Working with the grain

March 1, 2017 | By More

The sound of chitchat drifted from the open doorway. At first glance the shop might seem unorganized, every countertop piled with an assortment of wood blocks and woodworking tools. But with further inspection, you can see a method behind the madness. Every clamp, saw, gouge and miscellaneous piece of wood has a place in the shop.  The wood shavings recently swept to a corner and a fine coating of sawdust on every surface gave the shop a rustic aroma. Across the room, a lamp illuminated the wood lathe in a numinous glow.

On an unusually warm and sun-drenched Saturday in February, I met with Donnie Elliott, Jerry Hankins, Doyle McEntyre and Bobby Askue at Doyle’s wood shop in Dardanelle. The group belongs to the Arkansas River Valley Wood Turners Club. The club is fairly young, five years in the making, and meets on the second Thursday of each month at Star Industries in Russellville. The group includes men and women of diverse backgrounds and range in years of woodturning experience.

A welcoming lot, with no end of jokes and laughter, we gathered around a worktable in the center of the room while they told me how the club came to be. Bobby met Donnie when they both happened to be bidding on the same lathe at a local auction.

“After he got the lathe, I asked him if he knew of any woodturning clubs and he told me they had just started one,” Bobby said.

“I had a lathe, and I was thinking about starting up a club myself when for some reason I heard about this one,” Doyle said. “So I just showed up one night and brought some of my own stuff along.”

“I think all of us had an interest initially in woodturning or we wouldn’t have been here,” Jerry said. “Some of us knew each other before we started the club and that’s how we knew people to invite. We’re all from different backgrounds and different vocations.”

Arkansas River Valley Woodturners Club is a certified non-profit organization and an affiliated chapter with the American Association of Woodturners (AAW). Headquartered in St. Paul Minnesota,  AAW is dedicated to advancing the art of woodturning worldwide by providing opportunities in education, information and organizations to those interested in wood turning.

“Most of us have wood working experience or have been doing woodwork, flat work they call it, making furniture like cabinets, dressers, and cedar chests,” Donnie said. “And this is just the next step. Since we don’t do shop anymore, it’s a way to get started and start having fun.”

Each month one member will demonstrate how to turn a specific project. After the meeting, members will have the rest of the month to make his or her project with an added personal spin.  “At our last meeting Jim showed us how to make a little scoop, and all the members that were there, that’s what we are supposed to make next month whether we’ve ever done it or not,” Bobby said.

When the club meets the following month, the members will show-and-tell their new woodturned pieces. “I look forward to seeing what everyone’s project looks like and hear the story about how they did it, if it was easy to make or complicated,” Jerry said.

There is no shortage of wood when it comes to wood craftsmen. You might say it’s an undeniable characteristic.  Throughout my visit Doyle kept emerging with more and more plastic sacks filled with wood pieces. “You think this is bad, walk over around back of the building and look where I keep my wood,” Doyle said. “I’ll show you what we collect as wood turners.”

In an open lean-to like area, racks at least seven-feet tall were stacked high with cured blocks of almost every wood imaginable. Persimmon, walnut, hickory, sassafras, cherry, elm, tulip and even a little mesquite from Texas, just to name a few.

“Any type of wood that has different characteristics, we collect it,” Doyle said.

“When it gets out that you like to collect wood, people you know will bring it to you.”

Doyle said that he air-dries all of his wood to prevent cracking, even occasionally coating pieces in wax.“When I get a little itchy and need to turn something I’ll just come out here, pick up something, and go turn it,” Doyle said. “You can always find someone to give it to.”

There are two types of woodturning: bowl and spindle. Bowl turning is when the grain of the wood runs at a right angle to the axis of the lathe. Spindle turning is when the grain of the wood runs lengthwise along the lathe bed and the grain is perpendicular to the direction of rotation under the tool. 

With a keen imagination, steady hands, a little patience and flexibility a woodturner can make just about anything on a wood lathe. With spindle work, a woodturner can make Christmas ornaments, flowers, handles, knobs, eggs, spears and even fruit. Similar to a potter’s wheel, a wood turner can make any size, shape of bowl or vase.

“One of the things we always say when we are making a bowl is that you can make a funnel out of a bowl real easy because you can go too deep,” Jerry said.

Doyle explained that starting with green wood is called a rough turning. After getting the overall shape, it’s important to let the piece dry in a bag of wood shavings, sometimes for several weeks, to prevent the bowl from cracking. Once it’s dry, the bowl can be put back on the lathe for a final turn to get the smooth shape. “Every once in a while I’ll mess up and make a nice bowl,” Doyle said.

The object often emerges organically on the lathe with the wood dictating the final shape, not the woodturner. “It is a part of nature and sometimes it’s hard to control,” Donnie said. “Usually when you try to turn something you have an idea when you start to make it, but what it actually looks like when it’s done is different.”

Such is the give and take when working with nature’s elements.

“Y’all want to see Lichtenberg?” Doyle asked. Doyle has a unique way of embellishing his work. He uses a method called fractal wood burning, which creates Lichtenberg figures on the surface of the wood.  Discovered by German physicist Georg Lichtenberg, Lichtenberg figures are the branching of electric discharges that sometimes appear on the surface of insulating materials. Doyle uses a neon light transformer and works with 15,000 volts.

“If you’re going to make this the business end of 15,000 volts,” Doyle held up one of the brass electrodes, “you better have a lot of steps to get there,” he said. “You got to know what you are doing.”

Working with high voltage, Doyle has multiple steps in place to cut down on the chances of an accident. He places a marble slab underneath a piece of yellow pine to demonstrate. Next, he places marble props on the wood to keep the two brass electrodes in place. Then goes to a shelf to pick a jar of electrolyte.

There are several options when it comes to electrolytes: sodium bicarbonate, potassium chloride, calcium carbonate, alum (a sodium calcium silicate) and a water/baking soda mixture.  As a retired nuclear chemist, it is easy to see how Doyle has paired two of his passions.

Doyle explained using a board with different test swatches that each electrolyte will leave a different color stain on the wood, mainly yellow, and the variance of pigment also depends on the type of wood being used.  For the demonstration, Doyle chose the sodium bicarbonate and used a small paintbrush to apply the chemical liquid to the porous wood. “When you are doing this, it’s a good idea to put one hand behind your back or in your pocket,” Doyle said. “You don’t want a charge of 15,000 volts running across your heart. It will stop it.”

After letting the sodium bicarbonate soak in, he does one more safety check, flips a switch and Lichtenberg is hot.

The sound of pops, crackles and fizzles filled the air when the electrodes made contact with the solution. The current stretched across the yellow pine like warped hands reaching out to each other.  The smokey scent was reminiscent of Fourth of July fireworks.

Bobby chimed in, “The current flows where there is least resistance. When he puts more juice on there, that has less of a resistance than the dry and that’s how Doyle can change the direction of the burning.”

The finished effect left behind what looked like charred veins embedded in the wood.

The knowledge of woodturning begs to be shared. And that is at the center of the Arkansas River Valley Wood Turners club. Members share their tricks of the trade with other wood turning enthusiasts, and encourage each other with an abundance of laughter.

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