Local wood turners create modern work through an ancient technique.
Jeff Turi, president of the First State Woodturners Club,
works a lathe in his Wilmington studio.
Photograph by Todd Vachon
It’s the first Wednesday of the month at the Woodcraft store in New Castle, and the place is humming with guys talking shop—specifically wood shop.
They’re members of the First State Woodturners Club, an enclave of do-it-yourselfers who transform bits of old trees into spindles that might grace the staircase in a dollhouse, decorative chalices and bowls big enough to bathe a baby. Old wizards conjure wands Harry Potter would be proud to wave. A novice uncorks his imagination by turning an acorn-shaped stopper for a wine bottle.
“Mostly, we listen to the wood and let it tell us what it wants to be,” says Tim Sabo of Middletown, who started turning before he learned to ride a bike.
Each meeting begins with show and tell, in which turners bring their most recent projects, sharing their successes and seeking advice on overcoming challenges.
Frank Joseph of Mantua, New Jersey, holds up a hollow-form orb spun from walnut with a contrasting oak finial.
“I have a piece of abalone,” he says. “I’ll cut it so I can insert it in the center.”
Jeff Turi of Wilmington, president of the club, talks about a decorative vessel with a rounded base he designed to raise money for breast cancer research. Crafted from ash and dyed black, the piece is punctuated by three elliptical portals.
“It shows that even though there’s darkness, there’s light and hope coming through,” he says.
Gerry Meekins, who lives and turns in Elkton, shows a trio of mushrooms he made from the slender limb of a pear tree. Exposed bark rims the edge of each cap. He points to what might be a bull’s eye in the top, surrounded by concentric rings.
“This is where the sap runs,” he says.
Birch spalted bowl by Gary Meekins of Elkton, Maryland
Stockpiling good wood is a passion for turners. Meekins recently dashed to the home of a friend, who phoned to say he’d just taken down a Bartlett pear. He swapped a guy from Long Island, trading a length of bird’s-eye maple for a chunk of tulip wood.
Enthusiasts have been known to lop limbs hanging over the fence from a neighbor’s property. On the road, they stand on their brakes and pop open the trunk each time they hear the roar of a chainsaw. A few have traveled home from exotic vacations with choice slabs secreted in their suitcases.
Walt Coker, a veteran turner from Dover, repurposed scrap luan, a cheap grade of mahogany plywood used to pack marble imported from Brazil.
“I’ll make Easter eggs out of it,” he says.
A maple pouring vessel by Keith Holt of Forest Hill, Maryland
On his way to work, Keith Holt drove by a crew taking down a large maple. Even better, it was an ambrosia maple, prized for its wormholes and exuberant gray and brown stripes.
“A bug gets in the wood and makes beautiful patterns,” he explains.
Holt, who also is a gifted watercolorist, began turning six years ago when he bought a lathe at a yard sale near his home in Baltimore. He gravitates toward decorative vessels, sculptures and masks, particularly animal forms.
“I’ve been working on a panther mask,” he says. “I matched the crotch of the wood to create the illusion of fur.”
Turners sometimes integrate the wood with other materials, as in the sea urchins one craftsman fixed to pale icicles of maple to make Christmas ornaments. But at the heart of it all is the wood and the turner’s quest to interpret the grain.
“You never know what’s going to be inside,” Turi says. “If there’s a knot, what will you do with it?”
Sabo, who also teaches turning, shows a newcomer how it’s done with an entry-level project, transforming a rough length of wood into a stopper for a wine bottle.
“It’s from a flowering cherry that wasn’t producing fruit,” he says. “Now we’ll see what it’s good for.”
Box of African blackwood and various laminates by Jeff Turi
Sabo learned to turn, literally, at his father’s knee. Many turners become smitten by the scent of pine shavings during wood shop in junior high.
“But there’s no wood shop any more,” Turi says. “That’s why it’s important for us to reach out to younger turners, as well as women.”
He began flirting with turning in high school. That interest blossomed into a full-fledged romance after his wife, Donna, gave him a wood turning class as a gift.
Certain there were other turners as keen on the calling as he is, Turi founded the local group, a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners. The group has flourished, growing from 15 members to more than 70 enthusiasts who come from throughout Delaware, as well as Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“People are very sharing,” Turi says. “It’s a field that’s driven by collegiality and cooperation.”
Wood turning dates to around 1300 B.C., when the Egyptians came up with a lathe operated by two people. One turned the wood with a rope while the other cut shapes in the wood with a sharp tool. By the Middle Ages, lathes were operated with a foot pedal, allowing one person to do the work.
In colonial days, a bodner would set up shop in a stand of trees, cut the wood, then turn it into spindles and legs to be used in everything from staircases to chairs. (Because a bodner only made parts and never finished the job, today the term is synonymous with slacker in turning circles.)
Silver beech spalted box by Tom Jackson of Hockessin
Unlike cabinetry and furniture making, which requires drying wood in kilns, turning offers immediate rewards. A beginner can turn a nicely grained casing for a pen in an evening.
For about $500, a turner can buy a medium-size lathe and a grinder. The pastime doesn’t demand much real estate, perhaps a corner in a garage or basement.
Mike Okner, the manager of Woodcraft and a turner himself, came to the store after years of working for DuPont Co., transforming what had been a consuming hobby into a second career.
“There’s a certain artistry to it,” he says. “It’s like a potter throwing something on the wheel.”
At the meeting, several turners gather to watch Michael Adams of Wilmington, deftly shaping a length with a skew chisel, a tool that is sharp on both sides and hard to master.
“It’s just like golfers, always looking for a new club to add to their bag,” Okner says. “And with a group like this, there’s always someone who is happy to show you how to use it.”
After two hours of talking and turning, the air is fragrant with the aroma of cedar. The turners sweep up fluffy piles of shavings and pack their tools.
“See you next month,” Turi says, “and good luck with all your projects.”
First State Woodturners meets the first Wednesday of each month, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Woodcraft store at the Shoppes of New Castle, 166 S. DuPont Hwy. For more, see www.firststatewoodturners.org. Membership is open to the public. Dues are $20 a year. Woodcraft offers demonstrations and a variety of classes in all levels of expertise. Tuition starts at $60. For details, email Wilmingtonfirstname.lastname@example.org or call 323-0400.
In addition to wooden furniture, sculpture and other works, Creations Fine Woodworking Gallery (451 Hockessin Corner, Hockessin, 235-2310) features decorative and functional turned pieces by some of the best craftsmen in the world.