Ornaments reveal wood's hidden beauty
Even after some 40 years of working with wood, Bruce Stewart says there's always more to learn.
"I continue to hone my skills and enjoy learning new techniques," says Stewart.
Working in his woodshop at the lathe, Stewart turns out a wide array of wooden artwork, from ornaments, to pendants, stoppers, vases, spinning tops and kitchen utensils.
In his dining room, he still has one of his earliest woodworking pieces- a small, lidded container turned from a maple bowling pin. After high school, when he made that first container, it was 20 years before he tried his hand at turning wood again.
"Carving is what took up the space in between," he says.
The Stewarts' home is adorned with Bruce's carvings. The range of pieces shows an impressive versatility, from quarterboards that might be found on old sailing ships to a gun cabinet featuring a leaping deer, a bear and a turkey, framed by textured carved branches.
In the early 1990s, shortly after he and his wife, Carol, relocated just outside of Green Bank, a friend brought him some old chestnut fence rails and asked him if he could turn some vases from the wood.
At the lathe, he turned a series of vases and rustic lamps, including one that he made for U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller's Dunmore residence.
Since that early rediscovery of wood turning, he has spent countless hours at his lathe, letting the wood guide him.
As detailed and shapely as his works of art are, Stewart says the creations themselves arise from a sort of spontaneity.
"I might start with a shape in mind," he says. "I kind of know where it's going. It's got to have a base, a middle and taper toward the top."
"To get it done gracefully-that's where the tool control comes in," he says. "I hate to sound corny and say that the wood guides me, but it really does in many ways."
"You can't argue with the wood," he adds.
As the piece turns on the lathe, Stewart says new details in the grain and character of the wood appear. It's from such details that Stewart takes his lead. Then, of course, there's the occasional happy accident."There are occasional slips of the tool, which we call design changes," he says with a laugh.
And some times-even with experienced hands-it can go wrong.
"Wood tends to flex on the lathe," says Stewart. "If there's any pressure on it or too much pressure sideways from the tool, it becomes elegant kindling wood."
"But once you master tool control and the art of sharpening, it's amazing what comes out," he adds. "I'm constantly surprised."
While most of his time in the woodshop today is spent turning his trademark ornaments and plumb-bobble pendants, he still carves from time to time.
"I still like to do these Old-World Santas," he says, pointing to one on a shelf in his living room. "But you can't do them and sell them for any way of making money out of them. It takes way too long."
But from a block of wood, Stewart can create an ornament in about 10 minutes, prior to attaching any brass accents to the ends. This time of year, efficiency is of the essence for Stewart. He has a well-stocked display at the Pocahontas County Artisans Cooperative Gallery in Green Bank, and he and his wife show their work at the multi-day holiday craft exhibit in Buckhannon. In the warmer months, his pieces can often be found at summer festivals throughout Pocahontas County.
While he studied with a wood carver in eastern Pennsylvania several years ago, Stewart is largely self-taught at the lathe, catching episodes of "The Wood Turner's Workshop" on PBS and watching videos on the craft when he can.
In addition to the ornaments and pendants, Stewart's pieces also take on life as pill containers, whistles and key fobs. He turns larger pieces, such as tapered rolling pins and a stirring rod with Scottish roots called a spurtle.
Stewart uses a variety of wood species for his pieces. Exotics such as kingwood and purpleheart are often turned into pendants, while his rolling pins and spurtles are most often turned from maple or cherry. The character of chestnut rails and pieces of fallow apple lend themselves to rustic vases.
Wine stoppers are a recent addition to Stewart's wood-turning repertoire-many with Swarovski crystals inlaid in the top.
Finishing of all these objects is done on the lathe. The surface of each piece is sanded with increasingly fine sand paper, down to about 600 grit. Then, Stewart applies a high-temperature friction polish by hand.
"It goes on gradually in layers," he says. "You keep heating it with your hand. By the time you're about to burn your hand or finger, it's cured."
Because wood is a living thing, Stewart says his pieces develop unique character as they age, including color change, cracks and checks.
"These are not flaws," he says, "but nature's artistry at work."