A purpose and an occupation: the lathe that turned a life around

Mike Walker of Walker’s Woodturning was born and bred on a sheep and beef farm in the King Country. His passion for woodturning began with many childhood hours spent turning with his grandfather. In 2002 Mike broke his back, and it was this that eventually led him to take up woodturning again in his adult years, this time in a professional capacity. Assisted by his wife Helen on the business front, Mike has worked hard to adapt traditional turning techniques to his needs, and as a result he’s competent at ambidextrous turning, and turning seated or standing.


 

 

 
What do you make?
This question I find hard to answer purely and simply because I make such a range of items. There’s essentially three aspects to my work – commission work, production work, and artistic work. Some of the items I’ve made for my commission work I don’t think I would have ever thought to make if people hadn’t asked me to, but I love the associated challenge that accompanies such a request. I’ve worked on traditional tattooing tools, specialised household knobs, vintage lawnmower rollers, a custom gear shift for a classic car, and even created moulds for building a 3D rocket. Then there is the production side of my work (I supply several wholesalers) and again it’s many different items including pizza wheels, cheese slices, bottle openers, and soap dishes – just to name a few. Finally I also make artistic pieces – and this is the side of my work that really motivates and excites me. My artistic work ranges from mini cowboy hats to be displayed, full size wooden cowboy hats that can be worn, through to extra large sculptural pieces for large foyers and entrance ways. To sum it up I make woodturned items of all shapes and sizes, from purely artistic to everyday functional.


 

 
How did you get into your craft?
It was a bit of a roundabout journey into my craft. I had just started high school when I went to spend a week of the school holidays with my grandparents. Grandad was a woodturner and Grandma was a machine knitter. Grandad deemed that I was finally old enough to have a go on the lathe, and needless to say I spent the whole week down in his workshop making with him (I didn’t see much of Grandma!) During this week I turned my very first bowl – and what can I say, I was hooked.

Shortly after this visit, life took a turn when I broke my back (I was only 13). Life became a blur of school, medical appointments and pain. I finished school and, unable to logistically take over the family farm because of my injury, I went to study Agriculture and AgriBusiness at Massey University – thinking that I could follow a career in Agriculture Management instead. During my studies I met my wife, Helen, and had my first major back surgery. Although the surgery was successful at stabilising the spine, chronic pain persisted. Life was very uncertain for me. A career wasn’t exactly on the cards.

Marriage however was. We’d only been married a month when Helen and I attended the Central Districts Woodwork Expo. Helen spotted a lathe for sale and said something along the lines of “Haven’t you always wanted to woodturn?” I responded “Yeah, one day when I retire,” and she countered with “Why wait till you retire?”. I am very grateful to Helen for talking me around as I found that not only did woodturning help distract me from the pain, but that I also had a natural affinity and passion for it. Woodturning has since become my life. It’s given me a purpose and an occupation. I’m able to choose my own hours, and if I’m not up to working I don’t have to explain it to the boss.

At 31 I’m a successful business owner. It’s certainly not the career I envisaged for myself when I was growing up; I still live everyday with chronic pain, but I have quality of life, I’m focused on my business growth and I’m passionate about my craft.

Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
I’ve always loved to work with wood and spent a lot of time in the woodwork department at high school. I was first in my class in both woodwork and metalwork throughout my high school tuition and hold NCEA qualifications in both subjects. High school was a long time ago now though… and I’ve since become a trainer for the National Certificate in Woodturning, an approved demonstrator for the National Association of Woodworkers New Zealand Ltd (NAW), and I also offer woodturning tuition from my home workshop.

I think it’s important to change with the times, and I’m always looking for opportunities to learn and expand my own knowledge base. I had signed up for pottery lessons at our local arts centre right before lockdown – but they are still on hold for now! Pottery fascinates me as it’s effectively the mirror of woodturning: in woodturning we cut away to create a shape, whereas in pottery you build up to create the shape. I’m interested to try my hand at it.


 

 
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I have a number of favourites.

My favourite timber is Black Maire. Black Maire was predominantly milled around the King Country when the land was being broken in for farmland. Coming from a fourth-generation family farm in Taumarunui, Black Maire to me is a connection to my family heritage. Every time I turn a piece I’m reminded of home and my family roots. I love the colour and grain of the timber, the weight (it’s one of the densest timbers in New Zealand), and the smell. It’s such a hard timber to turn that it literally takes the edge off your tools, yet there’s a native moth (puriri) that likes to eat it. It’s rather ironic really.

