A weekend with David Ellsworth

Originally posted 17 May 2013

I have been wanting to take a course in woodturning for some time. I’ve looked at the Campbell school, the Arrowmont school, and others that I can’t remember at the moment, but nothing seemed to work out and fit my schedule. Last winter I ran across the weekend seminars that David Ellsworth holds at his studio near Quakertown, PA.  I report to an office about 60 miles southwest of Quakertown, so I asked my boss if I could combine this with a business trip to his location, and upon his approval, registered for the seminar the second weekend of May.

The second weekend of May is a beautiful time to be in eastern Pennsylvania. Ellsworth’s studio is deep in a hardwood forest in a scenic area. Many of the shrubs and trees were in full bloom.

The weekend started with a “meet and greet” session at 8:00 PM on Thursday night.  Only three of the students showed up, and we broke up well before 9 o’clock.  I stayed at the Best Western in Quakertown, about a 15 minute drive out to Ellsworth’s home and studio. Normally David’s wife, Wendy, is present for these seminars. However this was Mother’s Day weekend and Wendy was away visiting her mother.

Ellsworth serves three meals the first two days and breakfast and lunch the third day of the session. The next morning (Friday) at breakfast, all five of the students were present.  In addition to myself there was Daniel, a psychologist from Florida; Mike, an electrical engineer from Georgia; Jim, a retired physics professor from Pennsylvania; and Walter, an engineer from New York. We represented a fair range of skills – two of the students had never turned a bowl before the weekend.

The first morning was mostly spent in instruction and a demonstration by Ellsworth of turning a bowl. Shortly after lunch, we were each issued our first bowl blank and we began to turn our own bowls.  For the weekend, we all used poplar blanks that still held a lot of moisture. The expectation was that this first bowl was to be made using the methods and sequence demonstrated by Ellsworth earlier.  It is my observation (not an implicit statement by Ellsworth) that as each student turns their first bowl, he makes observations about each person’s skill level and then uses that observation to guide each student through the remainder of the weekend.

It is worth mentioning that Ellsworth’s studio is equipped with an assortment of Robust lathes. There is at least one other lathe in the studio, but it is a large machine and was not used or demonstrated at all during our time there. Also, his grinders are set up with CBN sharpening wheels so using those was a new experience for me.

Another thing that needs to be mentioned is that David Ellsworth’s instruction centers around the use of his signature bowl gouge and his hollowing tools. However, I had brought a Benjamin’s Best 5/8-inch gouge with me and once he pronounced the shape of the flute acceptable, we put his grind on it with the use of his jig, and he was content to let me use that gouge for the remainder of the weekend. In fact, looking back, I wish that I had picked up one of his gouges if only for one or two cuts to see how they handled.

One of my goals for the weekend was to start doing hollow forms. My second bowl was a partial closed form. My third was a natural edge bowl – most students were expected to complete one of these.  On this bowl, some of Ellsworth’s methods finally penetrated my thick skull and some things began to flow for me better than they had previously.

My fourth turning was a complete hollow form (my first) and my fifth and last bowl was a second natural edge bowl, to try to improve upon my first one (the improvement was marginal). I completed the last bowl about 4:00 PM on Sunday afternoon. I could have completed another one but my body was done for the day.

David Ellsworth works with each student according to their wishes and experience level. One of the students only completed two bowls during the three days we were there. Another more advanced student fine tuned his hollow form techniques. Ellsworth’s instruction style is extremely laid back and non-critical. Mealtimes turned out to be where much of the learning took place as discussions flowed freely about woodturning in general. Ellsworth’s home is a museum of art – most of the art is three dimensional. After lunch on the second day, we all wiped our hands off and a number of pieces from well known turners were brought out and passed around. The styles of these items and techniques used on these items were discussed at length.

A pool room equipped with a snooker table is upstairs from the studio. This serves as Ellsworth’s personal gallery. A visit to this room provided fodder for additional discussion of style and technique.  A glimpse at the price tags on the bottom of these pieces is sufficient incentive to handle them very carefully. We also visited Wendy Ellsworth’s studio. She is a beading artist and has a number of her items on display in her studio.

In retrospect – it was a magical weekend for me.  I was totally immersed in woodturning for three days, with others of a similar mind. I was fortunate in that the four other students were extremely congenial folks and we bonded well. The setting and time of year were almost perfect. My only regrets are questions on which looking back, I wish that I thought to get Ellsworth’s thoughts

I had trouble making the bowls thick enough – I did not turn through any of them, but more than one was translucent (while wet).

The bowls below were left behind as I had limited room in my suitcase and carry-on space was limited.