Technical Thursdays – Evolution of a Theme

Monday 9 July 2018

If you look at the pieces that many of the well-known wood artists make, you will see a theme or a path that follows through many of their art pieces. You will see the common elements that depict their work. There may be many copies of their work out there, but not always of the same high standard.

Original shape

The theme I will talk about is the evolution of my linked doughnuts, having first made a pair in 2007, which featured in many of my demonstrations.

This is still one of my favourite shapes, because they are interactive pieces that people love to play with. The making process is very easy and well in the reach of all woodturners. Following the linked doughnuts, I designed the lidded doughnut for a demonstration project for Turnfest, which is a woodturning symposium held at SeaWorld on the Gold Coast of Queensland. Again, this is a simple turning project, but you do have to work accurately. This particular piece was made back in 2009.

For Turnfest 2014, I designed another doughnut project, which I called the 'Offset Doughnut Sculpture'. It still follows the doughnut theme and was basically designed while driving a four-hour trip back from Turnfest in 2013. I had the bulk of the idea sorted out in my head, but still had some issues with proportions. I thought the best idea was to go to the drawing board and sketch it full-size so I could work out how far it would need offsetting.

Evolving the piece

The question is where to go to now, following on with the doughnut theme. My thinking was to have the same offset as the offset doughnut sculpture, but spread the points sideways. My first prototype was turning a doughnut from a blank of sheoak (Allocasuarina fraseriana) 150mm in diameter and 55mm thick. The doughnut was not offset at all, but it was carved away and split at the top – see Fig.1 and photo of twisted doughnut. I was reasonably happy with the shape, but there was not enough sideways movement in the points at the top. From here I knew that I would need to start with a thicker piece of wood and offset turn the blank wider at the top and thinner at the bottom. The next prototype blank was 150mm in diameter and 100mm thick. The process I used was to turn the outside diameter to a gentle curve, then mark out offset centres about 12mm either side of centres on both sides of the disc. I worked out I could offset turn from both sides and drill the middle hole. After splitting the top and carving, I was more pleased with this shape but still wanted more offset at the top points – see Fig.2 and offset turned shape photo.

If you can visualise what you want to end up with, you just need to work out how to get there. From these two prototypes I have learned that I still needed to have a wider blank to start with, so I thought it best to make a full-size model out of Plasticine.

I rolled out a shape like a sausage about 50mm thick in the middle and tapering towards the ends. I also worked out that it needed to be about 500mm long to give a full diameter of 150mm, plus some overlap of the points. The next job was to form the Plasticine into the doughnut shape and pull the two points apart. When I laid the spread doughnut on its side it wanted to flop down and would not hold its shape, so some barbecue skewers acted as supports. Once I had the model made I could measure the amount of offset I would need and what size blank I needed to copy the Plasticine model. A blank 150mm diameter x 150mm long was what was needed. To work out how much offset was required I drew a full-size front view copy of the Plasticine model – see Fig.3. The offset worked out to be 29mm either side of centre on both sides.

The next step

This story is not meant be a 'how-to-make-it step-by-step instructions', but more of a story about the design process. The turning process is similar to the 'offset doughnut sculpture'; you will be working with a very similar process, with the main difference that you are turning the blank wider at the top rather than thinner as in that project. Maybe this project could be another story for the future? You can turn both sides offset, keeping the top at 150mm across and the base about 50mm across. You can also turn and drill the hole almost right through the blank after offsetting.

The next process is to carve away all the timber that does not look like the Plasticine model – a quote borrowed from Michelangelo, when asked 'how do you know how to make this', referring to one of his sculptures said: “It is simple, you just take away all the parts that do not look like that,” meaning the finished piece. For the carving I used a lot of power tools to remove the waste, starting with an electric chainsaw, then an Arbortech Mini Grinder, a die grinder and a Foredom with a range of burrs. If you are using power tools, make sure you are working safely and employing the correct techniques. I did give a lot of thought to bandsawing the initial split, but I would have had to make a complex jig to hold the offset turned piece to be safe. I thought that the electric chainsaw was a safer option if the blank was held securely in a vice and I had two hands on the saw. A hand saw would have done the job, but is a little slow. Lots of sanding was also required by power and by hand. It was a real bonus to have the Plasticine model sitting beside me while carving, so I could visualise what to remove.

