But is it art?

August 26, 2009

Woodturning: art vs. craftPMILL

This question has been kicked around a long time, by a lot of people smarter than I. So I don’t expect to add anything original, but I would like to pass along an idea I find appealing.

The question has been on my mind for decades. Early on, I made my living as a Commercial photographer (note the capital C) and often wondered if my images, however artfully done, could be called art. I concluded no. I proudly considered myself a craftsman. Still do.

I was once invited, by the chairman of the Art Department at a college where I worked, to talk about photography to one of his classes. I recall one student asked me what kind of pictures I liked to take best.  I horrified all present when I replied, “Them what pays the most.”

Around that same time I figured out I could be very creative for a price, but it seemed artists were motivated to work whether or not a check was involved.  Hmm.

I’ve been paying serious attention to woodturning lately. I’ve sat through hundreds of demonstrations, read extensively, and talked with a lot of turners. I’ve also eyeballed thousands of turned objects (and carved, textured pierced, colored, and inlaid), which range from craptacular to exquisite. I’ve produced pieces I showed with pride—and some firewood.

Where is the line between art and craft? Does it matter? Are they the only categories to be considered? In his wonderful book, Woodturning Design, Mike Darlow opens his discussion of this question by admitting there is no clear demarcation. Huge gray area.

As he explores the subject further he says, “A perceived difference between art and craft concerns quantity. Manufacturing is often concerned with huge quantities, craft permits batch production, but an essence of art works is that each is unique.”

So, if I make only one, it’s art; if I make ten, it’s craft; if I make 1,000, it’s manufacturing?  Hmm.

My grandson’s high-school art teacher offers the explanation that crafts are three-dimensional objects that have a practical purpose; art is two-dimensional (!) and exists only to appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities. Hmm. Hmm.

Is it all about the money?

I was surprised once, walking through a display of turned objects at a symposium, when a fellow next to me said, “Isn’t that a nice piece? I wonder what he gets for those.” I was satisfied to agree that yes, it was a lovely piece.  The idea of market value didn’t enter my mind.

It seems that as a turner progresses he (she) more or less naturally grows into the idea of selling his work. Makes sense, I guess. When one runs out of room at home, and friends and relatives no longer chortle with glee over another cherry burl doodad, what’s to be done? Hey, I know, I’ll sell it!

There is a market for this output, and better work brings higher prices. So it is certainly logical to relabel one’s shop a studio and rebrand oneself not as a mere craftsperson, but as a person of unusual, (mystical is even better) talent. An artist. There’s more money in it.

I came across a turner in the UK who blogs that this is a good thing—the higher prices some fetch are good for the craft (oops, art) as a whole. We should encourage these turners. If money is the test, he may have a point.

A purer test

For what it’s worth, I’d like to pass along for your consideration an idea I’ve warmed to over the years. It is very simple but its greatest appeal is simply that it strikes me as obviously true. Here it is:


Craft is about the object. Art is about the idea.


There you go. Cuts through the blather, doesn’t it? Well, most of it; still leaves us plenty of gray area to debate where to slot any particular piece. But one thing seems clear: it makes it a little tougher to perceive most* turned objects as art, doesn’t it?

I think so, and that’s okay with me. I always thought it a high compliment to be considered a craftsman.

*We have all seen works that are jaw-dropping gorgeous. Inspired and inspiring.  No problem calling their makers artists.

BTW, have you noticed how many of these pieces are barely identifiable as turnings? So much has been done to them off the lathe one can hardly discern what was done on the machine.

So what?  I don’t know. What do you think?

Grandpa makes a pool cue

August 22, 2009

The finised cue

The finished cue

Our family’s last remaining 13-year-old excitedly presented me a longish branch of indeterminate species he’d hauled out of the woods.  “Can you make me a pool stick out of this?” he asked, “I think it’s straight enough.”

“Well, that’s not a great piece of wood for a pool cue,” say I, “but I’ll be happy to make you one out of better wood. How’s that?”

The prototype

Thinking he would probably use it mostly for knocking rocks down the street, I figure I’ll bang one out without too much effort or expense. I pick up a couple of 3’ pieces of 2”x2” poplar at Lowe’s.  Since my lathe is 42” between centers, the 58” pool cue will be made in two pieces.  No problem; most of the best cues are two-piece affairs anyhow.

Jumping in unencumbered by research, I settle on 1-3/8” at the butt, 1-1/8” in the middle, and about 1/2” at the ball-hitting end. The poplar cue turns out more like a long baseball bat. Way too fat. Unbalanced. Ugly. Okay, so this one is my prototype. 

Rather than waste my time on another poplar throwaway, I decide to make the best cue I can, with good materials. Take my time. Do it right. Have some fun. See what I can learn.

The steady rest


The steady rest

The steady rest

I learned from the prototype I’ll never turn those long, thin spindles without a steady rest to minimize vibration. So before I tackle the good one, I have to build a steady rest.  Factory-made steadies run about $150. Self-respecting woodturners make their own. Besides, I’m cheap. The jig itself is pretty straightforward: a few pieces of plywood, a couple of bolts, and three wheels.

