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AROUND HOME : Notes on Southwest Dishes, Wood Turning and Cesca Chairs : Wood Turning

July 10, 1988|JUDITH SIMS

TURNED WOOD USUALLY conjures up images of chair legs and banisters: sticks of wood that have been rotated by a machine while a human holds a cutting tool at a precise angle and depth. But in the hands of an artisan, simple chair legs give way to objects of surpassing beauty and occasional practicality--bowls, boxes and sculpture.

The history of the lathe is shrouded in early mist. According to Frank Cummings, a lathe artist who also teaches at California State University, Fullerton, the Egyptians used a kind of lathe, but they may not have invented it. These first lathes were primitive bow-like devices that required two people to operate. Later came the one-person pole lathe, which used a flexible pole and a treadle to create alternate tension. A string, attached to the lathe and the object, pulled one way and then the other, made the object turn forward and back (but not revolve). The pole lathe was in use until about 1900, Cummings says. A variation called the strap lathe required two people to operate, but it was faster.

With modern lathes, a block of material is fastened to the machine at one end (at both ends if you're doing chair legs). The machine is turned on and the wood spins at about 600 to 800 revolutions per minute. The carpenter or artist then, according to a predetermined pattern, holds, in sequence, various cutting tools along the length of the object. (Metal lathes, an essential piece of equipment in many factories, turn out everything from propeller shafts to screws and operate on the same principle as wood lathes--but turn much faster and more accurately.)

Wood turning can be a very simple operation: Beginners can make cutting boards, candlesticks, even a pepper mill, without too much effort, and a nicely shaped bowl is within reason. But wood turning can also be very impressive: bowls with wings, vases of multicolored wood, even--as seen at a recent exhibit at Del Mano Gallery in West Los Angeles--a wonderfully grained wood box with a crushed-look belt and buckle around its middle.

Howard Lewin, a wood-turning instructor in Hawthorne and inventor of the Lewin bowl lathe, says wood turning is a fine craft for a hobbyist: "It takes up very little space; you only need an area of about 10x10 feet. For maybe $3,000, you're totally outfitted. And it's more or less instant gratification. You know that within three hours you will be done. You either blew the piece, or it's on the shelf."

Classes in wood turning are offered at Cal State San Bernardino (as part of an undergraduate-degree program or on an individual basis), Cal State Fullerton and at Custom Wood Design in Hawthorne. Examples of turned wood are often available at Freehand in West Hollywood, Del Mano Gallery in Brentwood and in Pasadena, and the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. The American Woodturner ($20 for quarterly issues) is published by the American Assn. of Woodturners, P.O. Box 1059, Eastsound, Wash. 98245; telephone (206) 376-5390.

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