Turning point: Retired landscape architect finds joy in woodworking

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Merle Hardy of Moses Lake has been in the landscaping business for more than 20 years and was used to cutting trees for people, but for the past 10 years he has been using them to make bowls, vases and decorations in his garage. It took some time to learn how to process it into products.

Hardy, 68, took up woodworking as a hobby while settling into retirement. Ken Goodrich, a well-known local woodworker, was a friend of Hardy’s and was undoubtedly the person who helped spark his interest in the craft.

“I knew him and he would often take pieces of wood to him and he would often make me out of it,” Hardy said.

Hardy’s son-in-law bought a small wood lathe to tinker with while visiting from New York about 10 years ago. He said the lathe remained. One day, Hardy said he decided to take the book off the shelf and was immediately hooked.

From the beginning, Hardy sensed something about the long, vertical shavings that come off when trimming wood. He said he watched some woodworking videos on YouTube to better understand the process.

Although Hardy has done many woodworking projects in the past, he said the wood lathe is a little more “creative.”

“I’ve done woodworking before, but it’s all about measurements and everything has to be exact,” Hardy said. “Maybe I should give this a try.”

Hardy said there was a lot of trial and error in the learning process. When he learned to work with wet wood, or raw wood, he said, the wood tends to crack and split as it dries. Hardy said he lost about 50% to 60% of the parts he had machined in the early days, some of which were so warped that they couldn’t be put back on the lathe.

Wet wood is softer and easier to turn than dry wood. The damp wood is roughly turned on a lathe and then left to dry for about a year. Mr Hardy said as the wood dries, “stress” can build up in the interior areas of the wood, causing sections to split or crack.

“If you’re spinning a one-inch-thick bowl, that’s about a year’s worth of drying,” Hardy says. “A good rule of thumb is that for a piece of wood that’s one inch thick, he needs to let it dry for a year.”

Different types of wood may have certain advantages and disadvantages. Hardy said as a landscape architect in the Moses Lake area, he has seen a lot of birch trees.

Birch is “very sweet” when wet, but when it dries it becomes brittle and can be blown away, he said.

Hardy kept various types of wood on hand or drying in his garage and near his woodworking shop. He said some of his acquaintances bring him works they think he might be interested in working with.

“The best woods I like are hard maple, black walnut and English walnut,” Hardy said. “I have pieces that use a variety of woods. Ash is a good wood to turn. I also change the fruit trees from time to time.”

Hardy said he has paid some fees to people who have reached out, but he doesn’t want his craft to become a business. He said he was concerned that it would take creativity out of the process. One of her commissioned projects involved a woman using a piece of English walnut harvested from a tree near her family’s home to give to her family at Christmas.

Another individual in the apple industry asked for some pieces made from apple trees to share with customers. Mr. Hardy said he donates much of his work. He said he has piles of stuff he rolled hanging around his house, but it doesn’t take long for them to disappear.

Hardy was using his third wooden lathe and completed less than 2,200 parts, not including pens and pencils.

“I make a lot of pens and pencils for people. I make a lot,” Hardy said. “I’ve always made Christmas ornaments, and I’ve made a lot of them, hundreds of them. I don’t know how many times, but I keep perfecting it and trying to get better.”

Hardy said the family’s Christmas tree was covered in wooden ornaments. He said he often works on a particular project for a long time before moving on to something new, whether it’s a bowl, a vase or a hollow sphere.

Items he made include cake stands, lamps, wooden mushrooms, and pen and pencil holders, but perhaps the bowls he used most often. Many items still fill the shelves, cupboards and walls of his Moses Lake home.

A lot of time is spent waiting for the wood to be ready to turn, but Hardy said a typical project would probably take three to five hours on the lathe, then finish the exterior paint. It will take about a week.

Hardy said woodturning can be the “dirtiest, filthiest, dustiest” practice in the world, and as the years go on, it gets a little harder to get out in the garage to do it.

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