Excerpt from Turning Your Life Around – The Meditative Beauty of Woodturning
Why. This Book.
Woodturning is one of those crafts that you either know almost nothing about – or a lot. As a hobby, it may have drifted into your realm of consciousness when you saw a wooden bowl in a souvenir shop– but more likely, it never has.
It’s old-fashioned in the sense that carving is. Making bowls and long items like chair legs from wood by rotating the rough wood against a chisel has been a practice since before electricity made the modern lathe possible. Those early practitioners were called “bodgers” and their lathe used a foot-pedal action turning the wood at speed.
Wooden bowls and platters still abound and people love their “natural” look and simple utility. But glass and pottery jostle for the same space in the cupboard. And not a lot is generally known about how a wooden bowl actually gets made.
Woodturning isn’t a “black art” though; there are plenty of books, classes, businesses, and practitioners imparting the techniques and marketing the equipment to turn wood.
Twenty or so years ago I pretty much knew nothing about turning. It didn’t even remotely enter my zone of interest. But I did like driftwood. Then one memorable day I was beachcombing at my hometown Mount Maunganui soon after there had been a massive influx of driftwood onto the Bay of Plenty beaches. Tonnes of the stuff – big logs, small chunks and every size in between, output of some huge storm across the East Cape or Coromandel which downed trees, sent them into rivers – and thence to the sea.
Exploring the vast streams of wood, I noticed an older guy picking up some chunky bits and, in casually chatting with him, learnt he was going to “turn” some of them. I had to ask what he meant.
Intrigued and curious, I took up his invitation to check out his turning set-up. He lived just over the road from where we were staying and in his small, neatly ordered tin shed he had a lathe, turning tools and finishes – and a collection of turned, lidded vases (called – don’t ask me why – “boxes” by turners).
I was more than captivated. Hooked. And my turning journey began. Two decades or so on, I have a great lathe and most of the customary turning paraphernalia in a space at the back of my garage. And there is just about always something on the lathe.
But I’m not a professional turner, though I did sell my bowls and platters through a South Island tourist outlet at one stage. Technically, I guess I do an OK job but some of the advanced techniques remain beyond my capability.
So why write a book on it?
There is no real point in producing yet another pure guide to wood-turning – a how-to-do-it book – because there are many excellent ones around that detail the technical processes involved in turning, and finishing your turned items. In teaching myself, I drew on several of them and they’re acknowledged in the bibliography at the end of the book.
I wanted to give my account of how to turn, however, since it’s an important part of the story. But this book is more about the spiritual value and joy that turning brings. I hear a few groans at the use of the word “spiritual”. But – fear not – this is no religious text. I’m an agnostic. I do, however, believe in the importance of having a guiding set of principles and practices that help bring you peace of mind and ultimately happiness. Foremost among those is meditation and its sidekick, mindfulness.
Turning, for me, is meditative. And I don’t think there’d be a turner on the planet who wouldn’t agree that turning is a precious and absorbing activity that hooks you in and never lets you go. Turners’ sheds are havens from an increasingly complex and distressing world, places where they can push the world’s crap from their minds and transform rough, dull bits of wood into things of beauty.
The meditative side to turning is the essential subject of this book.
People who already turn will (I hope) get my drift and find lots to nod about in the story that follows. But they’re already savvy.
Some (maybe many) may think I’m off my rocker – what, meditation? My thesis is not at all why they turn. For me, it’s a bit of a solitary hobby and spare-time occupation. But many people turn for the social side: the club environment, the camaraderie, club evenings, competitions, awards, the buy-and-sell environment, the advice on hand or others keen to hear your advice, the friendships made that endure for life. All gold.
This book is more for people who are perhaps looking for a hobby that will support them on the journey to peace-of-mind and, ultimately, enduring mental health through the challenges of old age and retirement. And that includes early retirement – as I edit this book in early 2020 the world has been rocked on its axis big-time by a virus too small to see with the naked eye – COVID-19. The disruption and dislocation to our lives is astonishing and well-familiar to readers; having a hobby in the garage through the enforced lockdown here in New Zealand has been a godsend.
Turning is a hobby that combines meditation with the pleasure of creation using one of the earth’s most beautiful raw materials. Where you set your goals, and the clock, entirely as you wish.
It’s not an instant entry to bliss. Learning to turn is a journey of learning and preparing, then just giving it a go. There will be a few bumps and potholes along the way as you master the techniques and encounter the pitfalls – items that break, wood that turns out rotten. But it could “turn your life around” in an utterly positive way, as my title suggests.
Believe me, when you learn the craft and reach that moment where you are applying the first coat of oil or wax to your turned, sanded bowl or whatever, there is a moment of pure beauty and pleasure that is priceless: like a veil lifted on a beautiful bride, the wood comes to life.
I am reminded of lines from one of my favourite poems, James Wright’s “The Blessing”:
“Suddenly I realize
that if I stepped out of my body, I would break
This book is my celebration of the pleasure and meditative healing capability I believe turning (and working with wood) has.
Welcome to the journey.