The Art of Woodturning

Jim Bliss presents his progress on making a bowl in his workshop in Kennett, Missouri.
Jo'Nae Earls

Crowley’s Ridge Area Turners practice their craft in Southeast Missouri

Although it’s been around since ancient Egypt, the art of woodturning has withstood the test of time. It has developed into a beautiful craft, with many people around the world involved in this art.

In fact, woodturning happens to be popular in Southeast Missouri. The Crowley’s Ridge Area Turners practice the art of woodturning and enjoy showing others how relaxing and beautiful this craft can be.

Jim Bliss uses a lathe in his workshop, The Beetle Shop, to form the interior of a bowl.
Jo'Nae Earls

The organization began when Bruce Plummer, Jim Adkins and a few other men who were avid woodturners and members of the Southeast Missouri Woodturners group located in Kennett, Missouri, noticed people from the Dexter area were interested in the art form. The members began meeting approximately eight years ago in the shop of Dexter High School where some members volunteered and where the shop teacher wanted her students to have the opportunity to take part in the club. Now, Crowley’s Ridge Area Turners meet in members’ home shops.

Jim Bliss, president of Crowley’s Ridge Area Turners, has been involved with woodturning for many years. He has taught woodturning at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts and at John C. Campbell Folk School for more than 20 years. He has also published articles on woodturning.

Bliss says he enjoys the “camaraderie” of the group and “getting together and learning new things.”

Change in location has not stopped these members — called turners — from practicing their craft. Woodturning can be a long and tiring process, but the outcome is quite extraordinary.

Most woodturning begins on a wood lathe. The wood is placed on the headstock, which is powered by an electric motor that spins the wood.

“The wood spins, and you have to guide and direct the wood cutting with the chisel or the gouge to get the shape you want,” Plummer says.

Many things can be made on the wood lathe: anything from bowls to platters, Christmas ornaments, kaleidoscopes, doll heads, vases.

“That’s one of the things that’s interesting about it. You never run out of stuff to make,” Plummer says. “There’s so much variety. Even the bowls, there’s probably a jillion different ways to carve the bowls.”

When woodturning, using different species of wood creates different colors. Different cuts of wood can be glued together to create a pattern.

“You can either decorate a piece that you’re making, or you can just leave it with the natural color,” Plummer says. “It’s a free creative exercise. Sometimes you let the piece of wood kinda follow what you find.”

All turners have different uses for their craft. Some will give away their creations, others will sell them, a few others even donate what they make.

Adkins is involved in an organization called Beads of Courage. The Southwest Association of Turners (SWAT) started donating wooden bowls to hospitals after nurses began looking for a way to reward young cancer patients. The children are given glass beads once they pass a certain checkpoint in the treatment system, and they store their beads in the wooden bowls made by turners.

The bowls normally have cartoon characters painted on them to appeal to the children. Woodturners from anywhere in the world can donate bowls to the Beads of Courage organization.

“I’ve never known where any of my bowls ended up. I wish I did. They say that the kids really enjoy them,” Adkins says.

The freedom of the craft leaves endless possibility. Some turners start with a plan. Others let the wood do the planning.

“I find it kind of relaxing to just start cutting,” Plummer says. “I’ve done woodworking for a living since 1982, but still, I find the woodturning relaxing. It’s quiet, and you can just let your ideas and everything flow.”