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A Visit to the Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia

January 6, 2015

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

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