Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois: Woodturner helps keep craft alive

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There is something alluring about the smooth surfaces and warmth of turned wood. Rustic yet elegant, artistic yet practical, plain and simple or expertly carved wood, turned pieces have a universal appeal. Perhaps it is simply rooted in the pleasing rounded shapes that all turned pieces share.

“Wood turning is a fairly broad field in terms of the types of materials you can use and the size and use of the finished pieces,” says Eric Glew, chairman of the local IKI Woodturners. “But it’s specific because every piece is turned on the lathe to shape and therefore needs to be round or have a round part in its shape. If you ask me what I make, I say I make round things – bowls, vases, spindles, long and thin things like pens and Harry Potter-style wands, thin or hollow, cup-shaped or flat – they’re all round.”

At a recent IKI meeting, Gourieux demonstrated how to carve a bowl out of a rough block of wood, and about 20 members gathered at Duncan’s Woodworking in Newburgh to watch the demonstration, share tips and discuss new pieces.

Grew explained in a later interview that first a turner must choose a suitable wood or other material, such as acrylic or a soft stone like alabaster.

“I start by choosing the right wood or material for the project,” he said. “It could be wood I’ve collected from local trees that have been damaged or felled, or a more unusual piece I’ve ordered for this purpose. I love knots because they give the wood a very interesting texture and grain. One of the fun things for me is that you never know what the wood is going to look like until you actually turn it on the lathe. But sometimes woodturners don’t want an interesting grain pattern. If I want to add staining, tempering, texturing or carving, I usually choose a bland wood so that the pattern doesn’t take away from the appeal of the finished piece.”

Bowls are perhaps the most commonly turned product, but they are never made from a simple section of a log; the interior of the log is not used because it contains a lot of pith. Bowls are made from a block of newer, moister wood near the outer edge of the tree, where the grain does not usually run vertically, resulting in more interesting patterns. This block is first rough-cut into a disk and then placed on the lathe, a machine that rotates the disk on its central axis while special tools are used to carve the shape of the bowl.

A pile of fragrant, curled wood shavings fell on the floor as Grew slowly peeled thin strips of wood from the outside of his demo block to reveal the shape of a bowl, then he spun the shape on the lathe and began hollowing out the center.

He explained that hollow pieces, especially tall, narrow pieces such as vases or pieces with openings narrower than the bowl of the piece, require considerable skill in turning: the sides and bottom must be of uniform thickness, and great care must be taken when hollowing out the center.

“Making hollow shapes like vases requires different tools than bowls,” Grew says. “It’s hard to get something deep into a narrow vase. You need a long stick to get it in. I have a stick that’s six feet long. It’s dangerous, but I love making big vases and I enjoy the process. The tallest one is 36 inches and you have to reach really deep to get it in.”

After the piece is fully shaped, the surface is rough sanded and painted with a sealant to allow the wood to dry slowly and evenly. Some carvers place plastic wrap around the edges to prevent it from drying too quickly and cracking. Only when the piece is evenly dry can the surface be finely sanded, polished, oiled, stained, or decorated according to the artist’s wishes.

After Glew’s demonstration, members unboxed, shared, and discussed their new creations, which included simple and smooth bowls, pencil cases, vases, lids and knobs, and even turned and finished square pieces. Colors ranged from deep walnut to pale maple to the colorful creations of turner Brian Hart, who specializes in small, original lidded boxes made from mixed materials such as bright acrylic, wood, and metal.

IKI stands for Indiana-Kentucky-Illinois Woodturners, and its 60 members come from southern Illinois, Kentucky and around Evansville to Fort Branch. The group meets monthly, runs a website and newsletter and participates in various woodworking shows and other exhibitions in the area. Some of Gourieux’s work can be seen at the Nance Gallery and the Evansville Museum.

“We like to support local organizations like the Evansville Arts Council and let them know what we do,” Grew said. “A lot of people don’t know what a wood lathe is, so we want to get the word out. Anyone who wants to come to a meeting or get involved is welcome. We really enjoy the opportunity to do demonstrations for groups, like church groups or schools.”

For more information, meeting times and locations and contact information, visit the IKI website at

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