Turning wood into gems
Renowned British woodturner on island for Saturday workshop
MAKAWAO — Curled wood shavings flew through the air as British woodturner Stuart Batty guided a long-handled tool across the surface of a block of koa.
As the rough, squarish block transformed into the smooth, rounded base of a calabash bowl within a matter of minutes, Makawao woodturner Emiliano Achaval could hardly contain his delight.
“He is just unbelievable,” said Achaval, the president and founder of the Maui Woodturners Association. “Almost no sanding is needed when he’s done.”
Batty, 53, has been practicing the craft since he was 10 years old and has developed a style over the years that allows him to churn out smooth products at a rapid pace. The renowned woodturner is visiting Maui this week for a workshop on Saturday, completing a nationwide tour that’s already taken him to 49 states.
Achaval said it’s easy to be skeptical when hearing that someone is the best.
But, “within 30 seconds, I knew the guy was good,” Achaval said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy can turn.’ ”
Like potters use a wheel to shape clay, woodturners use a machine called a lathe to spin a piece of wood, which is then shaped by hand using a variety of tools.
Batty is a third-generation woodturner, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom completed six-year apprenticeships in the British style of woodturning. Growing up in Newcastle upon Tyne, Batty spent his Saturdays sharpening the tools that his father would sell to amateur woodturners. After watching his father labor in the dusty woodshop for years, Batty got his chance at age 10.
“I was amazed at how quickly you could shape a piece of wood on the lathe,” Batty said. “I mean, you can shape quicker with clay, but then you have to fire it, and you have to glaze it.”
By 16, Batty was doing production turning for his dad, creating multiple pieces for architects and other companies. Meanwhile, he instructed other woodturners at the school where his father taught.
“By then, I was making good money because I’d become fast at it,” Batty said. “I didn’t want to go back to college and not make money for a while. So I kept it up till this day.”
At 18, Batty went to work for Sorby Tools in Sheffield, England, at the time the largest manufacturer of woodturning tools. He became a production bowl turner in his 20s, and his passion turned into a lifelong career.
Batty’s claims to fame include a long-stemmed goblet that made it into the White House’s permanent collection during George W. Bush’s first term, as well as a meeting with Princess Diana 30 years ago. The Arts Council of Great Britain had chosen Batty and several other artists to meet with Diana at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England. He remembered she was “cute as hell.”
“I was 23, I’d only seen pictures of her,” he said. “She was really nice. She really liked the weight of my bowls because they were very thin and delicate.”
To prove that woodturning is a craft that a person can pick up at any age, Batty, who’s taught about 5,000 people over the years, pointed out that his students range in age from 7 to 96. His 11-year-old daughter has also started woodturning, extending the Batty family legacy to four generations.
Part of the reason it appeals to such a wide range of ages is that woodturning isn’t about strength; it’s about technique, said Batty, whose own technique is a blend of traditional British style and modern adaptations. Batty’s “push cut” style positions the left hand upfront to weigh down the edge of the tool while the right hand controls the handle of the tool.
“Our left hand is just simply making it heavy, but it’s not controlling the tool,” Batty said. “Most modern turners control the tool with both hands, and that’s what damages the fibers.”
The trick is “to let the tool do its work.” Batty’s technique generally doesn’t tear the fibers of the wood, which means less sanding — everyone’s “least favorite part of woodturning.” It’s also faster. Batty can shave down the walls of an 18-inch diameter bowl from 6 inches to 1/8th of an inch thick in 12 minutes.
Achaval and Batty said they never take down live trees for their projects. Often the trees are about to fall and pose a threat, or are “standing dead” and would be used as mulch or go to waste.
Achaval, an Argentinian who’s lived on Maui for 30 years and is the son-in-law of Haku Baldwin, got into woodturning 23 years ago. He had to remove a koa tree that was threatening his home in Makawao, and a friend suggested he turn the wood into something useful.
Achaval started with a Craftsman lathe and a series of cheap chisels from Sears and spent years honing his skills. He ended up founding the Maui Woodturners Association, now a nonprofit with about 30 members.
“The quality in Maui is coming up,” said Achaval, adding that the club has “no secrets” and that people are welcome to come and learn any time.
Batty’s daylong woodturning demonstration will emphasize traditional tools and cutting techniques. It will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Achaval’s studio at 300 Kealaloa Ave. in Makawao. Attendance costs $50 for club members and $75 for nonmembers, which includes a one-year membership to the Maui Woodturners Association.
For more information, call Achaval at 854-1028 or visit mauiturners.com or facebook.com/mauiwoodturners.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.