Woodturning is as old as the hills – and a craft that is still alive and kicking on the Isle Wight. Mark Baxter picks up a chisel and makes himself a bowl, with a little help from a master woodturner.
I’m a bit of a bodger. Not a person who makes things clumsily and never finishes things properly, which is the modern definition of the word (though my wife would dispute that), but someone who is rather partial to woodturning. Bodging, you see, is an art.
The word bodger derives from the old German word for cooper, bötticher. During the 19th century hundreds of bodgers set up lathes in the woods around High Wycombe where they would turn chair legs from green (fresh) timber. Chair bodgers could be found all over England and Wales but they were most prevalent in Buckinghamshire.
The theory is that the name stuck because the original bodgers only produced the turned parts and not the whole chair. Not that they weren’t skilled, of course – they were, as I’m finding out today on a half-day beginner’s bowl woodturning course in Arreton near the Isle of Wight’s capital, Newport.
Andy Fortune has been running his woodturning courses at his workshop at Arreton Barns since 2013, and in 2014 he was accepted onto the Register of Professional Turners. A hobby woodturner since 1995, Fortune has been making bowls, platters and ‘hollow forms’ from locally sourced timber for many years.
He now sells his creations, and those from other Island hobby woodturners, at his gallery in his workshop, and through other shops around the island. In addition, he sells all the kit needed to set yourself up in woodturning, if the bug should bite.
Fortune’s latest project is making replica bowls in the style of Tudor artifacts found on the wreck of the Mary Rose, Henry VIIIs flagship, which sank in the Solent in 1545. And he’s currently working with top London restaurant, Trinity, on a range of butter dishes – to add to the bread bowls he has already produced for them.
Fortune processes the timber himself. So where are the best spots on the island for wood? “A lot of the wood I get is from trees that have fallen over, or wood felled from forestry management – Chessell Woodyard in West Wight is a good source,” he reveals.
Does he have any favourite wood that he likes working with? “I love spalted wood best, which is basically rotting wood. The fungus reacts with the wood and creates these incredible patterns. With turning you want to enhance the piece that you are going to make,” he explains.
This is how the beginner’s bowl woodturning class starts out (a class of one, I should point out – these courses are one to one), as Fortune takes me through the different types of wood and what works best for each function. Spoons, I learn, are best carved from green wood, while seasoned wood is best for bowls and platters. Fortune prefers to dry all the wood himself.
He shows me blocks of ash, yew and cherry – and even a block from a weeping ash that he sourced in Cowes, known locally as The Umbrella Tree. It was planted in the early 1900s but had reached the end of its life. “I love using wood with a provenance,” he declares. “Though generally speaking wood has a different finish and grain, and a different flexibility, so you need to consider this before you decide what you want to make,” he explains, revealing that he also once made a bowl for a client from the timbers of the HMS Victory.
Fortune picks up a six-inch block of ash. “This will become your bowl,” he says taking me through the process and the various tools needed to get me there. Cutting the initial shape with a bandsaw is a noisy business, but short-lived as we get the block a step nearer to our bowl shape.
He helps me guide the tool to shape the base, which will give the lathe something to grab on to when we start to carve out the bowl. This is an immensely satisfying stage in the woodturning process – watching the shavings peel away to reveal a smooth surface that shows off the wood’s grain at its best.
Once we have our rough bowl shape, it’s time to refine the surface further before it gets a final sanding, using ever-finer grades of sandpaper. A slick of tung oil massaged into its now silky-smooth surface is the last touch, before Fortune brands the bowl, etching my name into the base, which induces a significant sense of pride.
It comes as no surprise to learn that woodturning as a hobby has been around since the 19th century, when mechanically minded English gentry produced a wide range of complex ornamental turnings.
There’s also a sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that woodturning is an ancient art. The first record of a continuous revolution lathe can be seen in a 1480 sketch by the great Leonardo da Vinci, who was apparently obsessed with such gadgetry.
And there’s satisfaction, too, in the fact that turned wood items have played an important part in the history of humankind, from the production of simple domestic utensils (yes, including bowls), to farm implements, furniture, musical instruments, drinking vessels and sports equipment. Woodturning is literally history in the making.
A half-day’s beginner’s bowl turning course costs £75. Mulberry Tree Woodturnery, Arreton Barns Craft Village, Main Road, Arreton, Isle of Wight, PO30 3AA, 01983 472696, mtwoodturnery.co.uk
For more information about the history of woodturning go to www.britishwoodturners.co.uk.
Want to join an Island woodturning club? Go to www.wightwoodturners.org.uk
Island made turned wood products are also available at Tapnell Gallery & Gift Shop, Tapnell Farm, near Yarmouth, www.tapnellfarm.com