Woodturning Whiz Kid

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This article is from Issue 10 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Sharon Hambrick

Two years ago, New Hampshire teen Graham Oakes discovered his tremendous talent and passion for woodturning. Awards, unexpected sales and invitations to demonstrate followed, and today his future appears bright with woodturning possibilities.

Graham Oakes approaches life full speed ahead. The New Hampshire teen and aspiring master woodturner can tell you — passionately — exactly what he wants to do today and for the rest of his life. “My mind just goes nuts when I see a piece of wood and start turning. My plans are always changing when I cut into a piece of wood and start turning. I’ll never give up woodworking.” 

And Graham knows where he wants woodturning to take him: “My overall goal is to be one of the world’s best.” To 18-year-old Graham that means joining the ranks of his idols — David Ellsworth and Robert Chapman. 

Two years ago, the Pinkerton Academy senior could claim basic woodworking skills but was yet unacquainted with woodturning. Today, several awards and more than $6,000 in sales later, woodturning is the center of Graham’s life. He’s a local celebrity of sorts, is among demonstrators for an upcoming prestigious symposium and gives private lessons.

“He’s in a league of his own,” says woodworking instructor Jack Grube. “He is by far the most talented and passionate student I have ever encountered.”

NESTED CHERRY BURL BOWLS won second in a student design competition.

Awakening creativity

What transformed this otherwise normal teenager into what local media labeled a “woodworking wunderkind”? Graham will quickly tell you in two words: Creative Enterprise.

When Graham arrived at Grube’s woodworking class as a junior, it was not business as usual. It was Creative Enterprise, a one-time program developed by Grube and woodturning specialist Beth Ireland with funding from a Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers grant. The goals: to spark students’ creativity and to help them market their talent.

Ireland assigned students to learn three basic skill sets related to the lathe and bandsaw, teaching them tool use, safety and design. “My idea was that we teach the kids a set of skills. By having them do multiples they could become confident in the technical act of making which left them free to be creative about what they were making,” Ireland explained.

GRAHAM SPENDS a lot of time honing his woodturning skills in his home shop.

raw materials and researched products and running a business. They also talked to local business owners. And one day they sold their products, learning more lessons about displaying their work and responding to the public politely.  “I wanted to instill in these students that the ability to make a living could possibly be found right in their own hands,” Ireland said.

 It was within this creative environment that Graham discovered his natural talent for woodturning and realized its marketing potential. When students held their first sale – in-school to teachers – Graham’s coffee scoops netted $30. “I gave 10 percent to Mr. Grube for costs, and I made $27. I felt ‘wow’ I just spent a whole day in school, and I actually made money doing something I like!” Graham was hooked. “This was the class that really got me going,” he said.

Watching this phenomenal young talent emerge, Grube and Ireland

 realized that while Graham’s class performance exceeded expectations the realization that he could actually sell his creations triggered the passion that continues to drive him. 

Just as Creative Enterprise ignited Graham’s passion for woodturning, Dustin Coates of Etna, N.H., likely shaped the direction of Graham’s woodturning career. Coates was one of several professionals who demonstrated specific skills in between Ireland’s class sessions. He also welcomed Grube, Graham and other students to his shop.

“He really influenced me in the way of turning green wood and burls,” Graham said. “I found his stuff so amazing that such beautiful wood could be so plentiful for somebody willing to look for it.”  

A different path

Armed with newfound turning skills, Beth Ireland’s marketing savvy and visions of Dustin Coates’ work, Graham struck out on his own to some extent during his second semester in Intermediate Woodworking. “I managed to purchase a lathe and started turning a lot on my own,” he explained. Lacking a work area, he turned his bedroom into a shop and moved in temporarily with his brother. 

He also began the first of many trips into the nearby forest to select wood (usually cherry, maple or oak) for his projects, dragging the wood home and chopping it for turning. Graham learned early that he could obtain free wood for the asking once landowners learned he is a student. Instead of paying $60 for a bowl blank, he cuts his own trees without charge.

