In Projects, Shop Blog, Techniques

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Long-time subscribers are familiar with Steve Shanesy’s work. While he was editor of Popular Woodworking, Steve built everything from a George Nakashima-inspired table to a steel-stringed guitar, not to mention the saw blade box and outfeed tables we still use on our table saw.

Steve had always done turning for furniture work. He’s been working wood since 1980, and was a professional woodworker for 15 years, running high-end furniture shops. He’s turned legs for countless tables, chair spindles, knobs and much more. “Turning allows you to work with a wider range of forms,” says Steve. “I think a turned Sheraton leg is more sophisticated than a square tapered leg, and we see in a finer furniture that split turnings and finials are often incorporated.”

But as Steve began to take on other duties for our parent company and had less time to spend on furniture building, his lathe work took an artistic turn. “I’ve always felt there was a more artistic side that rarely got to be expressed in flat woodworking,” he says. And “turning is something you can do in an evening , you can actually make something from start to finish and feel like you’ve really accomplished something.”

Of course, you have to practice, first. Steve began his journey with Keith Rowley’s book, “Woodturning: A Foundation Course,” and while he recommends the book for all beginning turners, Steve says the best way to learn is to watch an accomplished turner, either on video or in person. So he joined his local turning club, an active group that brings in accomplished turners to teach and demonstrate (and Steve has since become one of those teachers). Plus, the club is a great source for turning stock, which can be difficult to find if you don’t know a guy who knows a guy, he says. The key to good turning, says Steve, is to “practice the basic techniques until you get to the point where you don’t think much about what you’re doing with the tool; instead, you think about the shape you’re trying to create.

“A lot of times, the piece of wood you have will suggest a certain shape because you start with that limitation; then you have to sketch out or imagine the form and focus on that, not on the physical cutting,” he says.

After learning the basics, Steve began making bowls and hollow forms (also called face plate work), which he says “really focuses your eye on finding the perfect curve or shape. While hollowing can be boring at time, it also shows your skill when you can create a vessel wall that somewhere between 1/8″ and 1/16” thick.

Since he got started with artistic turning, Steve has made a couple hundred showpieces, from miniature hollow forms the size of a hen’s egg to 16″ platters to wooden jewelry, as well as sculptural forms that are simply fun, which Steve likes because they provide the opportunity to stretch his skills and imagination.

And last year, he was approached by a Cincinnati art gallery owner who offered him a show, at which Steve displayed and sold many of his best pieces. His “flat” skills came in handy, too. “The gallery owner didn’t have the right kind of shelving to display the pieces properly, so I designed a shelving system out of old kitchen doors,” says Steve. It sold, too.

Steve (who is now publisher and editorial director of Popular Woodworking and Woodworking Magazine) still can’t get to the shop as much as he’d like, but he manages a healthy turning session at least every couple of weeks. While most of his work remains artistic, he also finds satisfaction in workaday projects such as tool handles and the oak handle he turned for his garden watering can. “Silly as it is, I really enjoy the wooden knob I turned for my lawnmower shift lever,” he says. You can see more of Steve’s work in the slide show below.

Steve’s new DVD, “Turning Basics for Furniture Makers with Steve Shanesy,” will be available later this month.

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