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.


Christopher said...


Thanks for sharing this book. I seem to remember that there was a Woodwork article about him a few years ago.

Speaking of bowls, have you seen the new Richard Raffan bowl turning DVD? It may help lure you to the lathe as well.


Adrian Baird Ba Than said...

Morning Kari,
If your still feeling apprehensive about turning I recommend that you start with a few shallow platters & do most of the shaping with a well burnished scraper.Gouges are fantastic tools but require quite a lot of finesse to be used to their full potential,if you want to get quick results find a tutor(I'm sure there must be someone amongst your readers who lives close enough to meet up & give you pointers,how to stand,angle of attack,etc...)
I would also recommend you use Sycamore,not only is it a beautiful,creamy,smooth textured wood that is ideal for turning but it also has fantastic antibacterial properties that make it ideal for foodware!
Cheers dollface

Docwks said...

I do a lot of woodturning and am involved with the local club. I have taken classes and watched demos from local, national and international woodturners. I've enjoyed them all as each lends a different twist to what I want to do. I do have one person that I keep coming back to because the basics are more important than all the cool techniques. Stuart Batty has 7 rules for woodturning and even though I have been turning for a number of years I still keep going back to these rules when I have problems or something just isn't going the way I want. You can find his info online. I don't necessarily subscribe to everything he teaches, like sharpening tools, but his rules on stance and holding the tools are spot on. MTCW

Anonymous said...

Check out a good place to learn Bowl Turning on a Pole Lathe

Shannon said...

That is saying a lot, Robin should be proud that he has inspired you to step up to the spinning giant! I'm certainly no expert as I'm 90% spindle work, but I learned from Bill Grumbine at a few Baltimore woodturners club meetings and by watching his DVD from Smartflix. His 2 DVDs are excellent resources. My only problem with wooden bowls is that they don't go in the dishwasher. I don't do hand washing!!

rgdaniel said...

I'll be interested in hearing how it goes when you turn your bowls... I'm still a bit gun shy myself, think I'll stick to spindle work for now...

Kari Hultman said...

Chris, thanks for the recommendation. I have one of his books, but none of his dvds.

Hey Big Daddy (aka, Black), that's helpful advice. I did take a class on lathe turning, but I think I could benefit from a one-on-one gig. Never worked with sycamore before, but antibacterial is certainly appealing. ; )

Thanks, Bill. I googled him and found lots of info. I might be able to find his dvds at our local library.

Anon, that is such a cool school. I had perused their website before and was impressed. Plus, they're prices are very reasonable.

Shannon, I met Bill recently and watched him do a demo. Certainly seems to know what he's doing. I think it's time for you to put down that spindle and chuck that chunk of wood into your lathe. Forget about hand washing--that's what wives are for! (Don't tell Heather I said that.)

Bob, I'll keep you posted. :o)

Kari Hultman said...

Man, I'd like to take that Norwegian ale bowl class at North House. hmmm

Badger said...

I love that book, I started in turning and recently have expanded to other hand tools, but turning is my first passion.

Robin Wood said...

Hi Kari,

Thanks so much for the plug, glad you enjoyed the book and also that it has inspired you to have a go at making some functional bowls. Whenever I do woodturning conferences I ask how many turners make functional work, normally half the hands go up. The I ask how many make eating bowls or plates and use them, not just salad bowls, normally it is only 1 or 2 in 100. It's a shame because there are few greater pleasures than eating your breakfast from a bowl you turned yourself. Look forward to hearing how you get on.

Kari Hultman said...

Badger, be careful--hand tools are a very slippery slope! ; )

Robin, my pleasure. :o) What I like most about the humble, utilitarian bowls is that they are not so far removed from their original organic form. A simple turned bowl is genuine and unpretentious.

Unknown said...

I started making bowls for historical recreation purposes (have recently upgraded?? to a spring pole lathe!), and I was using my bowls only for historical events when I read something Robin had posted similar to what he just said in the quote above. It got me thinking about how silly it is to make these things because I love making practical, usable things- and then not use them all the time. I don't use my bowls for everything, but oatmeal in the morning just feels right in one. And FYI, I ordered his book (which is fantastic) from his website several months ago and received it promptly (in the US).

rocking R rustics said...

How's the shaving horse coming along??????????
be sure to post some pics, Id like to make one that doesn't take up much space, I am anxious to see what you come up with.

Follansbee said...

Nice post about Robin. He's quite a craftsman. Your readers might like to see the slideshow of him turning in his shop.

Now, you're going to have to shove some of those electric tools outta the way so you can build a proper lathe, right?


Kari Hultman said...

Hhillhouse, thanks for letting everyone know that you can get the book directly from Robin if you live in the U.S. And oatmeal looks a lot like porridge, so indeed it would just seem right to eat it from a wooden bowl. :o)

ahunkahunka, oy. So little time in the shop lately. :o( I put the sawbuck table ahead of it while the wood acclimates to my shop. I will definitely take progress shots once I start on it, though.

Peter, thanks for the link! I had forgotten about it. Those spring pole lathes do look very cool. Maybe someday....