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Drunken Kransekake- How to add life to your turnings


IMG_1537For For many years since I designed it, I have turned Kransekake, a ringed tree inspired by the Norwegian wedding cake, the Kransekake, or “wreathed cake.” For a wedding, the endless and multiple rings symbolize forever and so does the evergreen tree shape. I often turn them at art shows and people love to watch the rings cut loose. You can see more about it,  including videos, on my recent blog,“Kransekake” or Ringed Trees

This year I had an idea to add even more life to my trees.  I had previously turned items using more than one center.  See my blog entitled, Off-center and Off-axis turning- A Complex ZigZag Finial.  Here is a photo of the zig-zag finial I turned and also the Vicmarc chuck system I used to turn it.



My idea was to use multiple centers to turn my ringed tree and to give it a comic and lively appearance.  And it works.  People who see these trees break out laughing.  They often say, “Dr. Seuss” or Harry Potter’s sorting hat.

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It’s hard to do but worth it for the impact it gives.  I have learned to start it between centers, with the driving center and live center at the very opposite corners of the 2 inch X 8 inch blank, usually of sugar maple. I have already turning it on centers to cut a 22 mm tenon on one end that I will need to drive into the chuck for my later cuts.IMG_1465

I have to prepare the chuck because once I finish the first cut from the top, I can’t hold it from the top and therefore need to support it all from one end, from the base on the chuck.

Once it’s in the chuck, I tilt it the other direction and carefully line up the two sections for a smooth transition.  this is actually the hardest part of the turning.

In the video, in regular and slow motion, you see the third “fixing”, when I am turning the last of the loose rings.  At this setting I will also offset the “trunk” of the tree to be far off-center.  Then, just two more fixings with tilt and offset and we have our trees.  I continue to experiment with the various angles and offsets, but I’m getting a shape I like.  These all have 6 different centers to give them this shape.




You can purchase these trees, the straight ones and the twisted.



Drunken Kransekake

This is the more sophisticated ringed tree with a lovely curve from top to bottom. It takes hours to make so the price is higher than the straight kransekake ringed tree.



“Kransekake” or Ringed Trees for sale

“Kransekake” is the Norwegian name for “crown cake, or more specifically “wreath cake,” a unique ringed Scandinavian wedding cake that was my inspiration to design this decorative tree.  I have made thousands of them since about 1982.  Some people think of them as a Christmas tree, and it can be whatever you want once you buy it, but it is based on the wedding cake and does have special meaning for relationships.

I sell my eight inch size for $90, which includes free shipping. The larger sizes are $225 for the 12 inch and $365 for the 16 inch, which include free shipping. 

Kransekake Girl by Suzanne Toftey

A young girl in her bunad shows off the Kransekake cake, which is actually a “tree of rings.”

The Danes and Swedes have their own variation as well.  This decorative tile by Suzanne Toftey shows the Kransekake cake in its setting in Scandinavian festivals, especially weddings.

This historic cake and my tree-of-rings design have rich and ancient symbolism for marriage and loving relationships.  In Northern Europe, both the rings (think wedding rings) and the evergreen shape symbolize never-ending or everlasting.  So the shape is meant to wish the recipients a relationship that lasts forever.

I am a woodturning artist from the Lakes country of Minnesota and also a Lutheran pastor.  I grew up in a Norwegian American ghetto in Northern Iowa and my family has always revered its Scandinavian roots.  I have made many trips to Scandinavia and am much influenced by the art and craft of Northern Europe’s “wood culture.” You can see others of my blogs that share stories of three Norwegian woodturners I have met and photographed.

Kkake blank and then shapedI turn the trees, rings and all, from one piece of local sugar maple and sometimes cherry.  This is a variation of the old woodturner’s trick of “rings on a spindle.”  These rings come from the same piece of wood and are not added later. For many centuries and in many parts of the world, turners have used the rings to add a special decorative touch to their work. You can see the block of 2 1/2 X 2 1/2 X 8 inch maple and then the first shaping into the cone.

