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“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


Jorgen Bleken- Traditional Norwegian Woodturner

Jorgen Bleken with vesselWe first heard about Jorgen Bleken from other woodturners in Norway.  He is a legend there as the most skilled woodturner at the “old things”- he can do anything in turning and carving to replicate traditional shapes.

Covered Vessel

He lives in the Hadeland area, north of Oslo, not far from Hadeland GlassWorks and near where many of my relatives live.  He was very gracious about receiving us as visitors, though he was self-conscious that he didn’t have too much English.  That was no problem because the real treat was what he could show us.

We started out in his house with some wonderful things he showed us.  Both he and Trond Killi, where I last visited, love birch burl and had many pieces that he turned of burl.  On the right is a traditional Norwegian vessel, turned of burl burl, with beautiful carvings on a clever lockable cover.

Burl postsHe loves burls, and we saw quite a collection of burls that he had collected and was preparing to turn.  Birch burl seems to be most plentful, called “Valbjork,” and it is quite unusual in that it often has dark lines caused by larva in the wood that give it a most unusual and rich appearance.  The good stuff is very expensive because it is much prized for knife handles.

Like many Norwegians, he also likes to do imaginative outdoor sculptures using the burls. Outside his shop heBurl with roof had one large burl with a roof on it.  He had a special place planned for this in his yard.  Just inside the doors of his shop he had two tall burl posts.  I asked him if he intended to place them on either side of his driveway at the entrance of his home.  He smiled and told me he thought they would look very nice there.

It seems that many Norwegians love burls and other unusual wood. In rural areas, they often frame the entrance to their homes with large burls for gateposts.

Burl box with stem and dye

In these two photos, you see Jorgen has turned traditional shapes in Birch burl.  In the one with the stem, Jorgen has added a bit of dye to bring out the grain of the wood. On the right is a small box with some nice details in lovely birch burl.  I believe it is recently turned but it is one of those pieces that looks like an antique instantly.

Traditional burl box

His execution is flawless and they look just like the antique turnings in the Folk Museum.

Next we visited his shop. It was full of projects and materials and tools.  He had good tools, a huge band saw, and a very fine One Way lathe from Canada, with a shop built carriage for fluting and an extended lathe bed.  He showed me photos of very ambitious and large projects he had done on that lathe.  Right now an almost finished cabinet sits on top of that lathe.

Jorgen Bleken shop pic 2

Jorgen Bleken shop pic

DinosaurBut my favorite piece was perhaps his dinosaur.  Besides all his traditional objects, he had also turned a fanciful and fun dinosaur that “worked.”  It had 4 large wheels and when you pushed or pulled it, the large round body which rested on the wheels was turned in the opposite direction.  Very fun and quite beautiful in birch burl.

Trond Killi, Norwegian Production Woodturner

Trond Killi by lathe

Meet Trond Killi.  I met him last month in Otta, far north in Norway.  I have known about him for ten years because I bought one of his “Turcopps” (which means a touring or travelling cup) in Lillehammer on a previous trip to Norway.  It had a T.K. burned on the handle.  I also really liked the cup, much like my old Sierra Cup.  It is elegant, beautifully made and sold at a fair price.

So when I decided to  travel to Norway I did some research and found that Norway’s best known production turner had turned my cup and his name was Trond Killi.  So I put him on my travel itinerary, emailed him and stopped to visit him.  He lives in Otta, a beautiful city on the main highway from Trondheim to Oslo.  There was even a sign along the highway advertising that a “Tredreier,” a woodturner had a shop nearby.

Trond Killi with Merrie Sue in front of the outstanding Otta landscape

My wife Merrie Sue and I stopped, rang the bell and out came our generous host, Trond Killi.  He took us into his shop and gave us a great tour.

Trond Killi turning cup

He has a  great shop, with good equipment and lots of clever procedures to do production turning. There are boxes everywhere with blanks all roughed out and ready to turn. When Trond turned on his Vicmarc lathe, it was over 2000 rpm, pretty fast for me, but it worked very well and the wood just flew off the lathe.

Aggressive hollowing of cup

Trond used an Ellsworth grind bowl gouge with a practiced economy of motion.  He has obviously made thousands of these cups. While I watched, he ground the edges  with quick and sure movements. Seldom have I seen such skill and speed. Trond turned the cup in short minutes and so cleanly that little sanding was necessary. Trond is also an excellent marketer.  Here is part of his display in a store in another part of Norway.

Fitting plastic container into cylinder

Trond has been a production turner for many years and we saw his very distinctive products in many different shops.  We also saw some of the traditional items that lend the Turcopp its design. It has a handle built into the design. After turning, the handle is then sanded  to disguise how it was made.  Trond does a great job of cutting out the blanks beforehand for best use of material and no extra turning.

Plastic container holder

Trond has another great product into which he inserts a standard plastic container, maybe margarine or sour cream.  He turns a cover to fit this container.

