Weekend with a Master Woodturner
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.
— Steven Spielberg
I recently had the opportunity to take a weekend "intensive" workshop with master woodturner David Ellsworth. David and his wife, Wendy, live on 30+ acres in the
Appalachian mountains near Weaverville, NC. Having recently relocated from PA, they will tell you it was a "lucky find at just the right time" and I couldn't agree more. Their home is open and bright and they have enhanced the interior with a splendid collection of arts and crafts they have collected. The setting and view is no less spectacular then the house and while our time spent there was interrupted by the typical "summertime" passing rain storms, it provided a welcome opportunity to experience the continual changing conditions of such an ethereal mountain setting.
I traditionally attend these workshops by myself, however, I was fortunate enough this trip to be accompanied by one of my best lifelong friends, Scott James. Scott became interested in turning a little over a year ago when I offered him my first lathe (1950's Sear Craftsmen). I told him when he came down to get it, we would spend the weekend in the turning studio together. All Scott needed to hear was it was "free" and the next weekend he was on my doorstep.
We spent the next weekend together and I instructed Scott on all the basics...which was pretty much a refresher of shop class from 30 years ago. But he was hooked...pole, line and sinker! When I called Scott and told him we were taking a workshop together (I didn't really give him any opportunity to say no) he was hesitant at first...but it didn't take long for him to warm up to the idea. At that point, I actually did begin to worry a little bit (just a little bit) that I might have gotten him in over his head. He hadn't had any real instruction except for that weekend with me and you tube, which as we all know can be as dangerous as it can be helpful.
When the day arrived, I was leaving Hilton Head and headed to Charlotte to pick up Scotty...my mind was completely preoccupied with another subject (a stupid business matter which we're not going into). I pulled up to the gas station before heading north on Interstate 95 and proceeded to pump 18 gallons of unleaded gas into my truck. My diesel truck...
Eighty-two miles later I exited I-95 onto I-26 west...(I'd been wondering why my truck seemed to be running a little rough) as I rounded the cloverleaf and began to merge into traffic I realized that, while I had my foot to the floor, my truck wasn't gaining any speed...and to my dismay, I had a large semi quickly gaining ground behind me. I managed to just pull off onto the berm as the air horn from the speeding truck vanished into thin air as it passed safely beside me. Suddenly my truck began to pick up speed and I merged safely back onto the highway...but at that point I knew something was wrong. A few miles later, I exited the highway in the middle of "No Where", SC...not even a "gas station" existed at this exit. Fortunately Google came through and told me there was a diesel mechanic just three quarters of a mile up the road. To make a long story short, the mechanic was a true southern "good ole boy" who generously stopped what he was working on and had me back on the road within about 2 hours. Of course, by this time I had called Scott, told him what had happen, and thinking I was going to have to leave the truck for the weekend, he drove down from Charlotte to pick me up. (unfortunately I'll never live this one down...)
We managed to arrive in time that evening for our "meet & greet" at the Ellsworth's home and with the day behind us, I set out to establish a new perspective on the weekend. David and his wife couldn't have been more welcoming. The evening was an opportunity to meet our fellow students, learn a little about each other, enjoy a cocktail (maybe two) and discuss our goals for the weekend. After an evening of conversation and a preview of the workshop/studio and gallery, we left energized for the next day's schedule.
I believe one of the reasons they call the weekend an "intensive" is we arrived at 8 am for breakfast and didn't leave until about 8:30 that evening. David and Wendy feed you throughout the weekend, so as not to let you get away from the tasks at hand! Actually, where they live, breaks for meals out would severely "eat into" (pun intended) your time in the studio, so they generously provide wonderful and nutritious meals throughout the weekend. While it made sense to do so...our meal time also provided an opportunity for further discussions on a variety of topics which made the weekend seem more like a gathering of friends...which by the end of the weekend - we were!
I'm a "hand's-on learner". Yes, I watch videos and read magazines, blogs and books...but when it comes right down to it - I like to work with someone "one on one". Whether I'm teaching or learning, I value the mentor/apprentice relationship and it's how I'm most successful in learning new techniques to better my abilities. Yes, practice is important...but unless the skills you are practicing are correct, you're only creating bad habits. So I look for and enjoy taking classes and workshops from men (and women, I'm not bias...Ashley Harwood, here I come) like David because I enjoy that interaction of apprentice/mentor relationship where one can be observed and corrected as well as have the opportunity to watch and ask questions.
Taking these workshops, I've found that sometimes "Artists", even masters of their trade, don't always make the best instructors. It takes a special person who has the ability to convey their thoughts, actions and skills to another person of varying skill levels. I can attest to the fact that David Ellsworth is not only a master of the lathe and the hollow form vessel, but he instinctively knows how to pass his knowledge to the accomplished level of each individual. In my opinion that is difficult to do well!
David was very observant of each of our abilities and moved from one person to the next with comments and suggestions that made sense and improved everyone's skills over the weekend. I felt he particularly picked up on several of my "bad habits" which ultimately cause fatigue to my body after a full day at the lathe. He showed us how to use our body to move the tools through the cut which allows you to relax your hands, arms and shoulders. He helped refine several of my techniques with the bowl gouge that empowered me to produce flawless cuts from the rim all the way through to the bottom of the bowl. We also discussed and dissected multiple logs (as well as several burls I brought with me) to look for the location of valuable objects in the wood and how to choose sections to showcase the grain of the wood in your work.
Finally the time came to talk about turning hollow vessels and the tools associated with that process that David personally had developed (and still makes in his shop today...50 at a time). I was impressed, but by now not surprised, that he had not given into the "ship it overseas, mass production mentality" like so many manufacturers of our generation. It was fascinating and helpful beyond any "you tube" video to learn from David "hands-on" the steps and process of hollowing a vessel. This is done by relying entirely on the knowledge of how that tool performs its cut and then acquiring the skills to precisely guide the tool by hand to make those cuts...instead of relying on today's latest captive systems, "complete with laser beams", which literally take all of the skill out of the process. Don't get me wrong...if you're a gadget guy who lives for the next "best" tool those things are awesome. However, I come from the era of learning/mastering the skill first, then if a tool helps the process...so be it, if you choose to use it!
If you haven't picked up on it by now...I think David Ellsworth is a master of master's. He not only has mastered his tools and his trade, he has developed the skills and patience to teach. If you have a desire to learn the skills of wood turning, I highly recommend attending one of David's classes or workshops. He regularly teaches at a variety of craft schools around the country, but personally I don't think it get's much better than spending the weekend in his new Appalachian Mountain home & workshop...and if you're lucky - I might see you there!