My favourite tool has to be the one that is getting the job done. Seriously, woodturners can use many different tools on just one job. However, if I did have to choose it would be my trusty Woodcut 13 mm bowl gouge and of course my wood lathe (PREN Colt) – without my lathe I wouldn’t be able to turn anything.

My favourite process is wet turning (that is the process of turning wet/freshly felled wood). With wet turning, you don’t have to sharpen your tools as often and the shavings that are produced can be ridiculously long and fly all around the workshop. I love that I can take a wet blank of wood that weighs 80+ kg and turn it down into a piece of work that weighs only 100g once dry.


 

 
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces

All of my work starts in the same way. I start with a concept in my head and mentally work through all the various ways of holding the wood, different turning techniques I could use, and what timber might suit the project. When I settle on a technique that will best allow me to undertake the concept, I draw out possible designs in many different views and styles until I settle on one (or more) that I like.

Then it’s a challenge of finding a suitable piece of timber. Some of my designs are a couple of years old and are still waiting for the right piece of timber to come along! A lot of thought and time goes into choosing a piece of timber. Things I have to consider include structural stability for the task at hand, knots and cracks to be avoided (or featured, depending on the project), orientation of the log and how it’s been cut, and what the end product is going to be. For example, it took me five years to find a piece of timber suitable to turn my first full-sized cowboy hat. That hat has since seen a few rodeos around the country.

Once I have a piece of timber selected it gets mounted to the lathe ready to be turned, and finally the chisel can start to bring the timber to life by defining the shape and form of the final product. One of the benefits of working as a production turner is that I have a lot of muscle memory from the endless repetition of production style jobs, and this tool control is invaluable. There’s also a lot of sanding, oiling, buffing and other finishing techniques involved before the rough piece of timber is a polished gem ready to find a new home.


 

 
What inspires you?
I often find this question hard to answer because I find inspiration everywhere. Nature itself is never short on ideas – the hills, rivers, patterns in the sand at the beach, shells, leaves, tree bark textures, the way the light catches different objects and the vast range of colours. The only annoying thing is that inspiration often arrives when I’m ready for sleep. It’s for this reason that I have a notebook by my bed to sketch and make notes whenever inspiration strikes.
 
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
When I started turning my philosophy was all about using the imperfections in timber to showcase the work. Turning for me was a reflection of my life – I might feel completely broken but just because something has imperfections doesn’t mean that it cannot be a beautiful piece of art.

My philosophy has since evolved further into looking more deeply at the process of turning. I try to create my designs in a way that I maximise the potential out of each piece of timber. I’m excited that I am the one who gets to decide what the end product will look like. Not only this, but I am also the first person to see the grain and the secrets that the timber has to share – this is particularly special when you are turning a rare piece of timber like Ancient Kauri.

The other driving force behind my work is the challenge of being able to turn objects on the lathe in such a way that when people look at them they wonder how it was turned in the first place. If I can envisage it in my mind I want to create it on the lathe.


 

 
Describe your creative process:

I find that I take a two pronged approach, depending on what I’m working on. If I’m working on a commissioned work then I’m often working to a customer’s drawing or design, often with the timber also supplied. In this case, I go through the process of talking to the customer, making sure that the timber supplied is suitable for the job, and ensuring that their idea is plausible.

The artistic approach is generally more fun. I start by dreaming up new concepts and ways of turning a conceptual piece and then it is a matter of finding the “right” piece of timber for the project. Finding the right piece of timber means that I inevitably have a few pieces of timber that sit around in the workshop. I make sure that I walk past them everyday as this helps to spark ideas of what would work with that piece. Finally I will put it on the lathe and make some beautiful shavings. There are also some times when I put a piece of wood on the lathe with no prior planning and let the timber tell me what it wants to be. This can be a great way of getting the muse to strike.
 
Describe your workspace:
Which one? I have two… My home garage is my creative space – organised chaos; a duster’s nightmare; a very compact workshop space with a lot of lathes. There’s always more than one project on the go – if you look around the workshop you will find pieces stashed everywhere in varying stages of completion. I am also currently renting the space where my lathes were built as a secondary workshop. This houses all my processing machinery, a lot of timber, and is where I spend a lot of time prepping the timber for my projects.


 

 
What are you currently listening to?
Anything and everything. I enjoy all music and generally have a random compilation playing. Folk music. Country. Rock. Classical. It changes from day to day depending on what I’m in the mood for. My wife thinks I’m a little odd as often I have the radio on in the background and something blasting through my headphones at the same time as I turn. My logic is that when I take the headphones off there’s still music playing.

Recommend an album:
Anything by Linkin Park. They’re a childhood favourite.

