In the Studio with Woodturner Devon Palmer

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Where and when did the tradition of woodturning originate?

It actually dates back to the Egyptians, the first to use foot lathes and to consider it an apprenticed skill, which it still is today.

What is the difference between a woodcarver and woodturner?

All are specialties under wood; however, woodworkers focus on flat, square and parallel pieces, whereas woodturners are less constrained.

How has your art form been affectedby technology?

A lot. Woodturning has moved from foot- and hand-operated lathes to digitally controlled ones, and the added use of laser, computer-controlled routers for surface engraving. The Internet has also changed how we engage with customers.

What types of wood do you work with, and how do you source them?

I prefer working with what I call "reclaimed urban forest." These are trees downed by disease or blight. I currently have a piece in Ohio Designer Craftsmen's Best of 2015 show that is made from wood entirely infested by the ash borer. I call it "The Phoenix," because it's something that couldn't exist without being destroyed first. I source my wood through people contacting me when they have trees come down on their property. Sometimes they'll even drop it off.

What is your process, and what poses the biggest challenge?

I first prep the wood by roughing it out to an unfinished bowl shape. Then it has to dry, which can take anywhere from six months to three years. It takes one year to dry for every inch of the wood's thickness. Once dry, I do a second cutting, sanding and polishing. I never let the wood dictate what it's going to be; I always have specific design objectives. For me, it's not about making money. My focus is to create functional, accessible pieces that encourage connection. With my studio time divided between prepping and creating, my biggest challenge is finding the time to work, to achieve the quality I want. It is an exercise in patience.

Growing up on a farm in Indiana, you tinkered with lawn mowers and metal. How did you move from metal to wood?

My parents influenced me a lot-they had me using a chain saw at age 10! As an adult, I thought I wanted to be a potter and signed up for a class, which was canceled. When I relayed this to my dad (a carpenter and cabinetmaker), he said, "I just got this lathe. Why don't you come over?" And so I did, and this allowed me to reconnect with him while working on projects together. My mom (a wood carver) was always taking on some new craft, like needlepoint or knitting. I get my drive from my mom.

You've said you love creating bowls and the way they relate to family and community through the breaking of bread. Are there additional pieces that have entered your repertoire?

I am a big dog lover, and I began making funeral urns for pet remains. I have also made urns for people. I feel I can make a meaningful piece that is unique and yet competitively priced amid current funerary urn pricing.

Is there anything a prospective collector should look for in a piece that would speak to the level of craftsmanship?

Look for even thickness in the overall piece. And it shouldn't feel heavy; it should feel lighter than you'd expect upon picking it up. There should be no cracks, and it should have an even finish or polish to it. I use mineral oil and beeswax in my functional food pieces. These art pieces are living objects that continue to evolve in their coloration and can be stained by their contents, like salad bowls being stained by dressings. My mom had such a bowl, and it became a signature piece at every holiday meal.

What is on the horizon for you with woodturning? Do you have particular goals?

I am a member of the American Association of Woodturners, and someday I'd like to teach there. That's the big time. My permanent mission is to raise the value of wood art, moving it away from "country kitsch" to the status of clay and glass art.

Find the Art

Contact Palmer via his Facebook page. Palmer also sells his work at events such as Columbus Arts Festival, German Village Art Crawl, Independents' Day (at the Columbus Idea Foundry) and Moonlight Market on Gay Street.