Turning new life into woodWritten by Caitlin Bowling
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Allen Davis’ office is cluttered with planks and blocks of wood in various sizes and a handful of circular saws — typical office supplies for a wood turner.
“I always wanted a wood shop,” said Davis, who crafts and sells wooden works in a small building up from his house on Foot Hill Lane in Waynesville.
For the last 15 years, Davis has earned his living as a wood turner, creating bowls, sinks, pens and urns. Different from other types of woodwork, woodturning is the process of shaping wood on a lathe, or rather, a machine that turns the material as a carver works with it.
Davis said he likes to work with wood “because it’s such a challenge.” Each piece must be cut precisely in order to fit perfectly together.
Different types of wood have different viscosities. Purple heart and ironwood are “hard as nails,” Davis said, and must be cut slowly. If split too quickly, the wood will warp and the individual pieces that make a bowl or urn will not fit together.
The majority — about 80 percent — of the wood he uses is scrap, and most of his works include stars or three-dimensional blocks.
Geometry is a large part of his work, Davis said, including the patterns he uses and how the pieces fit together.
“You are totally unlimited as far as what you can do with designs,” he said.
Davis uses 40 different species of tree. Among his materials are driftwood from Florida, California redwood, Louisiana swamp cypress and pecan, Mississippi tupelo or black gum, North Carolina dogwood and apple, and weathered South Carolina barnwood.
The wood sits in a kiln for six months where it dries out before it’s used.
Bowls are by far his most popular work. The base of an average bowl is 16 blocks around. Davis cuts the one- to two-inch trapezoidal pieces with one of his saws and uses tape to connect them in a circular shape. He uses similar, though more, blocks to form the upper layers of a bowl, creating a pattern. Davis then attaches it to a thick, round portion of wood that will later be molded into the bottom of the bowl.
Davis numbers and signs the bottom of each creation. The number corresponds to a detailed profile of each piece. Say someone purchased a large bowl for salad and would like smaller bowls to match, the customer can simply relay the number, and Davis will make a companion piece.
From passion to profession
Davis worked as a professional, heading two Florida corporations during his career. But in 1997, he retired and moved more permanently into his 10-acre Waynesville residence, which he purchased 30 years ago as a second home.
He also returned to his former passion — woodwork. He had some experience working with wood in high school but had not practiced since.
To brush up on his knowledge, Davis registered for a wood cabinet-making course at Haywood Community College but was more drawn to woodturning. And when the rippling effects of Sept. 11 lowered the value of his retirement portfolio, Davis needed something to supplement his income.
His pieces range from $30 to $1,000, and he sells more than 1,000 works every year.
“This is our bread and butter,” Davis said.
His woodturning business has allowed Davis and his wife, Diane, to keep their home in Florida and travel to various destinations around the world, including their upcoming trip to France.
“We do a lot of traveling,” Davis said. “This pays for a lot of really neat vacations.”
Davis and his wife also travel to craft and fine art shows throughout the year. However, he only displays his work at exhibitions that are judged or paid entry.
At other shows, “People aren’t coming to buy,” Davis said.
He said his target audience is “serious art collectors” — people willing to pay an admittance fee.
His work is also featured in 72 galleries and stores throughout the U.S., including Sabbath Day Woods Gallery in Canton, Its By Nature in Sylva, Jarrett House Gift Shop in Dillsboro, and Kitchen Décor and Textures in Waynesville.
During his spare time, Davis gives demonstrations on how to turn wood.
“A lot of my efforts are to teach kids,” he said.
He has hosted workshops for at-risk teens at Eckerd Youth Alternatives Camp in Hendersonville and for Big Brother/Big Sister of Haywood County.
Davis is also a member of the American Association of Woodturners, Carolina Mountain Woodturners, the American Craft Council and Southern Highland Craft Guild.
For more information on Allen Davis and his work, visit winchesterwoodworks.net.