Once in the woods, Graham searches for trees that have the most interesting burls – natural protrusions. “The grain and figuring inside the burls are very intense and random. My whole fascination with woodworking now is cutting into a burl and seeing what it has to offer. That is what keeps me going,” Graham said.

Graham prefers turning wood green – before it dries. “I just turn all my wood wet,” he said. “I like having the wet shavings coming off the lathe. It makes nice cuts, and you don’t have to worry about all that dust that can harm you. I just fell in love with it.”  

To resolve the warping and sometimes checking with his green-turned pieces, Graham discovered a solution: “I pretty much came to a process where I rough-turn the bowl and allow it to dry. After that I turn it down to the final dimensions, sand and finish it. It has been working really well.”

Graham eventually moved from his bedroom to a regular shop, a 10' x 16' shed that has been insulated and fitted with a heater. A lathe and a chain saw are his only power tools, although he hopes to add a bandsaw later. Graham makes most of his own hand tools, primarily hollowing tools and scrapers, so he can custom-design them and save some money.

For finishing, Graham discovered an unusual product close to home — urethane oil modified by a New London, N.H., woodworker, Peter Bloch, for use on his translucent lampshades. Graham says it is the best of the many products he has tried so far. 

GRAHAM CONTINUES TO EXPERIMENT with different shapes, sizes and forms for his turned pieces. The hollow form at right, an early work, won first place in a woodcarvers’ contest.  

Keeping it simple

“One of the things that is a lot different about me is that I like to keep things very simple,” Graham explained. “I like simple shapes and simple tools and using pretty much the same one or two tools to do the entire process to make a piece. Most people spend time learning how to use tools and are not concentrating on what they are actually making.”

The simple shapes that please Graham are primarily bowls and hollow forms, but he rarely knows which will emerge when he puts wood on the lathe and launches a new project. 

“When I chop up a piece of wood and see the grain and figuring, I get ideas for how I want to make it – the shape and where I want to position the grain. Normally, I will place the piece on the lathe and as I begin turning I let the wood pretty much decide what piece it makes. I always have an idea of what I want to start out but not once has it ever turned out as anticipated,” Graham explains.

Graham’s finished pieces emphasize style over practicality for the most part — a distinctive style that while still in the developing stage sets his work apart from that of his peers. 

“Most of my pieces are not 100 percent practical,” Graham says. “You don’t eat food off a painting. I feel that my wood can be referred to as a painting. I do make some utilitarian bowls that you can put candy and nuts in, but I prefer to make more stylish bowls that look good on the countertop or table.”

How long does it take Graham to turn a piece? “It depends on the size. Small miniatures sometimes 10 minutes. My larger pieces can go anywhere from two to eight hours of hollowing and sanding.”

GRAHAM PREFERS to scour the woods for trees with interesting burls, which he then cuts down and drags home.

Selling creativity

When it comes to selling his pieces, Graham has found targeting customers to be the most difficult part. “Some people look at a piece and say that natural edge is ugly (I leave the bark on some of the natural edges of a bowl). Other people say, ‘That looks like a nice piece of nature I can have in my house’, and they view it as an elegant showpiece.”

His early marketing experience taught Graham to make small pieces he can sell for $5 to $10 as well as larger ones that begin at $350.

Graham prefers the low-key approach to selling – sitting back and watching customers, then choosing to target the ones who return for a second look. His product and his marketing approach apparently work since Graham’s sales passed the $6,000 mark in less than two years after he entered the Creative Enterprise program. 

Graham’s goal now is to reach $10,000. He is busy building inventory with new projects — sets of three natural-edge hollow forms and sets of three natural-edge bowls, all the same shape but different sizes, and sets of miniatures. 

Public recognition

In less than two years Graham won several awards that brought local media recognition for him and Creative Enterprise:

• Second place award in the 2005 New England Student Woodworking Design Competition for a set of nested cherry burl bowls he created using a coring system to scoop them out of the same chunk of wood.

• Woodcraft Supply’s Tradition of Excellence award that recognizes woodworkers who exemplify several outstanding personal and woodworking qualities. 

