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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

“Wood,” from the New Yorker


Of all the elements, it is happiest in our houses.
It will sit with us, eat with us, lie down
and hold our books (themselves a rustling woods),
bearing our floors and roofs without weariness,
for unlike us it does not resent its faithfulness
or question why, for what, how long?

James Richardson
from “Essay on Wood” in The New Yorker (June 9 & 16, 2014)



“The arts are n…

“The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions. But the present world is also designed for something which has not yet happened. It is like a violin waiting to be played; beautiful to look at, graceful to hold— and yet if you’d never heard one in the hands of a musician, you wouldn’t believe the new dimensions of beauty yet to be revealed. Perhaps art can show something of that, can glimpse the future possibilities pregnant within the present time.”
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian

The Turning Gallery

Cabinets in gallery

I finally did it.  I built a gallery to show off my turnings with good light and space.  For years, when people came to my shop to look at my work, I pulled out my boxes of bowls and started spreading them out.  “Here, hold this while I pull out some more bowls.”   It really got to be too inconvenient as I have hosted several bus tours this fall and had many dozens of guests with no good place for them to browse or see my work at its best

So this winter, I took part of a storage room in the back of the shop, a high ceiling-ed, 10 foot by 14 foot space with a nice window Gallery into messy shopand the potential at least for keeping the dust at bay.

I sheet-rocked and “mudded,” painted and wired and planned how to make a number of cabinets to store my travelling salvation show- the boxes, lights, and display items that I take to art shows.

Heron graphics on cabinets

Graphics of Herons in honor of my daughter Johanna from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. Also, a bold graphic of St. Olaf from Stikelstad in Norway.

On a 6 week trip to the British Isles and Norway last summer, I was on the hunt for strong graphics that I could use in my work, so I used some of them on my cabinet doors.  In Norway,

Norwegian Cabinet Cut-outs

Norwegian Cabinet Cut-outs

there is a strong tradition on their folk architecture to cut designs into their “stave” or board work, in contrast to their logs.  In my system, I take the tongue and groove boards for my cabinet covers, draw on the designs, and then cut them on my scroll saw, most often folding the boards to cut the same design on two boards at the same time.  When I unfold the boards, I have a symmetrical cut-out that often mimics turning shapes.

Gallery south wall

I used aspen logged and milled from the Smoky Hills north of Perham.  It has beautiful figure that I have often used to advantage. On my cabinet doors I preferred to pick out clear aspen so the graphics would stand out better.

I have moved my “birdpeck tree” to the gallery to show off my work.  This sculptural tree has often been part of my display at the Hostfest and gallery showings.  It is constructed of birdpeck elm.  That means it came from a tree fed upon by the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker for many years.  The sapsucker is almost like a woodpecker as it bores through the bark into the tree, but the sapsucker loves the sap.  The tree hates when the bird exposes its insides to the elements so it heals over the wound, but the next year, the sapsucker goes right back into the same holes, and so it goes year after year.  The decades-long process created huge ridges around the tree where the tree had defended itself.  I cut the tree in such a way that I could lay out those boards to show off the wild colors and grain of those “battle sites” and also create an interesting set of shelves.

This is a pair of copper panels that I traded with the classy “Unique Bead” women from Velva and Minot.  They have Copper panels close upused chemicals and torches to create colorful patterns on the copper that I have framed in a black ash assembly with an oriental flare.

The gallery will be open by appointment, so give me a call at 218-346-3860 to set up a visit to the gallery.


Phil received Artist of the Year award at the Norsk Hostfest October 2013

Phil received Artist of the Year award at the Norsk Hostfest October 2013

I was surprised last week at the Norsk Hostfest in Minot to be awarded the “Chester” award for “Artisan of the Year.” This is named after Chester Reiten, the leader who promoted my old First Lutheran Scandinavian Bazaar into an event that brings many 10’s of thousands of people from all over the world to Minot. It’s a love fest for Merrie Sue and me to greet thousands of old friends and to demonstrate and sell my burl bowls. I am humbled and thankful for this award.

Hostfest Chester Award Page