artist - musician - craftsman
and furniture maker
[April 4, 2021]
simply revland: the wood lathe (1965)
My first thought was that he was a smoker. His huge gray, overgrown nicotine-stained mustache hung over his top lip, weakening his smile ... if there ever was one. He talked infrequently in a gruff voice as he shuffled awkwardly across the dusty floor. Most noticeably, however, was the realization that half of his fingers were gone. As in, missing.
For a 12-year-old, it was initially quite confusing and a bit intimidating. I certainly was intrigued, however. But as nervous as I was, I was also a bit frightened. You see ... this was my first day of 7th grade shop class at Agassiz Junior High.
New school. New classmates. New teachers. And much higher expectations. Mr. Engh was my wood shop instructor and this could obviously take some getting used to.
My brother (Paul) had Mr. Engh four years earlier, and tales circulating about him had reached folklore status: Like the day he lobbed off one of his fingers on the band saw, threw it in the waste basket, crudely applied a bandage, and went about his day like nothing happened. He obviously was a tough old bird, a man's man, with perhaps some personal issues or a pre-existing condition. Regardless, as I got to know this lovely man, his shop became my escape route. My refuge. While most kids were watching the clock for the bell to ring, I was hoping the hands on my personal time piece would slow to a crawl. This space was like home to me ... and I needed a home away from home.
One thing I learned early on: We were too young and immature to operate the power tools, which I found quite condescending. We were relegated to hand-planing boards and gluing them up for cutting boards. I was quite bored, as I should be, for someone who had already built an outdoor fort, complete with a pot belly stove, and a three-level tree house. I also thought I should have my own car. But rules are rules, I assumed. I guess it is imperative that one can see over the steering wheel.
It wasn’t until Mr Engh demonstrated the act of turning a spindle on the wood lathe that my whistle was thoroughly moisturized. Quite frankly, the lathe was probably the most dangerous power tool in the shop, and could lob off a finger in a heartbeat, which made me wonder if Mr Engh had spent a little too much time at the lathe. All I knew was this: I had to have one.
Yes. I had to have one. However, again, therein lies the rub. First of all, we were poor, and the folks weren’t in a position to dole out the funds for purchasing one. Secondly, if they had any idea how remarkably dangerous this power tool was, they undoubtedly wouldn’t allow it in the house. Or would they? Up to now, Cletis and Edna had drawn a fine line between what was dangerous (or potentially harmful), and what would continue to provide me with independence and a higher level of self esteem. Looking back, almost 60 years ago, they appeared to have pulled the right strings, and I so wish they were still here for me to tell them so. Most remarkably, after over half a century, I still have 8 fingers and 2 thumbs, entirely intact, albeit a bit beat up and scarred, not to mention a tad arthritic. [If only fingers could talk.]
All told, notwithstanding every circumstance, I was forced to create my own home spun wood lathe. Yes, I was 12, and it probably wasn’t in any prepubescent playbook. But I was a stubborn young lad, and I eagerly processed fulfillment.
The most critical find was an old antique Maytag washing machine motor, neatly tucked away under the basement stairway. No doubt a Cletis “treasure,” until now. This motor, in woodworking terms, was the potential “live stock,” generally speaking, and what made the world go 'round ... at a very high speed. Most wood lathes had a variable speed component to them, but this one would be classified at, what I thought at the time, a “million” RPMs, quite suitable for turning wood stock, if not also capable of causing a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants premature death in the family. [Cletis and Edna spent the majority of their time upstairs, so they were fortunately oblivious to the commotion going on in the dungeon ... which was a good thing.]
After drilling two holes in the motors pulley, I securely tapped two six-penny nails into the pulley, making the live stock complete. After bolting the motor to the bench, I rounded up an old Douglas Fir 4x4 from under the porch, which served as my “tail stock.” I ground an old half-inch thick bolt to a point, using Grandpa Revland’s hand grinder, and tapped it into the 4x4, completing my tail stock, which put me one step closer to having a workable lathe. It seems awfully simple, as in the world of woodworking, it is primarily a simple machine. A machine capable of creating some beautiful things, however, all by the hands of the craftsman. I then hand-hewed some old cast iron scrap, using Grandpa’s grinder, fashioning some “skews” for shaping the wood as it turns. After wiring the plug onto the motor, I was ready to plug it in. Yes, it is one thing to make a potentially volatile machine as a 12-year-old. It’s another to actually plug it in. Superman I wasn’t.
After gluing two oak boards together to make it square, I securely clamped this future inaugural spindle into place and plugged the motor in. As I quickly backed away, it was then that I wondered:
Have I gone too far this time?
Is this crazy-ass speed and sound of this twirling piece of wood worthy of a potential “time out” due to an accident? ... or even something worse?
I wish I could recall, but something tells me I took my own “time out” to give this some serious thought. Or examine my interpretation of creativity. Or bravery for that matter. Eventually, bravery won out and the result was more gratifying than I ever imagined, and the satisfaction was delightfully palatable. Up to now, the adventure surrounding the creation of this oak spindle was my greatest achievement. And ... something I have had on my shelf for 56 years.
What’s next? Tune in next Sunday!