Sally Ault: Turning Wood into Many Shapes ... in a Lot of Places

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When I first visited Sally Ault’s website and looked through her gallery, I was impressed by the variety of her work and especially fascinated by a Sea Urchin Box with a Walnut Lid and Shell Finial … and by a photo of a lathe set up on a beach by the ocean.

I later learned that the photo was taken during one of her many trips with her late husband, Barry, to Baja, California, in the motor home that Barry built from a bus.

“I always took my small lathe, tools and a generator and turned while I watched him windsurf. It was perfect,” Sally said.

I had only heard about Sally a few days earlier when Woodcraft learned that she was the Grand Prize Winner in a drawing at the 2017 Penturner’s Rendezvous, held in conjunction with the Utah Woodturning Symposium. Since Woodcraft donated the prize, a Rikon Mini Lathe, I was assigned to write a press release to announce her selection as winner – and that she, like her 2016 predecessor, had decided to donate her lathe to a veteran in the Turn Around for Vets program organized by the San Diego Woodturners. She and the 2016 winner Brian Saunders are members of the club and volunteer with Turn Around for Vets. 

Sea Urchins and Wood Boxes

After I learned that she was born and raised in San Diego, I suspected her proximity to the ocean had inspired the Sea Urchin series of boxes that attracted my interest. I was correct, and in my later interview she explained:

“I love the sea.  I have always lived close to the water, and beachcombing is one of my favorite things to do. Sea Urchins are beautiful, and I wanted to do something with them other than make a Christmas ornament, so I came up with the idea of using the Sea Urchin shell as the outside of a small box. I turn an insert, lid and foot or pedestal so that the box is functional and stronger than it looks. It took me quite a while to figure out how to stabilize the shell and make it possible to add the wood parts. Sea Urchins only look symmetrical – they aren’t – so fitting the wood pieces into the shell is a different challenge on each one.”

PHOTO: A Sea Urchin Box similar to this one won a Purchase Award at the 2012 Small Image Show at Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park.

Weaving, Jewelry Design, Ceramics … And Woodturning

At San Diego State College, Sally focused on weaving, jewelry design and ceramics and graduated with a BA degree in art, with a crafts emphasis. She was also introduced to woodturning in a furniture class, but it was not until years later, in 2001 when she took a quick class in woodturning, that she got serious about turning wood.

In her bio, written in 2010, Sally shared, “I enjoy all types of woodturning, but currently my focus is on lidded containers, including the Sea Urchin series, open bowls, embellished pieces and jewelry.” 

PHOTO:  Dyed Maple Bowl 

Asked if her focus has changed, Sally said, “That is a pretty wide range of items, and yes I still do all of those … I am doing more lately with altering surfaces through texturing, carving, sandblasting and adding color. It’s fun and I am pleased with some of the final pieces.”

For her embellished pieces, Sally said she carves into the wood with abrasive blasting, carving tools and/or texturing tools on the lathe before adding paint, dye, stain or other materials to the surface.  

Redwood Bowl with Sandblasted Leaves
Sandblasted Redwood Bowl

Carved and Burned Wood Insert Box

“I also create cabochons out of wood to insert into the lid of boxes, but they look like stone when they are finished.”

Asked whether her college study in ceramics and weaving had any impact on her turning, Sally said, “Ceramics definitely influenced my turning, since the forms are similar. Many turners study pottery and ceramics from many centuries for inspiration.”

Weaving, however, really hasn’t influenced her turning, Sally said, except that she uses fiber in some of her jewelry pieces.

My jewelry pieces are mostly created by turning wood shapes on the lathe and combining them with other materials,” she shared.

Wood and Brass Beaded Necklace

Buckeye Burl, Brass and Twig Pendant

Turquoise, Maple and Silver Pendant

New Award to Add to Sally’s Collection

Sally won first place in the Woodworking Facework Perpendicular category at the 2017 Design in Wood Show sponsored by the San Diego Fine Woodworkers Association during the San Diego County Fair.

“It is a pretty prestigious show,” Sally said, “and I almost didn’t enter the piece that won, since historically that category has always been won by large pieces and mine was not large.”

