As the mind becomes less rigidly bound, it goes beyond the shop and your own projects and wonders what it is like in other wood turner’s shops. Working in isolation is satisfying but always in the back of your mind are a few nagging questions. Has some one else done this before and done it better or easier? Could I save some time by not re-inventing the wheel myself? How do others express their creativity? With these thoughts in mind I wish to share my experiences with another woodworker.
I first met Dustin Coates over Christmas holiday in December, 2007. My daughter, who lives in Etna, New Hampshire sent me an article from the local paper in Hanover which did a feature article on him. Knowing of my interest in wood turning and my planned holiday visit she thought I might be interested.
Was I ever! The picture showed a pick up truck at Dustin’s shop, which is just two miles up the road from where my daughter lived. On this truck was a piece of burl which was so big that they had to hitch a tractor to it to pull it off the bed of the truck. This was more than enough to whet my interest.
I wasn’t sure what I would encounter driving up to his shop unannounced. As I pulled in, my eye fell on the most marvelous assortment of logs, burls, pieces of equipment and other objects, peeking out of the rapidly melting snow.
There was no one in his little studio but my eye immediately fell on row after row of beautiful burl wood bowls. Clearly I was dealing with someone with a refined eye and sensitivity to wood which I shared.
Back outside I encountered Dustin, a huge ox of a man with a gentle, wispy, full-faced beard and dancing blue eyes set in a very kind face. When he smiled, which was often, his whole face lit up with pleasure. I explained that I had read the article in the paper about him and that my daughter lived just down the road. I mentioned that I was a wood turner as well and would be interested in seeing his shop. Here I was, a perfect stranger, interfering with a working man.
If he minded, Dustin did not let on as he took me around his shop. The piles of wood in the yard were in seeming disarray but as he showed me around, it was clear that he knew where every piece came from, a story about the wood, and an intended purpose for all of it. He spoke in loving terms about a 150 year old gigantic walnut limb or a burl he bought from one of his many lumberman contacts. To the casual observer, the wood lot was chaos but in Dustin’s mind it was as orderly as it could be.
If the lot was impressive, I was not prepared for what I saw inside his workshop. In room after room there were rough turned bowl blanks stacked from floor to ceiling. In some areas we were walking on them. These were newly turned green blanks which had been buried under wood shavings to slow the rate at which they dried, in order to prevent cracking.
There was just enough room to get to the various lathes. Some of the lathes were quite old but they were still very functional and much sturdier than many modern machines.
I noticed nests of rough turned bowls where many bowls had been cored from a single blank. This was a technique I had not yet mastered. To make a fifteen inch bowl I would reduce the insides to sawdust.
I mentioned to him that I was interested in learning how to core bowl blanks and could see that he had certainly mastered the techniques. When you work with burl, you are working with expensive material and need to maximize the use of the precious resource.
I asked about the tools he used for this purpose. His response was: “Here, I will show you how to do it.” With this he picked up a round chunk of wood, mounted it on his antique lathe, installed the coring device and before my very eyes in less than five minutes produced a perfectly cored bowl blank with the center of the blank preserved to core yet another bowl blank.
It looked so easy that I got him to give me details on what tools to order. His advice was very practical and he saved me from purchasing inferior tools and from getting more tools than I needed for the job I needed to do.
Now I have cored over one hundred blanks myself. I made trips to his shop that summer to pick up pointers on the finer aspects of coring. These he gave as freely as he did his time.
For a slow learner like myself, listening to Dustin is a bit like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose. He has so much imagination and so many ideas packed in that head of his that they come rushing out at a prodigious rate. I just wish I could remember a third of the tips and ideas he shared with me.
Days spent with Dustin are always too short, and he never seems to be in a hurry to see me go. It is when I leave that his generous nature begins to come into full force. The first time I left, he innocently asked me if I had any use for a piece of crotch butternut wood.
Now, butternut is not a native species where I live in Maryland so I gladly accepted. When we went to the log, it was huge. It was so big, in fact, that it took both Dustin and another burly wood cutter to pick it up and place it in my Honda, where it completely filled the trunk.
Each time I visit it is always the same ritual. This summer it was another large butternut log, end pieces of beautiful burl woods and some buckthorn. Last time it was honey locust logs, more burl scrap pieces and some lilac wood.
Who, but Dustin Coates would have lilac wood? I’m talking about the woody stem of the flowering lilac bush. The insides of this wood were a beautiful reddish purple color. When I made pins out of them and applied friction with sanding, the aroma was very heavenly.
So, if you ever find yourself in Hanover, New Hampshire, take a trip down Trescott Road to visit Dustin in his shop and studio. Or drop him a line at 5 Trescott Road, Etna, New Hampshire 03750. Dustin is too busy turning to bother with computers, but he may answer the phone at (603) 643-3499 when he is not in the shop. If you are anything like me, you will find it an unforgettable experience and you may come away with one of his beautiful, burl bowls to treasure for a life time. He is truly a New England Treasure.
Photos by my son, Todd Smith. Prints are available for sale on his website.