And They Call Me an Artist

by Wallace Macfarlane

TREEN: Made of "tree"; wooden. Of or belonging to a tree or trees;
in quot. 1670, obtained or made from trees. -- Oxford English dictionary

When I began to make treen for fun and profit, I worried about the competition. How about all those woodturners who laminate exotic woods at an angle and turn bowls translucently thin? Precise craftsmen with micrometers in one pocket and scale drawings in another? How about those hand-rubbers who finish wood smoother than a baby's cheek?

What I have is a Shopsmith made in San Francisco, serial number 1200-something. I got it from a friend for $100, and he threw in a kerosene heater, a desk lamp and some chisels made in the USA. "How does the lathe work?" I asked. He sawed off a broom handle, chucked it and gave me 15 minutes worth of formal instruction. All this happened a long time ago. I used the Shopsmith to rip batts for the barn, to cut up kindling, and to make shelves for my wife.

So a few years back, when I wanted a mortar and pestle, I naturally went to buy one. What I found were a few dusty samples from Sweden. They were made of birch. The turning lines were still there. They were ugly and cost an unreasonable amount of money. "Hand work," said the salesman.

Maybe so, but I had a mental picture of a tree trunk being shoved into the machinery, with rolling pins and mortars and finally toothpicks coming out the other end of the factory.

I went home, cut a dead branch off a French prune tree and made a mortar. It had a deep-enough hole at one end. The walls were half an inch thick to withstand the pressures I imagined when I would grind herbs with the six-inch pestle I made. I oiled it with Wesson oil and what do you know? It worked. It still works.

And I was hooked on woodturning.

There's a mystique about spinning a piece of wood on a lathe. The exercise preempts your attention. You'd better not think of other things or you'll hurt yourself. This is a real learning incentive. Most of all, the wood reveals itself in the shapes you spin. Any proper job makes hours vanish in interest and concentration. If this is not so, look for another line of work.

I kept on turning wood and finding out things like wearing goggles and how to use polyurethane and to do with all that sawdust. I read Fine Woodworking when it began and found it mostly concerned with fancywork or flat wood. I still don't want to make cupboards unless I have to.

When my friends and relations had enough potato mashers and foot rollers and champignons, when every gardening friend was equipped with a dibble, I persisted in making things on the lathe. It was plain too much fun to quit, so I sold things at a church bazaar. I joined the Art Guild and sold more things at shows.

This was when I began to look for the competition. Writers read books; painters look at pictures; architects deplore buildings; cooks eat out; everybody learns new ideas from other people. I looked for treen.

Some fancy food stores had teak bowls from southeast Asia - you push in a tree at one end ... you know. A specialty shop sold myrtle wood bowls finished in oil or glass, all to the same sixteenth of an inch. An artistic store displayed amazingly difficult turnings of manzanita and wild lilac with all kinds of improbable voids. A crafts place sold "bud vase," which are pretty pieces of wood with a bitsy hole drilled in for a dried flower maybe or a weed.

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, I saw bowls the Pilgrims made 300-plus years ago, just the same as I made the week before. Plymoth Plantation promised a display of turnings soon, but I've not been back to see it yet There was some precious fancywork at the County Fair along with heavy-handed boxes and bowls. In a gifty shop were racks of wooden forks and spoons, with machine-made French rolling pins and wooden meat beaters and pitiful potato mashers.

Where is the competition?

Who else is doing mortars and pestles, and and darning eggs, Lazy Susans and stools, cutting boards and spinning tops, yo-yos and rolling pins and freestanding towel holders? And boxes and finials and all the other shapes that strike my fancy?

I've made friends with a wonderfully accomplished technical woodturner. He makes cups that ring when you tap them with a fingernail. He turns bowls patterned so intricately it boggles the mind. He and I exchange views on wood and dogs, and curing methods and limericks, and oil and wax and polyurethane. While he does splendid work, he does not make useful articles of wood.

The ancient Egyptians made treen. So did the Greeks and Romans and everybody else. Right today, at least once a month, somebody will come up to me and breathe heavily. "I'm in love with wood," they say, and press money into my hand. Sometimes they look into my eyes and cll me an artist. This makes me scuff my toe, but they do buy the merchandise.

How come nobody else is making treen?

This article first appeared in the Spring, 1985 edition of Wood News.

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