A Revolution in Turning

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This article is from Issue 13 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Master woodturner, dedicated teacher, lifetime student — David Ellsworth is all of these within a lifestyle that integrates making objects that push the boundaries of his craft with teaching and inspiring students of all ages and skill levels. 

The woodturner’s whole body dips and undulates, but his eyes steadily regard the tip of his gouge and the cresting profile of the spinning vessel beneath. Water sprays from the green wood’s cellulose as a confetti of shavings decorates the floor. An arboreal fragrance and the whine of 1,000 rpms linger in the air. 

This captivating sight of David Ellsworth at his lathe was the reason eight students had traveled to Colorado from as far away as Virginia, New York and Tennessee. An August 2005 class with the legendary turner at Anderson Ranch Arts Center promised many hours of working side-by-side with one of turning’s true masters.  

But it also resulted in some unconventional routines. Early each morning, a group of mature gentlemen lay on the floor of the turning studio, trying to breathe in unaccustomed ways and flex long-forgotten muscles in abdomen and thighs. Ellsworth espouses body movement, exercises and visualization as important elements of turning, though some are skeptical of this touchy-feely process. He knows that while his students may harrumph and feel self-conscious, they won’t forget these important lessons. “On the fifth day I bring them cookies and milk as their reward for surviving for five days and doing stuff they don’t think is important,” he laughs.

“Black Pot-Dawn” (2000) Ash, 7"h, turned, burned and burnished. “The term ‘dawn’ within the title refers to that very brief moment in time between the dark of night and first light when the atmosphere is transparent. My intent is to present a transparent glaze-like finish, not unlike a ceramic glaze.”

A turner for more than 30 years, Ellsworth knows standing at a lathe can take a toll on the body. His goal with advanced students is to provoke an awareness of, or connection with, the body. He explains connectedness as “the tool that is supported by the bevel that is supported by the shaft and the handle and the hands and the arm and the shoulder and the waist and the torso and the legs and the feet and the toes and everything else. If you take any one of those elements out of the chain, you weaken it. When you weaken the chain, something’s got to compensate and, for woodturners, it’s always arm muscles. Always.” That’s why tendonitis and bursitis are common injuries among veteran turners. Use of the entire body results in safer, more effective turning.

“Just by spreading your feet and unlocking your knees,” Ellsworth says, “you become balanced so that other things can be discovered and used. If a potter tried to center a piece of clay on a wheel using only arms and shoulders, he’d be forever trying to get the blob centered; he’d never make anything.” Focused on the workpiece, turners often forget to monitor and balance the body’s position.

But full-time balance is not what the master seeks. “They think I’m nuts!” Ellsworth says of his students. “And that’s good. If I can get them off-balance I can work with them.” 

“Man, And the Forest Architecture” (1983) Spalted Sugar Maple, tallest: 17". “These tubular forms are from a series that celebrates the relationship between myself as maker and the architecture of the forest in which I live and draw my materials. There were only nine pieces within the series, each representing a distinct character within the family of man: father, mother, teenager, uncle, etc.”

A fine arts approach to turning

Ellsworth is a captivating storyteller, knowledgeable on many topics from turning education to the craft market to the anthropological writings of Joseph Campbell (which inform his philosophical approach to turning). His wisdom, gained from making thousands of objects, and his dedication to the teaching and promotion of turning have garnered the esteem of many. In 2002 he was made a Fellow of the American Craft Council, and is now on its board of trustees.

Ellsworth first tried turning at the age of 14, and he pursued this interest through high school. After three years in the military during the Vietnam era, he enrolled at the University of Colorado to study drawing and sculpture. He explored a variety of materials, including cast metal and polyester resin, as he concentrated on three-dimensional art. But it was clay that won his heart. He was inspired by studying the clay and ceramic objects of different times and cultures, learning what various shapes represent in their historical framework. The thin-walled pots of ancient Native American peoples with their patterns, textures and colors, fascinated him. 

“Redwood Pitch Burl” (2006) 3"h x 5"d, “This beautiful material has an extremely delicate, lace-like construction that is half wood and half pitch! Unlike the ‘lace’ burl most of us are familiar with, ‘pitch’ formations are quite rare and generally filled with areas of rot making it very challenging to work with.”

Having perfected the art of centering clay on a wheel at graduate school (he acquired his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1973), Ellsworth revisited his boyhood fascination and made the transition to centering wood on a lathe. During the late 1970s, he attempted to emulate the ceramic vessels he admired by creating a series of unique hollow vessels. His modus operandi was to form a vessel shape on the lathe and then remove the interior volume to match the exterior contours. He devised a number of bent-shaft tools that resulted in delicate thin-walled (1/16" thick) wooden pots, impressing many established turners when he entered his first national exhibition in 1977. In the May/June 1979 issue of Fine Woodworking, Ellsworth authored the article “Hollow Turning.” He was now on the woodturning map.

“Machel” (1991) Ash (painted and burned), 18"h x 12"w x 14"d; an “Intersphere” from the Solstice Series. "The Solstice Series evolved during the Gulf War and the first Bush Recession as a personal statement about the relationship between chaos and order. A second element of designing this series was to challenge our conventional understanding of the term ‘beauty’ in wood. This piece is an excellent example of how the natural tensions in wood, once released, can transform a simple vessel shape into a very dynamic sculptural form.”

