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Home > Featured Woodworker

Dr. Clay Crowder

This month's featured woodworker gives us a different look at woodworking. Dr. Crowder is a woodturner. The pieces that he has created on the lathe are simply incredible. I know you're going to enjoy getting to know Dr. Crowder and his passion for creating works of art on the lathe.

When did you first get interested in woodworking?


Dr. Crowder- I first became interested in woodworking in high school. My Dad gave my brother and me a Shopsmith 10-ER. It had a tablesaw, lathe, drillpress, and sander all in one. The first time I ever turned anything on the lathe was in high school, in fact I still have the first thing I ever turned. It's an old clunky looking ashtray made from walnut. After high school though I lost woodworking for a long time. I picked it back up after completing my residency in medicine and moved back to Maryville from Florida where I had been in the Air Force. I had a little room in my basement and still had that old Shopsmith 10-ER and I began building small stuff for the house. But I wasn't turning anything at this time. Then around 1982 I began woodturning again and just fell in love with it. I started making little bowls and stuff. At this time I was totally self-taught. I hadn't taken any classes at this point. I probably could have taken an ax and turned something just as good [laughs]! Then along about 1985 Rude Osolnik (a famous woodturner from Kentucky, to learn more about Rude visit www.rudeosolnik.com ) came to Knoxville to teach a workshop on turning. I had turned a piece of maple and he said now that's OK, but he gave me several pointers to make it even better.

Talk a little more on learning how to turn. You mentioned that you were self-taught in the beginning but when that could take you only so far where did you go to learn more?

Dr. Crowder- I read some things in Fine Woodworking at that time that taught me some, but their weren't a lot of books on turning. I still have some of those books.  The techniques were really crude though.  So I was strictly self-taught until that weekend that I spent with Rude Osolnik. Since that time I've gone to Arrowmont (School of Arts and Crafts) countless times to learn from the experts. (Go to www.arrowmont.org for more information).  I've also had the previledge to be an assistant during some of those classes as well.

Just like with furniture making there are many styles of woodturning. What's your favorite?

Dr. Crowder- I'll tell what I don't like.  Spindle turning.  The Skew chisel is my worst
enemy (laughs).  So I'm a bowl and vessel turner.  I like naural edge stuff.  I like wood
to talk to me.  I like wood that has figure, I like wood that has some character to it. I've always enjoyed
finding that special piece of wood and taking advantage of it.

What are some of your favorite kinds of wood to turn?

Dr. Crowder- Dogwood.  I love to turn dogwood. There's a pink tint to dogwood that you really can't find in any other
wood.  It's also very hard and dense which makes it cut like butter when it's still green.  

How have you made your living?

Dr. Crowder- I'm in the practice of Pediatrics. Pediatrics has been my life since the military.  I went into the Air force right after my internship.  They said well what do you want to do now that you're finishing up.  I told them that my dad and my brother were both Internists in Maryville so I figured there were enough of those.  I didn't like surgery so I knew that wasn't an option. So they told me well, then it's OB or Pediatrics.  I sure didn't want to do OB so Pediatrics, it was.  I came back and did my resistency in Knoxville, TN and I've been in Pediatrics ever since.  I love it.  I love kids and playing with them.  

(How fortunate to have found a profession and a hobby that one enjoys!)

What kind of lathe do you use?

Dr. Crowder- I have a Nichols lathe.  It's a great big lathe made out of 1/4 in. steel.  

I've never heard of that manufacturer, where's it made?

Dr. Crowder- John Nichols out of Oregon.  I don't know for sure but I heard he had gone out of business.  They're
custom made.  He would ask what you were going to turn mostly and what your elbow height was so that it fits you better.  

What are some of the basic chisels that a beginner to woodturning would need?

Dr. Crowder- For bowl turning, the deep bowl gouge with a swept back grind which is called by various names, the irish grind, Elsworth grind, etc...  usually someone just starting out I would recommend a 1/2 in. size and then go up from there.  A bowl gouge is what I use 90% of the time in bowl turning. Next, a good set of scrapers, I still use a set of high speed steel scrapers that I got sometime not long after high school.  A parting tool would be next.  But I'll tell you what the most important tool to a turner is and that's the grinder.  If you can't put a sharp edge on a chisel it's completely useless.  There's also no substitute for a good jig to go with the grinder like the Wolverine attachment to maintain a consistant bevel on your bowl gouge.  For just starting out these would be the basic tools I would recommmend.  The woodturner definately doesn't need a shop full of tools to get started.

Let's go on and talk about sharpening chisels since you brought it up, what's the process you use to keep a fine edge on your chisels?

Dr. Crowder- I strictly use a high speed grinder.  That's what I learned on.  I've tried to use a slow speed grinder but I tend to push too hard and just don't get as good a result. For sharpening the bowl gouge I use the Wolverine attachment that I mentioned earlier.

Where do you get most of your wood from?

