I’m standing in a well-lit workshop behind a modest ranch house in a Solvang neighborhood.

The floor is covered in wood shavings, and around the walls nine people stand, watching Mike Magrill craft a bowl on his lathe.


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In less than an hour and a half, he takes a chunk of log and transforms it into a shaped, sanded and waxed bowl ready for sale. This is the magic of woodturning – and the number of followers this ancient hobby draws is surprising.

Mike hosts what he calls “sawdust sessions” for the Santa Ynez Woodturners club every Tuesday night at his home workshop. On this particular night, he begins his demonstration by cutting a cylinder out of a large log. This is then secured it to the end of his lathe. A large gouge takes off chunks of bark. As he uses the gouge and the motion of the spinning lathe to shape the bowl, Mike makes sure to leave a small shoulder at the bottom. This is used once he flips the bowl over.

A metal chuck grips the shoulder to attach the bowl to the lathe so the center can be hollowed out. Before he begins the center of the bowl, Mike takes a drill bit and holds it against the bowl’s side. Once he has determined the depth of the bowl, he marks the bit with tape and bores it into the center to serve as a depth gauge.

Then he begins the process of removing the insides of the bowl – taking a little more each time, being careful not to go too deep, lest he break through the other side.

“What are you going for, Mike?” asks one of the group members. “Oh, about one-quarter or three-fifteenths”

He’s talking about fractions of an inch; it goes to show just how thin the walls of these bowls can get. As Mike works, he measures the inside of the bowl with calipers for consistency.

I lean over to Chris Hansen, one of the other instructors, and ask just how often the sides become too thin. “It happens all the time, we call it practice,” he says, then adds, “Woodturners are never short on firewood.”

Like many other obsessions, the world of woodturning has its own jargon. Conversations about gear and technique are going on all around the room.

“Did you get that new bandsaw?”

“Yeah, I got the 24-inch.”

Or

“What do you use if you don’t have a vacuum chuck?”

“I use foamies, it’s the stuff kids use for construction paper these days. We re-purpose everything.”

At one point some humorous banter breaks out about sandpaper grain. Even if most of it is going over my head, it’s not easy to miss the enthusiasm this group has for woodturning.

By this time, Mike has finished shaping his bowl. Even un-sanded, it seems amazing that only a few minutes ago this was a log. To sand, he uses sandpaper of decreasing coarseness to take out the scratches of the paper that came before it. Once he is satisfied with the finish, he applies lacquer and quickly wipes it off with a paper towel.

As the lacquer dries, the chuck that held the bowl is replaced by a metal arm attached to a cloth buffing wheel. For buffing, he uses three compounds: jewelers rouge, White Diamond or Tripoli compound, and an upscale furniture wax; each gets its own wheel. The rouge and buffing compounds come in big blocks that are rubbed off on the wheels; the wax is applied by hand from a canister. First the inside, then the lip, then the outside – every surface on the bowl is polished thoroughly. Mike holds the bowl up to the light. What had been rough wood now catches the shop lights like white orbs dancing on the outside of the bowl and resting inside it.

Finished pieces are then readied for sale. Many pieces by Santa Ynez woodturners can be found in Solvang’s Z Folio Gallery.

The woodturning club in Santa Ynez is one of three on the Central Coast. For now, it is unofficial, but the two other clubs (one in San Luis Obispo and the other serving southern Santa Barbara County) are sanctioned by the American Association of Woodturners.

I was surprised to learn there was a Santa Ynez sect of woodturners, and even more stunned to find out how many people are draw to the craft nationwide. Mike said that at the last national woodturning symposium he attended, there were more than 1,500 people there. Perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of this style of woodworking is its passionate evangelist. The woodturners at the Santa Ynez club said they were eager to help people get started turning. Mike said one of the benefits of the club is the recommendations they can make about tools and lathes. He estimated knowing what tools were needed in the beginning could save a newcomer thousands of dollars.

Kay Villa, the only woman currently in the club, said she has felt welcome by the group. “I saw them at Danish Days two years ago. Mike is the one who got me started and all the guys said, ‘Don’t be afraid.’” They encouraged her and even chipped in some old tools to get her started. “I like coming because of the group; every night, we learn something new. I hear something from everybody.”

The club is open to the public. If you are interested in joining or just want to observe a sawdust session, contact Mike Magrill at 245-1900.

brookshire@syvjournal.com