An evening turning wood in my mother’s basement | Magazine

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As we walked into the Motherhouse Woodturning Studio on Friday evening, Jack B. Smith (Class of ’19) greeted us, holding a small board of hawthorn.

“Smell it!” he insists.

Smith has been coming to the studio since his freshman year of college. Tucked away in Mather’s basement, the studio provides a space for students to practice their wood-turning skills. Here, budding woodturners use hand tools and lathes (machines that turn wood) to carve round objects like bowls, cups, tool handles, and candlesticks.

The piece of wood Smith is holding came directly from a branch of a hawthorn tree in the Adams House courtyard, where it had snapped after a snowstorm.

“Whenever a tree falls around campus, I’m always the first one there,” Smith said. “When they hear the chainsaws, they text me.”

A few minutes later, Smith’s mentor, Alan Haack, came into the studio and praised Smith’s winning piece. “This is a big thing in the community,” he said. “It’s reclaiming wood.”

Hark is an accomplished woodturner. He’s been teaching woodworking in Mather’s basement for the past 15 years. He’s been working with wood for nearly 50 years, having started his career as a logger in Vermont. He still lives there and commutes to Cambridge every weekend to teach.

Decades ago, Herc became too ill to continue logging and turned instead to medical aid work. Looking for a hobby that would allow him to continue his passion for woodworking, he took up wood turning in the early 1980s.

Haack says he had no “formal instruction” when he started turning, and he honed his skills over the next few decades using the only books available on the market at the time and a process of trial and error.

Alan Haack hand-sands the exterior of a black cherry wooden bowl made by his students as it spins on a lathe.

Alan Haack hand-sands the exterior of a black cherry wooden bowl made by his students as it spins on a lathe. By Amanda Y. Su

“What I found was that the ‘centering’ effect of rotation is beneficial for maintaining emotional and intellectual balance, which in turn leads to greater feelings of well-being,” he says.

He retired from his advocacy career in 1998 and began a professional career in wood turning.

Haack had arrived in Boston because, as he put it, “there was a woman I was chasing” who lived a few blocks from the Harvard campus. He had been running a high-end gallery on the East Coast for several years, creating custom works for collectors and museums.

He gave wood-turning demonstrations at Rockler Woodworking and Hardware store in Porter Square, drawing attention to the craft. These demonstrations led to a job teaching wood-turning at the Cambridge Adult Education Center in Rockler, where Haak still teaches on weekends.

In the spring of 2003, one of Haack’s adult education students, Aaron S. Allen, a resident lecturer at Mather, approached Haack after class and asked if he’d be interested in teaching a class at Harvard. After Haack agreed, he and Allen carried out what Haack calls a “late-night raid” in the Radcliffe Courtyard and discovered an old, unused lathe that had been abandoned in the basement.

That lathe was the first in the Harvard Woodturning Program, in addition to Herk’s own lathe.

Professor Haack’s first formal classes at Harvard began in the spring of 2004. Since then, the program has had three university presidents.

“There’s another person who’s lived in this house longer than I have. His name is Miguel. [Casillas, Mather’s Building Manager]” says Hark.

Hark currently teaches a beginner’s wood turning course on Friday afternoons, as well as courses for experienced turners on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. The program is open to all Harvard affiliates.

“There’s no one who has had the experience of teaching a traditional craft for decades,” he said. “Having access to his knowledge is really special.”

When Jack B. Smith (Class of ’19) hollows out the inside of a wooden bowl, wood chips fly into the air.

When Jack B. Smith (Class of ’19) hollows out the inside of a wooden bowl, wood chips fly into the air. By Amanda Y. Su

Smith started woodworking in high school after seeing Instagram posts and YouTube videos, and came to Harvard with “very little experience” but then read an old Crimson article about Mather’s basement woodworking shop and went to meet Haack as a freshman.

“He and I hit it off right away and have been close friends ever since,” he says. Now, Smith and Haak usually meet up for dinner together in Mather’s dining room on Friday nights before their refresher classes start, catching up on what’s going on.

Last year, while working in Harvard’s Office of Sustainability, Smith learned that a popular ornamental cherry tree had fallen outside the environmental center. He wasted no time, salvaging a three-foot-tall piece of wood from the wreckage and rushing to a meeting in his office.

“I ended up going over there with this piece of wood and getting their attention,” Smith said.

A few months later, when former University President Drew G. Faust announced her retirement, the Office of Sustainability asked Smith to create a bowl in her honor. Smith decided to use wood from the tree.

Smith stained the outside of the bowl black and engraved it with a design that resembles the traditional antebellum egg-and-dart crown molding pattern, a nod to Faust’s expertise in antebellum history.

“She thought it was great. She loved it,” Smith says proudly. “Now, if she has any other requests for the office, she knows where to find us.”

Although wood turning is not widely known, Smith has noticed it is becoming more popular among his generation.

“There’s been a resurgence of wood turning and traditional wood carving in the last decade,” Smith says. “More and more people our age are getting interested in woodworking and discovering people like Alan.”

Haak travels from Vermont every weekend for the opportunity to share the art form with the younger generation and deepen their understanding of wood turning.

“A lot of the people who were involved in the woodturning movement at the beginning of this century were mostly older men,” Haack says. “I saw this as an opportunity to get young people familiar with woodturning. Now this is a big part of what the American Woodturning Association is all about.”

During the class, Haak wanders from student to student, offering instructions and sharpening tools as needed. Smith stays in a corner, turning a bowl made from yellow birch wood that Haak brought from Vermont. Motherhouse residents peer into the studio intrigued by the humming of the lathe on their way to the basement laundry room.

“It’s Harvard arts’ best-kept secret,” Smith said.



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