Turning wood with local artist Jeff Ferguson

Wood from a local tree-trimming company becomes one-of-a-kind bowls
Friday, February 22, 2008 | 3:16 p.m. CST; updated 11:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — When Jeff Ferguson moved from Colorado a year and a half ago, he loaded the trailer with so much wood for his woodturning addiction that he had to leave behind his barbecue.

And addiction isn’t too strong a word: The man has 500 wood bowls in his house — and he made them all.


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Ferguson sees no connection between his work as an archaeologist for the MU Research Reactor and his hobby turning wood, but it’s there. When he looks at a clay pot, he can, using tools of analysis, tell you where the pot came from and where it ended up; and when he looks at a piece of wood, he can tell you what type it is by looking at the bark.

Woodturning is Ferguson’s default mode when he’s not working or involved with his wife and three children. A decade ago, he made the decision to pick up woodturning instead of throwing ceramic pots on a potter’s wheel. He was drawn to a step in ceramics called “trimming,” the process of turning the formed clay pot over to chisel and form the bottom.

“I began to notice that the bottom of my ceramics were becoming larger and larger,” Ferguson said. “I think it was then that I knew that I liked the turning aspect more.”

With no prior knowledge of woodturning, Ferguson bought an old beat-up lathe, the main tool for woodturning, and began. “It took me a whole day to make one bowl,” he said.

Frustrated but not ready to give up, Ferguson turned to the Internet for more information. He went back and started on smaller items such as pens and bottle stoppers. Now the old lathe has been upgraded to match the size of the 20-inch salad bowls he crafts.

Connections are important in woodturning. Ferguson wasted no time contacting a tree-trimming company, Arthur Ratliff Tree and Stump Removal LLC, to get wood nobody wants.

“I have never cut down a piece of wood just to turn it,” Ferguson said, who uses only damaged or unwanted wood.

Scott Ratliff trades his wood with Ferguson for a few of his bowls, which Ferguson’s now selling for as much as $300.

“It’s neat because I remember cutting down this tree as someone’s waste,” Ratliff said. “Now it is sitting on my table as a one-of-a-kind piece.”

While the minivan and Corolla sit outside of Ferguson’s house, the roughly finished salad bowls and the aroma of freshly cut wood occupy the two-door garage. The wood shavings from only two hours of work congest the small back workshop. One of Ferguson’s sons, Jonas, climbs the pile of shavings in order to see out the back window.

The time spent woodturning is scheduled around the sleeping patterns of his three small children. Whether that means getting up at 5 a.m. before they wake up or waiting until nap time, Ferguson uses all the spare time he can.

“I am sure that once they are coordinated enough to pick up power tools, he will have them out there,” his wife, Susannah Ferguson, said.

In the basement, Jeff’s bowls take precedence in his storage room, lining the walls and covering the floor. “We are overrun by bowls,” Susannah said, teasing. “If I make a salad and grab anything but a wooden bowl, he gets offended.”

While reaching down to select a bowl trapped in the pile, Jeff started a chain reaction in which the large bowls tumbled toward the door, covering his feet. “When it starts to do that, it is just better to run,” he said, laughing.

Ferguson also creates thin wooden vases, which are sold at Blue Stem Missouri Crafts on South Ninth Street. The walls of the vases are the weight and thickness of an acorn, leaving Ferguson with no room for error.

“Some of the larger stuff takes two nights, and I have every muscle in my upper body tensed in order to get nice fine cuts,” Ferguson said.

To get these perfect cuts, he turns the wood while it is wet. This means he has to cut the wood immediately after it is cut down. To keep the wood in this wet state and to avoid it drying fast and cracking, he puts it in black garbage bags.

“One time I left the wood in there from May to December. When I opened it, there were mushrooms growing all over it that had even grown (out of the bag and) onto the basement floor,” he said. “But don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you will get mold in your salad.”

This “spalting” or decaying of the wood gives his work a unique look. The wood is, in fact, rotting over time, but in the process it changes color and design. His favorite woods to work with are maple and ash.

Now, Ferguson is able to pass his knowledge on to other wood workers in Columbia. As a part of the Midwest Woodworkers Association, Ferguson and other members gather to demonstrate and make objects for the community.

“There is a certain amount of pride that goes into something that you hand finish,” said Mike Gentzsch, president of the woodworkers association. “It just makes you feel good.”

Recently, Ferguson has begun to use a new technique of carving out the middle of the bowl to use for making a smaller bowl. These matching bowl sets allow for more bowls per piece of wood and even less waste.

Money is not the main focus in Ferguson’s work. He has sold most of his items online and one or two at Blue Stem. “It’s not like I am going to retire by making salad bowls,” he said.

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