Dr. Crowder-  The only piece of wood that I ever paid a dime for was a piece of grapefruit.  I like fruit wood and never had turned any grapefruit so I bought a piece from a guy that sells wood mostly for turners.  One time I had a neighbor that had a tree cut down and I asked if I could have a little piece of it and I told them I would make them a bowl out of it.  Well, from there word spread like wildfire, that I take wood and even give them a little bowl in return.  So, I've never really had a problem in finding wood to turn.  A get people calling me ever week saying we've got this tree down in our yard do you want it?  I usually go by and look at it, but I've gotten so that if it's not a special piece of wood I just tell them I can't use it.  I usually have more wood than I can keep up with.  Another option for people would be to ask tree service companies if they would keep you in mind.

That's another advantage with wood turning, free wood!  And many times turners want the wood that no one else can or wants to use.  

Do you mostly wet turn (or green turn) your wood?

Dr. Crowder- Yes.  Most of what I turn is still green.  I rough it out (turning most of the wood away while it's still green and much easier to cut) leaving the wall thickness 10% of the diameter of the bowl.  You have to keep the wall thickness fairly even all over or it's more likely to crack as it dries.  I then coat it in wax (paste wax)and then let it air dry for a year or so depending on the piece.  

How do you finish most of your pieces?

Dr. Crowder- Rude Oslinik and some of the other experts along the time I started turning was using Deft (a brushing lacquer) and then a danish oil to go on top of the Deft.  I still use this two step finish process a lot, especially if the piece is functional, and I do a lot of functional pieces.  Then a few years ago a nationally known turner was talking and said really the only thing that's any good for functional pieces is your oils.  Any kind of hard finish on a piece will crack and wear away with continued use.  Oils though soak in and stay and can be easily renewed.  So I've started using this approach some.  But for art pieces I like to use wipe on polyurethane.  They're not going to be subjected to the constant handling and washing like a functional piece would be.  

I should have asked this before the last question, but tell me how you sand your pieces in preparation for the finish.

Dr. Crowder- I've used a lot a sandpaper in the past, but what I've learned from the experts over the years is that if you're really careful with your cutting tool, Scrapers and gouges, you can minimize the sanding.  For the most part I start sanding at 120 grit.  I use 2 in. discs that have a velcro backing that sticks to a pad that attaches to a hand drill.  I use these with the piece still on the lathe but not turning.  I get all the tear out spots and the bottom of the bowl with the lathe off.  Then I turn the lathe on but still not fast, the speed comes from the spinning of the drill.  This doesn't take long at all.  You get a little inequality sanding with the lathe standing still but the sanding you do after you turn the lathe on smooths it right out.  So, I do the 120 grit and when I get to where I can't see anymore tear out, I switch to 180 grit, then 220 and finally 320 grit.  Then I'll use 400 grit on the edges.  I like sharp edges so I use the 400 grit to just knock off the edge so that it won't cut.

What's your favorite part of woodturning?

Dr. Crowder- That's a tough question.  I guess the most challenging part is looking at a log and figuring out how to best cut it out using my chainsaw to get the piece out that I think is inside.  And then another exciting thing is cutting a piece out on the bandsaw and as you're cutting you see the off cuts fall to the ground.  You pick those up and see another piece in that!  Finding the hidden treasures in wood is exciting!  Then something that's real close is rough turning bowls.  It's so fast.  You're just getting rid of the waste material, slapping some wax on them and placing them in the bend to dry. I can do six or so bowls in around a hour.

(It sounds like Dr. Crowder's favorite part of woodturning is woodturning!)

What would you recommend to someone who wants to learn more about turning?

Dr. Crowder- Go to Arrowmont, go to John C. Campbell (Folk school) in Brasstown, NC.  No matter where you live, Arrowmont is the best.  Everytime I go up there I'm amazed at all the people from all over the United States and from other countries as well.  I tell people all the time if you want to learn you need to go and take an intensive course that teaches the basics. Appalachian School of Crafts in Smithville, TN is another good school that's associated with Tennessee Tech. University.

Do you sell any of your work?

Dr. Crowder- Yes.  I've sold stuff at several places over the years, but right now I'm just selling pieces at Blackberry Briar in Townsend, TN. 

Who have been some of the turners that have influenenced you the most?

Dr. Crowder- Ray Key.  Simply incredible.  He can be brutally honest with his critiquing.  But in fairness to him he knows who would be more sensitive to his criticisms and he backs off.  He really reads people well and knows how to push them to do their best.  Al Stirt is another good teacher.

Dr. Crowder you've been turning a long time, what keeps you interested in it?

Dr. Crowder- What's the next piece going to look like.  Is it going to be better than the last piece.  


More of Dr. Crowder's turned pieces:
 

(Click on each picture to enlarge)
 
 

 

 

            
                

 

                                             

 

(Shop Pictures)

 

 

                                                                                                

                                                     Vacuum Chuck