Robb Carothers discovered woodturning when a friend asked if he’d like to learn how to turn wood. He now finds his own wood from deadfall or left over from landscaping projects. Each piece is unique and speaks to Robb as he works on it, sometimes resulting in an accompanying poem. Robb works out of his Swamp Hill studio in beautiful Turtle River, Minnesota.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
In the Spring of 2019 I quit my job at a local university in Northern Minnesota and decided to spend more time with my parents who all live out East: Mom in Pennsylvania and Dad in Rhode Island. That summer when I was visiting my Dad, his good friend asked what I was doing while my Dad was at work. He asked if I’d like to come hang out with him and learn how to turn wood. Absolutely I would.
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I went over to his place and he began to introduce me to the tools and process. These included identifying suitable trees in the forest, cutting the logs appropriately based on their condition, preparing the wood for turning, and learning how to shape the pieces into final objects. I was hooked!
Why woodworking? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
There is something very fascinating to me about turning wood. But it all starts with an interesting log.
The forests in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Minnesota have very different types of trees. Here in the North Woods we have lots of Maples, Birch, Oak, Elm, and Ash. In Rhode Island, there are Red Maples, Beech, Walnut and Chestnut. In Pennsylvania, I found Honey Locust, Sycamore, Cherry, Apple and Sumac. Each piece is tied to its land, lived its life in that soil, shaped and nourished by the climate and the people and animals that have lived there.
Each piece of wood has a story to tell, and it’s my job to learn about it and tell that story through my art. One of the most satisfying parts of woodturning is opening up the log for the first time and seeing what’s inside. Have you ever cracked open a geode rock and discovered the crystals inside? It feels like that to me.
Sometimes I discover a twisted knot in the wood, sometimes I find spalting – a fungus formation that leaves tight little black lines inside, sometimes I’ll find insect burrows or folded pieces of bark, or a small branch that has died and been absorbed by the tree. All of these paint a picture of the wood to me and I use that knowledge to try and shape the piece.
I like to imagine the history of the tree I’m working with. I like to give them names and think about all of the things they might have experienced. Sometimes I write poems about them. This is one called, spun, from an exhibition I did in 2021 titled, “Spun: The Revolution of Wood.” (I couldn’t resist the pun. It’s even in the title!):
spun The wood turns around you. But I am still, anchored to cast iron; the shape racing beneath me. I am a needle gliding on a wooden record. Playing the tracks of this tree’s life. Wood’s greatest hits: The great summer growth of ‘34. When the Maple took root nearby. The life that flourishes within her. That one sunset. I wonder what fate the last tracks will play? A searing light; The hewing of beaver; The frantic cry of a chainsaw; mushrooms fruiting on fallen limbs? Instead, I heard a slow, full breeze push through the forest. Then quiet. Together, we will tell this story.
I do not cut down healthy trees. I prefer to use deadfall or trees I gather from landscaping projects.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I like to keep it simple and let the natural beauty of the wood be the focus. I try to accentuate the features of the trees I discover and let that tell its story. I do not use any artificial stains or finishes on my pieces. I design and make my own food-safe waxes from locally-sourced beeswax and other sustainable materials. All of my pieces include a description of the wood that details where I found it and some interesting notes about the piece or tree it came from. I appreciate that connection and I think others do as well.
I am inspired by traditional ceramic forms as well as a Japanese style of ceramic repair called, Kintsugi – the art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Many of my pieces will have charcoal, brass, marble, or steel inlays in them, reminiscent of this style.
Contrary to many woodworkers I’ve spoken with, I really enjoy sanding. I like to get the pieces very smooth. They are reflective sometimes; the surface shimmers with chatoyant dancing light.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
Some planning is required. It all starts with a walk in the woods, looking for a suitable tree to collect. I’ll bring it back to my shop and cut it in half with a chainsaw. Based on what I find, I can begin thinking about what it’s telling me it wants to be.
When the piece is on the lathe and spinning fast, it becomes a blurred shape in silhouette. It’s reminiscent of a potter’s wheel I imagine at that point. I begin to form the general shape, stopping frequently to examine the progress, then adjusting based on new discoveries that reveal themselves during this stage.
Slowly (sometimes quickly), a shape emerges. That becomes a plan and that becomes a vessel or final form.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
My work is somewhat seasonal. The process I use is called twice turning. This means I turn the wood when it’s still green (still wet) into a thick rough shape, then put it up on a shelf to dry for a few months. Once it is dry, I put it back on the lathe to finish it. I usually focus on roughing in the summer and fall, and finishing in the winter and spring.
My inspiration can really be affected by the wood I collect. Sometimes I’ll find something interesting and that really gets me going.
I work out of a cozy small studio on my property in Turtle River, MN.
What does your studio look like? Where does the magic happen?
I purchased my property about 20 years ago. The first thing I did was build a small little cottage to live in while I built the main house. After the house was built, I used the cottage as a guest house for visitors. After I learned this art in 2019, I was hooked, and converted the cottage into a shop. It’s small – only 12×12 feet. But it’s enough for a lathe and a few work benches.
