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Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 10/8/99


I attended a week long woodturning class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. The school was started in 1925 by the wife of John Campbell and a female associate. Brasstown is located in the scenic rolling foothills of North Carolina near the borders of Georgia and Tennessee and is near nothing.

The school offers classes in a wide variety of subjects; woodturning, woodworking, blacksmith, pottery, quilting, story telling, writing, basket making, nature study, paper making, etc. etc. Many couples attend classes, each taking a different subject but my wife, Cathy, spent our time there following her own pursuits outside the school..

Registration is Sunday afternoon with instructor and assistant instructor introduction and classroom indoctrination Sunday evening after dinner. Start the lathes turning!!!

The classroom is of adequate size and the inventory of tools impressive. There are eleven lathes: ten for students and one for instructor demonstration consisting of Generals, Sorbys and Powermatics. There are two Wolverine sharpening systems to keep your turning tools sharp, a drill press and a band saw. An adequate supply of loaner tools is available but I wanted to learn with what I have, so I brought my own. We spent up to ten hours a day in the classroom and most of us had to be forced to turn the lathes off to go to meals at end of the day.

I have personally taken instruction from five turners who instruct or assist at John C. Campbell. They are all extremely knowledgeable and personable. They are all people whom I would be proud to call "friend."

Different woodturning classes are offered throughout the year. The class I took featured green bowl turning. Newly cut ash, maple and cherry logs were delivered to an already sizable woodpile out back. There was some wood in the pile that had been there a while, so a few of us turned some spalted maple blanks. Almost all the students brought blanks of various woods from home. In this particular class it was expected that the students would have had prior turning experience. Of course, some had less experience than others but it was a good mix of beginner to intermediate turners.

Accommodations were simple but clean and air conditioned/heated. The rooms are in old buildings: houses, mills, farm buildings that have been remodeled. The lone student is expected to share a room, but if privacy is an issue, an entire room can be rented. My wife and I had a very nice room to ourselves with three single beds. Group discussions, joke telling, cocktails and day-end recaps were held nightly on the front porch of the house we stayed in. It was a very enjoyable part of the whole experience.

The food was not the epitome of epicurean cuisine but it was good, solid, and tasty, with the emphasis on traditional southern cooking. Vegetarian meals were served every day and students with special dietary requirements had only to ask. The kitchen staff is courteous, willing to accommodate, and does an outstanding job cooking for such a large and diverse group.

Ok, what did I learn in my class? I learned the proper way to sharpen a couple of the turning tools that had been giving me a problem. I learned new techniques that improved my performance and improved the techniques that I already knew. I learned how to get to the finished product faster, which is really why I took the class. The two instructors were always right there helping, pointing out safety recommendations, making excellent suggestions and making sure we were staying on the right track. Yes, there were times that I needed help or had a question and the instructors were busy with other students, but the wait was never long. And the personal instruction, direct answers and hands-on learning were always worth the wait.

Was the money well spent? Would I take another woodturning class there? Would I recommend the school to a friend? Yes to all three questions.

The John C. Campbell Folk School can be viewed on the web at http://www.folkschool.org/. Their phone number is 1-800-365-5724.

Jay Towles

Editors Note: Not being an experienced turner myself, I asked Jay the important differences between turning green and dry wood? Here is his patient response:

The most important differences between turning green and dry wood? Green wood is a heck of a lot easier to turn. The wood is much softer. The shavings just fly off the wood in long spiraling ribbons. It is possible to simply turn a piece of wood into nothing just from the shear joy of watching the bowl gouge do its thing.

Of course you get a little "slinging of the sap" effect, and can drench what ever is in line with the wood that is spinning...the wall, the floor, the ceiling, yourself, whatever. Cherry sap leaves dark stains on your hands that only lemon juice will remove.

Since the wood is softer, it is easy to shape the bowl into whatever design you have in mind, or in my case, whatever design the wood happens to lead me to. You can turn a green blank down to a thin walled vessel, sand it, finish it and polish it. It will look just great. The downside is that the bowl is subject to warping and cracking. I no longer turn green wood down to a finished product. It is just too disappointing to me to come back the day after I have made a bowl that I am proud of, to see that it is no longer round and has one or more cracks in it.

The solution is to rough turn the bowl, get it close to the shape you want then stop. I believe the rule of thumb is leave 3/4" thickness on the sides for every 6 inches diameter of the bowl. Then practice patience. (Patience hell, I want to turn something!) Let the bowl sit until it has dried out. Some people put the rough turned bowls in plastic bags and daily remove the bowl, turn the plastic inside out, then replace the bowl. Some encapsulate the bowl in a waxy substance. Others just place it on a shelf and forget about it for a few months.

It is a good idea to label the rough turned bowl. Write the date it was turned, the type of wood and what ever little note you may want (gift from Ed, tree from 3rd Ave., whatever). I have heard tell of a turner that puts his newly turned bowls on the bottom shelf and each week moves them up a shelf. When they get to the top shelf they are ready to finish turn. No, I did not hear how many shelves were involved.

What method do I use? Well, I gave up on the plastic bag thing, I couldn't remember to do it every day. I have some bowls sitting on the shelf just as they came from the lathe and I have some encapsulated with some watered down carpenter's glue that got too old to trust. However the rough turned bowls are dried, a few are always lost to splitting.

Dry wood is harder wood. It has become denser with the lack of moisture, the fibers moving closer together, making it more difficult to turn. But it is stable. What you turn is what you get. Very seldom will a dry wood bowl warp or crack. Of course, there may be checks already in the wood that turning brings out. There usually are checks in the ends of large pieces of dry wood. But those checks hopefully don't go too deep, and disappear when the ends are trimmed off prior to turning.

Also, when wood is removed from over here, tension is relaxed over there, and this can cause or intensify checking. Tools must be sharpened much more often, and it certainly does take longer to remove dry wood. In the photo I attached, if it comes out, are four of the dozen or so bowls that I turned at J.C. Campbell.

The top bowl is of spalted maple. When I finished the bowl it was about 13 inches in diameter. It now measures 13-3/4" in diameter one way, and 12-1/2" perpendicular to the first measurement. Fortunately, it has not cracked ... yet. The bottom bowl is cherry, and it is no longer round or level on the top. The third bowl from the top is a walnut platter, which was dry when I turned it, as is the bird's eye maple second from the top. I brought the bird's eye from home, and the walnut another student dug out of a trash pile. Not pictured, because I gave it to a neighbor that collected our mail and newspapers while we were at the school, is a natural edged ash bowl about ten inches long. Also, there is a big cherry bowl that cracked so bad, it now resides in the shop and is full of miscellaneous small tools.

Jay Towles

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