Going with the grain
PUBLISHED: 21:51 03 August 2015 | UPDATED: 21:51 03 August 2015
Julian Claxton meets and photographs woodturner Andy Coates in his Beccles workshop
Take a walk along the River Waveney in Beccles, and you will come across Cobweb Crafts.
Sandwiched between the river and picturesque marshes, the small building is the perfect home for a professional wood turner.
Walking through the gallery provides a visual feast. Sublime wooden pieces sit atop chunks of wonderfully weathered and crafted sections of wood. The air brings the senses alive. The workshop is awash with the sweet aroma of sycamore, the freshly turned wood evoking memories of childhood adventures in forests.
“The smell of wood is intoxicating,” says woodturner Andy Coates. “I had a customer who came into my workshop who burst into tears – apparently the ash I was then turning reminded her of her late father, who was a carpenter.”
Andy leads me to his workshop where he creates his unique pieces, a small room filled with character, wood stacked high, hundreds of tools hanging on the wall. The floor is littered with wood shavings and the surfaces are covered with a thin layer of wood dust.
“I was going to clean up, but I figured you want to see the real workshop” chuckles Andy, handing me a cup of coffee as we chat by the open fire. Andy is a professional wood turner, making his living from turning ordinary chunks of wood into delightful pieces that grace many a home, both in the UK and abroad.
The love affair with wood started 13 years ago on a visit to his father-in-law, when he noticed a rather unusual bowl.
“I asked where he bought it and within a few minutes I was in his shed, looking at the lathe, while he put a piece of wood on and proceeded to turn a bowl.
“The fact that you could shape a piece of raw of wood into a unique usable object was fascinating.” Within two weeks Andy had his hands on a second-hand lathe, bolted it to a work bench and began to embrace the craft.
“It was a terrible lathe, but it completely took me over”. Moving to Suffolk shortly afterwards, he built a shed, bought a better lathe and spent every day learning, reading and understanding how to turn, and about the characteristics of different woods.
“I made every mistake possible, even supergluing my finger to my eyebrow. It got to the point where every surface in the house was covered with my creations and my wife said it’s time to sell or clear it.”
Fortunately, Andy’s work was in demand, which gave him confidence to become a full time woodturner.
There’s a hint of North Africa in much of Andy’s work. Others evoke memories of travel adventures. I am stunned by the colours and incredibly fine detail
“There are many conventional wood turners who are utterly against what I do,” he says. “My argument is, an artist doesn’t sell you a blank canvas, they use the canvas as the substrate and quite often that is what I use wood for. Of course, there are other times when the wood speaks for itself and I work with that differently.”
Much of the work is precisely turned to the desired shape. Then a pyrography tool is used to create fine details in the surface by scorching the wood, a procedure which Andy undertakes freehand, using the tool much as an artist uses a brush.
Andy dons the safety glasses and moves behind the lathe. I enquire about the origin of a piece of light coloured wood. It turns out to be local sycamore.
“I don’t use exotic wood,” he says. “It’s destroying rainforests and I don’t see the need, when I can use wood grown just a few miles away, which contains a story.”
He recalls a particular favourite, a three-part wall sculpture in elm sourced from a derelict cottage in North Cove on the Suffolk coast. According to English Heritage it came from a shipwreck on that stretch of beach 400 years ago. To think the wood had been used throughout generations and now proudly hangs inside someone’s house is rather impressive. It must be quite a talking point.
Andy carefully screws the wood onto the spindle, the tailstock presses the wood, the tool rest is locked on and the lathe is fired up. The wood spins at around 2,000rpm. I’m intrigued to see what can be created from this ordinary lump of sycamore.
Picking up a long-ground bowl gouge – a tool required to ‘rough’ the wood from square to round – Andy places it onto the tool rest.
An emphatic spray of shavings covers my camera and most of the corner of the workshop. The wood spins and the long-ground bowl gouge is gradually moved up and down the surface.
Within a few minutes the once plain fragment of local wood is blossoming into life – something unique is happening. The rounded shape is reversed and a slightly wider bowl gouge is applied, hollowing out the inside, forming the unmistakable shape of a bowl.
Andy uses his eye and well mastered technique to ease the bowl into a perfect shape inside and out. He gently presses a two-inch square piece of Formica into the spinning wood, creating a scorch ring around the outside of the bowl. He uses a scraper to remove the tool marks and hands me the wonderful bowl. He’s made the entire process look so simple. n
Cobwebcrafts 07951 879 617 www.andycoates.co.uk