The Turning Process
Vernon makes what he likes to make, and this simple joy is evident in all his work. He has always turned bowls in uncluttered, universal forms. There is a great charm in this. The wood is not "fancied up." This allows the wood to appeal to a person's senses without interference. The grain and patterns are naturally complemented by this classic technique. This is especially true of the very large bowls, Vernon's trademark. The bowls are meant to be used, and will last indefinitely. This straightforward approach gives a feeling to the bowls that elicits a response from everyone.
To live in the Pacific Northwest means a variety of large trees are available for turning. The wood Vernon turns into bowls is all locally grown; native or planted as ornamentals. The native woods include bigleaf maple, alder, red cedar, yellow cedar, Douglas fir, madrona, and wild cherry. The ornamentals are American elm, sequoia, sycamore, monkey puzzle, black walnut, hickory, sugar maple, ailanthus, black locust, cherry, and oak. Driving around, Vernon will say, "There's a big monkey puzzle tree." He knows where, in several counties, most of the monkey puzzle and many other ornamental or unusual trees are growing.
Every tree Vernon uses is removed for some other reason; it's "rescued wood." Vernon gets a phone call. A friend or a stranger who has heard of him says, "I have this tree, too close to the house. It has to come down. No one wants it. It's too big to handle."
Getting wood home can be quite an adventure. Vernon takes his long-bar chainsaw, truck, and trailer. Using the skills he has developed in a lifetime of working in the woods, building, and tinkering, he cuts the log into pieces for the lathe and rolls them on the trailer. Usually someone says, "Are you going to put that on there all by yourself?" The pieces weigh from 50 pounds to 2 tons.
An ailanthus, also called Tree of Heaven, was cut by a city parks crew. It was six feet in diameter. Fortunately the ground was level and clear so the van could be parked right near the wood. After Vernon cut a slab 14 inches thick, he and his wife, Karen, had to put it in the truck. Using a simple but very effective system of prying up with a steel bar and blocking with wood blocks, the huge slab was brought slowly to the level of the truck bed. Then they pried and pushed it into the van. In logger jargon, this process is called "pinching." Perhaps a reference to fingers and toes.
After he gets these big chunks of wood home to the shop, Vernon trims the corners with the chainsaw to begin the process. With a platform jack he lifts a piece and bolts it to the face plate on the lathe. This lathe, which he built, is a 1,000 pound block of concrete with the motor and pulleys bolted on. The steady-rest stand for the cutting tools is a chunk of steel 2.5 feet in diameter with a 2.5 inch shaft. When Vernon wants to build a piece of machinery or a tool he often goes "shopping" at old abandoned shingle mills in the local woods to get steel. He is always on the lookout for steel blades from wood planers, saws, or other cutting tools to experiment in making another lathe tool.
He begins turning the wood slowly, taking off all the bark and rough spots. Then he begins shaping the bowl inside and out. He has an idea in mind, but the resulting piece is always dictated by the wood. Many interesting things are found imbedded in the wood of trees that grow in town. Nails, insulators, bolts, bullets, and barbed wire make unusual colors and patterns in a bowl. Most of the wood is turned green as soon as possible after the tree has been cut down. When the bowl is completely turned, he rough sands it on the lathe.
Every bowl that comes off the lathe is perfectly round, with the rim and the foot parallel. As the wood slowly dries, it changes shape, giving character to the bowl. Each is different depending on the kind of tree, the conditions where the tree grew, the thickness of the finished piece, the grain of the wood and drying conditions, including time of year, temperature, and other unpredictables.
Then the 2 to 5 month drying process begins. Nothing is kiln dried. The bowl is handled daily during much of this process. When it is completely dry the finishing begins. The bowl is sanded smooth and finish coats are applied. In between each coat the bowl is again sanded. Wax is applied for the final coat. All finish products are food safe. Any type of food safe wax or oil can be applied to the bowl thereafter. The bowls are signed and numbered, then Karen markets them in galleries around the country.
Vernon has devised a system of 2 parallel pipes, like rails, to scoot wood into the van if it is uphill from the road. Imagine the surprise of a friend who was helping one day. They pried and pushed and got a large chunk flat side down on the rails. Vernon hopped on top, rode down the rails and slid into the van. Just a kid at heart.