Wooden bowls feature good grains

Photo by Kristofer Rabasca

Talk to someone in construction about the properties of different types of wood and they’re likely to comment on things like weight, density and endurance. Talk to someone who creates art with wood and you’re likely to get a completely different story.

When selecting tree trunks and branches for use in lathe projects, woodworkers invariably look for interesting patterns and variation in color. You’ll hear them enthuse about the grain a lot. It’s what can be found once you look beyond the surface that interests a woodworker. The things that reveal themselves once an artisan starts turning a hunk of wood is all part of the process of creation.

Luckily for those who love the look of natural wood, there are a handful of Vineyard woodworkers creating unique bowls, platters and vessels which show off both the artist’s skill and imagination, and the beauty that nature herself has wrought throughout the life of a tree.

Fred Hancock has a shed and a basement full of logs. He creates beautiful, unique wooden bowls and lidded containers using a variety of wood species. Part of the process involves preparing the wood which can only be accomplished with time. “Wood has to dry or season,” says Mr. Hancock. “It takes a lot of time and trouble.  If it’s not seasoned first, the piece can crack or warp as it dries.”

Hunks of wood make their way from the woodshed to the basement where Mr. Hancock keeps a dehumidifier for finishing the drying process.

He gets much of his wood from felled tree woodpiles and from a local lumberyard. Other pieces come from friends off Island who know of his hobby and from ebay, where Mr. Hancock sometimes finds exotic woods or unusually patterned pieces.

The wood itself often dictates the finished product. “The interesting thing is you can have an idea when you start working on a piece of wood. Then as you start turning it you see different things in the grain and the way it feels. You might just change what your intent was as you take it down.”

Many of Mr. Hancock’s pieces end up on bookshelves and end tables, as opposed to in the kitchen.

“For a lot of the work it’s really used more as a piece of art and less as an object of utility.”

Tom Lowe finds inspiration not only from the wood, but also from other natural sources. “A lot of my inspiration comes from organic ocean shapes,” he says. Mr. Lowe’s designs include bowls in the shapes of scallop and clam shells. Other more abstract pieces benefit from interesting curvilinear shapes. Mr. Lowe also creates unique vertical sculptures, some with the ruffled, ribbonlike look of a variety of seaweed found on the Vineyard. Like Mr. Hancock, Mr. Lowe has a fascination with the mathematical properties of wood grain. He talks a lot about crotch wood – the area where a branch joins the trunk – and effect of the confluence of patterns.

Mr. Lowe finds his woodworking to be a very collaborative process between material and creation. “It’s amazing to see that with some of these types of wood just a slight curve coming up the side really brings up the grain.”

The former wooden sign maker uses power tools in a variety of ways to create his work. He is always experimenting with different techniques to increase his efficiency and keep his work affordable. But, despite any time saving methods, patience is still key to any woodworking project. The seasoning and finishing are all important parts of the process. “I get locked in to seven months where I have to baby all these bowls,” says Mr. Lowe.

Mr. Lowe lives in Virginia in the winter but will be spending summers on the Vineyard, where he hopes to eventually relocate full time. His work can be found at the Tuesday Featherstone Flea Market and on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Chilmark Flea. Pieces sell from $16 for a spreader to $2000 for a large sculpture.

Jeremiah Brown came into woodworking through his job as a landscaper, where he was introduced to different types of wood. He scavenges chunks from firewood piles and asks woodworkers for leftovers. Many of his bowls are constructed from multiple scraps of wood which he laboriously grooves together to create patterns. Using more than one type of wood for a piece requires a good deal of time and skill.

Mr. Brown considers his artwork a hobby as opposed to a profession and says that keeping his work affordable would not be possible if he was actually charging according to the amount of work involved. The payoff comes from the pleasure of creating. “It’s more a labor of love than for money.”

“I look for anything with variegated patterns. I love the burls – the stuff that’s hard to find. I never have a plan until I put the lumber on the lathe.”

Mr. Brown showed a dozen bowls at the Family Planning show earlier this month and sold out very quickly. He will be selling his work this summer at the weekly August Art Shows at Vineyard Gardens where he works.