Woodworking is for Women Too
DURING VACATION time, when guests are swimming, fishing, loafing and hiking all over Welcome Ranch and the surrounding hills and mountains, and stowing away enormous amounts of home cooked foods between times, I, as housewife, cook and hostess, do not find time hanging heavily on my hands. Then I am a stranger to the ranch workshop, and the only evidence of my woodworking activities is the assortment of finished woodenware displayed in the living room of our rambling log ranch home near Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and the practical wooden pieces used to serve food to our guests.
But during any other season of the year, a chance visitor is apt to see piles of wooden discs in varying sizes sawed out and awaiting the lathe, stacked in odd corners of the dining room, tables piled with bowls awaiting finishing, or arrays of assorted pieces in readiness for packing and mailing. Half painted pieces may be found beside my easy chair in the living room; for this is the time when I can let down and take my time, filling orders and making up goods for next summer's sales, at my leisure.
People often express surprise at a woman using a wood turning lathe. I don't know why this should be surprising. The work is not strenuous, does not require a particularly mechanical bent, and does give a simple outlet for individuality and for artistic expression. I took up woodworking for two reasons: The equipment was at hand, in the ranch workshop, and idle for the most part; and I knew of no other way to get the pieces I wanted for my own home and for gifts. The men folk had too many projects of their own, to make as much woodenware as I wanted.
A study of books on the subject proved invaluable in learning the woodturning operations. They showed me how to mount attachments, how to center the discs or blocks, etc. A good one is "The Art of Wood Turning," by William W. Klenke. First, I turned out an ash tray; next, a plate. That was followed by a small bowl. By that time I was ready to attempt more intricate pieces—vases, lamps, candlesticks, etc.
In my enthusiasm for my new craft, before the winter was over I had made all the lathe work I wanted for myself, and had a supply of gift items made up for birthdays, weddings and Christmas, sufficient to last for some time.
THE FOLLOWING winter I made an effort to make a profit from my woodwork. Since the pieces I turned out were the usual vases, bowls and plates, with nothing to distinguish them from those turned out by thousands of other hobbyists, I added individuality by painting them in designs typical of our north woods country—wild birds, deer, moose, pine branches, and wild flowers.
Now, after seven years, I still sell several hundred dollars' worth of painted woodenware annually, but I have gradually built up a demand for plain woodenware to be used in the actual serving of foods; ware that is attractive, durable, inexpensive and unusual. Much of this is sold to home owners who go in for meals served in the out of doors. Others use the ware for serving snacks and indoor meals, especially in the typical rumpus room.
Occasionally, a purchaser requests hand painting on these pieces, but much more is sold plain. If designs are desired, the request may be for outdoor subjects (fish, game, outdoor scenes, etc.), peasant patterns (either Pennsylvania Dutch or the colorful Scandinavian decorations), or exaggerated farm animal or fowl. Mexican and Dutch decorations have occasionally been used.
Ordinarily, but one lathe design is used for each piece, though when a special size, shape or design is wanted, I am always glad to oblige. If the order is by mail, I submit a variety of ink sketches, showing cross sections of styles, and allowing the purchaser to choose. The standard designs are kept on hand, so an order can be quickly filled when it is placed. If special designs or sizes are ordered, the customer expects more delay, but I make a practice of being as prompt as possible.
THE STANDARD plates are ten-inch, white pine, rather shallow, without knots, and with a quarter-inch raised bead around the edge. This heavy, rounded bead, makes for durability, and lessens the danger of cracking through careless handling or too much immersion in water.
The portions of lumber containing knots are definitely not wasted, as plates and plaques so marked are more attractive than the ones of smooth grain, though not as satisfactory for the actual serving of soft foods. They are put aside for painted cake and sandwich plates, or for wall plaques.
At $10 per dozen, these ten-inch pine plates are sanded and shellacked (both operations being done before removing from the lathe's face plate). Unless otherwise ordered, the beaded edge is burned brown. This is done by holding the cloth with which I have applied the shellac against the edge while the plate is turning at high speed. Not too much pressure should be used, so that wood will not burn either deeply, or too dark. Exert just enough pressure to make the wood smoke, applying until the edge is uniformly burned. Shellac is then applied. This finish is used on the beads of the bowls, and saucers, too. It makes a pleasing contrast to the white pine.
