About Turning:
Turning is an ancient craft in which a piece of stuff – usually wood, metal, plastic or bone – is held and rapidly rotated about a horizontal axis; while it spins, tools are used to cut, scrape, and smooth it into an attractive/useful/interesting shape, which is then admired and/or put to good use.

About Juggling, Jugglers, and Little Wooden Clubs:
Juggling is an ancient fun thing to do, in which various items – typically balls, rings, or clubs – are tossed, spun, flipped, swung, slapped, dropped, catapulted, twirled, caught, rolled, shaken, balanced or bounced in interesting, pleasing, and unexpected ways. Jugglers are people who do this, for sport/art/exercise/stimulation/a living/the hell of it. A juggling club consists of a handle extending from a lightweight oblong blob, and little wooden clubs are miniature hand-made replicas of contemporary juggling props. Little wooden clubs invite being fondled, often generating spontaneous bursts of tactile talismanic woo-woo.

About Wood:
Trees are great: they provide shade & shelter; they may make gorgeous spring blossoms and spectacular fall leaves, and they convert CO2 into O2. We eat their fruit and nuts, and when they die we make furniture and houses and boats and toys and pencils and paper out of their remains, and warm ourselves by burning the leftovers. I love trees!

Young trees are all sapwood, which is white, or nearly so. As a tree matures, the innermost wood becomes stronger, to help keep the tree from falling down as it grows taller; the chemical trigger that does this also usually changes the heartwood’s color. Little wooden clubs are mostly made from heartwood; sometimes, if the piece contains part of the heartwood/sapwood boundary, the result can be annoying, or quite nice – and you get to decide which. The pith runs through the center of each log, and sooner or later wood at the pith will crack; this is why most turners avoid including the pith in a finished piece.

All wood has grain, which is the arrangement of the tree’s cells. Normally, grain is oriented in bundles of long thin parallel fibers. Branches and physical irregularities produce curvy growth patterns that are reflected in the grain; occasionally, a tree will produce a knobby or gnarly part in which the grain goes randomly in all directions – this is called a burr (or burl). Burl wood is generally more spectacular-looking, but because it is inherently much weaker structurally, it may be impossible – for me, at least – to make a little wooden club from it without it breaking.

The contrast between the dark & light parts of the grain (growth rings, medullary rays, etc.) and the orientation of the grain with respect to the turning axis of rotation can reveal wonderful patterns called figure. Figure can be quite wild, or essentially invisible. Some species exhibit a special quality called chatoyancy (shə-toi´ən-sē), which means “like a cat’s eye”: chatoyant wood will seem to ripple and change its light/dark areas as the angle of the light strikes it differently – fun, and kind of trippy!

Wood can be stained, dyed, finished, or painted, for decoration and for protection from dirt, sweat, grease, and other matter we’d rather not look at. Personally, I usually prefer wood’s natural beauty, so my normal practice is to coat each piece I make with a thin layer of shellac; still, I’m open to other possibilities. [I once made a little wooden club for a juggler who wore a blue costume and juggled blue props, but I couldn’t for the life of me find a source for blue mahoe, the only known naturally occurring blue wood (though I’m told that, even at its bluest, it’s still not very blue); I considered going to Jamaica, where blue mahoe trees grow, but instead I found a beautiful piece of deep blue (dyed) box elder that produced a completely satisfactory result. I still dream about Jamaica, though…]

Finally, when a tree dies, and the natural process of decomposition begins, some species of fungus may, as they feast on the tastier portions of the newly dead wood, create hauntingly beautiful black squiggles or sudden patches of abnormal coloration. These early stages of decay are called spalt. To be useful for turning, spalted wood must be harvested at just the right time: if you wait too long, the wood becomes spongy and unpleasant – it is rotting, after all – but if you act too soon, there won’t be enough spalting present to make it interesting. Because of this, attractively spalted wood always sells at a premium. At first I didn’t care for it, but now I like it a lot!

About Turned Wood:
Surprisingly, the woods we normally associate with fine furniture – oak, walnut, mahogany – are dull and uninteresting woods for turning (turned cherry is pretty attractive, though it’s normally not very fancy). By the same token, wood from scrubby plants that are commonly thought of as junk (e.g., osage orange or box elder), are great to work with and frequently produce gorgeous turnings. ‘Soft’ woods (from conifers, like pine and spruce) aren’t used much, because it may not be possible to leave a smooth surface; this is due to fibers getting snagged on the tool edge, rather than being cleanly cut, causing “tear-out”, which is ugly and can’t be fixed. Of course, there are exceptions to all of these pontifications (but not many).

In order to make weaker woods usable – e.g., burls and heavily spalted wood – the stock may be stabilized. This is a process that saturates the raw material with a clear acrylic-like plastic, making it strong enough to withstand the forces of turning. Formerly I was a wood purist, sneering at this practice, but I’ve come around to the dark side: stabilization almost always salvages uniquely interesting pieces that would’ve been discarded otherwise, and that strikes me as a good thing.

About Jerry Martin:
Hi, and thanks for visiting my little company’s little website. I’m a native of the Twin Cities (born in St. Paul and live just south of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA), though I spent two years of graduate school at Caltech in southern California, and another year some time after that in the Napa Valley of northern California. My full-time day job is doing statistical analysis and reporting for a state agency, and I also teach business stats part-time in a local evening MBA program. For artistic expression (and a whole lotta fun), I juggle, play the mandolin, do a little magic, turn wood, and play at model railroading. I love life pretty much 24/7, and I have the best friends in the whole world!