Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Wooden Bowl

I just finished reading The Wooden Bowl, a book written by Robin Wood. If you're not familiar with Robin, he's a woodturner and spoon carver who works wood the traditional way—with a pole lathe and handtools. He's also chairman of the Heritage Crafts Association and the 2009 Artisan of the Year.

Robin has a passion for wooden bowls—especially antiques of the most humble designs, complete with tool marks, that were made in large quantities and saw everyday use—and high regard for the turners who made them centuries ago. His reverence for these bowls was the catalyst for a career dedicated to replicating them, down to the last detail. Robin has made authentic reproductions for museums, theatrical productions, and most recently, the new Russell Crowe film "Robin Hood".

In his book, he provides details about woodturners in Great Britain that he gathered from archaeological reports, Medieval manuscripts, and first-hand study of ancient bowls.

Wooden bowls were the standard eating and drinking container in all of Medieval Europe. Most people owned their own bowl, which would last them a lifetime, as evidenced by the metal staples and other reparative methods that reconnected a split, and the blackened surface and warm patina which naturally occurred from years of use. They were used by everyone from the poorest to the most wealthy.

The earliest lathes (created some 2500 years ago) spun wood reciprocally—backwards and forwards—and include these types: strap, bow, and pole. By the 16th century, continuous rotation lathes—treadle, great wheel, and water-powered—were developed. Some lathes were better suited for small work whereas others could manage large diameter bowls.

Robin includes images of historical artwork and photos of antiques that complement the text. One photo is a shale bowl found in London dated 140-160 A.D. Other images are wooden bowls recovered from the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII's warship that sank just offshore, and lay submerged until the ship was excavated in 1971.

The chapter on 14th-17th century mazers was my favorite. These exquisite bowls were often made from burl and rimmed with gilded silver. Some were engraved with detailed designs around the rims, and displayed circular, gilded prints that were embedded in the bottom of the bowls. These pieces were extremely expensive and were referenced in Medieval wills and inventories.

Turners once held fairly prominent status in the community, since everyone required their skills. But by the 16th century, when inexpensive earthenware pottery was starting to be produced in larger quantities, the decline of the wooden bowl ensued, as did the prestige of the woodturner. By the late 17th and early 18th centuries, turners were forced to find other markets that utilized their talent, so in Britain, they focused on making furniture parts.

Robin concludes with a chapter about the last bowl turners of the 20th century and his determination to continue the tradition of creating the wooden bowls he loves.

The book's jacket says that it will appeal to archaeologists, museum curators, treen collectors and turners. I'm none of those things, and yet I found it interesting and inspiring. So much so, that I'm compelled to try turning a set of bowls for use in my house. And if you know anything about the relationship I have with my lathe, that declaration speaks volumes about Robin's book.


Disclosure: I do not benefit in any way from the sale of this book. My motivation in writing this post is to shed light on an individual who makes an important contribution to the world and who I hold in high esteem.

If you are interested in purchasing Robin's book and live in the U.S., you will be able to find it this March, when it will be available at The David Brown Book Company in Connecticut, 860.945.9329.