Bonding through Turning

In the Beginning (with a Disclaimer)

To be clear from the beginning and to leave no room for claims of being misleading, this article is not about a nifty new way to adhere brass cylinders to pen blanks or an improved method for chucking up a bowl blank.  Instead, this is about the magic that turning can bring to our lives even when no wood or other material is actively being worked.

I have the great good fortune to be the son of a man who is easily the epitome of fatherhood.  My Dad’s number one focus throughout his adult life has been the happiness and security of his family.  Before serving his own interests or desires, Dad always made sure that my sister, my Mom, and I all had what we needed AND wanted, and it seemed, and may in fact be the case, that his ultimate desires were ours.  We each pursued divergent interests and hobbies, but perhaps sadly, none of us really attached to his passion for woodworking, very fine high-end cabinetry, construction, and ultimately, wood turning.

Over 15 years ago, at least, my Dad presented me one Christmas with a small bowl turned from a piece of Manzanita wood, and a wooden pen complete with a custom case he made using a router and some unique hinges, the likes of which I wouldn’t see again for many years.  As always, I was in awe of the pieces Dad could produce.  At the time, I had no idea how a bowl was made, or how a piece of wood could be transformed into a pen!  But I accepted that Dad could perform wizardry with wood whenever he set his mind to it.  I was, and remain, the very proud owner of original pieces of furniture made by Dad, including the same desk I used in elementary school, a chest of drawers, a bed headboard, and a red leather Morris chair masterpiece.  All of these items are in daily use in my home, many years after their creation, and nothing could ever replace them in my heart.  To visit either of my parents’ homes is to marvel at the ultra-fine custom cabinetry, especially in the kitchens, but even in the workshop or laundry room as well.  The problem with all of this is that I am not for certain that Dad ever understood how amazing and awesome I thought his skills and talents were since I never seemed to have the vocabulary to express my admiration.

In the Recent Past

Now, flash-forward many years and a move to the opposite side of the country where I find myself to this day.  I am going about my business in the world of public health, working for one of the largest governmental organizations in the world dedicated to the field when I am diagnosed, completely unexpectedly, with a severe neurological disease that can, fortunately, for the time being, be controlled, but not cured.  As the disease continues, I remain unable to resume my career and profession, so I have navigated the wilderness of disability and found myself utterly at a loss as to what to do with whatever remained of my life.  At roughly the same time, my Dad experienced a cancer scare and I realized that I might lose someone incredibly important to me without ever developing a common language.

I had picked up and resumed my Dad’s long laid down hobby of stamp collecting, but I think he had been out of that hobby for so long that the language didn’t flow between us.  So, I decided to ask him exactly how to make a wooden pen like the one he had given me all those years ago.  I was looking for a new hobby to fill my newfound time and I wanted a way to connect with my father.  I knew that the equipment, and perhaps more importantly, space, required to learn to produce custom cabinetry was out of my reach, but I thought a lathe would be piece of equipment that I could reasonably house and use.  And, I was honestly attracted to the artistry of the bowls, lidded boxes, platters, and pens that I had seen made by my Dad.  So, I asked him if he would teach me to make a wood pen if I arranged a special purpose-driven trip across the country to his workshop in California.  With great enthusiasm he agreed!

I was pretty nervous about learning to use a lathe since the last time I had really attempted anything resembling wood work was in junior high school shop class, and that was an unmentionable number of years ago.  And truth to tell, Dad found me pretty hopeless too, at least at first.  I don’t know what it was, or why, but I was a man determined to master this process, so the next morning, before breakfast, I tackled the process of rounding down cubic blank after cubic blank until I could, with some reliability, produce what I wanted.  Dad was surprised, but pleased, and on we went.  I did manage to make several pens that visit and I even made two small shallow dishes as well.  Once I started to get the hang of it, I was surprised by how natural the process felt.  Dad, true to his natural generosity and kindliness, ordered a complete lathe workshop set up for me to pick up at a local Woodcraft store on my return, with a Jet lathe, tools, and accessories, everything I would need to start and continue on my journey of discovery through the world of wood turnery.

In the Present

For almost two years now, I have expanded my tools and accessories, and I have accumulated quite a collection of wood blanks for bowls and pens.  I continue to find the hobby to be a source of great enjoyment, growth, and discovery as I work to hone my skills and try new things.  But, I think the single greatest joy to come from the process of learning to turn is that finally Dad and I have a common language.  And I don’t mean to imply that my Dad I didn’t talk or have a relationship to begin with, that certainly wasn’t the case, but this common language, common hobby, common skill, has brought us so much closer together than I think we could ever have been without it, and that has been an enormous gift to me in my life.  Now, as Dad remains my mentor and teacher, he and I can talk for hours about turning challenges, about new woods we have experimented with, the projects we have completed with woods we have given to each other (I just carried home 170 pounds of wood from California that Dad bought from a retiring turner!), and about new tools, chucks, and all sorts of things turning related.  The shared experience has bonded us in a new and wonderful way, and one of my favorite recent memories is a phone call with Dad and Mom in the car with the phone on speaker as required by California law, and Mom finally declaring that she didn’t have a clue what Dad and I were talking about!  I loved that Dad and I had a new “secret” language and Dad reveled in the fact that now Mom knew how he felt when she talked to my sister, with whom Mom shares a profession and a language of their own.

Message for the Future

There is no new method or design for turners reading this to go out and try, but there is a message I hope.  I think it is critical for wood workers of all types to realize that that most common introductory denominator to the world of wood work and wood turning, the shop class, is disappearing.  Without the effort of outreach and mentoring to the younger set, in a relatively short time, I fear that the art and science of wood turning will be lost amidst of world of iPads, iPhones, and other electronic what-nots that encourage consumption but not creation.  If each of us mentored just one person, a nephew, a son, a niece, a daughter, even a neighbor, in the joy that is wood turning, we would come close to ensuring the survival and growth of our hobby.  And who knows, just maybe you would discover a bond with a newfound friend through the process, enriching your life beyond just the workshop.