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Some Mind Ramblings and Why I Love Turning Burls

One of the benefits of sitting in a 200 deg sauna on the shore of Lake Superior is that one’s mind gets cleared of most clutter, and thoughts turn to the really important things in life. I started wondering why I love turning burls so much. It is true that most burls have amazing grain figuring such as bird’s eye, chatoyance, curl, and tightly swirling grain lines. Many are also loaded with interesting spalting patterns, and often have primal marks and holes from insects and worms. Burls also have unusual shapes, gnarly crazy bark, and outer skin with great patinas.

BUT, these are not the main reasons I love turning burls. I really love the challenge of the process and the problem solving that is required. This includes visualizing how bowls might emerge from the burl, deciding how to cut the burl into a piece or pieces that can be attached to the lathe and turned, and dealing with the problems that always come up during the turning process. I know from experience that most burls have hidden bark inclusions, insect eaten out areas, and decayed voids inside. Every burl is different and I always learn something new. The end result is of course important, but often anticlimactic. My background and experience in scientific research helps a lot since I have always enjoyed analyzing data, coming up with a plan, designing the experiment, and executing it. Turning burls offers similar problem solving challenges.

If you follow my work you will see how I focus on the process and challenges of turning burls. This is what gives me the most enjoyment with wood turning, and I enjoy passing what I learn on to my students. Of course I also love the beauty of wood (including the bark) and all of my bowls are turned to show the best of the wood. The wood tells me how to shape the bowl. I try to wind up with a pleasing shape or form, but I seldom start out with any preconceived ideas about shape. I also prefer bowls with natural bark edges and unusual rustic features.

The following images are from 2012 and show one of the more challenging burls I have turned. It is an old dry maple burl about 18” in diameter with a very gnarly shape. It also was my first experience with a burl that contained an active ant nest. The ants were not happy when I cut the burl, and I got many bites on my legs. It was very challenging to decide how to cut this burl, but I managed to make three pieces (not really bowls), one about 12” in diameter and two a little smaller. The larger piece looks like a jig saw puzzle piece, and turning this burl was indeed a puzzle. I tell my students that there are no rules here and anything is possible, and what ever approach you try will always give an interesting bowl.


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