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Demonstrating Woodturning at an Arts Festival

by Curtis Turner
Round Rock, TX

Note: click on any picture to see a larger version.

Our community arts council hosts an annual event, the Round Rock Chalk Walk. This family-friendly event is attended by thousands and attracts artists from all around the state. The festival features a variety of activities that appeal to families, such as live music, art auction, plen air (painting outdoors) and wood turning, all with an emphasis on art. One of the most interesting events is the chalk art. For those that have never seen such an event, it is quite spectacular. It is patterned after an Italian street festival. Artists create art in chalk, either directly on the pavement or on moveable boards, covering the downtown streets with original drawings and sketches. The amount of skill and determination to create temporary art is remarkable. Many of the pieces were so lifelike they could pass as a painting or photograph.

I was asked again this year to demonstrate wood turning at the festival. This year, I was given a booth space prominently situated near the live music plaza, where we drew large crowds throughout the main day of the festival.

I always enjoy demonstrating and interacting with a crowd. As turners, we can forget that most of America has never seen a lathe up close, or watched the process of how an item is made using the lathe. The kids are most interested in watching the wood shavings fly off the lathe. The adults seem equally fascinated with watching pieces take shape. Every visitor wants to handle completed pieces I have on display, turning and examining the wood grain patterns and finishes.

This year, in addition to my mini lathe, I incorporated my spring pole lathe into my demonstrations, switching between the two throughout the day. I recently completed this lathe during a week-long class at Roy Underhill’s school, The Woodwright’s School. Yes, I know I am a lucky man (thanks, honey, for the anniversary gift of the class). I highly recommend Roy’s school. It was truly an experience I will never forget. But that’s another story!

So, what is involved in turning for an audience? The first matter for consideration is audience safety. I designed a Lexan shield to place in front of my Jet mini lathe. While designing the shield, I took into consideration that kids would be eye level to a spinning piece of wood. I also wanted to ensure that children could not easily reach under the screen. But I wanted the audience to have a full clear view of the tool and the material being worked.

I place my tool table behind me with tool tips pointing away from the audience. This keeps little fingers from testing the sharpness of the tools.

I also select cooperative wood. By that I mean, I avoid using wood of questionable structural integrity. For a general audience like this, there is no benefit to showing off your skills turning a wormhole-riddled monster blank. The risk of wood failure is too high in this environment. I also avoid turning any allergenic woods. I would specifically avoid the likes of cocobolo and walnut. I avoid walnut in part because, occasionally, someone wants to pick up the shavings to add to their compost pile. Walnut is not appropriate material for mulch or animal bedding. Likewise, I do not demonstrate with punky or spalted woods. Instead, I tend to use ash, oak and pear, which are reliable woods that perform consistently. I also never take sandpaper; I don’t even want the temptation to sand. The pieces being turned at a live demonstration like this aren’t destined for final finish. The audience wants to see the rough forms take place. Watching sanding is nearly as interesting as watching paint dry.

You should set the example and always wear a face shield when turning on a powered lathe. Of course, practice safe turning techniques. You may be demonstrating to a future club member.

The demonstrator must also consider what would make an interesting and educational experience for the viewer. I believe that turning a bowl is something most people can relate to. It also makes for a fun demo, because once the shavings start flying, the crowd stops to watch. Personally, I like to educate the viewer on how an item is made. I turn for a few minutes, and then stop to show the audience the shavings, letting the kids (and adults!) feel the texture and dampness.

Next, I segue into a brief lesson on harvesting and drying wood. I use two main props for this portion. One is a chinaberry bowl blank, given to me by a club member. He recorded the date and weight for several months writing each recording on the blank. I use this to show how wood loses moisture and weight over time. Then I show an elm blank I cut from a large log, which contained numerous nails. The nails were not visible prior to cutting on my bandsaw. This ruined my blade but I turned this lemon into lemonade. I now use this block of wood to talk about how the tree grew around the nails. I also point out how the moisture in the wood reacted with the iron in the nails and created staining around the nail.

Then, for my demonstration, I transition from the power lathe to my spring pole lathe. I think this was the most unique portion of my session this year. Because this is not a tool most have ever seen, much less seen in action, this gave me the opportunity to talk about how craftsman would use this type of lathe to make furniture parts or any type of spindle work. I showed the audience how the spring pole lathe uses a reciprocating action to turn the blank. This demonstration received the most looks of amazement, comments and questions.

I find this type of live audience demonstration rewarding. The purpose differs from a club demonstration where the goal is to offer a more technical presentation. A community- or arts-based demonstration is more broadly focused on education and entertainment. Of course, there is the added potential benefit of recruiting new club members.

However, I think that the best reward is helping to support arts and education in one’s own community. You can get involved by seeking out your local arts council and volunteering to help with exhibits, judging or demonstrating. I hope you expand how you think about your craft and offer your skills and experiences to a broader audience. You don’t need to be a great lecturer, or even a great turner, merely enthusiastic about your craft and able to show that you are having fun. The audience will pick up on your enthusiasm and respond in kind.

More information on the festival where I gave my most recent demonstration can be found at www.roundrockchalkwalk.com .

Curtis is 2012 President of Central Texas Woodturners, a member of the American Association of Woodturners, and a member of Fine Woodworkers of Austin.  Curtis teaches and demonstrates nationally for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. He also owns a studio where he teaches and works. Curtis lives and works in Central Texas with his wife and four young children. Take a look at his website at www.curtisturnerstudio.com .

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