“Inside Out” Turning. That was the intriguing title of an article appearing in the April issue of Woodworker’s Journal last year. The article introduced Ellis Hein’s novel technique for turning and finishing the inside of a vessel before the outside was even touched. The process involves temporarily joining the four sections of the blank, turning them, reversing the sections, and gluing up the blank again. Then as the piece is turned, windows are opened to create singular and unexpected results.
The article (and technique) sent ripples through the turner community and only last week was the focus of a demonstration at a Western New York Woodturners meeting. Ellis Hein, the source of all this excitement, resides on the edge of the Rocky Mountains in Casper, Wyoming. Through his web site, Ellis shares his artistic creations and some of his techniques with turners around the world. There’s also a turning e-book available at the site, and a print edition is in negotiations. So, who is this Ellis Hein, and how did this Oklahoma farm boy end up a turning guru in Casper, Wyoming?
Ellis first fell in love with the lathe while growing up on a farm in the panhandle region of Oklahoma. During the winter months, his father spent most of his time in a well-equipped shop, where he made whatever furniture the family needed. Lumber was purchased green from a mill in Emporia, Kansas; hauled home, stacked, cured out, and then planed down for use.
“Along with a planer, joiner, a couple of table saws, and drill presses,” Ellis recalled, “we had an old Montgomery Ward lathe, one of those where the motor hung off the back and the weight of the motor was the belt tension. The first thing I independently designed and executed was a coat rack where I turned some Shaker pegs. Dad then showed me how to make bowls, and I made spindles for stuff that he was making. He showed me some basic things, but a lot of my techniques I figured out by experiment or by reading articles in magazines or books from the library.”
When Ellis got married, they moved to Wisconsin, where Ellis pursued a teaching degree. Upon graduation, they bounced around a bit until his wife Rebecca, a cellist, heard about an opening with the symphony in Casper, Wyoming, her hometown. The couple made the move, and Ellis decided to go into the remodeling business. And over the next few years, Ellis began building up a collection of tools. Then in the mid-90s, he finally got a lathe.
“I’d been without one long enough,” Ellis recalled, “and I started turning things and selling them, and soon I got away from the remodeling work.”
At that point, Ellis decided to develop the artistic side of his woodturning. One of his big influences during these early years was the magazine Woodturning, put out by a guild of master craftsmen in England. His subscription gave him access to new ideas and led him to a helpful book Notes from the Turning Shop by Bill Jones … another important source of inspiration. Involvement with a local guild of woodworkers also helped.
“For a while there was a fellow in the guild who had studied at the College of the Redwoods,” Ellis explained. “He had a good eye for design and proportions, so I’d turn a piece and take it over to him to critique. He’d say this was no good and tell me why. That’s valuable information! When he left, I couldn’t get that kind of criticism any longer. Fortunately, the Internet gives me access to other people’s work, and I can at least compare what I’m doing.”
The library provided another valuable resource … in fact, it helped Ellis develop his inside out turning technique.
“I ran across a book in the library, and there was a picture of a vase done that way and a very brief description. I just glanced over it, but I kept thinking about trying it. I didn’t write down the name of the book or the author and couldn’t find it again. But three years later I started playing around with the technique and came up with what I do today.”
When Woodworker’s Journal contributing editor John English moved to the area in 2001, he came across one of Ellis’ inside out vases at a local show. Intrigued, John documented the technique for the Woodworker’s Journal article. Then, through his web site, Ellis started getting questions … so many that he put together his own article, incorporating much of what he and John had discussed, plus answers to the questions he’d been getting. The article How to Turn an Inside Out Vase was just the beginning. His next project was the e-book Wood Turning Projects to Set Your Mind Spinning on a wider range of turning topics.
“My original hope was that people would come to the web site and buy turnings; now my hope is that they will come and buy the e-book.”
When Ellis sent a copy of the e-book to John English, John suggested he add a couple of chapters, but in the meantime send it to a publisher for consideration. The publisher liked what he saw, and also wanted the new chapters, plus a few more projects.
And that’s what Ellis is working on right now.
“I’m currently working on a vessel with an off axis,” Ellis explained. “It’s got the body of a vase that sits upright, but then the top leans off to the side. I’ve been doing several of those just to get the feel of how I want to present it.”
With all this writing, how does he feel about giving away so many trade secrets?
“I do think about that. Whenever anybody asks me about something, I’m always ready with the answer. So if they’ll buy the answer, so much the better. It’s good in the long term because people are going to know about me as a turner and be familiar with my work. People have said that it’s really good writing, with helpful information, and if I have a book out, it will be good for sales.”