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May 19, 2017 7 min read 4 Comments

Picture yourself at a dinner party, meeting new people. After someone introduces themselves, you know what usually comes next in the conversation: “What do you do?”  

After the initial exchange, I tend to dig a little deeper asking, “How did you come to sell vacuum cleaners” …or whatever it is that person does for a living. But it’s not really the “how” that I’m asking about. For me, the “why” is much more interesting than the “what." Why tells us a person’s interests, passions, motivation—what makes them tick.

Today’s blog post is on that subject. Specifically: why I make wood bowls.

The simple answer is: because I wanted to.

I’d already been a professional woodworker for nearly 20 years before I ordered a wood lathe. I’d harbored a dream of turning bowls ever since turning my first cut-and-glued wood bowl in junior-high shop class at the age of 13.

More than anything though, I wanted to understand trees and wood better.

So often while splitting firewood for the family woodstove I would see amazing, twisted wood that revealed insights into how a tree grows. From how a branch attaches to the trunk of a tree, to how the layers of grain are layered year-after-year at the base of a leaning tree, I saw amazing beauty that kept going into the woodstove.

My family would tease me: “Oh, here goes Papa on another of his show-and-tell missions at the woodstove…”

I also wanted to understand wood in all three dimensions.

Most woodwork is made of boards, which are nothing more than four two-dimensional planes at 90 degrees to one another.

Trees aren’t square, or flat—so 20 years of flat woodwork made me long for the elusive third dimension.

I wanted to broaden into a craft where I was in control of every step. In my heart I felt that there is depth in gathering a raw material from the Earth and seeing it through to a finished product.

I wanted something succinct, durable, elegant, beautiful—a form that allowed me to show the wonder that is wood.

And I wanted to do it in a way that I knew was truly sustainable. I wanted to join my values of keeping wild places intact with my joy of creating beauty in wood.

The rational side of me said I must be crazy to think I could learn to turn bowls and go semi full-time in a relatively short time. The crazy side of myself reminded me that I’d jumped into the woodworking deep end many times before and always came out fine with happy customers.

The inner dialogue continued for a while. Of course it sounded impractical! There are countless professional wood turners who barely eke out a living at the equivalent of minimum wages.

And yet, I knew what I wanted to do.

It didn’t matter that I’d only turned a few things in the previous 20 years on my dad’s ancient garage sale wood lathe.

It sounded about as sane as when one of my fellow carpenter friend announced that he had been thinking to go to med school at the age of 30.

Back then, I had a simple question for my would-be doctor friend: “Is it what you really want to do?”

When he said, “Yes,” I told him to "Go for it."

So I figured I might as well take my own advice. Or at least give it a good, honest try.

In the Fall of 2014, I disassembled my dad’s ancient garage sale wood lathe and boated the pieces into our little old cabin on the beach.

I’ll cut the story short and just say that I lacked many of the tools and all of the training that are important for efficiency.

The learning curve was steep. And painful. But I’m a glutton for punishment, so I ordered a substantial lathe and started looking around for a suitable shop.

I’d given up my commercial shop space a couple years before and had all my tools stored in a 10 by 12 foot tool shack near our home. I needed shop space, but I had none.

Then I hit on another crazy idea: excavate under our 100 year old cabin and build myself a wee outside shop with no walls. Perfect! Another crazy idea. Sign me up.

I moved out a few dump truck loads of old forest topsoil from under our cabin, all by hand in buckets. There was also a jumble of old Russian era rusty tools, forgotten squirrel dens, rotten logs, broken bottles, canvas, and miscellaneous subterranean junk. 

Then came the days and days of breaking of rocks. Our cabin sits on what was once a boulder filled beach, probably a few thousand years back. I pulled out at least another couple dump truck loads of rock.

Once I found solid bedrock I found out that the pilings holding up our cabin had never actually gone all the way to bedrock. Oh joy. So I replaced those as well with salvaged Alaska yellow cedar logs.

Then I chainsaw-milled wide yellow cedar planks, put in a French drain, and finally a floor. The whole project took a month of work every day and a lot of help from my three sons and wife.  Next came boating the 1500 pounds of lathe and tools to the beach below my shop. Then assembly, set-up, prep, wiring, and finally: the glorious moment of turning on the lathe.

