November 17, 2013

Remains of the Day

You may have heard me talk or write about how I make my shades from these big log sections, sometimes weighing as much as 250 pounds when I start, and ending up around a pound or less. Even the smallest shades begin as 70 pound chunks, and when I am done with all the carving, there is only few ounces. Have you ever wondered about what happens to the other 99% of the log? 

The rest of the log becomes:
  • slabs from using a chainsaw to cut off the corners of the log
  • shavings, shavings, shavings
  • a cone-shaped piece that comes out of the center of the log
  • a round piece, flat on top and bottom, that comes from the other end
The picture at the right shows the slabs. I cut off these parts before bringing the log chunk in to the shop for two reasons. One is that it makes the piece lighter, easier to manage and lift. But the more important reason is that I get an early look inside the log. Sometimes I discover a hidden defect that means I will not use that piece of wood. Other times, I see the hint of a grain pattern that can be featured by choosing a particular shape for the shade. The slabs end up in my organic, long-term composting pile behind my garage.

Most of the log ends up in shavings, produced by carving away the wood on the lathe, little bit at a time. I am using hand-held gouges, and there are no shortcuts. If the log started out at 200 pounds, there are probably 175 pounds of shavings, and when they are cut away from the log, they get bigger! The pile of you see in the second picture is from making four medium sized lampshades. I haul these out of the shop in a big Garden Way cart. Some of them go in to a compost pile used in our gardens, and the rest go out in to that giant pile behind the garage, filling in between the slabs mentioned above. People ask me all the time about alternative uses for these shavings, like animal bedding or burning for heat. The problem is that the shavings are straight from the log, and very wet - not at all suitable for the proposed alternatives. The fact that they get turned in to compost, returned in to the ground from which the tree grew, is a use that seems very appropriate and environmentally sound.

There are two solid chunks of wood that come from the turning process. On the medium and larger sized shades, I remove a cone shaped piece from the center of the wide end of the shade. Most people would assume that this is a time saver, but the real purpose for leaving the column of wood inside the log for the first phase is that it helps ergonomically. The cone/column provides a point where I can touch the "tailstock" of the lathe to the heavy, spinning log. That greatly reduces vibration in the wood and my body as I rough away the waste wood. 

The other end of the log is attached to the lathe with a faceplate, which is a thick flat disk of steel through which long screws embed in to the wood. When the shade is completely made, the only part left on the lathe is that round chunk. I stack these parts up to make interesting towers that I call "totem poles." Some of these are taken away by my clients, others are in our gardens, and some have ended up at the local elementary school, utilized by the art classes to make fun sculptures, decorated with colored markers.

In the end, what matters most is that the big chunk of log is made in to the remarkable lampshade. There is a lot of leftover material. But it would be a mistake to focus on this as wasteful and environmentally suspect. Remember, these shades are made out of Aspen wood, a kind of wood that is considered a junk species from a forestry point of view. It is never made in to lumber, it is not desirable for firewood. One of the many things I love about my work is that I am taking such an unloved species and making well-crafted pieces of artwork that serve a function, and are deservedy loved by their owners. 

November 16, 2013

Turning Sixty

Almost a year ago, on December 28, I turned sixty years old. And in the months since then, it has gradually and inexorably become clear to me that this is a big deal in my life. In particular, I am aware of how age is related to my career and passion as a woodturner, and as a maker of translucent wood lampshades. The work I do is physically intense, and it requires a fairly high degree of coordinated capabilities  of sight, touch, hearing, memory, and concentration. I feel terrific and confident about those abilities right now, and I have no reason to believe that any of the crucial components of my craft are about to abandon me. I plan to be making my lampshades in to the future, for as many years as possible, and I hope that is a long, long time.

But this year, I have faced the unavoidable reality that "a long, long time" is not forever. Someday, it will not be possible for me to do this. Without speculating too much about which capability will be the one that diminishes and makes it impossible, it is pretty clear that I won't be doing this work when I am 80. Even age 70 seems like a stretch, to believe that I can keep it all together and be standing at my lathe for hours, carving away mountains of shavings from massive logs and getting the precise results I get now.

Now, every time I feel a "ping" in a muscle or joint, I wonder if the moment has come.  at least on occasion, I feel very mortal and fragile. For example, a couple of nights ago, I woke up with a discomfort in my left hand that grew to something that kept me from sleeping. It kept me from working the next day. And that thought arrived once again: "did I create my last lampshade yesterday?" This is an awareness I am coming to terms with, and it doesn't make me crazy or depressed. Not at all! I love what I do, and it is a huge part of how I identify myself. But I ALSO know that I have an amazing life outside of woodturning, and I have zero doubt that whenever the page turns to the next chapter, I will be fulfilled, challenged, and happy.

And the funny thing is that this year of turning sixty has been the most fruitful of my career. Even more than before, truly amazing commissions and clients started to materialize. And most inexplicably, this all started almost exactly on the date of my birthday last December. I hope to be writing more blog posts soon about some of these projects, but for the purposes of this post, the most succinct thing to say about is that in my 30+ years of being a full-time craftsperson, I typically have had in front of me one to three significant commission projects at any particular time. And at this moment, I have nine projects lined up to create before next summer! Some sort of tipping point has been reached. It is incredibly exciting for me, a dramatic new phase in my work and my creativity.

So, all the more reason to stay healthy and focused. The opportunities are there, and I will find a way to outsmart Father Time and "keep on keeping on" for as long as I can. This is my life's work, and it is not done. Hooray. Being 60 and being a woodturner for 30 years are BOTH things I am proud of, and always always always, appreciative for all the people and good fortune that makes it possible!

((OH..., and by the way, my apologies for neglecting this blog for so long. I feel inspired to get back to posting here more often, with news about commissions, inspirations, collaborations, and whatever else comes to the fore.))