Although her current focus is on woodturning, Brenda Stein considers that her adult interest in woodworking started a little over 15 years ago, “when my kids were small, and I wanted to make little toys for them.”
Using a few tools belonging to her husband, she created jigsaw puzzles with recycled calendar artwork and plywood. “My dad saw me using a jigsaw, and he bought me a scroll saw,” Brenda said. He presented her with that saw when she went to visit him in Wisconsin, and reminded him that she wanted him to make a dollhouse for her daughter. When they went out to her father’s garage shop, it contained a couple of scroll saws. “This one’s for you,” Brenda’s dad informed her. They built the dollhouse together.
“The scroll saw opened up woodworking for me,” Brenda said. For instance, it led to her making Noah’s Ark animals that she then sold at a church art show. When she had begun doing woodworking, her husband had told her, “Before you know it, you’re going to want a lathe.” At that point, Brenda’s response was “What’s a lathe?” At the church art show, however, she met Pat Matranga, a Nashville area woodturner.
“I kept her card for two years, and was getting ready to throw it away,” when a friend’s husband passed away from emphysema, Brenda said. Her friend, knowing herinterest in woodworking, invited Brenda to look at the lathe left in the garage. She ended up purchasing the Craftsman tube lathe and a 1″ belt sander for $110.
Shortly after that purchase occurred,it was time for the annual TACA (Tennessee Association of CraftArtists) spring fair, which Pat Matranga had recommended Brenda attend. She did, and visited the woodturning demonstration, where she got to try her hand at turning on a lathe — and met Charles Alvis, a retired hobbyist woodturner who became her mentor.
Upon arrival at Charles’s home for a lesson, Brenda described his elaborate setup of closed garage doors, with orchestral music blasting. He proceeded to dramatically raise the garage doors, to reveal his lathe, a Powermatic 3520. “He set a nickel on the headstock and turned it on. The wood went flying around, and the nickel just sat there,” Brenda said. “That was impressive to me.”
So much so that she took a job with a local one-man contractor operation for about a year and a half in order to earn enough money to buy her own Powermatic 3520 lathe. She also purchased a band saw, asking the store employees to put it on a blanket in her minivan when she picked it up.
Brenda’s first project as part of her lessons with Charles was a tool handle, and she has pursued other learning opportunities over the years such as attending classes at craft centers like Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts, Anderson Ranch and the Appalachian Center for Crafts. Also, she says, “the importance of the woodturning club cannot be overstated.” A member of the Tennessee Association of Woodturners — a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners — Brenda says the instant gallery formed when members bring their work to a meeting is a form of inspiration, with the woodturning community as a whole being very generous about sharing ideas.
As for her own work, although John Jordan — who became her mentor after Charles Alvis passed away in 1999 — had once told her that she would find her voice as a turner by turning thousands of bowls, “I gravitated early on toward the natural edge bowl,” Brenda said.
She has made a bowl from magnolia wood, in which she slowly, by inches, elevated the base, so that it created a pedestal from one piece of wood; and a huge natural edge vessel of maple for the parents of a family whose tree had to come down, but they wanted to remember the maple where the kids climbed and had their swing.
Most of the work she does is commissioned, Brenda said, “So the wood generally comes from people’s properties. Those are the most special pieces.” She has had some families’ wood for a few years, making annual gifts they commission from it, and, for a woman who had “teeny-tiny old dried walnut logs, I made a teeny-tiny bowl for her husband and pens for all the children — because you couldn’t make anything big out of it.”
Her commission to design and make the 2007 Governor’s Awards in the Arts is “probably the biggest honor I’ve ever had,” Brenda said. For the awards presented to outstanding artists and patrons by Governor Phil Bredesen, Brenda accompanied an arborist to a lot and hand picked the walnut tree she used for the project.
“I gravitate toward traditional hardwoods — maple, cherry, walnut — but walnut might be my favorite,” Brenda said. In addition to reminding her of the walnut tree she used to climb as a little girl, “The turnability of walnut is really nice, and it finishes so beautifully,” she said.
She also has a fondness for some lesser-known woods that she describes as “a dream to turn,” such as persmimmon, magnolia and box elder. “Box elder turns like butter and sands like talcum powder,” Brenda said. “Persimmon is the only tree in North America that’s a member of the ebony family. It has big blotches of color, like a wild animal, or fudge ripple. Of course, it also moves a lot, so you have to take that into consideration.”
Other woods, of course, move as well: Brenda once made a bowl from pecan wood for a neighbor. When she saw it later at a progressive dinner, the sides had curved together to form a clam shape. “It was still pleasing, but I had followed the principles about making sure the wood would move in a pleasing way,” Brenda said.
And, Brenda also enjoys turning yellowwood. Established as Tennessee’s bicentennial tree, the Cladastris lutea lumber “turns so fine that you don’t ,want to make anything; you just want to turn it down into nothing,” Brenda said.
Brenda also turns quite a bit of mahogany, provided to her from the Gibson Guitar company for use in thedemonstrations she performs at area schools. “I do live demonstrations so they can see how artwork is made,” she explained. Her own children have used her shop throughout the years, too, with her younger daughter turning pens as high school graduation gifts for her teachers; Brenda and her older daughter are currently building a rocking chair together.
“The kids are grown and gone now, so I have a little more time and freedom,” Brenda said. She’s stepping back soon as co-president of the local chapter of the Tennessee Association of Craft Artists in order to focus more on her own work, and has joined a carving club. “I’ve been collecting carving tools over the years, but haven’t actually put them to use,” she said.
She has done a little bit of carving on some bowls and vessels, and created a spiral box that “shows some of my carving, without knowing how to carve,” she said. Created from an already-turned interior and a plain rectangular box for the exterior, “I made it out of frustration, because I hadn’t made anything new in a long time. I just started grinding the box into the belt sander, and eventually, this is what came out,” Brenda said.
Still, with her pursuit of carving information, as well as a reawakened interest in the human form, “I’m ready to be more expressive,” Brenda said.