The next photo shows the grooves made between the rings and the first 3 rings at the top released. I use a modified skew chisel to undercut the rings fFirst rings cut looserom each side.  It is very delicate work and if I cut too deep, the rings will not stay high and even on the cone.  After I have cut all the rings, I use my skew chisel to smooth the underlying cone’s surface.  If I have cut the rings consistently, I won’t have to cut off too much material and the rings won’t slip too far down the cone.  Click on the pictures below for captions.


Rosemaled bowls by Karen Jenson, and others

Jenson garden gate

I have turned bowls for many rosemaling artists, but I love Karen Jenson and her sense of Scandinavian style.  When I visit her house, enter through the garden gate, see the incredible chandelier and all the wonderful pieces everywhere in her house, I can’t wait to see what she has done with my bowls.

And there they are.  She has done 4 bowls in this last batch, including a larger one with a Two Jenson rosemaled bowlsKaren with bowllarge bark edged crack.  I love that she has highlighted the crack and made it the feature of the bowl.

She’s a rosemaling genius.


Jenson chandelier, built by Arvid and Aaron Swenson


Kids Turning Bowls

What a great experience on Saturday!  I love every one of my turning workshops, but this was one of the best. Will and his dad Mark came to my workshop for the second time. He had come as a 6 or 7 year-old and we had a great time turning R2D2, the Star Wars robot. But since then he has been turning at home and now at 9 years old, he is already a talented turner.  In the weeks since I heard he was coming to my shop again I spent a lot of time wondering what projects we should do and finally, on the day of the workshop, as he told me what he had been doing with his lathe, it was clear that he could do what the grownups do- turn a natural-edged bowl.

So, you can see below the bowls that Will and his dad turned.  Some parts of the turning are more difficult when you are 9 years old and don’t weigh very much, but all in all, he was able to do most of it very well.  And the joy of it.  He just grinned through the whole experience and was so proud of the bowl that he turned, starting with a log.

We had a good talk about safety.  If he gets hurt, he probably won’t be able to continue turning, so it’s important to always wear his face mask, take good safety precautions like making sure the wood is very secure in the chuck or between centers, and taking it slow. That’s hard for a kid, or a grownup, to use good judgement. But Will has great support from his parents. His father Mark is supportive and he turned a bowl too, for himself but even more to be a good partner and safety adviser to Will. Will got a better lathe for Christmas (imagine, a second lathe and he’s only 9) with a good bench, grandma gave him a workshop with me and he turns on his lathe almost every day after school.

As he was leaving, we talked about how to continue to develop his turning.  He’s already watching woodturning videos with his dad and catching Tim Yoder on cable TV. I suggested that he might enter some of his turning in the Minnesota State Fair competition, as some of my other young turners have done. He could attend a club meeting of the Twin Cities turning club. And sometime soon, he could attend an International Woodturners Symposium, maybe Kansas City in June of 2017.

If you want to help a young person in your life learn to turn, call me at 701-261-6044 and let’s figure out how to get them a good start at turning. I think that my new 1 day workshop, accompanied by an adult, is the perfect way to get started.  See my blog on turning workshops for 2016. Not all kids are ready to turn a bowl, yet, but we will carefully and safely get them started.  Both the parent or grandparent and the kid will have a great time, like Will and his dad Mark.

Phil Holtan: A Woodturner’s Journey

Thanks to OTC, a neat little magazine in Otter Tail County, Minnesota where I live.  They published a cover article in their Spring 2015 issue called “Phil Holtan: A Wood Turner’s Journey.”  Thanks to Kate Bruns the writer and Di Peterson the photographer and publisher for such a nice piece.  The photos are from the Phelps Mill Festival in July 2014, a very favorite art show to me and my family.  I have been demonstrating at that show for over 25 years and we love it.  Thanks.

