Tools and skill turn wood into art

Class: In Annapolis, an ancient craft gains a new following, as students learn to enhance and shape nature's raw beauty.

April 13, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Several men listen intently as the bearded teacher demonstrates techniques for bringing out the beveled grain and beauty of aged wood - in this case, cuts from a 150- year-old English walnut tree - to make altogether new and artistic objects.

"Wood this pretty doesn't grow on trees, you know," Joseph Dickey, the teacher of the weekly wood-turning class, says just loudly enough to be heard over the noise of his lathe and the shavings that fly from it.

The students watch Dickey crafting a platter using the mechanized blade of his lathe, much as a potter would throw a bowl out of clay at a wheel.

On this Monday night in Annapolis, at a weathered former high school now called Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, there is something striking about how focused the group is on acquiring mastery of this art. It's a skill that stretches back centuries to medieval and biblical times - and is perhaps even something that Joseph, the father of Jesus, knew how to do.

Dickey, 66, a Johns Hopkins University professor of physics who took up wood turning in 1984 as a way to cure the blues, says he has found it a good remedy for the soul.

"It's something to show for your time," he says. "Here, I put my hand on their hands and we turn. Then they go home and do it."

Since he learned how to turn, Dickey has helped start the Chesapeake chapter of the national wood turners organization and become known for his work. When the four-century-old Wye Oak was felled by a storm in 2002, the state arranged for him to make an art piece from a limb - a solid sphere that he titled 2008 A.D.

The workshop students say they have absorbed his three simple laws of wood turning.

"Ride the bevel, cut downhill and dance," according to Ted Rudie of Glen Burnie.

Adds Rudie, "I learn more from just watching Joe in two hours than I could on my own in two months."


"You let your body do the curves with you, to get even curves," Rudie says.

Dickey says: "They got to dance before they get out of class."

The students try to flow and follow the grain of the wood as they shape it. Then Dickey advises them to close their eyes and feel the result.

Creative spirit

At the end of a class, students say, there's nothing quite like it, especially for those who work white-collar jobs.

Says Bill Kost, 50, a federal government budget analyst who commutes to his job in Washington from the Ashton community in Montgomery County: "Where I work, I push paper all day. There's nothing creative, nothing tangible.

"Now you put something, a chunk of plain wood, in a lathe, and I can say I'm an artist for the first time in my life," Kost says. "It's fun to say, `I made it.'"

Character of wood

Dickey tells the class the soft English walnut they are working with has a wonderful character and presence.

He also feels good about the piece of the Wye Oak he turned.

"That was a gorgeous piece of wood, with a stately presence," he says.

The sphere he made is at his home in Davidsonville, but the state has the right to exhibit it for two years, he says.

The tulip poplar, one of Maryland's most common trees, ranks low in this wood turner's book.

"There's hardly a tree that's less interesting," Dickey says. "There's very little character in the grain."

At some point, he volunteers, off-handedly, that he went to high school in this very building - Class of 1957. So the building, the city and Dickey himself have done some turning since then.

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