Group Turning

Contemporary Skill-sharing with an Antiquated Machine

Skill sharing is critical to community development. The first Unplugged course was taught at OxBow In 2008. After accumulating all of the tools and building the equipment for this course, it became evident that it could benefit more people than just those who could enroll in a course in a private art school. In 2010 Christina Miller and Rod Northcutt, with the help of Sean Yates, began a project that would bring free woodworking skills to anyone who would participate. 

Rod Northcutt demonstrating how to use a broad axe to shape the wood before it is put on the lathe

The project involved teaching people how to use a spring-pole lathe, built by Northcutt in 2009 during a residency at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center Unlike contemporary lathes, the spring-pole lathe works with reciprocal motion of the wood being turned. The down (cutting) stroke is powered by a treadle pushed by the turner. The return (non-cutting) stroke is provided by a sapling. The action is one of controlled, rhythmic "pedaling" while using the chisels to concentrically carve away the wood to reveal the product. The design is old, although no one seems to know how old (Vikings used them in the 9th century), and objects most commonly made with such a machine included chair parts, handles, and spoons (spoons were made by turning a shape that resembles a tulip bulb, splitting it, and carving out the bowl).

Demonstrating the spring-pole lathe to Eli

Eli at the lathe

Eli recruits his brother Noah

The initial idea behind the project was simple: go to farmers' markets and create a symbolic gesture: make spoons and give them to the people who grow our food. It required bringing green wood logs, cutting them to length, splitting/riving them to a square rod, and faceting them using a drawknife and shaving horse. Only then could they be put on the lathe. The turning is accomplished through skilled use of a variety of chisels to get a bulb form, after which the wood is removed from the lathe so that the team could split them and demonstrate the finer points of carving out the bowls. Many rounds of turners bellied up to the lathe as the rest of the team prepared the wood (before) and helped finish the spoons (after). The contraption is exotic, even to accomplished woodworkers, and it attracted crowds. Some people (often kids) wanted to give it a try. The would start out by fumbling, but would soon be sending fresh ribbons of green wood into the air in front of them. Once they got the hang of it, they would take over the skill sharing by explaining the techniques and guiding new participants to this antiquated mechanism.

Christina Miller working on the bowl of a spoon

Christina Miller and Sean Yates guiding younger makers

Social practice projects often lie along the spectrum between providing true impact and simply being symbolic. The initial plan was symbolic and only slightly engaging. The outcome, however, ended up resulting in actual engaagement, just not as it had been intended. It takes much longer to teach than it does to make, so time was spent in the sharing of skills, rather than the making of symbols. After a day's work, only one spoon was finished and given to a farmer.