A walnut bowl and a bruised knuckle

As part of my efforts to learn something new in my life, I took a course yesterday in beginning wood turning.  You know, where you place a big chunk of wood on a lathe and chisel it until it becomes candlesticks or a vase or some artistic doodad.

Figured I’d give it a try.

And I did make a bowl.  Wasn’t planning on making a bowl… but in the end, after what I went through, I’m glad I made at least something.

Let me explain.

Yesterday, I arrived at the campus of the Adirondack Folk Museum, as a student – in my case, for the first time in over thirty years.  I was to take a one-day class in wood turning, and after watching a bunch of YouTube artisans turn blocks of wood and tree stumps into elegant bowls and vases and dishes, I wanted to do this as well.

The instructor, John, greeted me and the other four students with great enthusiasm.  He explained the safety features of the lathes, as well as the different chisels and gouges we would use to build our projects.

Each one of us selected a separate block of wood.  I chose a cherry block.

We put our wood blocks in the lathes and started roughing them into cylinders.  So far, so good.

Then we used turning chisels to create some form.  Okay, I can handle this.

Now comes the next part.  The instructor changed out parts of our lathes, and installed some narrow gouges that would allow us to carve deep holes inside the wood blocks.  Instantly my classmates took to the new techniques, and were on their way to creating candlesticks and single-rose vases and other fun creations.

Okay, I can do this, this is going to be great, and –

Look out – my wood block flew off the lathe.  Almost brained one of my classmates with it.

Whoops.  Whatever I did wrong, my bad.

I put the cherry block back on the lathe, and tried to rough out the inside.  Okay, I’m making progress.  One simple hiccup, nothing too major.  I can do this.  Yeah, I can do this!  Look out world, I’m about to –


I carved the interior of my block too close to the inside wall.  Now I have two pieces of cherry block.  And one of them just went flying.

Tried to work with the remnants.  Didn’t get far.

Meanwhile, my classmates are progressing nicely.  The instructor is keeping an eye on all five of us, he’s moving from lathe to lathe and encouraging everybody to try something with their projects.  Some of my classmates are applying African blackwood to burn and brand the sides of their spinning wooden creations.  Others are using piano wire to create intricate grooves on their projects.

Me … I’m looking at a pile of splinters, sawdust, shavings and a couple of pieces of what used to be a flute vase.  The instructor handed me a block of maple wood.   “That cherry wood might have been too hard for you to start with,” he smiled.  “This maple will be more responsive.”

Okay.  Back to the lathe.  Back to the roughing gouge.  Okay, I’ve gotten the form round again.  Now let’s try to hook up the tools to carve the inside, and …


My wooden carving flew out of the lathe faster than a pumpkin out of an air cannon.  I put it back in the lathe.  It promptly flew out.

The other students break for lunch.  “You should take a break,” the instructor suggests.

I politely decline.  I’m mad at myself.  All the other students have created beautiful carvings on the first time, and I’m botching up my second piece of wood.  And now I’m feeling like I’m taking away the instructor’s time.  That’s not fair to him and it’s not fair to the other students.  And don’t argue with me, this is how I felt at that moment.  “I’m good,” I said.  “I’ll eat lunch later, I want to make this work.”

“Here,” he said.  “Try this piece of catawba wood.  You’ll be fine with this one.  You can already rough out a round form, so you’re in a good spot.”

All right, Miller, don’t give up now.  Rough this bad boy down to a cylinder.  Done.  Now use the chisels to create a tenon on one end, so that you can rotate the wood in the lathe and make it ready for the inner carving.

Rotated.  Okay, let’s start this one more time.  I can do this.  I can do this.


One thing about catawba wood… it flies off a lathe farther than maple wood or cherry wood.  I have experience in this.

A few more tries.  A few more failures.  At which point in time, I realize …

This ain’t working.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the instructor, “I’m holding up your time and the other students’ time.  I don’t think this is for me.”

“Nonsense,” he said.  “I think we have something that will work for you.  I don’t want you to leave this building until you’ve achieved some success.”

With that, he brought me what looked like a roughed-out wooden walnut bowl.  “Another student tried to turn this into a bowl,” he said, “but didn’t have much success.  You’ve already shown you can use the tools, so let’s have you finish this bowl out as your own.”

With that, the instructor showed me some extra techniques.  And before long, the instructor – and the other students, who seemed more encouraging of my plight and not looking at me as the kid holding everybody else down (you hear that, third grade classmates from 1972?  You hear that?) – helped motivate me to finish out the bowl.

And by God, I did get the bowl done.  It looks kinda nice.

Then came the final incident.

One of the students added lines to her project by using a strand of wrapped piano wire.  “I want to try that when you’re done,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, “I’m just finishing. … here you go.”

The wire was held on each end by two wooden sticks.  So long as I held the sticks in place and rubbed the wire along the wood while the wood was spinning in the lathe, all would look nice.

I started the lathe.  I wrapped the piano wire around my spinning bowl, and –

ZING the wire – along with the wooden handle – flew out of my grip – and spun around and whacked me on the back of my hand with the force of a hundred piledrivers.

I played it off.  A little scrape.  The instructor saw the bleeding on the back of my hand.  The wooden handle smashed into my knuckle.  “Let’s clean that out,” he said, as he applied an antiseptic and a bandage.  “You’re working here with wood and dust.”

Eventually, though, I was able to finish the bowl.  And after the instructor showed me how to chip away the tenon, I applied some oil and wax to the bowl exterior, turning the ash-white form into a golden-walnut thing of beauty.

“That looks great,” one of the students said to me.  “Real impressive.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “But those candlesticks you built are amazing.  You guys are rock stars here.”

Once I knew the bowl was finished, I let the instructor know that I appreciated all of his help and his encouragement, and I was glad to take the course.

“You’d do better in my wooden bowl class,” he said.  “You’ve shown you can do this.”

And maybe I’ll take that bowl class.  But for now, I understand that I have limitations in my work.  I can’t pick up some technique from YouTube clips and think, for a moment, that I know what the hell I’m doing.  Trust me, watching every pitch Justin Verlander throws doesn’t make me the #3 starter on any baseball team.

Will I take another class at the Adirondack Folk School?  Of course I will.  There are so many classes available – everything from quilting to felting to blacksmithing to other outdoors and indoors projects.  And adult education is the way to go these days.

And maybe in 2018 I’ll take that wood bowl making class.

But for now, I will simply acknowledge that I did my best, and after tearing apart cherry wood, maple wood and catawba wood, I drove home with a walnut bowl and a bruised knuckle.

And an education, for sure.