What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
Treasure Island. The child in me would say it’s because it has pirates, treasure and they follow a map. My more adult self still likes all those things, but more than that it reminds me of spending time with my Grandma on the home farm. She used to read the book to me a lot as a kid, and then she even recorded it off the TV for my siblings and I to watch. We spent a lot of time down at Grandma’s so it brings up some very fond memories.
 
What are you reading now?
The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. I’m eeking it out slowly while I await the long promised third book in the series…

Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
Rather than a hero, I have people in my life who have greatly influenced me, and who I admire and aspire to be like. My dear friend Gordon Pritchard was the creator of my PREN lathes. He inspired my woodturning passion, encouraged me to turn big, and gave me a lathe with the capacity to do so. Another good friend, Malcolm Kingsford, is a wealth of knowledge and always willing to have his brains picked over. Glenn Lucas – an Irish turner – who has taken his knowledge of turning and uses it to benefit people. And of course my Grandad. He fostered my early passion for woodturning and has supported me throughout my career. He’s an unassuming man but always the first to quietly boast of my success.

A favourite quote:
“Get busy living or get busy dying.” – The Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman could narrate the story of my life anytime! 

Tell us about your pets:
I have a number of pets. My two turtles are called Houdinie and Buddie – they swim, sun and eat. I have a cat, Smokie, who you only know you have when she wants food so I keep treats handy. I have eleven chickens – two of which hang with me regularly in my workshop, scratching at all my shavings.


 

 
Five words that describe your mind:
Creative. Methodical. Focused. Never stops.

I tend to have a lot of ideas bouncing around at any one time, yet I find that many hours can pass while I’m turning and it only feels like minutes.

Your favourite feedback from a customer:
“Absolutely amazing – I love it. It’s more beautiful than I could have ever imagined”. 

What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
There’s a lot more work involved than you think. It takes a lot of time and dedication. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t grow as fast as you expected. Remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
People who are creative spend a lot of time trying to make items that they think the public will love. They put so much of themselves and their time into their work. I like to invest back into those people and see them grow. One day those pieces might even appear on the Antique Roadshow – we can all live in hope that our work is valued enough to be preserved for the generations to come.

What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
I put myself into every piece I create, so a piece of me leaves with every piece that I sell. If I can make someone fall in love with a piece I’ve created then I’m doing my job as an artist.

What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
A hand blown glass vase from my local gallery. The form, shape and combination of colour was particularly stunning, and I could see it inspiring me by having it in my home.


 
Any other interesting facts that might grab people’s attention?
I’m the oldest boy out of six children (three boys, three girls), and grew up on a sheep and beef farm in Taumarunui. I grew up working the farm with Dad, Mum and my siblings; spent hours bottling and preserving with Mum; hours fishing with my brother; and was a resident babysitter to my two youngest siblings. I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors and have always been very hands-on.

I currently own nine lathes, ranging in size. I have 4 PREN Colt lathes which are set up as my teaching lathes. I also own a PREN Pony, PREN Mare, PREN Maxi, PREN Stallion and a Morgan midi lathe with extension bed. I have the largest PREN lathe collection in New Zealand.

What’s in store for the rest of 2020?
I have no idea what 2020 is going to throw at me… and that is kind of exciting. I’ve recently launched woodturning workshops. They were abruptly postponed because of covid so I’m trying to restart the momentum. I’m just going to enjoy the ride.

Alongside woodturning, I also love to whittle. I have a collection of little wooden men that seems to grow whenever Helen tells me that I’m spending too much time outside in the workshop – yes, I even bring my chisels inside!

Covid has greatly curtailed what I had planned for the year. At this stage I will be at a few of the local markets around the Manawatu – you’ll see my work at the Manawatu Craft and Food Fair on the 29th August and 5th – 6th December; but for the most part I will be focusing on running my woodturning workshops and finding new galleries to stock my work.

Special offer for Felt readers!

Mike is kindly giving his Felt customers 20% off any of the beautiful and functional products in his Felt shop for the duration of his feature fortnight. Just purchase before 5pm Monday 31 August, and enter the code walker20 in the voucher code field at step 4 of checkout. Thank you so much Mike!


 

5 thoughts on “A purpose and an occupation: the lathe that turned a life around

  1. Just catching up on things as I have been away. It is a mystery to me how these beautiful bowls can be made from the depths of a piece of wood. The finished product is so fine and exquisite. I particularly like the etched in designs. Really beautiful work and each piece so precious and original and one off. Impressive, especially all the concept work that goes on before you even start. So much imagination necessary. Thanks for the insight into your workshop and craft.
    Adrienne

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