Now I was happy with what I had made, the piece just laying on its side looked good to me, without a plinth or base to show it off. My thoughts were that a base would only detract from the offset doughnut.

What's next?

I was invited to make a piece for last year's AAW Symposium entitled 'Rising'. After lots of thought on possibilities, I came up with the idea of the offset doughnut with some turned seeds set into opening pockets on the side of the piece, similar to a bean pod. There was a size limit of 200mm in any direction, so I had to keep that in mind. The artist statement that went in the catalogue tells you my thinking: 'All life begins, evolves and has its genesis in a seed, families, plants and animals and the timber I carve. In this work, I explore the idea that pods and houses nurture seeds and families until they mature, rising up to leave their homes and bring new life. Evolution reflects both the asymmetry of nature's creation, a black-bean pod and the symmetry of the DNA helix that underlies all life'.

The Plasticine model used in the last piece could be reshaped, just putting in the split opening and the seeds. I just made a few seeds to get the idea of what it would look like. The other change I made with the model was to put more of an outward bend on the pointed ends. The turning process and carving was almost identical to the doughnut sculpture except for carving the opening. The seeds were all turned with a stem on the bottom so they could be glued into a drilled hole. The piece was made from a section of Western Australian sheoak from a 150mm diameter block measuring 150mm high. The seeds were made from black palm (Borassus flabellifer) from North Queensland.

I decided to make another piece where the pod was not turned at all, but carved, mainly so I was not restricted by the turning process. I started with a piece of Australian red cedar (Toona ciliata) about 220 x 150 x 180mm.

Again, I was able to reshape the original Plasticine model to what I wanted, so I had something to follow during the carving process.

The difference in shape was that the curve was not symmetrical as in the sheoak piece. Also the light coloured silver ash (Flindersia spp.) seeds formed a good contrast with the rich red of the red cedar. From these two pieces, which I called 'Evolution 1' and 'Evolution 2' I had to choose which one to send to the 'Rising' exhibition. After some discussion with my wife and some of my students, it was decided that the red cedar piece had a little more to offer.

So again, what's next?

The two pieces that I had made where I thought there was not enough spread of the points, I wanted to revisit these and maybe mount them on a plinth. Having established that the wider spread apart pieces titled 'Evolution' and 'Doughnut Sculpture' did not need a plinth because they were visually pleasing just sitting on their sides, these pieces did not have enough lift to have their own identity.

The next question is what type of plinth and what timber species? I saw a number of options:

1. A square block taller than it is wide

2. A round cylinder

3. A turned parabolic shape

4. A shaped semicircle with flat sloped sides

With all these options to think about, the doughnut sculpture will need to be pinned to the plinth with a rod of some sort. This is another question to ask yourself, should the rod be hidden, i.e. inside both pieces and not visible or showing by a certain distance. Let's say about 15 or 20mm. With the colour of the plinth, I could go for a contrast in colour, contrast in texture, or make a simple grain pattern, but ebonised black. In any case, the plinth should not distract from the sculpture but simply be a stand to hold it up. My choice was to get some scrap wood and make one of each just to show the difference the plinth makes to the overall look of the doughnut sculpture; this way you will be able to see for yourselves.

I asked 20 of my students to offer their opinions on which plinth they liked best and, as expected, there was a wide range of views. Not many liked the cylinder and of the three other shapes, opinions were reasonably well divided. I drew the conclusion with most designs that it comes down to personal choice and there is really no right or wrong option. If you want to know my choice, it is the square shape. I think its square lines set off the curved lines of the doughnut without distracting from the overall look. Making the plinth black also hides the grain and makes the focal point the sculptured shape rather than the plinth.

From this article, hopefully you see that making bold or small changes to your designs will help you develop newer work and get the best out of a series of a work. For me, maybe there is more in this series. Time will tell.