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How to Harvest and Sell Burls

Cored stack of ash bowls

Nested set of Black ash burl bowls, all cut from one burl. This burl tree yielded hundreds of burl bowls, all cored out this way.

I get a lot of responses to my website from people who have burls and want to sell them. Here’s the advice I usually give them.

First, do some careful measuring of the burl and be able to describe it well when you make contact with someone.  A few photos would be helpful, especially if you have a ruler or yardstick as a size reference.  If the bark is gone it’s probably rotten and not worth much.  A big factor for me if I am looking for or buying burls is if they are an “eyed burl”  or a “layered burl.” Here is some information to help you figure that out, but if you can’t, just tell your seller you are not sure if it’s a layered or eyed burl

Cutting oak burl 12-04

A large oak layered burl. You can see this is a layered burl because there is no circular shape but rather random. Note also cutting a bit above the burl to protect the burl from splitting.

A layered burl is the result of an injury to the tree.  That might be a frost split (caused by a sharp frost when the sap is already running), very common on maples, physical damage done the tree or a broken off branch that the tree grows over to protect itself.  The layers are the way the tree protects itself from further damage by sealing off the hole in the tree’s bark.

An “eyed burl,” sometimes called a basal burl, is really a tumor on the tree.  An eyed burl is much more valuable and can usually be identified by the round or dome-like shape it makes on the outside of the tree.  Note that the burl can be made up of multiple round shapes stacked close to and overlapping each other but the basic building block shape is still round.  I understand that is true because the eyed burl develops from a very small burl earlier in the tree’s life which grows larger but still radiates symmetrically each year as the tree grows in diameter.  I observe that the burl wood from a larger burl on a smaller tree is more dense, uniform and of higher quality  than the same size burl on a larger tree.  The ultimate I have found are “ball burls” which are like a ‘tootsie roll pop” on a stick.   To harvest those, leave 6-8 inches of wood on both ends of the burl to protect it from cracking.

This is the right way to cut a burl, with generous length of log on either side of the burl.

This is the right way to cut a burl, with some length of log on either side of the burl. This is a high quality cherry “ball” burl.

This is a Boxelder eyed burl built up of many rounded shapes.  It's tricky to keep your saw sharp cutting so close to the ground, but worth it for a fine quality burl.

This is a Boxelder eyed burl built up of many rounded shapes. It’s tricky to keep your saw sharp cutting so close to the ground, but worth it for good  burl.

To harvest a burl, it’s best to harvest the whole tree.  That’s because most of the burl is inside the tree, often reaching all the way to the center or pith.  To cut the burl off even with the bark, which I call a “cow pie” is both wasteful and damaging to the tree’s health.  When someone offers me “cow pies” I assume they were poached (cut without permission) and I am very hesitant to buy them.   I prefer to wait until the tree has reached maturity and cut down the whole tree.  Then the best way to harvest them is to leave some normal wood on either side of the burl, maybe 6-8 inches.

Cutting a black ash burl into sections.  I try to cut on natural fault lines in the burl.

Cutting a black ash burl into sections. I try to cut on natural fault lines in the burl.

If you absolutely need to cut up the burl, you risk losing lots of its value.  If you can, let the buyer supervise the cutting up of the tree.  If you can’t, then look carefully at the burl and look for “fault lines” in the burl.  In eyed burls they are  formed when smaller burls push up against each other and form a defined boundary between them.  At least for bowl stock, I generally would try to cut from the outside of the tree directly to the pith of the tree.  That could be either vertically or horizontally.  I often use various sizes of cardboard discs to lay out the best use of the burl.  If the burl will be used for slabs instead, you will have to visualize how the slab will be cut out of the burl and cut accordingly.

Now, as to finding a buyer, I’m partial to woodturners and they tend to be good customers for burls.  To find them, Google “woodturner” along with the name of your town or nearby larger city.  You are likely to find a listing for woodturners who sell their bowls and likely buy burls or know who would be interested.  If there is a specialty woodworking shop in your area, like Woodcraft, check with them.  They tend to know who would buy burls.