The sanding is done as the plate spins, using number 1 garnet paper first, and finishing with number 00. Then shellac is applied sparingly, with a small piece of soft cloth. If too much is used at one time, the shellac will become gummy. If you find this has happened, it can be worn down by holding a piece of coarse cloth (denim is fine), against the spinning wood, with considerable pressure. When the plate is again smooth, continue applying the shellac sparingly until the whole surface is coated.
THE PLATE is now ready for whatever finish the purchaser wants to add in the way of waterproofing, except for the filling of the screw holes in the back, where the face plate has been secured. I use plastic wood for this, applying it with the tip of a paring knife blade.
If the customer wants the ware completely finished, I give each piece three finishing coats of clear varnish or lacquer, sanding lightly between coats, so they may be washed in soapy water. This comes to twenty-five cents additional, per plate. In some instances the customer prefers to do his own finishing, to match other furnishings, or because he wants some particular finish.
Some purchasers use a wood stain first, and then finish with hard spar varnish. One of the prettiest sets I made was stained red maple. If a very light finish is desired, emphasizing the whiteness of the pine, I use an excellent grade of clear lacquer, which darkens the wood less than does the clear varnish.
The standard stock salad bowls include the ten-inch pine ones, and six-inch individual bowls. The large ones sell for $5 each, and the individual ones at eighty-five cents each. These prices are with the plain shellac finish on the outside. The insides of all salad bowls are finished with all the hot mineral oil the wood will absorb. This never allows the wood to absorb additional oils which would become rancid.
Saucers match the other pieces, but I do not make cups. Because of the tedium of making and setting the handles in separately, the price I would have to ask would be too high. However, the modern pottery cups harmonize beautifully with the wood, and I keep several such cups in a variety of colors, on hand to show to customers, as they sometimes think only wooden cups would harmonize. Seeing how well tan pottery matches, or how beautifully a dark green, brown or rust cup contrasts with a blond wood saucer, usually convinces a would-be purchaser that the combination will be entirely satisfactory.
Platters are round (since ovals cannot be made on the lathe), as are the larger trays and plates. Since these pieces require glueing together of boards, and also have to be made on the larger and slower homemade lathe, the price of the finished work is considerably higher. The fourteen-inch platters are $4.50 in price, and the charge runs up to $8 for the nineteen-inch trays.
These larger pieces, usually called smorgasbord plates, are much in demand for regular dining room use, or for TV snacks, and are often preferred in a darker finish, or gaudily hand painted in the peasant designs.
PLATES, SAUCERS, platters, trays and individual salad bowls are made from mill ends from local lumber mills. We are fortunate in being near such mills, as considerable saving is realized by utilizing this refuse. A truck load may be had for $5, and while all mill ends cannot be utilized for lathe work, there is plenty of suitable material to warrant the expenditure; and all that is not used in the craft work may find a place in pine furniture for home or lawn, bird houses, home repairs, or, as a last choice, kindling. However, if and when I do not have what I need, due to a shutdown at the mill, good pine lumber can always be "purchased at the lumber yard, even though it does cut down on my margin of profit.
For the thicker pieces (large salad bowls, for instance) it is a paying proposition to have the ten- to twelve-inch logs sawed to order; a slab sawed off each side, and the log then split down the center. This is much less expensive than buying four-by-tens. These lengths are stored in the unheated store room until near the time when they will be used. They are then sawed into 10½-inch lengths and brought into the dry workroom, so they will be thoroughly dry for working.
I use the band saw for sawing the circles of wood out. The pieces made of planed lumber are screwed onto the face plate, with the side intended for the top of the plate, out. When using the unplaned slabs, however, for the larger salad bowls, I put the piece on the face plate upside down, and smooth the side that will eventually be the bottom of the bowl, first with the chisel and then with sandpaper, since I do not have an adequate sander. Then the screws are removed, and block reversed on the face plate, and the bowl formed.
