Woodturning is Still Alive, Especially in Wilmington
The Wilmington Area Woodturners Association has more than tripled its membership in the past four years and is seeking a permanent home.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Megan Deitz
The ancient tradition of man versus wood is an art as old as the pyramids. The craft of woodturning has followed civilizations — from the platters and bowls that have been uncovered in the waterlogged remains of a millennium-old Viking village to the candlesticks and cups used by American colonists, wood products have been important in households throughout history. However, since the introduction of the modern lathe after World War II, artists and hobbyists have been able to move the craft into the future, creating intricate and painstakingly detailed works of art. The members of the Wilmington Area Woodturners Association (WAWA) are keeping the craft alive, one block of wood at a time.
WAWA serves the Cape Fear region — it is a 501(c)(3) organization and is an official chapter of the American Association of Woodturners. Skip Richardson is president of the Wilmington group. He turned his first piece of wood in a junior high school shop class and reveals: “I only had five minutes on the lathe, but I was hooked!” Now retired, Richardson had “filed away” the idea of woodturning for the future. That future met up with him 18 years ago, when his brother-in-law bought a new lathe and Richardson bought the old model. “I’ve been turning ever since,” he says.
Right away, he joined the Piedmont Triad Woodturners Association and was an active member until he and his wife moved to Leland in 2006, when he joined Wilmington chapter.
Local interest in this old craft is growing exponentially. With a membership of a mere 40 folks in 2010, the Wilmington chapter has ballooned to nearly 120 members. At present, the group meets the second Saturday of each month at St. Mark Catholic Church in Wilmington, with 40 to 65 participants attending instructional turning demonstrations.
The group has grown so quickly that it now has a dedicated scheduling manager who is able to coordinate demonstrators from around the world when they are traveling to the region. Just last summer, Graeme Pringle, an expert from New Zealand, came to Wilmington and demonstrated his techniques. “He was just spectacular,” says Richardson.
“Most of our members are hobbyists,” Richardson says, although there are a few that generate income from their work. He easily details the demographics of the group, which includes 30 percent from Brunswick County, 40 percent from New Hanover and Pender counties, and the remaining from Onslow, Robeson and Duplin counties of North Carolina and Horry County in South Carolina. There are a handful of teenagers and working men and women, but more than two-thirds of the membership is retired.
“You really need to have the time and resources because wood turning can be involved and require patience and good equipment,” Richardson says.
Whereas the lathe is the primary piece of equipment for the woodturner, sometimes turners also use routers and carving tools for finer, more artistic cutting. The sanding equipment is also important — many woodworkers use sandpaper with grits of 400 to 600. Occasionally, woodturners may use sandpaper grits of 800 to 1,200 to finish a piece. Finished pieces may be stained, dyed or bleached, but typically they are given a natural finish with a top coating of lacquer or a wax.
Personally, Richardson is so busy that he only has time to make pens that double as a stylus for a smart phone or tablet. “I can turn them around in a few hours,” he says. He turns ten at a time then assembles the components later. He likes to work with black walnut, mahogany and maple because the wood grains turn very easily. But undoubtedly his favorite wood is storm debris. “We call it gutter wood,” he says, eyes twinkling with delight. In fact, his favorite pen is turned from a burl of a 200-year old, local laurel oak that was cut down last year. Richardson is eager to explain the intricacies of a burl: “The burl starts out as an irritation in the tree’s bark. The bark grows around it, creating a ball of grains that are swirled.”
He enjoys the challenge of turning burls because the wood patterns are formidable yet exquisite.
“The burl is tough and you have to fight with it a little bit, but we use sharp tools and that’s how to master the burls!” he says.
There is also a growing market for the woodturning craft. An ever-increasing number of vendors offer exotic woods from around the globe, including South Africa and South America because the tropical wood is particularly popular.
Richardson explains the common two ways to turn wood.
“Wet wood is from a tree that just was cut. When you put it on the lathe, and put your tool to it, water flies everywhere, but it is easy to cut. The wood is turned to within an inch of thickness and then it is set aside for about six months to dry out. It starts to lose moisture and warps — then it is ready to turn.
“On the other hand, dried wood is cut and stacked with wedges to allow the air to go through. It can cure for a year, or more, before meeting the lathe. This method avoids the warping and allows the turners to complete the piece at one time.”
Each year, the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) holds a national symposium in a major U.S. city; in 2013 it was held in Tampa, Florida. The annual symposium draws up to 3,000 artists and craftspeople from around the world to exhibit and share techniques. For the collaborative competition among the 330 chapters, the 2013 theme was “Currents.”
Over a period of eight months, 25 members of the Wilmington chapter designed, built and assembled a waterless aquarium of wooden fish, shell fish, corals and an ocean bottom for their display, which they called “Sea Fantasy.” The symphony of moving wooden schools of fish included pieces that were dyed, painted, stained and bleached. The group is grateful for the input from the staff at Fort Fisher Aquarium, whose expert advice helped to make the aquarium pieces more realistic.
The effort paid off when the group won the top honor of “Best in Show,” which they had also previously won in 2010.
The group meets monthly at St. Mark Catholic Church in Wilmington and they can use the new Leland Cultural Arts Center periodically, but they are looking for a permanent home to hold their monthly meetings, clinics, workshops and classes and to display their prize-winning exhibits like “Sea Fantasy.”
Members of the Wilmington chapter are active in the surrounding community both as a group and individually. They hold demonstrations at the Wilmington Children’s Museum, local home-improvement stores and local schools, they conduct formal classes at Cape Fear Community College, and they participate in craft and civic shows such as Southport’s Dickens Festival and regional art shows.
Jeffrey Davis has been a member of the Wilmington chapter since he moved to Leland in 2006. The native of Port Talbot, South Wales, began woodturning in 1996 when he retired from the aerospace industry in Germany. The former engineer wasted no time finding a way to incorporate his love of woodturning into community service. He approached Kids Making It, a Wilmington nonprofit, and began volunteering to teach the craft of woodturning to troubled teens. There, the gentleman who calls himself the “Welsh Woodturner” began to work part-time as a mentor and instructor four days a week in an after-school program.
Davis has a variety of his work on display at Sweet Nectar Florist at Waterford in Leland, including platters, bowls and an “axis of whimsy.” His favorite type of wood is any fresh-cut lumber. The club has big ideas for growing its membership and its reach into the community, but first it needs to find a new home. In the meantime, you will find the Wilmington Area Woodturners Association ensuring the future of the ancient craft on the second Saturday of the month at St. Mark Church. Meetings are open to anyone interested in learning more.