A self-described “wood nerd” creates unique bowls and artwork using wood from Flint.

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FLINT, MI — Flint native Russ Dotson was attending a friend’s wedding in Grand Blanc when his eye was caught by a pile of firewood behind the church.

Dotson found a piece of oak with a distinctive spalting pattern, which occurs due to bacteria as wood begins to decompose, but he wasn’t going to leave it alone because of the unique patterns and colors that can form.

“He yelled at me for grabbing a log over my tuxedo,” Dotson said.

While this scene may be odd for a wedding, it accurately represents Dotson’s interest and eye for unique wood. A resident of the College Cultural Neighborhood, Dotson frequently finds branches, logs and wood chips in Flint and the surrounding area, and uses the pieces to create beautiful wooden bowls on a lathe in his garage studio.

For Dotson, the process of creating a piece may be more important than the final product itself.
Flint’s Russ Dotson finds unique pieces of wood from around the city and transforms them into beautiful works of art.“I’m not doing this to make money,” Dotson says. “For me it’s therapy, it’s like Zen. I immerse myself in a project and before I know it, four hours have passed. It’s nice to be able to clear my mind for four hours.”

Dotson, who served in the military for 22 years and now works in human resources for an auto parts manufacturer, started making bowls after watching a video on wood lathes on YouTube’s “Oddly Satisfying Videos.” He bought a lathe on Craigslist, then replaced it with a better one when it broke. He’s now on his third lathe and continues to hone his skills.

“We were at the Renaissance Festival and my wife wanted a wooden beer mug,” Dotson said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to pay $75 for that, I can make one myself!’”

Dotson spent about four years honing his craft and performed his first show at the Greater Flint Arts Council in 2018. He was pleasantly surprised by the turnout and interest in his work.

“I brought 60 and sold all but two,” he said.

One thing Dotson’s hobby has revealed is the interest other people have in unique wood. People buy bowls or pieces of art, but Dotson also shares the story of where the wood came from, even walking them through the street where he found the logs used in a particular piece.

They also get calls from neighbors and friends who have found fallen branches or trees and want them to come and take a look.

“I like to find local stuff,” he said, “and I’m a wood nerd, so I think it’s really cool that there are people out there who are willing to stand in front of me and talk about wood. I’ve found that some people really love talking passionately about wood.”

He also finds that he understands people’s interest in pieces that aren’t necessarily “perfect” — his pieces with imperfections and raw or rough edges tend to sell well and garner a lot of interest.

“The first show I did, I brought in this huge 16-inch cherrywood bowl,” Dotson says. “It was the perfect wood, the perfect angle of the bowl, and no one wanted it. But this moldy old log with five holes in it that honestly you couldn’t fit anything in, and people loved it. The uglier the log, the more people want it, and no one wants a perfect bowl that you can buy online.”

But Dotson ended up finding a use for the cherry bowls: A friend who runs a catering company uses them to prepare Caesar salads tableside at events, and it fits into the theme of Dotson’s work: He tries to use up all the wood he can find.

“I don’t like to waste wood,” he said. “I use offcuts and scraps. I try to use as much as I can unless it’s too small or broken to work with. I try to saw it into a usable shape. It breaks my heart to think that anyone would throw away such good wood, especially since the trees are going to die, you know?”

Dotson said he especially likes working with cherry and walnut because of their beautiful colors, and they’re hard but not too difficult to work with. Other woods are harder to work with because they’re softer.
His entire process can take anywhere from five to 40 hours, depending on the steps required. Some pieces require cutting and gluing, and the wood must be given a wax coating before use to slow down the drying process and prevent cracking. After a piece is shaped, it can also be reshaped or made more elongated. Some pieces are sent back on the lathe for a more perfect shape, and in some cases the warping makes the piece more interesting.

“It’s great that people love it,” Dotson says. “I can start with some scraps and walk out of here an hour later with a finished product. I don’t think humans are truly fulfilled unless they make something.”

You can see more of Dotson’s work at His Instagram pageHis work is also available at: Flint Trading Co., Ltd. Downtown Flint (Note: Flint Trading Company is temporarily closed due to a building fire but is scheduled to reopen).

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