Have you ever thought about what made Norman Rockwell such a famous painter? [Image credit: www.nrm.org]It’s not just that his paintings are often funny… The reason his paintings resonate so well is that every one tells a story—or at least hints at a bigger story.
Humans are hardwired for stories.
A good movie, a great book…they’re all stories. Even asking your spouse “How was your day?” is asking for a story.
Now consider a family heirloom. What makes it special? Why is worth keeping?
Let me tell you (a story) about an interesting heirloom in my family...
My parents have a magnificent and huge oak table at their house. I call it My Grandma’s Table, because she loved it so much. It’s been in the family for almost a hundred years, and originally belonged to a Union General who fought in the American Civil War.
My Grandma’s table is five feet wide, and a minimum of 7 feet long. The amazing thing of that table is that is comes with so many leafs (inserts) that it can stretch out to seat 30 people.
This table has a remarkable and long story. If it could talk, what would it say having been around for 150 years through well over 100,000 meals?
As a wood artist, I think a lot about these sorts of stories. If you’ll humor me, let me break down the story of my Grandma’s table into three main chapters. I won’t go into detail, I just want to introduce you to the idea of three chapters for an amazing piece of woodwork.
The first is the story of amazing oak trees that were felled about 150 years ago. I’m guessing they grew on the East Coast, and by the fine grain, I’d say it was old growth oak.
The second chapter is the craftsmen. We don’t know anything about them, beyond their talent. As a woodworker, I think about them often when I sit at my Grandma’s table.
The final chapter of the story is where we know the most, even though the first 50 or so years are largely a mystery. My Grandma talked fondly of playing store under the table as a young child. My kids are the fourth generation to play under the table, the fifth generation to eat at my Grandma’s table.
There are still three chapters: the wood, the maker, and the owner.
Normally the story of the tree is somewhat forgotten. Perhaps because I live in the woods in a restored old cabin, I’m curious about trees. I want to know their story—maybe because they live such quiet, seemingly patient lives.
As the maker of bowls, my chapter is the shortest. I’m the bridge between a tree in the forest and you, the potential owner of a bowl. I see my job as two-fold:
Part one is to uncover as much of the tree’s story as I can. That’s the main part. The second part is to condense the story down so you can also know the story of the tree.
Let’s explore the first part of this chapter for a minute. I want to talk about how I uncover the story of a tree—because so far, my interviews with trees have ended-up rather one-sided. :)
First, I only salvage trees that have died natural deaths in the forest, or on occasion at the hands of of an arborist when a home owner felt it necessary to remove a tree. I always take personal responsibility for where my bowl wood comes from. There’s never a middle man.
When I cut the tree into rounds, I do so with an eye for what might be inside, and what the story of the tree might be. I look for scars, grain that indicates stress, beautiful grain…and all sorts of subtle things that are hard to describe. It’s an exciting time for me, because it’s the beginning of my discovery of the tree.
Next comes the detective work. When I mount a big rough block of wood on my wood lathe, I already have an idea of what I might find inside, but they are only guesses at that point. As I peel away layers with a sharp bowl gouge I find all sorts of things, from healed over scars to nails. Here's a photo of a bowl I'm rough-turning, with an eye to sharing the tree's healed scar:
I like to place interesting features prominently in a bowl. I want you to see them, to think about them, to run your finger over them. I shape the bowl around these features. Since wood grows slowly over a long time, I strive to reveal the significant features or events in a tree’s life, just as a historian tells you about important things in the past.
Once I have a pretty good idea of what I’m working with, I shape a chunky over-sized bowl and let it dry for as much as a year. Then the real fun begins!
Like a book still being written, a dried rough bowl has an outline, but I really don’t know which parts of the story will be the most interesting until I shape that rough bowl down to final size. It’s those last sixteenths of an inch that refine the story, until finally it’s all there, ready to begin sanding. The sanding is like adding the adjectives, and the full descriptive story isn’t complete until the oiling makes the grain pop and subtleties shine.
This is the second part of my chapter as bowl maker. I’ll be your tour guide for a couple minutes.
Look at the growth rings. You’ll see that the rings come from both sides of the bowl. If you guessed that it looks like two trees coming together, you’re right. This bowl comes from where the main trunk of a big red alder forked into two trunks.
The bark inclusion in the center of the photo orients you to that side being the upper part of the fork. Another couple inches higher in the tree would have left an air gap in the bowl.
This is what I call a tree geography lesson. Armed with a little education, you could carry this bowl over to a similar forked alder and know exactly where that bowl came from in its parent tree.
I got a phone call last year from a married couple who live on an island in Sitka Sound. Their daughter was getting married at their island house in the summer. They asked if I could go over to their property and look at a number of trees that blew over to select some bowl stock for their daughter’s wedding present.
Absolutely! The more stories a bowl tells, the more excited I am about making them.
The first chapter of this bowl is told in the wood. Look at the way the growth rings dip in a Vee shape on the left of the picture. At the top of this Vee you can see a tiny dark spot—that’s the outer edge of the tree, right beneath the bark.
What that tells you is that the hemlock had deep furrows and corresponding protruding bulges—sort of like leaves on a four leafed clover. This is a feature of western hemlock that is local to the greater Sitka area. It adds tremendous strength to the tree, similar to buttressing in medieval cathedrals. For some reason, this adaptation hasn’t spread to other areas of the 2,000 miles range of hemlock.
In the following photos, you can see the progression from partial tree round to round rough bowl.
And now for the final chapter of the story (Part II)…
The woman who was married last Summer grew up in Sitka. She now lives in California. It meant the world to her to be married on her parents property. She now keeps a hemlock bowl on her mantel to remind her of her hometown and wedding. Unknown to all of us at the time, the bowl held extra significance because of her Norwegian heritage. She wrote recently to say,
“My family is Norwegian and I found out that a traditional wedding gift is a wood bowl... we'll treasure the memories and the bowl forever.”
Bowl makers say that the act of making a bowl gives the tree a second life. That’s why I love what I do, and consider it a privilege to be the bridge between a well-lived tree and you: the person who appreciates a beautiful bowl and adds to the story. That second life of the tree is you: the third chapter of a bowl’s story.
Because I see my job as a storyteller for the amazing trees of the Tongass National Forest, I include the story of every bowl I make. When I sell a bowl in person, I always tell the new owner their bowl’s story. On my website I also tell the story of every bowl for sale. It only seems right!
A wood bowl should last for generations, just like my Grandma’s table. I’m guessing it’ll have some bumps and bruises by then…but hey—those’ll be part of the story too.
If you have a story to share or one you’d like to hear, leave a comment below.