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Valley wood turners continue an ancient tradition

Sep 01, 2015 10:33AM ● Published by Kevin

Jack Schwartz, 100, of Hanford has been a wood turner for as long as he can remember.

It is entirely possible that among the wooden goblets, bowls and plates arrayed on the table set for Jesus Christ and his 12 disciples at The Last Supper, some of those utensils were fashioned by craftsmen who created them on a wood lathe.  

Wood “turning,” as it is called, is the process of scraping, gently chipping or carving a block of wood with razor-sharp chisels or gouges as it spins rapidly between two holding points. Artisans in the time of Christ knew the process well, having learned it from the Egyptians, who developed the lathe around 1,300 BC and often buried their royalty with exquisitely wrought wooden vessels. The Egyptian lathe most likely evolved from the potter’s wheel and the bow drill, which may have been used to bore holes even before fire was discovered. In fact, fire may have been accidentally discovered by someone trying to drill a hole in a piece of wood. 

Skilled craftsmen have been fashioning “turned” wood objects ever since and the same basic technique has carried through to the present day. Woodworkers, or more precisely, wood turners, can be found throughout the Central Valley creating beautiful and original works of art in wood imported from exotic locations all over the world, and from our own native trees which grow in abundance right here in the Valley. 

Today they use specialized power lathes and incredibly sharp tools to fashion exquisite art pieces for the high-end collectors’ market as well as utilitarian items like rolling pins and candlesticks at very reasonable prices. A top-end expert power lathe can cost upwards of $5,000, the tools another $2-$3,000, and all the necessary odds and ends like tool grinders, drill presses, band saws, finishes, waxes, sealers — another $5,000.  A beginner can acquire a used lathe for as little as $300 and some tools for about $100.   

It’s a treasure hunt

Valley wood turners create original works of art in wood from trees that grow all over the world, many in Central California.

The club was formed in 1997 by a group of artisans who specialize in this unique and challenging form of expression.

Then there is the wood. Rare and exotic woods imported from Africa, Asia, or South America can cost hundreds of dollars for what the uninitiated might view as a mere scrap. Yet, in the hands of an experienced wood turner, that scrap of Bolivian Rosewood could yield a $500 vase or a $1,000 bowl. 

“You never know what you’ve got until you cut into the wood,” says Tye Putman of the Sequoia Woodturners Association. “It’s a treasure hunt.” 

The club was formed in 1997 by a group of artisans who specialize in this unique and challenging form of expression. Two thousand years ago, in the Roman Era, some of those bowls, plates, cups and goblets would have been carved from wood native to the Levant and Middle East such as olive wood, sycamore maple, cedar, pear or almond. Those very same woods grow right here in the Valley, as well, and there is more, much more — pistachio, walnut, pecan, cherry, peach, apricot, oak, carob, maple, elm, mulberry and dozens of others.

“South American and African woods such as purpleheart, cinnamon wood, Cocobolo, Bubinga, and the mahoganies are rare and desirable and beautiful woods,” says Putman, president of the Sequoia Woodturners Association. “But we live in the Central Valley and we are so fortunate to have access to some of the world’s most beautiful woods right here.

“My favorite woods to work with are walnut and olive. Olive is an ancient tree, an easily-turned and carved wood with incredibly beautiful grain running through it.” 

A dying art

The club membership stands at about 50. It includes long-time hobbyists with years of experience who turn out exquisite bowls and other items that find a ready market at galleries and craft shows, along with beginners who receive valuable advice and lessons from the veterans who are anxious to share their expertise.

At 52, Putman is actually the youngest member of the club and is currently serving his second term as president.  

“I learned from Jim Mathias, one of the truly great teachers and craftsmen in the Central Valley. What he taught me about tools and technique and respect for the wood is what I try to pass on to my students. But, it’s a dying art,” he says.  

“Young people today who have the talent and desire to create something beautiful from wood, or stone, or clay or steel now have the option of designing it on a computer and creating it on a 3-D printer or laser cutting machines.  It’s not the same. We find great satisfaction in using our own hands to fashion beautiful artifacts the old fashioned way.”  

Putman currently gives private lessons to several students at a rate of $25 per hour. According to the National Association of Woodturners, the average age of those who take up the hobby of wood turning is 62.  

Club member Jack Nelson wrote the book on wood turning, literally. At a recent demonstration inside his well-equipped workshop in Coalinga, Nelson shared his  wood turning expertise with a group of eager Sequoia Woodturners students. 

“It’s hard to describe the satisfaction a person can derive from making something beautiful with their own two hands,” Nelson says. “I’ve been doing this for many years and I’m still learning.”

Members are as eclectic as there are types of beautiful wood in the world. Their common passion is the urge to create something beautiful and useful from a chunk of wood that might otherwise go into the fireplace, or worse, the wood chipper or a farmer’s field-clearing pyre. 

Jack Schwartz of Hanford has been turning wood for as long as he can remember. And, at 100 years of age, there is a lot to remember. He still vividly recounts his service in the U.S. Navy in World War II; being captured by the Japanese near Guam, three days after the attack on Pearl harbor; and spending almost four years as POW at the Kawasaki 2B camp near Tokyo. He and his good friend, Don Wilcox, recently flew to Washington, DC together as part of the Honor Flight program for World War II veterans. And they spend hours together in Don’s Hanford area garage, turning beautiful artifacts for the art show crowd.  

Jack Nelson shares his wood turning expertise with students in his workshop in Coalinga.

“It’s hard to describe the satisfaction a person can derive from making something beautiful with their own two hands.”

“The goal isn’t to get rich. Most of us just hope to cover the cost of wood and supplies, tools and sandpaper, and what have you,” Putman says. 

Nevertheless, members are always happy to sell an item of their own work.  Putman’s biggest sale? “A large sycamore bowl, $475.00 at a craft fair on the coast.”

Master woodworker, Gordon Bone of Shaver Lake, has studied all forms of carpentry and woodworking for decades. After retiring from a successful career designing freeways for Cal Trans, he spent the next several years building a dream home for his wife and children in the mountains. Inside, everything you see upstairs has been fashioned by Bone in his basement wonderland of saws, joiners, routers, drill presses, lathes — every tool known to man and nearly every kind of wood available on the market today. His expertise runs from exquisite small boxes of teak or ebony to custom-designed furniture, paneling, carved art, and turned items.   

Wood turners are always looking for wood to transform into something useful or beautiful. Farmers or homeowners who happen to have tree trimmings or dead wood that would otherwise go to the fireplace or wood chipper are invited to call the Sequoia Woodturners Association. Tye Putman can be reached at (559) 281-8499.

Stories and photos by Bud Elliott, who retired in May 2014 from a broadcast journalism career that spanned 49 years, including 27 years at KSEE-TV in Fresno. He is currently a freelance writer.

Today, Arts+Entertainment Stories from the Heartland in this issue summer 2015 wood turners history craftsmen woodworking
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