Cool turning tip: Mark common divider diameters with holes in the wall

He also has a great trick to set his divider to size the fit of the container.  He has marked and bored appropriately spaced holes in the wall for his standard tasks and quickly can reset his calipers. He quickly turned the tentative fit based on the divider setting and and then refined it with the real plastic item.

Trond's retail shopRight next to Trond’s workshop he has built a lovely retail shop.  Here he shows a wide variety of turning.  I bought  a beautiful lidded bowl in spalted birch, shown below.  I also bought a second Turcopp, this time in premium birch burl, which is shown below next to my original Turcopp, now 10 years old.

I was very impressed with the turning skill and business acumen of this Norwegian turner.

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Spalted birch bowl by Trond Killi

Spalted birch bowl by Trond Killi

Off-center and Off-axis turning- A Complex ZigZag Finial

It´s always exciting to try something new with turning and one avenue I had never tried had been off-center turning.  I have some long range plans of using off-center turning to enhance some sculptural and monumental turnings but first I needed to explore some of the basics.

Some of you know Paul Hedman from our Fargo-Moorhead Turning Club.  He is making a name for himself nationally with his innovative and creative turning, often eccentric.  He and I did a joint workshop in my shop in Winter 2012.  I had admired his work and we had often spoken of the mechanics of eccentric chucks, and his increasingly sophisticated series of chucks.

Then at the Turning Symposium in St. Paul in the summer of 2011, I saw one of the new generation of Escoulen eccentric chucks and I knew I had to have one.

The Escoulen eccentric chuck surrounded by some of its various "work-holders."

The Escoulen eccentric chuck surrounded by some of its various “work-holders.”

You can look at the Chucks Plus website to see more information on the chucks.  They are definitely expensive ($500 for the basic chuck and another $250 for the ball attachment) but I have found them to be very well designed and made to allow lots of creative turning.  What I like best about them is:

  • A variety of ways to hold the wood, but mostly with a cup chuck, a nice solution wth end grain/spindle oriented wood
  • the ability to use the ball joint to change the axis of the wood in fairly repeatable ways
  • and also to slide the work off center.  I like best to combine those two methods
  • the ability to slide the weights to balance the work for good turning speed and minimum chatter.  That makes for good quality of finish in the final turnings.

My first goal was to design and turn some new finials for some hollow vessels that I was turning.  I wanted to start with Paul Hedman´s design and make them even more thin and angular.  The following video will show the process I used to turn those finials and also a few of the finished designs.  You can look at the following video from a TV broadcast that shows two kinds of eccentric turning.

I used either hard sugar maple for light colored wood or Rosewood for dark colored.

I have a great stash of rosewood that I keep for just such projects as this.  In about 1994 I found a dining table at Goodwill store in St. Paul. MN.  It was rickety, with bad joints in all the 6 chairs but the table was solid.  Best of all the wood was Walnut and Rosewood.  I quickly cannibalized the chairs for parts and have used that Rosewood for many projects since.  From its color and grain, I believe that it is Indian Rosewood.

I cut the wood to a size that seems appropriate, with the wood perhaps  1 inch by 1 1/2 inches to allow me to swing the wood on its axis and still have enough wood.  Like many fragile looking turning projects, goblets and even thin-sided bowls, they can be done only by leaving enough wood close to the chuck to support the turning further away from the chuck and then slowly and gradually thinning the wood closer to the holding point.  It gives the work a magical quality that people can´t imagine how such thin and fragile work was created and supported.

Mark the centers of the rectangular piece, hold it between centers and roughly soften the corners of the piece.  I don´t want it round because I am using a rectangular cross section piece to allow zig zags all on one axis.   The most important task between centers is to create an accurately shaped spigot to pound into the cup chuck.  I learned from Paul Hedman that a 1/4 inch final spigot size is very versatile- fine enough to look good on a delicate finial but also sturdy enough to support a large one.

One of the new techniques I learned in this process is how to adapt an open end wrench to be an accurate cutting tool for spigots.  The Escoulen chuck includes a measuring gauge for accurate spigots, but by using an open end wrench, you can both cut and measure with the same tool, always a more accurate operation.  To adapt a wrench, buy or find an open end wrench of the right size (which helpfully is just a tin fraction larger than the specified size) and sharpen the top flange of the wrench.

For short and small finials the spigot can be the 10 mm spigot, but for larger and longer ones the 22 mm is suggested for more support.  For the larger ones it also makes sense to make the spigot longer for more support, perhaps just over one inch.  Be sure to flatten and undercut the face that will abut the chuck.  There are two problems I have had to deal with when I finally pound the spigot into the chuck.  First, it´s difficult to pound it in straight enough that the right angle face of the work piece fits tightly against the chuck.  When it doesn´t, I drip some thick super glue in the gap between the chuck and the work piece to add rigidity to the joint. 

The other problem is hard to describe.  It is a complex dance of adjustments to swing the ball joint side to side and also offset the work piece to put it in good cutting position.  You might find watching the short video most helpful to understand this.  But it is essential that the orientation of the work piece, especially if it is rectangular in cross section and not square, be pounded into the chuck in a way that lines up with the holes in the chuck and allows the swing in the correct plane. 

