The earthy scent of freshly cut wood wafted through Temple Blackwood’s woodturning shop. Bright lights illuminated wooden work tables covered with metal tools and dust. Sections of tree trunks lay on the floor.
Blackwood, owner of Highland Woodturning in Castine, has been turning oak, cherry and other wood into bowls, spindles and other pieces since the early 1970s.
“Wood is just such an amazing and warm and wonderful material,” Blackwood said showing a white ash bowl he had turned, his hands callused from years of woodworking.
Through July and August, Blackwood demonstrates his craft from 2 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Sundays at the Wilson Museum in Castine. Admission is free except for the guided tours in the Perkins House.
Begun as a utilitarian craft, wood turning revolves around a lathe. The machine suspends a piece of wood in the air and quickly rotates it. As the wood spins, the wood turner carefully chisels away to shape the piece. When the tool strikes the turning wood, chips fly off revealing a smooth interior that can be transformed into goblets, bowls, candles and other objects.
The technique, which dates back to 1300 BC when the Egyptians invented a two-person lathe, lost popularity in the early 1900s after the invention of plastic. Plastic was cheaper and more efficient to mold and reduced demand for wood turning.
While living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Blackwood says he first became interested in the craft tradition after reading by a book by English wood turner Peter Child. For Christmas one year, his wife and mother-in-law gifted him a small lathe.
As Blackwood familiarized himself with his new toy, a friend and lumber salesman approached him about making 106 stair spindles for a historic renovation project. Also called balusters, those parts support handrails.
The first spindle he made took an hour a half. Then the next one 50 minutes until eventually he was averaging 15 minutes or less for each.
“Your muscles learn,” he said. “It really is dramatically a very kinesthetic experience when you’re doing multiples.”
Blackwood explained that similar to sailing, wood turning is a full-body activity. Standing at the lathe, focusing on the piece of wood spinning in front of him, he goes into an almost meditative-like trance.
Since then, Blackwood has helped with many historic restoration projects. Perhaps most notable is work he did with the Chesapeake Woodturners group on the USS Constellation. The only surviving Civil War-era vessel is now a National Historic Landmark docked in Baltimore, Md. The group fabricated small belaying pins, used for securing ropes, and 360 small spindles for the ship.
After visiting Maine in the summer since 1968, Blackwood made the state his year-round home in 2009 after retiring from career as a headmaster at private schools.
“It was great,” he said referring to when he was headmaster of the Gunston School in Centreville, Md. “We lived on campus, and woodturning allowed me to have a second job that we could work around all the other things I was doing at the school, and I taught a lot of girls how to wood turn. We looked at it as an art class.”
Anyone interested in learning how to turn wood, can take lessons at Blackwood’s shop. He also offers a Thursday session where people can work on projects with some guidance from him.
“It’s been extremely beneficial and pleasurable to introduce people to this art form, skill and passion,” he said.
Blackwood also enjoys the social aspect. If someone has a favorite tree that fell in their yard, they might bring it to him and ask for a bowl.
“If someone made you a bowl out of the tree, it would have more meaning to you, and that’s very motivating,” he said. “You don’t get that at Walmart.”