If that doesn’t work, then you should go to the American Association of Woodturners website,  In the “Find a Chapter” section under “About,” fill in your state to find nearby chapters.  There are 350 of them so there should be one relatively close.  There you should find a website link or the email of an officer.  Contact them and ask who they could contact about selling a burl.

For example, I found from my Google search a  good resource directory for Minnesota at the site   It has lists and information for both harvesters and sellers and for buyers of burls and other forest products like diamond willow, crotch and other specialty wood.

Finally, don’t have unrealistic expectations about the price.  Most burls, especially layered burls, are not particularly valuable.  On the other hand, a larger eyed burl in good condition should bring $25 to $200 depending on size, species and condition.  I have had burls up to 8 feet in diameter, and many in the 4-5 foot range. Those can be worth $500 or more.  It may be worth it to seek more than one offer on your burl if you think it is particularly valuable.

A bowl turned of spalted Boxelder burl with amazing color and a pleasing shape.

A bowl turned of spalted Boxelder burl with amazing color and a pleasing shape.


A Visit to the Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia

I had a great trip to Pennsylvania lately to see my daughter and I took a side trip to Philadelphia to see one of the holy sites for woodturners. One of the birthplaces of the new modern interest in woodturning and of the American Association of Woodturners was Philadelphia, where the LeCoff brothers and many others started sponsoring woodturning symposia in the early 1970’s and had the first idea of a woodturning center in 1976.

That center, now called the Center for Art in Wood is now open in a wonderful section of Old Town Philadelphia on one of the oldest alleys in America.  It’s located within blocks of the Betsy Ross House and Benjamin Franklin’s Christ Church and is now surrounded by galleries and unique restaurants.  Albert LeCoff is the director and its supporters and those represented in its extensive collection are a virtual Who’s Who of Woodturning.  In December of 2014 there was a wood sculpture display by Emil Milan, which shows that the center has widened its appeal from simply woodturning. Also on display was the amazing work of Ron Fleming, a long time master of turning. Before Fleming was a woodturner, he was a professional airbrush artist and you can see his fine arts background in the elegant shapes and the piercing and carvings of leaves and animals in his hollow vessels.  He was one of the first turners to take his woodturning a step further by embellishing with other skills, in his case naturalistic carving. You can see more of his amazing turnings at his website 

Besides the short term exhibitions, the Center has over 1000 objects of wood, mostly turned, by the world’s most famous woodturners. The website has a wonderful virtual tour that introduces you to all the artists and objects in its collection.  There is also an extensive research library there that would be a “must” if you have serious interest in exploring woodturning more deeply.

The store also has the finest collection of woodturning for sale I have ever seen.  I purchased a bowl by Robin Wood, am English pole lathe turner whom I have admired for many years but have never seen his work in person.  I get the impression that most of the items are donated by the makers to benefit the work of the Center.  Again, remarkable support from the world community of woodturners.

Display Case at Turning Center edited12-14

Just at the other end of the historic alley from the Center is another very interesting woodturning site, the factory of the John Grass Wood Turning Company. Though it’s only in the process of restoration, it is by all accounts a remarkable artifact of turning’s history in America. The factory was founded in the 1860’s and functioned until 2003 and often employed dozen of mostly immigrant turners.  The old line shafts and lathes are all still there and the goal is to restore the factory as a showplace and museum of the days when Philadelphia was called the “Workshop of the World.”  I will follow the progress of the restoration and look forward to visiting again when that work is complete.  You can see a video and learn more of its history in the center’s website.

Philadelphia is an amazing city for many reasons, and very easy to reach if you visit anywhere in the Eastern Seaboard.  Of course it’s worth a visit to Independence Hall and the birthplace of America, but you can also visit some of the historic sites of woodturning history and delight in how far it’s come.


Sign of the John Grass services

Sign of the services John Grass provided



John Grass Turning Factory in Philly

John Grass Turning Factory in the Old Town district of Philadelphia