Learning to See and Do

     I have been thinking about how and what to write on what a few of us are calling The Wood Culture Renaissance or what I've been calling it The New Wood Culture. That has not filled my mind yet enough to write on the subject. It's a big one and touches on so many parts of our culture, society and the way we see or think about the world. Big stuff really, well for me it is. I'll write about it soon enough.

     Along the lines of the last few posts, the For the Masterless... in particular but also my explorations in turning new forms and using new techniques I've decided to write about my process. But also my reflections, self critique, etc...To give folks a better understanding of what that past post means.

      They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. That may be true, but as we travel along the path what does that look like? Instead of focusing on the end let's look closer at the process, but also what we see  as we learn, or more specifically what we think we see.

   Recently I've been pushing myself in the turning world, turning the locking lidded boxes, end grain cups, and most recently lug handled tankards. What I'm really trying to turn are traditional Irish Lamhogs. I've been trying hard to develop more skills, but really that just means gaining experience.  I have enough experience at this point to know that is what I need to do. Put in the time. Turn more stuff.  Let's go back a bit.

     I've been turning bowls on a pole lathe for about 5 years now and very seriously.  By this I mean turning anywhere from 250 to over 500 bowls a year.  I began turning with another nearly 20 years woodworking experience, which I've wrote about before. So I built a makeshift lathe with the idea in mind that I may not like it or may not find it stimulating. This has happened before.

     Bow making. I tried and tried hard to make bows. The true self bows, finely tillered, and sweet shooting. I spend a great deal of time studying the subject (not on the internet) and learning from crafts folks who made them. I spend money and time taking workshops. Trying to get it. I made about 20 bows. Only one I still own and use. All the others were 'kids' bows. Which in the bowyer's world means I over tillered the limbs and they ended up to bendy or worse hinged. The only way to save over tillered bow is to make it shorter thus converting it to a kids bow. I tried and tried. I just could not see. I could not see the grain and the thickness from a bowyers point of view. I lied to myself many times, thinking I got it right only to have the limb hinge when I strung it and pulled it back. I slowly came to terms that I was not a bowyer and I was not going to be. I needed to make money at whatever I did, right? That's part of being a professional woodworker. I gotta pay the bills, etc...So I left bow making along the road. You can't lie about what a good bow is. It has to work, no exceptions. With bowls it's not so clear on what makes a good one or a bad one. It's surely not decided solely by whether they hold food or not. Theres more to it. 

     Now back to the makeshift lathe. Was bowl turning going to be like bow making? I did not know. So I forged some hooks with information I found on the internet. Yes I used the internet to research just as we all do. I also watched the youtube videos, over and over. At that time it was just Robin Wood's videos. This is the irony in my story if we look to the Masterless post from last month. But I argue that I was not a runaway apprentice. I knew it was going to be hard work and that I had to put in my time. I had no opinions. The makeshift lathe worked. The tools worked. I....did not work very well. Looking back I like to say that learning to turn on pole lathe bowl turning was the hardest thing I have ever done and I'm still learning. I sweated, got so frustrated I had to walk away, I broke hooks, reforged hooks, broke bowls, chopped them in half. The hardest part was the undercutting of the core.  Now I understand how this works, but then, I could hardly control the tools all the while stomping away on the foot treadle.  I hadn't a clue as to where to lay the edge to get a good cut on the curved or flat surface of the compound shape of the bowl. Half the time this was a guess.  After 4-6 bowls or so I felt like I could try a few more. I did. Then over the few months I turned 20-30 bowls. I still have one from that bunch. It's made from Basswood. It's an ugly bowl. I sold most of the bowls I was making. It's part of the process. I've always given or gotten rid of stuff I've made. No need to clog up the Chi with a pile of stuff laying around. 

     I look back at the bowls I made. I have photos of them. I have a few in my house or visit them at friends homes. I cringe. Such ugly bowls to my eyes now. But back then they were beautiful in a way, not perfect, but nice enough to sell. I was so proud of them. People thought they were beautiful! I thought maybe they were just trying to be nice. Later I've come to understand that at times it's more the idea than the form that people love. I still struggle with that idea/concept today.

     So now I'm learning a new form again. As well as technique. I'm turing end grain cups with handles. One of the unique things you can turn with a pole lathe. It reciprocates, goes back and forth so it's possible to turn things with projections, like handles. I'm finding this takes precise tool control as well as foot peddle control. It's really another level. 

     The first time I saw a photo of a Lamhog was in Robin's book The Wooden Bowl. If you have not bought a copy please do and do it here at his site instead of the book shops, so he gets some pay out of it. The lamhogs are an Irish turned drinking vessel. They have some really nice shape to them and to separate them from being a turned tankard there are some rules of form.

     I've turned 4 now and each one is better than the last. When I'm turning I generally don't like to use visual references like coping photos etc. I like to explore the shapes in my mind and explore what I perceive. I believe this helps me to understand the shape better in the end. I know from experience that I need to turn a lot to build up the 'eye' for these new shapes I'm exploring. I need to be able to see and understand the difference.  

     I was reminded this morning by a photo Robin posted for me that I can't see the shape just yet. I'm still too new to it. Just as I was to what a good bowl was back 5 years ago. Even with a few 1000's bowl under my belt I perceived that what I was making was the this shapely antique, but when I step back it's not right, not the right shape at all. So again what I perceive to be good is not the same when I step away from it and honestly to look at the objects.  These are great lessons and I enjoy them very much on my journey to be a better craftsperson and turner.

     I will continue to develop the technique and developing my eye to seeing. Just because it succeeds in being functional does not make it a really nice looking object. Please don't tell me 'the beauty is in the eye' BS, you can't deny that of the 3 lamhogs pictured here that mine is a far cry from the others and is not as sweet if at all. Liking the idea of the object is not the same.....



This is a Lamhog that is in the Birmingham Museum in the UK. Website is here

Here is Robin's Lamhog. I guess he turned this a few years ago now. His site is here

Here is mine. More like a tankard than a lamhog. I've got more work to do until I can see while I'm at the lathe. Handle is really clunky and the shape is not even close. 

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