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Seeing beauty in the ordinary

Tree turner takes felled trees to another dimension

Created date

November 22nd, 2011

One glimpse at Ron Brown s turned wood collection and you ll never look at a tree the same again. He has handcrafted each of the hundred-or-so wood bowls, vases, and hollowed vessels displayed in his Oak Crest home from fallen native hardwoods found across the Mid-Atlantic area. Oftentimes as I begin to cut away at the wood, it talks to me, says Ron, an accomplished woodturner for the last 16 years. I can often look at a log and see a bowl in it. Typically Ron selects walnut, oak, maple, and beech trees that have suffered damage from drought, fire, or wind. Damaged trees, he says, often possess the most character. Every piece of wood is unique, says Ron. But typically the trees that have suffered damage in some form or another produce the best turnings because they usually have surprises like a knot or a unique grain pattern. I use those features to my advantage and incorporate them into the piece.

Cut and dried

Like the name implies, woodturning is the process of shaping wood as it turns or spins at a high rate of speed on a lathe. The spinning motion creates cylindrical objects such as table legs, peppermills, pool cues, baseball bats, and woodwind instruments. The best time to turn wood is when it s still green and has a lot of the water and sap still in it, says Ron. It s cooler to the touch, and the wood comes off in ribbons instead of dust. Depending on the size and style of the vessel, Ron spends anywhere from two to ten hours carving out a wood piece on the lathe. After he turns the pieces, the wood dries for about six weeks before it undergoes an eight-level sanding process, six coats of tung oil, and a water-based polyurethane. Once he completes the entire process, all pieces are food safe. A former Baptist minister, Ron originally began woodturning as a hobby. I wanted to be sure I learned the proper techniques right off the bat so I joined the Chesapeake Woodturners, in Annapolis, and attended their workshops and seminars, says Ron. He quickly realized he had found his niche. Ron honed his skills at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlin, Tenn., and later trained with experts like Ron Fleming, David Ellsworth, Trent Bosch, and JoHannes Michelsen, where he learned how to transform a 40-pound log into a 16-ounce wooden hat. As a minister, most of my years were spent helping people resolve their differences an ongoing process which can take months or years, says Ron. Conversely, when I began turning wood, I could watch a log transform into a work of art in roughly a few hours, which was extremely satisfying. Today Ron and his wife stay busy selling his fine woodturnings by traveling the arts and crafts show circuit. A handful of his wood pieces are also listed on his website,, and fetch anywhere from $60 for a small walnut flask to $300 for an ambrosia maple bowl.

Knock on wood

Earlier this year Ron and his wife decided to trade in their house for a simpler lifestyle. Ron s concerns about finding a retirement community that offered a comprehensive woodworking shop and room for his lathe quickly dissolved when they discovered Oak Crest, an Erickson Living community in Parkville, Md. Before we sold our house I wanted to make sure I could continue with the hobby I love, says Ron. When I toured Oak Crest, I saw that they had a wonderful workshop with lots of nice equipment. After one visit and a nod from the woodshop allowing him to bring his two-horsepower lathe, he and his wife sealed the deal. Since moving this March, Ron now teaches his favorite hobby to some of his fellow craftsmen at the Oak Crest woodshop. I ve had a few people show an interest in learning how to turn, says Ron. I usually start them out making an egg about three inches long and two inches wide. That teaches them a lot of the skills they ll need. Then I let them make a round Christmas tree ornament with spindles on the ends. By the time they get to making a bowl, they re usually hooked.