"Little Feat"

“Little Feat,” Sally's red oak bowl with carved feet 
Her piece won a blue ribbon at the 2017 Design in Wood Show.

Sally has won other awards at Design in Wood: in 2016 a second place for a Hau, Blackwood and Fan Coral Hollow Form with Root (pictured below), which also won the San Diego Woodturners Association Annual Award; in 2011, the San Diego Woodturners Association Annual Award for a Maple Hollow Vessel; and in 2010 Best in Class for a Myrtle Wood Platter. “I also won many honorable mentions before finally winning a good award,” Sally said.

In the annual Small Image Show at Spanish Village, her Sea Urchin Box won a Special Purchase Award in 2012 and her Box Elder Burl and Coral piece won an award in 2014.

Showing and Selling

Sally is part of Studio 38, a co-op gallery located in a group of 37 artists’ studios in the Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park, a section of San Diego. “It is a wonderful creative atmosphere,” Sally said. “We get people from all over the world visiting Spanish Village. Most of the pieces I have there are smaller, since people love to buy something beautiful but it has to fit in their luggage!”                                                                                

There are 10 wood artists in Studio 38 … 5 are turners. “We take turns being ‘on duty’ there, and I love talking about wood to the visitors. I have a small Bonnie Klein lathe that I use when I am there (because I can actually carry it myself); it has a swing of about 5" so I mostly make tops, small vases for dried weeds, and pens on it, but our visitors love to see turning happening.”

“I also have work at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa – in their Collectors’ Gallery, pieces in the gift shop at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, and work at a local gallery that creates wonderful natural edge tables.” Sally said.  “I also sell my work at shows put on by my local Point Loma Artists Association.

Learning and Sharing

As she developed her craft, Sally’s work was shaped through workshops and demos with some of the best turners in the world. “I have taken inspiration or techniques, which I am able to use in my own work,” she said. “The list of those whose work inspires me is long and impressive – too long to mention them all.”

One of Sally’s workshop-type experiences that she describes an “amazing 10 weeks” was her selection in 2013 for a residency at the prestigious Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado.

“We were encouraged to push our limits and not to worry about producing anything … just learning and experimenting,” Sally shared. “I spent many, many hours at the lathe, as well as in the ceramics and sculpture studios, just making anything that came to mind. The freedom really helped me when I returned home to try things and not be afraid to fail. The freedom to not worry about failing actually increased my productivity. I think because I tried many new things that I might not have tried before, I became a much better turner.”

She also observed, “The many, many hours on the lathe also increased my tool skills, and the interaction with the 13 other residents in 7 media was invaluable as well. People who are not turners will see something in your work very differently, and it is something every turner should take advantage of.”

Sally continues to attend workshops and symposiums to learn from and share with other turners, and she is also a presenter at workshops and demonstrations.

In 2016 Sally was a featured demonstrator at the American Association of Woodturners Annual International Symposium in Atlanta, and this year she was on two panels at the symposium at Kansas City, Missouri, in June. In the next few months, she will be doing demos in Oregon, Michigan and San Francisco. So far next year she will be demonstrating in Vancouver and will teach at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in September.

In the photo below, Sally tries to use a 5,000 year lathe design left-handed, while her right hand is moving the wood using a rope bow during World Wood Day. Although the Chinese man who demonstrated it had no trouble, Sally said she found it amazingly difficult and completely humbling! This annual international event that celebrates the key role wood plays in a sustainable world was held in Long Beach, California, this year. 

Woodturning and Family

Sally is the only woodturner in her family, although her grandson Colin is interested in turning. He turned a pen at 7 and has turned a baseball bat and pens for his parents at Christmas and for his teacher each year.

Sally’s late husband did turn a few pieces, but she said he preferred to create in different ways. “He made parts for his boat, built a motor home, sailed, surfed and windsurfed, but he also helped me by fixing anything that broke. He made and modified some tools for me and generally supported my addiction to woodturning in any way he could! He did finally put me on wood restriction though.”

To see more of Sally’s work, visit and follow her on Facebook at


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