There are four adjustments you need to make, and if you set up the process well, you may only need to make two of them with each swing of the zigzag finial.

First, the swing of the ball.  You can read more in the Escoulen chuck material about how the set screws control the movement of the ball.  Three pointed set screws tighten into machines depressions in the ball to either point the ball perfectly straight, or if only one of the pointe set screws is tightened, then they allow rotation of the ball on a single plane from that center point.  The other three set screws, which are flat as they meet the ball, lock in whatever on or off axis position is chosen.

The second adjustment is the degree to which the whole assembly is shifted off-center.  That means loosening the two hex heads and then using the set screw in the edge of the chuck to move the center.  There is a a scale in millimeters which is helpful but not too precise.

Third, you will need to rotate the assembly.  There are three set screws to the left of the ball that have indexing marks around their collar.  You will be loosening and rotating this collar with every zigzag.  This rotation means that the off-center adjustment in step two may only need to tweaked.

Fourth, the further the assembly is off-center or off axis, the more the weight may need to be shifted to balance the turning and allow higher turning speeds.  That is done by loosening the set screws on two of the weights, but the weight that is on the opposite side of the chuck from the shifted assembly should stay where it is.  The other two can be shifted, all the way up against the third weight if you are out past 20 mm on the scale or in between if the shift is only 5-10 mm.  You may need to experiment and see if this adjustment can smooth out the vibration and allow higher turning speeds.  You can buy even heavier auxiliary weights to add to the standard weights, which may be particularly necessay if you were turning bowls or vessels on this chuck.

Then I start my turning of the finial. Depending on the height, I will do it in 4-7 steps, in each case swinging the finial as far to each side as I can. With each swing, there are three actions that need to take place.  First, loosen the three set screws and swing the work piece as far over as possible.  I like the effect of the most radical swing possible, but you may need to work up to that.  Then you will shift the work piece to the side so that you will be turning where you want to be.  I keep the tail stock close at hand to be able to see where the center line of the lathe really is.

Carefully spin the work piece by hand to make sure that your tool rest does not touch.  That may mean some considerable overhang and you may need to move the tool rest closer during each turning step.  I have a 3/8 gouge that I like to use.  It is short and sturdy, fine High Speed Steel in a metal handle that gives it extra weight and rigidity.  You will need to use your very finest bevel-rubbing turning technique to get a good surface and be very careful of your hand placement.  Be very careful.

As you come to the last section, you will want to finish the finial in the straight-on position so that the finial will stand straight on the top of the hollow vessel or whatever article you intend to add this to.  I learned from Paul Hedman to put a 1/4″ spigot on the end of the finial with a 1/4″ wrench modified to be an accurate sizing cutter.  Now, go and do it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Dragon Woodturner

Dragon Woodturner
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter 30 hours of fjords and waterfalls on the Hurtigruta Ferry from Bergan, Norway, we unloaded our Mini-Cooper rental car onto the Trondheim dock and headed to the home of a wood turner I met over the Internet. We knew we were in the right place when we saw logs and lumber and even 3 bags of wood shavings.

Rune Hjelen lives in the suburbs with his family. He is an elementary teacher, but also earned a master’s degree in folk arts, especially turning and carving. We spent two days with him and learned about his specialty of “dragon style.” That’s the name of this style of swirling tendrils of plants and animals that form these amazing pieces. It’s the style you see on the Norwegian stave churches, 1000 years old and more. Rune stretches dragon style into more contemporary forms. Most carving here in Norway is acanthus, a baroque style of curving leaves and flowers that is also found in their “rosemaling” or rose painting” but dragon style is older, less common and I believe more powerfully compelling.

Pebbled PlatterDragon Style PlatterRune showed us some of his pieces, and I was instantly excited. I was in Norway exploring woodturning with the goal of using traditional styles but updating them into more contemporary forms. Rune was doing just that very beautifully. I was impressed with how he balances his busy life of teaching, being a husband and parent of two small children and also doing excellent and innovative work. In that way, he’s like many other wood turners I know.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARune’s shop is well equipped for turning and carving. He has a 24’ Vicmark lathe that I saw in several professional shops in Norway. That’s a popular lathe in Norway that is sold by the big Verktoy woodworking store from Stavanger, Norway, for whom Rune is often a demonstrator. Rune also teaches both turning and carving classes at the Rauland School in Norway. He also has an even larger VB lathe from England, capable of the very large pieces he is exploring. His goal is to do large commissions for public spaces or corporations in contemporary dragon style. I visited two other turners in Norway which I am blogging about. They each have different goals for their work. Trond Killi is a very busy production turner and Jorgen Bleken most often does commissions or restorations of traditional Norwegian designs.

Rune Hjelen and FamilyWe had a great time with Rune, Camilla, Kristen and Ottar, pictured here with my wife Merrie Sue as well. I thank them for their hospitality and all that we learned there. you can check “translate” to make this in English
Cruise along the coast of Norway with an astonishing array of the world’s best turners. You will probably meet Rune on board too.