Gene Choquette recently tied for Second and won Third Place in Highland Woodworking's 4-in-1 Screwdriver Turning Contest. I spoke with him about his passion for turning and why he chose to enter a record eight handles into our competition.Doug Hall: Gene, you must be proud of the fact that every one of the screwdrivers you entered received votes. What is your reaction?
Gene Choquette: I was attracted to the screwdriver contest as it looked like it would be fun and quick. I ordered 20 sets for the woodworking club I belong to, and we had a class. It was such a success that we ran out, so I ordered ten more, as two people had been left out.
The eight kits that were left I turned for friends - women. The women that I gave these to thought that it was a great gift - their own screwdriver, no husbands allowed to touch - I was a hero! Before giving them away I entered them in your contest and wow, second and third place was great! I was very proud that all of my entries received votes.
DH: Each of your screwdrivers varied in shape, color and design. You have quite an eye for flow of grain and dimension. How did you approach each turning?
GC: Whenever I turn something I try and have someone in mind if I plan to give it away. So each screwdriver already had a name and I tried to match the wood and design with the person; it just gives the piece more feeling.
DH: We also noticed that many of your handles were made with contrasting laminated wood. What is your process in terms of gluing up and then dimensioning each blank prior to turning?
GC: The lamination on some of the screwdrivers was an experiment and also a way to get rid of some of my nice scrap wood. The pieces were cut to a certain size and glued together with Titebond glue, and then some were cut on the bias to get the swirl effect. I make a few rolling pins using the same technique.
DH: You use Purpleheart and other brightly colored exotics in several of your pieces. Do you have a favorite method or product you apply to the woods to help them retain their characteristic colors?
GC: No, I just let nature take its course and allow the wood to change color over time.
DH: Most all of the pieces are accented by slight V-cuts. Is this something that you use frequently in your other turnings?
GC: I like to accent many of my pieces with a slight V-cut someplace in the turning if I think it will look good. Some of the bowls I turn have this on the foot, but it is so slight that you have to pick it up to see the V.
DH: Tell us something about the brass collars that you used on the handles.
GC: The "brass" collars on the screwdriver handles were actually made up of copper pipe. I bought a 24" piece and proceeded to cut rings, some wide and some narrow. I made two jigs, one for the inside of the rings and one for the outside, so that I could take off the burrs on the inside and polish the outside before putting them on the screwdriver. The polish turns black and I did not want it to discolor the wood.
The ends of some of the screwdrivers also have some sort of a stone - some with a pearl, some with a sea shell piece, and some that are a little more elaborate. Many of my bowls also have something to catch your eye on the bottom; it’s a surprise when people turn them over.
DH: Aside from the screwdriver handles what other pieces do you enjoy turning?
GC: Bowls and lidded boxes are my favorite things to turn, mainly because you can change the design as many times as you wish while you are turning. Sometimes my original design that I start with is not even close to the finished product.
Of all the turnings that I have done though, the one that is my favorite is a Western hat that I turned about six months ago. It started out as a large block of Maple Burl, 18" x 18" x 9". It was my second hat, the first one is nailed to my shop wall as a reminder not to get to thin. The hat is about 3/32" thick and weighs about 8 oz. The finish is a mixture of Boiled Linseed Oil, Watco Natural and Paint Thinner, 1/3 each, about 4 coats. I have since turned two more, but this one is the best - and it fits me like a glove!
DH: When did you begin turning and how did you become interested in lathe work?
GC: My first turning was about 1948 in Junior High, a walnut nut bowl for my mother. I still have it. I enjoy turning and got serious about it 12 years ago. I had an old Shop Smith that I had purchased used in 1955 to make some things for an old house that we had bought. I set it aside until about 1994 and then decided to turn a bowl. Well, I got hooked, joined a woodworking club and have been turning ever since. I have upgraded my lathe twice and just sold my Shop Smith last month; it was like getting rid of an old friend.
I belong to a woodworking club in Reno, Nevada. We do furniture, toys, carving or anything that the group wants to do. Each month the lathe group, consisting of about 30 men and women, comes up with some kind of a project that can hopefully be completed in two hours. If not, then we will finish the project the next month or if members have a lathe, they can finish it at home.
DH: What have you found to be key in being successful as a turner? Is the quality of your tools critical, is it proper sharpening?
GC: Tools play a major part in anything that I turn, build or carve. All tools need to be sharp and the quality needs to be the best that you can afford if you want to have a quality finished product. Quality tools hold an edge longer and a sharp tool is so much easier to work with and much safer.
DH: What advice would you give someone that wishes to start turning? Is it helpful to take a class?
GC: One thing that has helped me in turning is joining a club and watching other people turn, asking questions and then going home and practicing. I have also purchased many books on the design of everything, furniture as well as turnings. Sometimes I look at a piece of furniture that I have built and see the influence of one of my turnings in the design and vice versa.
DH: How has woodworking enriched your life? Does your family enjoy what you do?
GC: I just turned 73 this month and own my own business building truck bodies with my son and wife. I am working every day, so I do not do woodworking for a living. My wife and I just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary, however, and I am sure that woodworking has been good for our marriage - it has kept me out of the kitchen! I am also enlarging my shop, so that should be good for another 50.
Gene Choquette hails from Reno, Nevada. He may be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.