With the press of a button, a wooden block spins on Gord Rock’s lathe at 1,000 r.p.m.
Rock outlines three basic steps. First, anchor your tool onto the tool rest. In this case, it’s a spindle gouge, used to sculpt beads and coves. Then make contact with the wood using the bevel of the tool head. Finally, a slight turn of the wrist sends shavings flying, resulting in a smooth, rounded cut.
It’s a hobby that’s hooked many Central Albertans like him and has prompted the formation of the Central Alberta Woodturner’s Guild. Since the group assembled last September, it’s grown to 40 members and counting.
Rock is the group’s vice-president. He was selling woodworking equipment at KMS Tools when he noticed just how many people in the region shared that interest.
“But the thing about woodturning is, it’s pretty much a solo pursuit. I’m in my shop all day, I’m turning, but nobody knows it. I’m not showing anybody because I’m not going to the flea markets and selling stuff. And there are a lot of us like that,” said Rock, now retired.
The guild meets the first Thursday night of each month at Trimmed-Line Tree Services. Rock wants to create a community for woodturners who’ve traditionally worked in solitude.
“It’s a way for those of us who are into the hobby to get together to share ideas. None of us know all of it. Every month we have a meeting and we’ll get up and demonstrate something. Maybe how to turn a bowl, how to round a blank, just all kinds of different things,” he said.
“We’re hoping other people that are doing that in their garage all day will (join us).”
Long term, his vision for the guild includes inviting world-renowned woodturners for workshops, holding classes and a weekend symposium.
Woodturners like Rock and fellow guild member Andrew Glazebrook are modern-day practitioners of a historic craft. As Glazebrook explains, there was a time when woodturning was a necessity.
The lathe dates back to antiquity, he said, to make bobbins for spinning wool, to fashion tool handles, furniture, plates, cups, bowls and eating utensils.
Back then, it took one person to power the lathe and another to do the cutting. Technology has since advanced but the fundamentals are still the same.
“When you’re dealing with different products or shapes or items you want to make, you have to understand the wood grain. Even if you’re using the most modern technology, the basics are still applied no matter which way you look at it,” Glazebrook said.
Originally from Rosebud, Glazebrook started using the lathe when he was 11 years old, making spoons, spatulas and bowls. He never stopped. He has since turned his passion into a business, teaching woodturning, selling tools and soon, he’ll get into manufacturing. At 36, he is one of the younger guild members.
“I consider myself a maker of things, a person who likes to take an object like a tree and make it into something useful. There’s something about that that’s satisfying and rewarding,” he said.
Today, woodturning is more of a lost art, lost in an age when goods are mass-produced by somebody else.
Guild members are out to revive it.
As well, Rock wants to continue visiting schools and teaching woodturning to students. He said after years of cuts to shop classes, there’s an appetite for woodworking again.
“First of all, it’s fun,” he said. “But you can also make things yourself if you want to. Some people do it professionally, can make things and sell them at craft fairs or through galleries. It’s good for kids to find out they can actually use their hands for something other than pushing buttons on electronics.”
Glazebrook said there are lots of people like him, who get satisfaction from creating and are searching for the right tool to express themselves.
To him, woodturning is a relaxing activity.
“You might think that it’s just this rough feeling, (cutting) off the big log. I promise you, if you know how to use the tools properly, it’s like butter. It’s such a satisfying, smooth, silky feeling. It’s addicting,” he said.
Rock started woodturning after receiving his father’s lathe. He estimates having turned hundreds of pieces but only a select few sit on his living room shelf. Many are decorative bowls. Rock has also built a spinning top with a launcher. Another creation, called a cryptex, is a cylindrical vessel that opens like a combination lock.
After years of turning, Rock still considers himself a novice. Woodturning isn’t a hobby people can just pick up right away. But he keeps doing it because the lathe is where ideas turn into reality.
“You can visualize in your mind a product that you think can be in that piece of wood. You can bring it out of there,” Rock said.