Anyone can become a woodturner

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer November 19, 2013 09:18 pm

With the proper tools and the right touch, a square piece of wood is made round at YMT Woodworks below the Chetco River bridge in Harbor. The Pilot/Jef Hatch
With the proper tools and the right touch, a square piece of wood is made round at YMT Woodworks below the Chetco River bridge in Harbor. The Pilot/Jef Hatch
It’s quiet, meditative work, just Jenkins and the soft hum of the lathe and a small heater in his oversized shop. The place smells of freshly cut Port Orford cedar, walnut and myrtle.

 At 2,400 revolutions per minute, plain wood becomes utility or art, and an average person can become a wood turner.

That’s what Dave Jenkins hopes to help do this Saturday at the debut of his wood-turning club at YMT Woodworks below the Chetco River bridge in Harbor. The club is open to everyone — rank beginner to professional — who wants to learn, share ideas and get hands-on experience making everything from goblets to candlesticks, bowls to vases.

The gathering begins at 1 p.m. and participants can learn how to turn wood, share experiences, troubleshoot and study styles from the numerous books and magazines Jenkins has laying about.

Jenkins, a longtime wood turner, furniture maker and artist, wants to share his love of crafting wood into art by teaching people first about the physiology of trees to what the correct oil might be to complete a freshly turned bowl, dowel or vase.

Two weeks ago, Jenkins began his class by gluing together a slab of cherry with one of ash and taking a long, roughing gouge to remove the square corners and generally shape the curves.

As a seasoned woodworker, Jenkins selects the tool he feels is best for the job, and, with coils of wood flying over his shoulder, digs into the block of wood. As he leans into it, gently rocking back and forth, the bowl can be seen to get deeper.

He stops, often, to check the depths of the sides of the bowl and, perhaps grabbing a different tool, starts the lathe up again. It took his students about an hour to turn small bowls; he can crank one out in about 15 minutes.

There are no wrong ways to do this, Jenkins said.

“The way you mount something on a lathe, the way you turn something on a lathe — there are 20 different ways to do it,” he said. “That’s all there is to it. And if you don’t like it, change it.”

Jenkins first teaches about safety — goggles to protect eyes from the inevitable chips and dust that will fly all day. Finger safety is of prime consideration, as the lathe, turning in a counterclockwise direction, is usually positioned less than a half-inch from the tool rest where fingers guide the gouges.

Loose clothing and hair are also concerns, as the lathe can quickly grab onto anything. Jenkins has the scars to prove some of those hypothetical situations.

He notes that he has no mistakes in any of his work — if it’s not up to snuff, it becomes fodder for the woodstove.

Most men take to the job with their brute strength, but turning wood is almost easier for women, who, by resting the arm of the tool against their hip can move back and forth to direct the scraper through the wood.

“Just patience,” Jenkins said. “There’s no physical effort.”

It’s quiet, meditative work, just Jenkins and the soft hum of the lathe and a small heater in his oversized shop. The place smells of freshly cut Port Orford cedar, walnut and myrtle.

Because his work involves much more than turning bowls, candlesticks and newels, the shop is crammed with heavy machinery, and poofy piles of sawdust are drifted against the edges of everything.

Professionally, Jenkins makes and repairs just about anything: furniture for homes and boats, intricate artwork and gun stocks, among other items. Some are inlaid with gemstones or different woods, adding another eye-catching element.

Hence the name of his shop —YMT Woodworks. After hearing so many people exclaim, “You made that?!” Jenkins opted to abbreviate and keep it.

Just as the name of the store came to him serendipitously, so does the wood to the artist in some cases, he said. One student last week noticed the unevenness in a bowl that was increasingly out-of-true, even as it was being turned. It made for a challenge to smooth, but in the end, the new wood-turner decided the symmetrical chipping along the interior lip of the bowl was what the wood wanted to be.

“I was working on this big salad bowl, and I stopped when it just felt right in my hands,” Jenkins said. “That’s what I like about the lathe the most: instant results.”

The two students earlier this month were both given identical pieces of wood and turned out dramatically different bowls: one with 45-degree angles on the sides, a flat bottom and a narrow band of walnut. The other had sloping sides with a circle of cherry in the bottom of the bowl and a wide band of walnut leading to the sides.

Jenkins has dozens of gouging tools, scrapers and instruments that make square angles. But he knows of a wood turner who only uses one tool.

Using sharp gouges to carve out thin lines on one bowl, Jenkins used a tool featuring a piece of wire affixed between two blocks of wood and applied it into the lines he’d created. Soon, smoke wafted into the air, and a black, burned line was created around the bowl. A second line gave it an even different look.

Finishing a product is the most difficult part of the process, Jenkins said, because many people don’t know when to stop.

Linseed oil brings out the colors of the wood — particularly dramatic with redwood and myrtle. Mineral oil is best on items that will be in contact with food. A friction polish makes an item so shiny and smooth, it’s hard to hold onto.

Jenkins plans to hold club meetings the third Saturday of every month from 1 to 4 p.m. in his shop in Harbor. The driveway is accessed through the gate under the Chetco River bridge when one is on the ramp back to Brookings.