I have some maple wheels left over from my days as a captive builder of toy trucks for toddlers. No good. Without bearings, the wood burns from friction on the axle and gets sloppy.  Plastic wheels salvaged from casters? Nope. Same problem.

No way out; I have to find some wheels with ball bearings. Might actually have to purchase them! In-line skate wheels would be perfect. After shopping around a bit on line, it turns out they sell in sets of eight, starting at about $40.  Ouch. Maybe I can do better at Wal-Mart. 

Off I go on my motorcycle. Well, Uncle Sam has no skate wheels, but look, there’s a skateboard for 20 bucks.  Sold. 

So I make my way to the checkout line, white hair glowing under the fluorescent lighting, motorcycle helmet dangling from my left hand, and a Spider Man skateboard under my right arm.  “I know this board ain’t for you,” smirks the checkout clerk.

“You never know,” say I.

Now I’m cruising out Independence Boulevard on two wheels with the board bungeed to my luggage rack.  Guy pulls up next to me at a red light. Looks at the skateboard. Looks at me. “In case you run out of gas?”

“You never know,” say I.


The woodturner’s pledge includes a tacit but nonetheless solemn oath never to pay for wood if it can be avoided.  So one develops a network of friends from whom to beg or with whom to barter for wood. My cup runneth over; J brings me fresh-cut cherry, walnut, birch, and maple from his property in the mountains. B comes bearing exotic burls from who know where. K has shelves full of dry cherry, Spanish cedar, maple, and other oddments he gets from his customers for application-testing the high-end production woodworking equipment he sells.

From this latter source I acquired some multicolored, laminated wood, which is impregnated with plastic resin and processed under extreme pressure to about half its original thickness. The result is a very dense, hard material that is impervious to anything short of nuclear fission.  My friend’s customer uses it for rifle stocks. Amazingly, it turns and finishes beautifully, though tools need more frequent sharpening. So this stuff will be the hold-it-here section of the cue.

I also have some ebony in the form of reject fingerboards from a guitar manufacturer. I paid for them, but not too much. Ebony is fantastic stuff; it is hard but silky smooth under the tool.  Grain is almost undetectable. It finishes beautifully. This will be used for accent rings to separate various segments of the cue.

The main body of the cue will be hard maple. Alas, must pay for it.

To the lathe

The skinny front half of the cue is all one piece, so we start there.  I’m going for a more-or-less straight section, about 1/2” in diameter, 14” in length from the tip; then a smooth transition and uniform taper to the join, which is 7/8” diameter.  At the join, we make a 2” long tenon, 1/2” in diameter, which will fit a matching mortise (hole) drilled in the butt section. I make the workpiece longer on each end so I have something to grab at the headstock, and some meat for the live center at the tailstock.  I mount the steady more or less in the middle of the piece. We start with the tool rest to the left of the steady, then move it to the right as the work progresses.

On a spindle like this I usually use a radiused skew chisel, of the type made popular by Alan Lacer and Richard Raffan, with a peeling cut to reduce diameter and rough out the profile. Now I discover this cut puts too much lateral pressure on the thin spindle, inducing vibration. So I revert to a quotidian roughing gouge, with which I can take a lighter bite with less vibration. I check the taper with a straightedge as I go along. When I’m happy with the dimensions and the taper I sand through the grits to 400, plus steel wool, and finish with sanding sealer and several coats of gloss wipe-on polyurethane. (This stuff is fantastic. No bubbles, no sags. No brushes, no spray. Goes on with a paper towel. Dries fast. Hard as a pawnbroker’s heart. Buy it now.)

The people end on the lathe

The back end of the cue on the lathe

The back end of the stick is more complex. At the butt, I make a glue-up of the impregnated wood (IW), an ebony ring, and a short length of maple, all held together with a 3/4” dowel. I use polyurethane glue because I think it might like the IW better than, say, Titebond, my usual stickum of choice.  At the other end of the IW segment, I add a length of maple with a tenon on one end and a hole in the other. The tenon goes through an ebony ring and into a hole in the IW. When it’s all assembled and the glue is cured, it goes on the lathe.

I take care to match the join diameter of the back end to the front end of the cue. I use a dial caliper to get it within .001” and burn a candle to the turning gods to ensure the mortise hole is truly on center. Again, we work on each side of the steady rest, making sure to get a taper as uniform as possible from one end to the other.

The IW material turns fine, but is a little hard on tools.  (It also produces dust, not shavings, so I wear a mask throughout the work.) Ultimately, I finish the profile with a scraper, then sand and finish as I did the front half of the stick.

Off the lathe, the mortise and tenon fit the two pieces together as planned. I add a factory-made replacement tip, and an ebony bumper at the butt.  The cue finishes out 57” in length. It weighs in at 20 ounces and balances right where you’d expect.

The kid is happy with his pool cue. I have an IOU for lawn work.

I had fun, learned some lessons, and the piece earned attaboys and  questions at my two local woodturning clubs.

It cost $65 but I get to keep the steady rest.

Sam’s store sells pool cues for as little $10 but they’re not Grandpa-certified.

Stephen Richie