Over a hundred years to grow a tree and only a few months to take it down and burn it. Certainly people need heat and in my Nova Scotian climate a wood fire is a beauty to behold on a snowy night with the wind whistling ’round the door. But so much of the wood that moves on down the road in big logging trucks has hidden treasure inside. Knots and crotches and storm damage covered over with scar and bark to keep the tree alive and growing though the storms and years are, for the wood turner, the “X that marks the spot.”
But no one else seems to want this wood except to burn it. Cabinet makers fear those weird grains and twists that trees make when they heal or when they have grown too much alone and resisted winds and sun. No, they want a board that cuts clean and straight with no surprises, one that will do what it is told and do only what is expected. Lumber men know that those areas of beauty are the areas that make a board crack and warp to worthlessness.
Up steps the wood turner. For him, the tree with its twists and curves and scars is a hidden cache of ore to be mined, seeking treasure within. The log but with its outward swing that so annoys the sawyer who wishes a straight and uniform log to set through the mill promises a swirl of grain for the turner and a dramatic contrast from the sap and heart woods within. Knots and changes where the roots move off like spiders’ webs will give a rich feel to a bowl or vase.
That crotch where the tree has begun to send off branches questing for food and providing shelter for birds and squirrels is now a mess for the sawyer. The lovely straight trunk has divided into sections too small for lumbering and there is tension in the wood where branches have resisted the pull of the earth for so many years. But the wood turner knows that within that crotch lies a wonderful feathered grain resembling nothing so much as an ostrich feather, waiting to display its glory to the world.
So the tree finds its way to the turner’s yard. After careful consideration a chainsaw is heard and a piece falls to the ground. Brushing off any dirt that may dull a tool, the wood is carried in to the lathe and secured for turning. The bark is removed and the wood begins to reveal its grain, a mystery never before seen by the eyes of mankind.
A reverent pause is spent as the wood is considered. Perhaps the figure is best seen if the wood is shifted a little one way or another. Maybe another cut will reveal still more beautiful wood. It was intended to turn a bowl but another shape like a box or a vase might be better to display the color and figure that have opened up. Coffee is poured and decisions are made.
Now the first moment of truth has arrived. The wood spins, the tool is sharp, a deep breath is taken and the shavings hiss as the cuts begin. A form has been decided and the turner moves it from mind and heart to hand and heart as the lines are drawn in three dimensions before him or her. The spinning blurs the grain and the figure rests only in the turner’s mind. Questions abound.
Will the next cut open up more beautiful figure or will it remove an exquisite section of grain that can never be restored. It is not as if a canvas is being prepared for paint or color knowing that a mistake can be scraped away and new colors mixed. Already the master’s hand has decorated the medium. Now the responsibility rests with the one who opens the beauty to the world or leaves it piled in the shavings on the floor.
What of the line? Will the piece be lightened by the form or made heavy and ponderous by the color of the wood. A line of grain can change everything. Perhaps a pause of the lathe will open the door to new considerations. Sometimes a little shift of the wood or a subtle shaving will make all the difference.
Sooner of later a decision has to made and the piece is declared finished. Indeed, an appropriate finish needs to be put on the piece to enhance the beauty of the wood and to make that grain stand out. Now it is up to those who look at the piece to decide whether it was good to save the wood from the fireplace. For the turner it is time to get another cup of coffee, take the chainsaw in hand, and stare at the rest of the log to dream of the next creation. Unlike the phoenix, before the ashes comes new life. Another logging truck goes down the road. For the turner it is a field of dreams.