A few years earlier, Ellsworth had designed a production line of salt, pepper and sugar shakers. The discipline of making 5,000 sets of them honed his skills, but when his one-of-a-kind pots proved to be more valued and lucrative, he established a studio in Boulder, Colo., and has been a professional turner ever since. He now calls Quakertown, Pa., home.

Exhibitions, books and magazines have documented Ellsworth’s career as a maker. His portfolio demonstrates his empathy with wood and his ability to maximize its idiosyncrasies rather than simply exploit its natural beauty. He has taken risks — his Solstice Series (early 1990s), consisting of cracked, torched, and painted wood forms, was rejected by critics and some collectors. 

In the late 1980s he turned natural-edged burl forms of dimensions up to 30"  in diameter and 54" tall.  But Ellsworth became disenchanted with the notion that the beauty of the wood itself was selling the work. He wanted to make an object from a common wood and imbue it with financial and spiritual worth equal to one whose raw material was a “hot” burl.  

“So I made a conscious decision to discover my roots and found them in the sphere, of all things. Here we are living on a round sphere, looking up into the heavens at round spheres.” He decided to use the white oak that grew on his rural property. The combination of a simple form with a simple wood engendered “a sense of order, a sense of grounding” that fostered a revitalization in Ellsworth’s career.

“Pot” (2006) Spalted Sugar Maple. 5"h x 3.5"d. “My forms are so strongly based in ceramic forms that I began referring to them as ‘pots’ rather than ‘vessels’ in 1989. As often occurs in ceramics, this pot is an example of using two textures in the same piece. First, the solid wood areas are sanded, oiled and polished. Then I have retained the natural pastel tones of the spalted areas with an unsanded surface sprayed with artist fixative.”

Exploring design – one sphere at a time

“The sphere itself is basically a very boring object — it is too perfect.  And yet, if you see films of a sphere in slow motion, like a drop of water coming from a spigot, it changes and undulates — it’s still a sphere but it is never a perfect sphere. So I make objects where I squish a sphere and raise a rim or I’ll stretch an object out lineally and then squeeze it to the side, like a peanut shell. I’ll put the grain diagonally through a form and make a perfect sphere so that when it distorts from green to dry it’s no longer a sphere. It has a life of its own, a personality.”

Ellsworth works with green wood, and uses a variety of surface treatments. Some pieces remain au naturel right off the tool; sometimes they are sanded or sprayed with clear acrylic lacquer. He says spalted wood has a quiet surface that needs no enhancement. “I also make pieces out of very dense and resinous woods, like rosewood, which demand a nicely polished surface, and I will give it that because that’s what it asks for.” 

“Maple Pot” (2006) Spalted Sugar Maple, 11"h x 11"d. “This heavily spalted and distressed piece of wood provided an opportunity to show how beautiful wood can be in its most extreme and raw state. The fresh cut surface comes directly from the gouge with no sanding and is ‘finished’ with a spray artist fixative. The resulting surface shows the true color of the wood and has a slight texture not unlike a raku-like surface in ceramics.”

Teaching — and letting go

Making objects occupies much of Ellsworth’s time, but he also teaches classes, writes articles, makes tutorial videotapes and works with various turning organizations. While he’s teaching, at a facility like Anderson Ranch or in his Pennsylvania studio, he works alongside his students so they can observe him. But he also enjoys observing them. “Watching people, watching the lightning strike, so to speak, in their hearts and seeing them emerge for whatever reason, through the process of their craft, is a magnificent episode for a teacher,” he says. 

Yet Ellsworth advises his colleagues to let go. “We need to trust our students. Give them a certain amount of information and inspiration and then turn them loose to find out how that applies to them.”

“Lunar Pot” (2000) Spalted Sugar Maple, 13"h x 13"d. “My designs evolve primarily from the sphere, be they pushed, pulled, stretched or squashed. In this case, the grain of the sphere was placed on the diagonal so that the form, once turned and dried, lists slightly to one side. The delicacy of this illusion is enhanced by the direction of the spalted lines that circumvent the form.”

Because there are very few colleges and universities presently offering programs in woodturning, the majority of its practitioners are hobbyists who are self-taught and improve their skills through workshops. But the diversity of the hobbyists is dynamic. “They have professional interests in totally unrelated subjects in most cases; in some cases their backgrounds are related to the arts but it could be writing or music or bookbinding. 

“We are seeing a lot of retired people reinvent themselves as a result of this hobby. My oldest student was 95 when he first approached woodturning. He’s now 99 and still orders gouges from me once a year. We’ve got a field that is filled with women who are doing exceptional work. Woodturning has always had women, notably in the Victorian era.” 

When he conducts workshops on his home turf, Ellsworth’s aim is inclusivity: his students include doctors, senators, clergymen and just plain folks. “I have everybody on a first-name basis. It’s really wonderful. And that’s the way I treat people, everywhere I go.”

D Wood

D Wood has an MFA in furniture design from the Rhode Island School of Design. She is a freelance writer for a variety of international craft and art publications. When not writing, she teaches design at Tucson Design College and explores the Arizona desert. 


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