I love being able to walk out of my house and be in the studio in a few seconds. It’s my happy place.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
There is no shortage of the tools available for this art. Some woodturners even design their own tools. Most of the work I do is done with a tool called a bowl gouge. This is a long chisel looking tool with a very hard steel shaft with a cutting end that looks like the tip of a finger nail. I also use a variety of steel scrapers. The tools must be sharpened frequently and I use a grinding wheel to keep them sharp. I also use many different grits of sandpaper. I start at 60 grit and make my way to 400. Then switch to steel wool (about 1000 grit), and finish with a homemade abrasive paste that gets it to around 10000 grit!
The Storm Applewood. Grove City, PA Laughter still carries on the wind at the farm. But there are no children here that eat your fruit. Yet your sweet fragrance still swirls. Out over the pond, across the pasture and up to the barn, where the ponies turn to look for you.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Being from Pennsylvania myself, I will often have the Steelers game going on in my headphones during the season. Generally the process is kinda loud so I don’t usually listen too much. It also helps to pay attention to how the gouge is interacting with the wood. I can sometimes hear features in the piece before I see them.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
When I have the wood, I’ll often rough turn them all at once then put them on the shelf to dry. I’m not being too particular during this phase. I’m mostly focused on the big picture here.
The pieces dry at different rates so I need to wait until they are ready to continue shaping. When I put the pieces up to dry, I’ll take a weight and moisture reading of the wood. Every few weeks, I’ll bring out the drying pieces and check their weight and moisture content. I’ll record this on a piece of paper. When the wood stops losing weight or reaches about 9% moisture, I’ll know it’s ready to go back on the lathe to be finished.
It’s a mix of roughing and finishing. The trick is to keep both of them going at once.
Lesson 1 Cherry live edge. South County, RI My teacher tells me to follow him. There’s a downed cherry tree that we can have. But first we have to let the neighbor know we’ve come for it.. The man is old and alone and loud noises startle him. I’m introduced, and we talk about the weather and this damn president! and details from his latest doctor visit. I fetch his paper from the street. The tree is in a tangle of vines. It’s big and heavy, and turned against a smaller tree. Sawdust sticks to our necks as we bring her down. My teacher points and cuts while I load the wheelbarrow.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I generally make two different forms. I call these “traditional form” and “live edge.”
Traditional form is a regular-looking bowl form. A live edge is a bowl that still has the bark on it. They are both made from the same cut of wood, but differ in which side of the log I create the opening of the bowl from.
One of the first things I decide is which style the wood wants to be. The species of wood plays a role here too. Walnut, for example, has a deep dark heartwood, but towards the outside of the log, just beneath the bark, is a layer of wood called the sapwood. In Walnut, the sapwood can be almost white or pale yellow. Walnut live edges are really stunning since they incorporate both the heartwood and the sapwood. I think incorporating the bark can really make a piece pop. I think it adds to the piece’s story as well.
The Mothman Walnut live edge. Minneapolis, MN The Mothman hid in the wood from Minneapolis. Roused from beneath a small, deep branch, he woke slowly. Wings wet, became unfurled. He rose up to my knife defiantly, pushing his chest against my steel. Spitting and cursing, we turn on each other; then again. Then nothing. Like soot on concrete, only your shadow remains.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I have a few. Take your time and make the piece you want. Have a high standard of quality. Keep learning and practicing. Take risks and put yourself out there. Encourage others and teach when you can. I am inspired by this art, and I love to get others interested in it too.
How has your work changed over time?
As I learn more about this process, I am continually trying new techniques. I would say my skill has improved the most, but maybe also my eye. Being able to identify a potentially interesting piece from the outside has been useful. Resources are limited, so finding the wood with the most interesting stories is essential.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I don’t always do it, but I try to clean the shop every day. I love walking into an organized space in the morning. It makes me feel like I can just jump in and get straight to work.
I love watching YouTube videos from experienced woodturners. This art can be so much more than just making bowls. There are amazing sculptures that can be created on a lathe. See the works of David Ellsworth for some great examples. He really inspires me!
I also find it useful to attend craft fairs or host a show. I love a deadline and preparing for a show or event lights a fire under me!
When you have time to create for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
I love making tools for myself. Recently, I made a mortar and pestle that I use to grind charcoal for use in my inlays. I also like making gifts for my friends. They will send me a picture of something they’ve seen, and I enjoy trying to make it.
How do you prepare yourself for a session of creative work?
Find a piece of wood that has potential. Get the shop in order. Sharpen the tools. Spin the wood and look inside. The rest always seems to follow.
Where can people find your work?
I created a Facebook page where I post regular updates on the pieces I find, as well as answering questions from my subscribers. https://www.facebook.com/SwampHillCarpentry/.
If you are interested in seeing my process in action, Lakeland Public TV did an episode on my work. You can find it at https://lptv.org/common-ground-robert-carothers-makes-a-wooden-bowl/ or email me at [email protected]
Interview posted April 2023
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