• Two first place awards in the 2005 New England Woodcarvers Spirit of Wood competition for a unique hollow form — a form inside a form turned from the bottom piece — and a bowl.

New horizons

Graham’s talent and passion are now taking him beyond the classroom and home shop.

On May 13, he will make history of sorts when he becomes the youngest demonstrator ever at the 5th New England Woodturning Symposium, an event hosted every three years by the Granite State Woodturners in conjunction with the Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers. Graham is a guild member. 

Ironically, one of the demonstrators at the 2003 symposium was David Ellsworth. At the time Graham, a basic woodworking student, brushed off Grube’s suggestion that he should meet Ellsworth, a choice Graham later regretted after viewing Ellsworth on video and realizing how much his work resembles Ellsworth’s.

In March Graham, aided by Grube, made three presentations at a Technology Education Association of Massachusetts conference. In “One Tool Wonder” Graham demonstrated about a dozen cuts using a side grind bowl gouge. The point: learn all the uses of a tool before buying another one you may not need. (A video of Graham’s tool demonstration, produced with school resources, was available for sale at the conference.) The student/teacher duo discussed Creative Enterprise and hosted an open forum during the other two presentations. 

Earlier this year Graham began giving private lessons to an experienced woodworker. And Graham now has a Web site, turnatree.com, to sell his products.  

PINKERTON ACADEMY woodworking instructor Jack Grube and Graham Oakes discuss a piece in progress.

An amazing talent

Graham constantly amazes Grube, who says he has a hard time keeping up with the young woodturner.

“Unbridled passion is all I can use to describe him,” Grube said. “He’ll leave school one day and come back the next with four pieces completed. He came in the other day and said ‘I’m running a discount sale on ’06 closeouts.’ It’s just unheard of that an 18-year-old kid is doing that.” 

“He is an amazing talent,” Beth Ireland observed. “He is a talented woodturner but I think his talent comes from self-discipline and motivation.”  

While waiting to speak at the New England Association of Technology Teachers conference, Ireland found herself watching Graham demonstrate making boxes resembling acorns. “He was just not only extremely facile with the tools, so fast and so good, but he was teaching the teachers from all over New England to do this. The professionals of education were coming to ask him questions. He just handled himself so very maturely.” 

Both Ireland and Grube agree that Graham needs to go somewhere after Pinkerton where his boundless passion is going to be appreciated and embraced through educational choices tailored for his specific needs.

GRAHAM, FAR RIGHT, with his family — grandparents Donna and Michael Roe, sister Lauren Oakes and brother Drew Oakes.

Family and fun

Woodturning may consume the lion’s share of Graham’s time these days but he is also a teenager with a family and interests unrelated to turning wood.

He lives in Derry, N.H., with his grandparents, Michael and Donna Roe; his brother, Drew Oakes; and his sister, Lauren Oakes, all strong supporters of his woodturning.

Although Drew is following in Graham’s woodturning footsteps (not as seriously), sister Lauren does not share their interest. 

At school Graham has played trumpet since fourth grade, competed at wrestling until this year, and is a member of Students for Environmental Awareness. Graham also enjoys fishing and hunting (usually with a bow). 

“I enjoy going to the movies and doing most of the things normal teenagers do, but I don’t need to have a bunch of friends to have fun,” Graham said. “I can just sit up in a tree stand with my bow and have as much fun.” 

Moving on

As his time at Pinkerton Academy draws to a close, Graham is making plans for college, looking at area schools, primarily in New Hampshire, to find a program that suits his needs.

For now Graham is comfortable with his lifetime goals: “My style is pretty set. I don’t think I’d stray off the path of turning green wood, and I am trying to stick to my plan I had for the future of teaching in high school and doing turning on the side and summers and eventually going to a full-time studio.”

Sharon Hambrick

Sharon Hambrick is associate editor of Woodcraft Magazine. She lives with her father in Reno, Ohio, and enjoys reading magazines and mystery novels, listening to music and working crossword puzzles.

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