Craftsmanship Series Part I: The Wonders of Woodturning

Craftsmanship Series Part I: The Wonders of Woodturning

By Sam Nielsen

If you walk into Frank Penta’s Chapel Hill workshop on any given Thursday or Friday, you can expect to be greeted with the loud whirs and buzzes of multiple lathes — a tool used for woodturning — followed by a friendly welcome from Penta and other veteran shop-goers.

“The thing about woodturning — it’s all kinds of things. People think of woodturning as turning a bowl. Well, it’s a lot more than that,” Penta said.

Woodturning is a type of woodworking that involves spinning a piece of wood on a lathe and applying tools to shape it in various ways.

Introduced to the craft by his son, Penta began woodturning in 1997, when he started taking classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. He has been dedicated to turning ever since.

“I have worked and built things with wood all my life. Woodturning was a natural outgrowth of my interest in working with wood,” Penta said.

“Woodturning provides me with the means to use my imagination to create an endless variety of wood objects.”

For 15 years, Penta has taught woodturning at not only craft schools and colleges, but also out of his own workshop. Before he began turning, he was a high school English teacher.

“Because my background is in education, and I like turning, I teach turning,” Penta said. “I’ve had my shop open for the past 15 years, so people come on a Friday. It’s free; I have 12 lathes, and people just come and I teach them to turn.”

Beginning turners who visit Penta’s workshop on Fridays are assigned to a more experienced turner, who mentors them for the day.

Elizabeth Prioli learned woodturning at Alamance Community College and is now a frequent visitor to Penta’s shop. She described the environment of the workshop as welcoming.

“For anybody who would like to learn how to turn, the shop is open for them to take advantage and learn. Either Frank will teach you, or some other member will be happy to help, so it’s really a great system,” Prioli said.

Five years ago, Penta and turners who frequently visited his shop formed the Chapel Hill Woodturners, an exclusive woodturning club, separate from larger ones located in Raleigh and other parts of North Carolina. The group meets every Thursday at Penta’s workshop to turn and socialize.

“The guys do really great work,” Penta said.

“What’s really nice about the club is: most turners turn by themselves, holed up in their basement or their garage, while here, they come together every single week, and they can turn all day, together. As you can see, they’re all interacting with one another and helping one another.”

Each of the now 33 club members is expected to contribute to the club in some way.

“Everybody here is very active. If you’re not active, we’ll ask you to leave,” Club President Orlan Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter if you can turn or not, but you have to fit in.”

The club takes part in community work throughout North Carolina. Projects it has been involved in include turning tops for children at the University of North Carolina’s Pediatric Oncology Center and Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center’s Camp Kaleidoscope, teaching a woodturning class at Cedar Ridge High School and donating turned wood items to various non-profit organizations.

The club also turned boxes for the American Association of Woodturners’s (AAW) Beads of Courage Boxes project. Children undergoing cancer treatment at the UNC hospitals receive beads whenever they go through a part of their treatment, and organizations like the Chapel Hill Wood Turners provide boxes for the children to store their beads.

“We’re doing a lot of community work,” Johnson said.

Woodturning is more than just a hobby for club member Don Leydens, who first started turning in 2011 when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“I lost my business that year — that was due to the economy and all that — and, two days later, I found out I had stage three cancer. So I thought, man, this is a bad week; this is a tough week,” Leydens said.

Leydens decided to distract himself from his illness by turning wood, which is less physically intensive than other forms of woodworking. He took to the craft quickly.

“The first thing I put on, I was in love. It became a passion. I’ve been looking for passion my whole life. You know, a lot of people never find it—better late than never,” Leydens said. “(Turning) helped me all through the chemotherapy.”

Leydens is now cancer-free and an active member of the Chapel Hill Woodturners.

“It just gets better and better, and the friendships get better and better. Your turning gets better, because now everybody’s helping everybody,” Leydens said.

“I’m very happy.”

Several members of the Chapel Hill Woodturners have had their work displayed in art galleries, museums and magazines. Some also give demonstrations at local and national woodturning conventions, such as AAW’s 30th Annual International Symposium in Atlanta, Georgia, which Penta, Leydens and roughly 1,500 woodturners from around the country attended in early June.

The workshop is used by what Penta sees as a group of people with varied backgrounds. Many new woodturners are recent retirees looking for a hobby, Penta said.

“They talk about Angie’s List, and I say ‘No, no, you gotta have Frank’s list: doctors, lawyers, psychologists, engineers’ — in fact, Cecil Sparrow, (a member of Chapel Hill Woodturners), was a milkman in Chapel Hill for 30 years,” Penta said.

Members of the club hope to establish a woodturning school in Chapel Hill to allow more newcomers to be taught.

Penta said he believes anyone can learn woodturning.

“It’s fun,” he said.

“Woodturning is fun, and anyone can learn to turn and have fun at it; it’s just a matter of how it’s being taught.”