Me

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My name is Jim Schlemmer and I am, more or less, Protean Woodworking.  I live in the upstate region of New York, a little south of the Adirondack Mountains.  This region of the country is home to a great diversity of tree species, both hardwood and softwood.  I typically have around 20 different woods in production from around the area.


Why Protean?  Proteus was a Greek god of rivers, oceans, and the like.  In addition to being a watery fellow, Proteus could change form at will, and the word protean mainly derives its meaning from this ability.  The versatility and creativity implied by protean are qualities that I aspire to in my woodworking.

AESTHETICS

I think that the form of an object is the first priority; it has to be pleasing to the eye on its lines alone.  If you take a beautiful piece of walnut burl and turn it into an uninteresting blob, the latter will dominate the aesthetics of the piece.  If, on the other hand, you take a rather plain piece of wood and create a pleasing form, it will still be pleasing to behold.  So if I come across an exceptional piece of wood, sure, I’m delighted.  But rather than feeling a sense of relief that that wood will carry the day, I feel a keener sense of responsibility to make it into something stunning.  I do like to add colors and textures to wood — and I think they have a lot to offer — but I always get the form where I like it before embellishing in any way.

FINISHING

Before I picked up woodturning some 20 years ago, I was mostly building furniture and making the occasional boat.  Furniture requires protection from spills and scuffs and boats require protection from water, sun, and abrasion. That protection, the result of many coats and lots of work, also has to be beautiful, as in the satin sheen of a walnut dining room table or the dazzling varnished mahogany transom on a classic wooden boat.  

I came into turning predisposed to finishing wood with something more significant than a wipe of this or that.  But it’s not just habit; the aesthetic I’m usually going for is not possible without a properly applied finish consisting of multiple layers built up one at a time. That aesthetic exhibits a depth in both color and grain that’s impossible to get with mere coats of walnut or mineral oil, which can look nice for a little while but ultimately end up looking flat and dry. I’m looking for a finish that looks good and continues to look good with time.

 I end up spending a lot of time and effort finishing my pieces.  My finishing arsenal includes base layers such as tung or boiled linseed oil and top coats such as urethanes, varnish, shellac, and lacquer, as well as embellishments such as wood dyes and paints.  It is typically a lot of extra work: rubbing on thin coat after thin coat; sanding between coats; waiting hours or days for layers to dry; final buffing; respirators and dust masks; mountains of cans and jars filled with various mixtures.  I do look for shortcuts but I’ve not found too many.  

A note on food safety.  According to wood finishing expert, Bob Flexner, all finishes are food-safe once they have cured.  So platters and bowls are fine for dry foods, but you should avoid prolonged exposure to liquids as repeated wet-dry cycles can lead to cracks in the wood.

THE LATHE

I bought my first lathe when I bought my first table saw, back around 1996.  I hadn’t intended to get the lathe but the man who sold me the saw said that I could have the lathe too for a small additional cost.  I took it home, turned it on to make sure it still worked and then stood it up vertically in a corner.  Lathes and woodturning had always seemed so exotic and unapproachable, like some sort of dark art, that I could never muster the courage to lay my hands on it.  So there it languished in the corner of my basement shop for a couple of years before I decided I had something else I really didn’t want to do and so I gave it a whirl. It was a Sears Craftsman model, which didn’t place it in the pantheon of lathes, though it was functional and served the purpose of piquing my interest in turning.  Within a few years I upgraded to a more capable machine, having by this time been well-bitten by the woodturning bug. Some years later, after having to repair an overworked motor, I upgraded again, this time to a rather stout model. That machine has served me well for over a decade but has recently had its motor replaced.  All three lathes are still running, though I’ve managed to put some miles on them. I still use a few of the original Craftsman cutting tools as they were made of decent quality steel. 

Most woodworking machines involve a rapidly spinning cutter into which wood is slowly fed.  The lathe is unusual in that it rapidly spins the wood and it is the cutter that is slowly fed.  So whereas most of the skill in making furniture with power tools is in setting up machines and, in some cases, the way the wood is fed, in turning most of the skill is in the handling of the gouges and other cutting tools.  It takes a long time to get to be a decent woodturner.  My intention has always been to stay humble and keep learning.

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