- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

David Fry and Phil Brown are standing at the end of Mr. Fry's driveway in Cabin John, staring at a collection of chopped-up logs. To most people, the pile would represent a bundle of firewood, nothing more.
But the almost dreamy expressions on the two men's faces indicate that they see more, much more. As proof, Mr. Fry takes a yellow crayon and starts drawing on one large piece of box elder wood.
"If you cut it from here to here, you'll get an interesting pattern because of the color stain here," he says, scribbling furiously and then erasing his marks so that he can continue. "And if you turn the wood over and start from here, you'll get some real nice ring patterns on the bottom of the bowl."
Such is the life of a wood turner, a practitioner of the ancient art of carving wood pieces on a spinning lathe. Firewood, scraps of lumber from lumber yards, tree surgeons' leftovers all of it is raw material for what appears to be a fast-growing type of woodworking, especially in this area.
"I don't know why it is, but there seems to be a lot of wood-turners in this area," says Mr. Brown, who has been turning wood for almost 30 years. "I don't have an explanation for it. But I do know that once you start turning, it really gets in your blood."
Many turners say one aspect of the craft that drew them in was how quickly they could create an item on the lathe.
"I've taught folks who have never used a lathe in their lives, and the first time they use one, they walk out with a bowl," says Bob Pezold, president of the 230-member Capital Area Woodturners, a local chapter of the American Association of Woodturners.
Allen Hockenbery, president of the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Woodturners, another association chapter, says the fast-paced lives many people lead make wood turning an ideal hobby to take up.
"People's time is precious," he says. "I think people like the idea of accomplishing something in such a short amount of time."
Bill Hardy, a wood-turner in Fairfax, says he started his woodworking career making furniture but found turning much more enjoyable.
"One of the neat things about it is that with one tool, you can essentially come up with a finished product in an hour," he says. "You don't have to fiddle with clamps, and all sorts of saws and drills and screws. It takes two months to put a piece of furniture together."
The craft is also fairly inexpensive to get into. Mr. Pezold says beginners can purchase a small lathe for about $300 and can easily use it to make pens, small bowls and other useful items. A basic set of tools to go with it costs about $150.
The wood is usually free. Turners can get most of what they need from lumber-yard scraps, tree surgeons, neighbors and friends who are clearing trees, or even while driving to and from work. Mr. Pezold recalls hearing of a wood-turning colleague who made a beautiful bowl out of a log he saw lying by the side of the road.
To prove how easy wood turning can be, Mr. Fry picks up a small log of box elder from the end of his driveway, takes it into his workshop and affixes it to his lathe. As he works, he talks about how a turner "reads" a piece of wood, cutting it across and down so he can see as much of the grain as possible, as well as the blemishes and potential weaknesses in the wood.
"You have to make sure the wood is tight," he says as he tightens the log in the lathe. "Wood turning is pretty safe if you know what you're doing, but every so often, chunks [of wood] will fly off." He points to the wall directly behind him, where several painted patches testify to places where flying wood chunks have dented the drywall.
He points out the various blemishes in this piece of wood and talks about how experienced turners work around them or incorporate them into their artwork. He turns the switch, and the lathe starts spinning.
Mr. Fry applies a gouge to the wood, and shavings and water droplets begin to fly around the workshop. "First-timers often are surprised by how much water is in a freshly cut log," he says, shouting over the whine of the lathe. "It can be like turning on a hose sometimes."
Like a lump of clay worked by a potter at his wheel, the log quickly begins to take the shape of a bowl as Mr. Fry works on it with his gouge.
"You have to be really focused when you're doing this," he says. "You have to really be able to feel the wood and feel where the path of least resistance is. When you find it, it's amazing how quickly you can go to work on it. It's like a surfer catching the perfect wave. The bowl almost creates itself."
He turns the piece around and begins to hollow it out from the other side, and the bowl begins to take shape. He stops occasionally to measure the thickness with calipers at different points around the rim and shaves down the areas that are thicker. Only minutes after he has started, he has a rough-cut bowl about the size of a large cantaloupe.
Now the waiting begins, and it will last months. This bowl will take about three months to dry thoroughly because the wood was so fresh and wet inside. Once it dries, it will warp severely, but Mr. Fry has left it about an inch deep all the way around, so he'll have plenty of room to work with when he shaves it down to its finished product.
"All in all, that's all there is to it," he says with a smile. He sweeps his hand around his workshop, pointing to more than 30 bowls, platters and other objects that are in various stages of completion.
"There's always something here to keep me busy," he says.

Wood turning has been around almost as long as recorded history. Ancient Egyptian tombs show pictures of men carving wood on a machine powered by a hand-twirled bowstring.
In the United States, wood turning declined in the late 19th century because the mechanization resulting from the Industrial Revolution killed off many of the apprenticeship crafts. But the development in 1915 of the lathes' electric-head motor helped replace the noisy and dangerous overhead shafts and fly belts that powered lathes in the first part of the 20th century, and wood turning began to enjoy a renaissance.
Starting around 1930, with the work of turning pioneers Rude Osolnik and James Prestini, wood turning began to find a small but firm niche among woodworking hobbyists. After World War II, the craft became even more popular, and by the mid-1980s, turning had become so sophisticated that turners were venturing away from the traditional, functional wood-turning roots (bowls, candlesticks, furniture and other household items) and were exploring sculptural, more artistic ways of advancing the craft. Wood-turning items began to pop up in art galleries and craft shows, and woodworking magazines began to take note.
In 1985, wood-turning symposia were held in Philadelphia and Tennessee, leading to the formation the next year of the American Association of Woodturners, a nonprofit organization promoting and advancing the craft. The association says it has about 8,300 members and 140 chapters worldwide.
Albert LeCoff, a wood-turner in Philadelphia, who organized the symposia, also started the Wood Turning Center there in 1986, to serve as a gallery and resource center for wood turning. He still serves as the center's executive director, and his brother, Alan, is a trustee.
Mr. LeCoff says the association and the Wood Turning Center have given the craft homes for information and techniques.
"Many craft disciplines do have an academic background or opportunity for artists to learn within the context of a university," Mr. LeCoff says, alluding to crafts such as glass blowing and pottery, which have benefited from novice classes at colleges, universities and adult-education centers.
"Through that, you get exposed to a wide range of art craft as compared to wood turning, where that hadn't existed," he said. Wood turning "was primarily self-taught. That has proven to be both a positive and a negative to the field. It's positive in that you don't know the rules to break, and in creating your own rules, that's led to some remarkable expressions in the creative use of the lathe."
Many wood-turners say they developed their interest in the craft as youngsters, but frequently it was in another area of woodworking. Almost all of them say that the first time they saw a lathe or a wood-turner at work, they were fascinated.
And once they tried it out, they were hooked.
"It's addicting," Mr. Pezold says. "That's what I warn people at the start: Be careful, because it's addictive."

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