Occasionally, when turning these larger pieces, minute cracks will appear in the end heart-grain of the wood. This trouble can be overcome by rubbing into these fine breaks, with the finger tips, a mixture of shellac and the fine sawdust obtained from sanding. This mixture works into this end-grain so well that the tiny break-lines are entirely filled and obliterated.
I think it would be a good idea to mention here the cleaning of the moist shellac from the fingers. Since gloves cannot well be worn at this work, the fingers are sure to become gummy from the shellac. Most of this can be removed by rubbing the hands well (and at once) with the fine sawdust.
THE PRICE asked for the woodenware is determined in the only just way I know: By taking into account the cost of material and of upkeep on tools and equipment, and a fair hourly wage. I well know my work is a craft, and not an art, so prices must be kept accordingly modest. Sometimes, for my own pleasure and delight, I turn bowls of birch, which rival myrtle wood in beauty. When I use this wood I like to make bowls that exemplify beauty of line, rather than utile simplicity. By keeping the chisels very sharp, and by working slowly and gently, I work out the birch bowls to almost porcelain thinness. The birch is much less apt to crack under this condition than would a softer wood.
When the bowl has become as thin and delicate as I dare make it, and is sanded to satin smoothness, I apply hot mineral oil, which gives the wood a rich, deep color. It is then finished with three coats of clear lacquer, with careful sandings between coats.
Such a bowl may bring $15, but it may sit on the display shelf a long time before some appreciative person comes along who will pay that much for it. But if it never sells, I have had payment in the pleasure of making a thing of beauty.
As a service to customers I carry a small line of wooden accessories which I do not make—salt and peppers, coasters, and salad forks and spoons. I found, too, that I could buy old fashioned covered pine buckets in five-pound, ten-pound and fifteen-pound sizes, at an eastern sports store, and very reasonably. I keep a few of these on hand as a service to buyers, too, and they prove very popular additions to the wooden barbecue sets.
A RUBBER stamp—"Welcome Ranch Craft Shop, Bonners Ferry, Idaho"—used on the bottom of every piece is a good advertisement, since the ware is sent to many parts of the country, and is seen and used by customers' guests who might be interested in ordering, and would otherwise never hear of the shop.
Since our ranch is really a guest ranch, I do obtain some customers among our summer guests, who see the ware in use here at the ranch. But most of the sales are made by mail to people who do not know us or the ranch.
I have had form letters mimeographed, telling of our ware. They are chatty, personal-sounding letters. I read in the papers of a new home, or an old one that is being remodeled. If the description, or the estimated extent of the work, seems to indicate a rumpus room, or a patio, or perhaps even an informal field stone fireplace, a price list of the woodenware, with one of the signed form letters, and maybe a contact print or two showing a place setting or a salad bowl, is mailed to the homeowner.
A gratifying number of such mailings bring orders. If the one to whom the price list is mailed does not order, a neighbor or relative may. Perhaps a farm paper carries a photograph of a barbecue, novel and interesting, built by some enterprising home owner. A man who takes so much pride in his home surroundings should prove a likely customer for a barbecue set, so he, too, receives a price list and a form letter. Maybe the society page in some paper I chance to pick up tells of the so-and-so's entertaining at a lawn barbecue. There is another prospect, and away goes another form letter.
SINCE A large part of the use of barbecue equipment is for the entertaining of guests, I have never yet had a call for service for less than eight, and in some instances, service for twenty-four has been requested. Since a set to serve eight brings between $30 and $40, it is easy to see how simply a paying side line can be built up.
Any sports store, or store catering to home owners, could prove a potential outlet for barbecue ware. However, I have not found it necessary to contact such establishments, as I have found a ready market for as much as I have time to make.
It is a paying proposition never to sell, nor give away, an inferior piece of work. Evidence of a mistake—a flaw, a poor line, a porous knot, or a crack—might lose many a future sale for you. Neither does it pay to economize on finishes. The best lacquer or the best varnish on the market is none too good.
With each order I fill goes a typed slip of instructions on the care of the ware. I suggest giving the pieces one fresh coat of finish annually. I also warn against leaving the dishes to soak in water. Observing this simple precaution, my own barbecue set has stayed unwarped, uncracked, and good, after years of service.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.