as an aeronautical engineer. “After qualifying, I worked in this field for five years, before my love of flying eventually directed me to a 30-year career as a pilot with South African Airways (SAA),” he says.

Once retired, John was able to leave the big city life behind him and he now leads a quite life in the Southern Cape area of South Africa, roughly a five-hour drive from Cape Town. “Here I can indulge my love for working with my hands and have expanded my enjoyment for woodturning by experimenting with new techniques and different approaches to decorating my work,” he finishes.

Discovering woodturning

So how did John discover woodturning? He starts by telling me how he has always had an aptitude and love for woodwork. “In high school, my favourite subject was industrial art, in woodwork and metalwork. For my Matric project I produced a lidded bowl turned on the lathe.”

Unsurprisingly, since retiring from SAA at the age of 60, John finds that he has had more time to apply himself to woodturning. He tells me how he particularly enjoys adding to the aesthetics of his turnings with surface decoration. “The idea of combining pewter with woodturning developed after a visit to a craft market where I saw candle holders embellished with pewter. The art of decorating using pewter was the all rage in the '60s, during which time I had attended lessons with my Mom at the age of 10. This early inspiration has lain dormant, and has led me to the direction I am now pursuing,” he goes on to explain.

Turning style

John describes how the scope of his work covers both large and small pieces, each uniquely decorated, and with artistic merit. He particularly likes to experiment with different techniques and explores new directions at the same time. “My current interest is in using both cast and sheet pewter in conjunction with turnings.”

So where does John gain the inspiration for his turnings? Is he influenced by a specific turner, or does he take inspiration from more utilitarian sources? He tells me that after using only sheet pewter, Simon Hope introduced him to the use of cast pewter, and this has greatly expanded the scope of how he uses this material in his work, “I can now bring more variety to decorating my turned work,” he says.

He tells he how he very much enjoys taking part in exhibitions, and challenging himself to try to put something different in the Instant Gallery at symposiums motivates him to explore different approaches and techniques to decorate his turnings. “It is the wood that, more often than not, dictates what I am going to turn. A unique feature, a perceived imperfection or the figuring of the piece of wood I am working on will set off my imagination when I decide on the final shape of the vessel I plan to turn, and very often this also leads me to give it a name related to how it was created, or what sort of image I see in the wood.” John explains that he names some of his turnings based on the theme of the challenge, while other pieces are named as they take shape and evolve. “My wife, Jane, often also has an influence on the naming of my pieces,” he says.

Moving forward

When I asked John about how his work has evolved and developed since he first started turning, he tells me how he originally set out, as many turners do, making simple bowls, platters and boxes. However, in recent years, as John has had more time to devote to turning, the period has arrived when he can venture away from the norm, from turning standard shapes. “A couple of years ago, along came the idea of using pewter to enhance my work, and that is where I am today. It gives me great pleasure to create something that is different and new, and pleasing to view, often with a surprise tucked in under a lid, or the under side of a vessel.”

Whilst there are other turners out there who use pewter to great effect within their turning, John seems to have developed a unique style, all of his own. If you look at one of his pieces – whether it is a platter or a lidded box – you can tell that he has created the piece. The geometry he uses, and the colours he chooses are almost like a signature.

John explains that he does not have a specific or unique style of turning – he practises the normal techniques that most turners use – but his goal is to take turning to a new level through surface enhancement, and currently he likes to give his pieces a 'lift' by using pewter.


I asked John to tell me about his workshop. Given that he lives on a farm in the countryside, I was eager to find out whether this occupied a big space, or whether John prefers to work in a smaller space. He confirmed that he does have the luxury of having lots of space, with his workshop occupying a vast open area in a very large shed. “There is no regimented tool storage and everything is spread out everywhere. To the outsider it may seem disorganised, but if something is moved, I get agitated – I know where everything is!” John describes the space as having a free spirit, a space that allows him to be creative.

I was eager to find out, typically, how long it takes John to complete one of his pieces, and he tells me about a piece entitled 'Life.' “This piece, which I made for the POP (Professional Outreach Program) Sphere Invitation, took me three months to complete. The 'Spindle' Invitation took me six weeks. Normally, though, it is between 1 and 2 weeks.” I also wondered if there are any specific tools that John uses to create his turnings, and he refers to a special Ashley Iles tool that is perfect for his cast pewter turning. He also owns a Proxxon rotary tool, and most importantly, his Vicmarc 300 lathe.

Work ethos

In terms of work ethos, John explains how he finds it very rewarding to encourage others to break the boundaries of being limited by their imagination, and to stimulate them to move beyond standard turning. “Therefore it is important for me to make pieces that are within the capabilities of others to emulate, in order for them to use what they have seen as a springboard for developing their own new ideas.” When he teaches and demonstrates, John says that those watching should be able to go away with new ideas which they can put into practice in their own workshops, and for them to expand on what he is doing, in their own work. In this sense, John is very much a teacher and a mentor, someone who is willing to share his creative ideas with others around him.

John explains that he turns for fun, that it is not a source of income for him, but purely a means of adding value to the art of woodturning. “In years to come, it would be great to see that I have contributed to the art of turning and helped other turners improve their skills and vision.”

Highs and lows

In terms of the highs and lows of his career so far, as a woodturner, John refers to the positivity of twice having his pieces acknowledged as being 'best on show' at the South African Woodturning Symposium. Similarly, at both AWGB Symposiums that John has attended, his work was acknowledged among the five best pieces on show. Also, John has taken part in the AAW POP invitational exhibits for the past two years, both of which were well received. John comments on the lows as being when his pieces are auctioned off, never to be seen again. Is it therefore clear that this turner has an emotional attachment to the work he creates, even though these pieces they will go on to bring other people pleasure. He is a turner who cares very much about his work, as well as other people.

John says that turning has given him, after retirement, a whole new direction in life. “Being invited to attend and demonstrate at different symposiums all over the world, means that I get to meet like minded people, and I get to see countries I would probably never get to visit.”

The future

In terms of his aims and aspirations for the future, John says that it is very important for him to be able to pass on what he has learnt to other woodturners. “My advice to them would be to never stop experimenting, and to make something that is not the norm; something that cannot be considered as average.”

Unfortunately, John does not have his own website, but you can read more about him, and see more examples of his work as well as detail shots, by visiting Dennis Laidler's blog.