George Olsen grips the wooden handle and metal shaft of a high-steel chisel with its small sharp edge as he shapes a spinning block of wood on a lathe, plying a craft whose roots can be traced to ancient times.
Pressing the cutting tip against the wood, he moves the tool gently back and forth along its length — sculpting, tapering, smoothing. The whirring sound of the lathe deepens as the blade digs into the wood, sending tiny chips and dust into the air.
Once finished, the turned block of laminated black walnut and maple will be fitted with an antique-style pepper mill mechanism, one of many decorative, functional and artistic turnings Olsen creates in his basement workshop on West Richmondville Road in the town of Richmondville.
Here Olsen creates candleholders, vases, pepper mills, saltshakers, trivets, love goblets, kitchen utensils, and sculptures fashioned from a variety of woods mostly native to New York state.
“I started out about nine years ago, bought myself a lathe and learned how to use it by following the directions that came with it,” said Olsen, who formerly owned a construction business. “But I figured I needed some help so I joined the Northeast Woodworkers Association to gain more knowledge about turning.” He also subscribed to several woodturning magazines for tips and ideas about the tools and techniques of the craft.
He now owns five lathes and is currently a member of the American Association of Woodturners.
Besides producing several decorative and functional items such as kitchen utensils, pepper mills, and coffee grinders, he’s created several pieces that were accepted for exhibit at various arts and craft shows and museums, such as the 2008 Cooperstown Art National Exhibition, The Wilber Mansion Show in Oneonta and the 2008 National Small Works Exhibit at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie.
Olsen has been teaching his wife, Theresa, his craft. Though she’s yet to try woodturning on the scale of some of the pieces her husband creates, she has fashioned a few bowls on the lathe.
“I love doing it because I like seeing the wood emerge since what it looks like on the outside differs from what it looks like on the inside,” she said. “Seeing what’s hidden inside, the uniqueness of the grain, texture and color is so interesting. And with the knowledge and expertise George has as a woodturner looking over my shoulder and pointing things out to me is really neat.”
She mainly makes garden dibbles, carrot-shaped maple wood implements with large knobby tops, used for planting flower bulbs and garlic bulbs and other plants that grow from bulbs.
“The dibble is marked with lines for depth in inches,” she said. “You just tap it with a mallet to put holes in the ground for the bulbs.”
Wood turning has a fascinating history, Theresa Olsen said. The lathe’s origin purportedly began in Egypt about 1300 BC, when craftsmen used a cutting tool to fashion shapes on wood being spun by someone else with a strap. Over the years and centuries that followed, various cultures made numerous modifications in the construction of the lathe as well as the cutting and shaping tools to improve ease of use, speed and function.
Olsen uses a wide variety of cutting tools, including lathe chisels with long handles to provide control against the force of the turning wood; and gouges with curved cutting edges. A lathe chuck, a device that clamps on to the piece he’s working on, holds the wood in place as it’s spinning on the lathe. His choice of tool — type, size and shape — depends on the design of the object he’s creating.
“I don’t begin with a drawing like most woodturners but have an idea of what I want to do,” said Olsen, who noted he selects his wood depending on the “color and best grain orientation that would give you the best design and function for the finished piece.”
Once he completes a piece, he brushes on a water-based polycrylic protective finish.
One of the popular items in their shop is the “Captive Ring Celtic Love Goblet,” Theresa Olsen said. “The goblet is turned of laminated maple and walnut. The rings were part of the original stem and are not removable without breaking them.”
She said according to Celtic tradition, dating back to the 17th century, an apprentice woodworker whose intentions were true crafted the goblets for his intended maiden from seasoned wood with several captive rings around the stems as a sign of his eternal love. If he used green wood, the goblet and rings would likely split, showing that “his love was only a passing fancy.”
Olsen features his work on his website, gtowoodturning.com, and at arts and crafts shows and galleries. He and his wife are members of the Artisans Gallery in Middleburgh; Artisans Guild in Oneonta; and Catskill Mountain Artisans Guild in Margaretville. His woodturnings are also displayed at The Gallery of New York Folk Art, 129 Jay St., Schenectady. Olsen will be a vendor at the fourth annual Sharon Springs Garden Party, Saturday and Sunday in the village of Sharon Springs.