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Turning Class at Highland with Mike Mahoney

by George T. (Terry) Chapman
Fairburn, GA

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Wood news.

Well, I've been to the mountaintop. I had a Master Class recently at Highland Woodworking in Atlanta with Mike Mahoney, world class bowl turner.

There were about ten of us in the class with a wide range of experience and ability and many hailing from far away. The result was some good bowls, some mediocre ones and some chunks of wood flying around the room. It looked to me as if everybody had a good time, but one young man about seventeen years old summed it up for all of us when he decided the big thing he got out of the class was, "I am not as good as I thought I was."

There is a group of people out there who are heads and shoulders above the rest of us when it comes to turning wood – and Mike Mahoney is certainly a member of that group. It was a joy to watch him work and to realize that with proper instruction we could all do this too. After some lecture time, Mike demonstrated a bowl for us on the lathe and then we each started to make a similar one of our own. He shaped his bowl out in less than fifteen minutes and it was perfect. It had a beautiful profile to it and the wall thickness was completely consistent. With lots of help from Mike, it took the rest us about three hours each to come fairly close to his demo. It really made me appreciate the skill and talent required to make a beautiful bowl.

On the second day, Mike demonstrated a hollow form for us to duplicate. Using a piece of green walnut log and working into the end grain, in about ten minutes he shaped the outside of that log into a classic Grecian urn shape. He looked at it and decided it might look good as a contemporary shape, so in about fifteen more seconds, he cut off an eighth of an inch in a particular spot and it was contemporary. He looked at it again and decided to go back to the classic shape, and in another fifteen seconds, he took off another eighth (even he couldn't put it back on) and it was done. Absolutely beautiful.

You know how in the Bible, the parables always start out by saying "...the Kingdom of Heaven is like this." They start that way so you will recognize how far from the Kingdom you really are, but then most of them come full circle and you realize the Kingdom is attainable. Watching Mike turn is like that – you see him do it and realize how far from the Kingdom you really are. Then he breaks it into individual steps and you begin to realize it is possible even for sinners like you and me to make a good looking bowl. Go look at his website – and see what you need to work toward.

It was only when I got home after the classes that I realized I have been using Mahoney's walnut oil finish for several years. Somehow I had not connected the name and the teacher and the finish. It is my favorite finish.

While I was on the mountaintop watching Mike turn, I heard him say something that astounded me. He said that he had two sanders. He didn't mean two electric sanders – everybody has two electric sanders. He meant he has two hired hands ( people , I mean) that do nothing but sand bowls. Now, no one likes to sand. It is boring, messy, dusty (duh), and hazardous to your health. Nobody wants to sand anything. When I heard him say it, it took me a minute to comprehend what he was telling us. He actually has two people who do nothing but sand bowls after he makes them. Can you imagine? You just mount a piece of wood on the lathe, turn it off to a shape you like and as soon as you get done with it, you take it off the lathe and hand it to the sanding person and you don't even have to apologize for that ridge in the corner of the bottom which you were too lazy to try to clean up because you didn't want to sharpen the tool one more time. And if they want to complain about your technique, you just hire someone else.

Then I got to wondering who these sanding people might be. Does he have some elderly grandmotherly type who will spend hours on every tiny pore and would sacrifice herself on a pyre of cracked bowl blanks if she found a scratch left in the bottom of an otherwise perfect specimen? Maybe there is a retired hippie (when was the last time you heard that word?) who sands because it gives him just enough money so he can take long lunch hours getting high so he can make a little more cash to repeat the cycle. Might have to pay him an hourly wage – not by the hour, but on the hour – just so he will keep working, plus maybe run another dust collection pipe to his work station to keep the fumes away from the grandmother. Maybe he isn't a stoner at all. Maybe he's a new age'r who finds this mundane task the very essence of "zen," and sanding puts him in a meditative state of pure bliss. Or maybe there is a young couple who bring their children to work with them so they don't have to pay child care (do they make baby dust masks?) and they are saving their money to go on a world cruise on their wooden sailboat. I wonder.

When I first started woodworking about 40 years ago, I worked in the basement on a workbench I made out of two-by pine. Later, we built a new house and I had a one car garage to fill up. It didn't take me long to pack it too full. I used to pride myself on walking over the top of the pile of shavings at the lathe because it was a sign of how much work I was getting done and I really could reach the lathe better. But the big problem was I had to share all that joy with the riding lawnmower parked in the shop. There was no other place to put it and I was not going to leave it out in the rain, so there it sat watching me turn while I nursed my hatred for its intrusion into my shop. No woodworker should have to suffer the indignity of having to share space with the stupid lawnmower, especially one whose battery runs down every winter out of pure spite. The height of my woodworking ambition was to have a shop where the lawnmower did not live. Well, joy of joys, I scrimped and saved and found myself in a position to build a shop in the back yard. It is a separate building and the lawnmower is allowed to sniff around the outside and trim the grass around the shop, but it will never set its little rubber feet inside my new shop. At last, I have it made – I am a real woodworker with a real shop with no lawnmower.

And then Mahoney comes along and has two sanders.

Terry Chapman, a retired engineer, lives in Fairburn, Georgia. He writes an entertaining blog at www.asthewoodturns.blogspot.com . His turned bowls are available at www.thewoodshop.etsy.com .

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This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Wood News.
To see the rest of that issue, CLICK HERE .

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