Transforming wood into art

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In his bright basement workshop in Sandwich, Robin Dustin literally transforms wood into works of art.

“I take a piece of wood, put it on the lathe and turn whatever comes out of it. The wood and I work together to decide on the size, final shape, design treatment and finish,” Dustin said.

Woodturning was a natural progression for Dustin. She studied weaving, ceramics, jewelry, printmaking, welding and oil painting as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University. She then spent summers at Penland School of Arts and Sciences in North Carolina, where she furthered her weaving studies and took classes in lapidary (stone cutting) and enameling. She then spent two more years at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she studied weaving, jewelry, metalwork and fabric design, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree in weaving with a minor in metals.

She knows wood well. Living in New York City in the 1970s, it was an ideal time to live in SoHo, as the artist community was developing and galleries were beginning to move downtown.

Recently divorced, she had the last ten dollars in the bank and was looking for something to do with her hands, so she teamed up with another woman to do some carpentry work, and at the suggestion of a friend, they named themselves the Gorilla Girls.

“We’ve been problem-solving for about six years with tape measures, saws, hammers and nails, and we knew how to clean up after ourselves,” Dustin laughed.

When the building where she lived on Canal Street, just outside Little Italy and across from Chinatown, was up for sale, she decided to move to Sandwich, a place her mother was born in and that she had known off and on throughout her life, as Dustin had frequently visited to visit relatives.

For 15 years, she served as a judge for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, whose roots lie in Sandwich.

“When I moved here I decided to forego carpentry and make a living from weaving, which was my master’s major. I opened a shop with a friend who makes beautiful jewelry and started weaving. I quickly realized I had no interest in selling textiles and even less interest in taking orders,” Dustin said.

She was hired as a construction worker and built homes including post and beam work, replacing rotten timber, renovating homes, climbing on every roof and learning the finishing touches until she built her own home in the 80’s.

In the early 90s, Dustin and a friend ran a craft school, The Hand and I, in a former two-classroom schoolhouse in neighboring Moultonborough, where they taught hand-tool woodworking, picture framing, weaving, basic silver soldering for jewellery and classes taught by guest artists.

“Unfortunately, this was during the height of the recession in the early ’90s and it was a tough time to fill classes with people who wanted to learn how to do something with their hands but couldn’t even afford the basic fee,” Dustin said.

She later became president and curator of the Sandwich Historical Society, quickly learning the ropes of running a nonprofit, which she continued for nearly a decade, during which she launched the core of writing and teaching the first comprehensive hardcover book on Sandwich history.

Dustin says that throughout the time he was building his house he longed for the day when he could spend his time cleaning and landscaping instead of building, and finally, in the mid-’90s, he started buying plants and has since transformed his property, creating an extensive garden on the edge of a pine forest, filled with rhododendrons, heather and more.

Dustin said she had recently been into gardening, but now she’s passionate about wood turning. She said she started going before she owned a lathe, and enjoys attending monthly wood turning club meetings at Kennett High School in Conway.

She now owns a sturdy lathe that she names “Puff, the Magical Powermatic Dragon.”

Dustin admits he caught the attention of a few people when he stopped into Woodcraft Supply in Portsmouth and announced he wasn’t leaving until he’d purchased a lathe.

Her first machine was a Delta 1440, capable of turning lumber 14 inches in diameter and 40 inches long.

“I had a really hard time learning to use the bowl gouge,” Dustin said, pointing to a dent in the wall caused by a piece of wood flying off the spinning lathe. But as she improved, she overcame her fear and, using just a scraper instead of a gouge, was able to create creations that amazed her fellow woodworkers.

She says her experience in jewelry making has taught her how to give any surface a satin shine, and with a generous amount of filing and sanding, she’s got the job done.

With continued instruction and plenty of practice, Dustin mastered his use of the gouge and now produces a wide variety of pieces out of a variety of woods, including butternut, birch, bass, and maple, in all shapes and sizes of bowls, platters, the occasional cup, and even heirloom baby rattles.

Dustin won first place at this year’s Sandwich Fair for her hand-cranked maple burl bowls — the second year in a row she has won the title — and throughout the summer, her work will be for sale at the Patricia Ladd Carrega Gallery in Sandwich.

To date, Dustin says she has made 250 bowls, and her work has stood up to the rigorous scrutiny of Granite State Woodworkers.

“Right now, my retirement life is filled with the struggle of splitting my time between gardening when the weather is nice and working in my basement workshop when it’s rainy, cold, hot or buggy. Everyone should have this struggle,” she said.

To learn more about Dustin’s work, email him at or call him at (603) 284-7740.

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