Once in a while I'm asked where I get the wood I use for turning projects. The fact is there are a number of sources. Turning wood (known as turning blanks) can often be bought from woodworking stores and catalogs, but I've never made such a purchase myself because of the ready availability of free wood. Initially, my turning teacher, Morris gave me wood from his supply. Not wanting to presume upon his generosity for too long, I quickly discovered other ways to procure my raw material at no cost.
I have picked up wood off the street that would otherwise have been hauled to the dump. I have been given wood by the arborist who oversees the occasional tree work we have done in our yard. I have been offered wood by customers who buy my bowls, former parishioners who know of my hobby, and other assorted friends and acquaintances.
Recently, I've forged a relationship with a woodlot owner who has generously invited me to help myself from his stockpile whenever I want to. I always offer my donors a bowl as an expression of gratitude for their gifts, which makes for a pleasant transaction, but I've never paid anybody a penny for wood. I'm not ashamed to claim this as one of the delights of the woodturning experience.
My all-time favorite source is Redbud Farm in Burlington, North Carolina. Redbud is an organic farm operated by my two friends, Clay Smith and Nancy Joyner. For a long time, Clay, a United Methodist minister like myself, directed Hinton Rural Life Center, an organization for the study and support of small membership congregations and the clergy who serve them. We met years ago when I served on Hinton's board. From that vantage point I developed a professional appreciation for Clay, which naturally evolved into a deep friendship. I gained Nancy as a dear friend in the bargain when she joined the Hinton staff and eventually wound up marrying Clay.
Upon retirement from Hinton they returned to Clay's home place in Alamance County, North Carolina, with the intention of establishing a farming operation that would reflect their theologically based commitment to be good stewards of the earth. This meant using agricultural techniques that are non-toxic, sustainable, and renewing. To accomplish this goal they did all the rigorous work necessary to become a certified organic farm-no small accomplishment for anyone, much less a couple of retirees. They achieved that designation several years ago and have been a successful operation ever since, developing a large and devoted clientele for their produce, while also making a strong contribution to the local food movement in the area.
Several times a year I pilgrimage to Redbud. I learned early on to drive up with an empty pickup bed, as Clay, knowing of my hobby, always invites me to take some wood back home. Sometimes I load up with lumber that he has had milled for his own projects (he's a master woodworker himself). The most fun, though, is when we go into the woods and find a tree suitable for cutting into turning blanks. I'll never forget the first one we took down together-a sizable box elder, the sapwood of which was adorned with the most striking red markings I'd ever seen (made by the box elder beetle). It turned into a number of beautiful bowls for me and some good firewood for Clay.
That was a good many trees ago. Nowadays I have plenty of wood on hand and a number of nearby sources for getting more when my supply runs low. I don't need to drive all the way to Burlington to get wood; nevertheless, I continue to go there just as frequently as ever. Whether I bring back a load of wood or not, I'm always laden with gifts on the return trip home: delicious fresh-picked produce, the knowledge gained from a woodworking lesson, the delight of good conversation with kindred spirits, the lingering camaraderie of physical labor, the joy of table fellowship, and the inspiration that comes from being around people who truly practice what they preach
Even if there weren't a single tree on the place, I'd still go to Redbud Farm every chance I could. I wish everyone had such a destination, or, better yet, could become one for others.
Rev. Dr. John Freeman is a retired United Methodist minister in the South Carolina Annual Conference. For thirteen years he served appointments in South Carolina and then for seventeen years he served as Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. He holds degrees from Wofford College, Yale Divinity School, and the Lutheran Theological Seminary. In addition to woodturning, his interests include golf and fishing. He resides in Decatur, Georgia, with his family and can be reached at
The Highland Woodturner