My joy was short-lived.

The learning curve continued to stay nearly vertical for way too long. Wood turning is completely different than other woodwork. Even how the wood cuts is totally different—largely because it’s the wood that is doing most of the moving, not the cutting tool. I thrashed and flailed on the steep slope of the learning curve for quite a while.

That’s the nature of turning difficult woods and being self-taught. Even though my failures outnumbered my successes, I was enjoying myself, in a frustrated yet optimistic way.

Those who know me would tell you that I don’t comb my hair or beard most mornings. Holes in my pants are nothing… but as a woodworker, I’m a perfectionist. So it took a lot of encouragement for me to begin selling the first bowls I felt were almost good enough. I took several boxes of bowls to an artisan market in December 2015 and sold all but a few large bowls.

Bowls were also selling well at a local gallery, so my wife and put together our first website and started selling wood bowls, some of which were going to far flung places.

Now I’m on second website, looking at more galleries, and gaining some real traction and positive feedback.

Getting back to why I make wood bowls...

Everything I thought it would be has proven true, and more. Thankfully the learning curve mellowed out.

The more bowls I turn, the more I feel that I’m able to really show and tell the story of each tree. I don’t have X-ray vision yet, but when I look at a log I have a good idea of what will be inside. The stories reveal themselves easier with every tree. I’ve learned that trees withstand so much. It’s common to see dramatic injuries that must have seriously weakened the tree, yet the tree heals, returns to full health, and carries on for decades or even centuries. I’m also getting a better feel for differences in species, even close relatives like red alder and Sitka alder.

Regarding bowls being the best way to see wood in all three dimensions, I continue to believe this is true. One of the things I love is that the thinness of a bowl allows me to show the same feature from both the outside of a bowl and the inside. The difference between each side of the same feature is sometime remarkable, often in less than a 1/2 inch of thickness. I just can’t think of any other medium in wood that allows that sort of freedom for me as a woodworker.

And I love the feedback loop I get of being the one who takes a tree from it’s raw state as a dead tree right through to a finished bowl. Every mistake is mine and I learn from it. Every success is also mine to reflect on and learn. But more than that, there is a deep feeling of wholeness, a circularity in process. I’ve come to realize that for me at least, there is no greater joy in creating something than to do it with your own hands and through your own problem solving process. I’ll even suggest that the act of creating art and functional items is a core human experience, just as the capacity to love is also a fundamental human experience.

There’s no question for me that bowls are where I feel the most freedom and flexibility showing the wonder of wood. Along the way I’ve learned from others that a good bowl should last for generations, assuming proper care. For me that is profound: truly giving the tree a second life. Since trees generally live longer than people, it only makes sense that a good wood bowl should also live longer.

And finally: the sustainability of my craft. Because I salvage all of my wood, I have no qualms using truly ancient wood. I have never cut a living tree, and I simply don’t need to. I’ve discovered that red alder live in the wild valleys of the Tongass National Forest upwards of 150 years, whereas official records are around 100 years. Last year I was given some yellow cedar chunks that were bound for firewood. I counted 394 growth rings in one eight inch bowl. Chances are that tree grew to be 1,000 years old.

I love that my understanding of Alaska’s temperate rainforest contributes a little to our society’s greater understanding of these irreplaceable forests. I love getting pictures of bowls I made in use in England, Denmark, California, Alaska, and even a few blocks down the road from our street address.

Am I paying all the bills with woodturning? Not yet. Have I achieved international fame? Obviously no, and I never set out to…

What I love most about making bowls is two-fold. Forests and trees can’t talk, but I’m uncovering some of their story, and most importantly: I’m able to share that story and bring it to you.

Thank you for your interest and support.

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Betty Sokolosky
Betty Sokolosky

March 19, 2017

Zach, thanks for sharing this blog. I am truly amazed at the workmanship of your bowls and the stories. This is definitely an art and I am glad you are following your passion. I haven’t decided yet what size bowl I want but be assured that one of your bowls will be in my home soon. Thanks for all you do and thanks for sharing your work with those of us who do not have this talent—it is very inspiring.

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