Cindy Drozda turns big old heavy chunks of ancient burl into beautifully turned shapes and vessels. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Cindy works with a wide variety of burls from all over the world — Amboyna and Afzelia (both from Indonesia), Thuya (Morocco), Jarrah and giant Banksia seed pods (from Australia), Chechen (Mexico), box elder (Colorado), Manzanita (California), ponderosa pine burl (local) –when she can get it! Cindy’s website documents her background as a cabinetmaker and showcases her beautiful vessels. Rather than rehash that territory, we thought it would be interesting if Cindy discussed the process of turning one of those massive pieces of wood into a delicate work of art.
“Well and the thought process starts back in my childhood,” she laughed, “and it’s been a constant evolution ever since. But each piece starts with the material. The piece of wood I’ve chosen has to attract me, or I might see a shape in it. I roll it around on the ground and try to visualize what sort of vessel might come out. Sometimes I have a finished piece in mind, and sometimes I don’t. I’m not a great drawer, but sometimes I refer back to a drawing. Mostly though I compose pretty much on the lathe.”
Cindy uses an ordinary chainsaw to turn the unwieldy shaped burl into a basic cylinder. She might even use her bandsaw to save some lathe time or put a flat side on the piece.
“The pieces can be anywhere from fifteen pounds up to something I can just lift,” she explained, “but I try to get it down to 50 pound before I put it on the lathe. Plus I might get a glimpse of the figure or pattern of the wood and maybe see where the good parts are.”
Next, she’ll put it between centers on the lathe (either her Vicmarc DL200 or Stubby 750) and make a few cuts just to see what she’s got. She doesn’t try to establish symmetry right away, but gradually carves the rough exterior shape of the vessel.
In rare cases she may even reorient the piece on the lathe before she gets far into it. If all goes well, the last part of this phase it to turn a spigot on the end that she’ll attach to the chuck on the machine.
“It may have started at 50 pounds,” Cindy noted, “but now it weighs about 30, and there’s a huge pile of shavings on the floor.”
Once it’s chucked and back on the lathe, she’s ready to hollow out the center. Using a scraper on a question mark shaped tool, she removes enough wood to leave a 3/8″ wall for small pieces and up to 1-1/2″ thick walls for large ones. The entire piece, at this point, is slightly oversized from its finished dimensions.
“It’s still a wet piece of wood.” Cindy explained, “It’s faster to turn when it’s green but that means it has a lot of drying out to do. But now instead of being 12″ thick, which might take ten years to dry out, it’s only 1″ thick. I coat the outside with a sealer and put it in a homemade air-drying box until all the cellular moisture has dried out. Fortunately, most burls are less susceptible to cracking as they dry, but there will certainly be some distortion as it dries and that’s why I turned it oversized. When it’s done drying, I put it back between centers and reshape the chucking spigot.”
All dry and remounted on the chuck, Cindy’s ready to turn and sand the final outside shape. She must leave enough mass at the bottom on the chuck to handle the stress of sanding. Like most turners, she sands away all the evidence of her tool marks. Starting with 180 grit, she works her way up to 4000 grit and the same abrasive used to polish solid-surface counter tops. When the sanding is done, the piece is two-thirds complete.
“Then I start the final hollowing and will true up the opening in case its gotten distorted during the sanding,” Cindy noted, “and maybe fit a rim or ring of African Blackwood or other contrasting wood, which usually takes a lot trial and error.”
Working down from the top in 1″ segments, she reduces the wall thickness to between 1/16″ and 1/4″ and depending on size and her mood.
“The bottom of the vessel is still buried in the chuck, so I have to visualize the inside. I just started using a laser pointer that points to the end of the tool so I can see where it is inside, and I’m trying to blend what’s in my mind, what I see, and what I feel.”
Switching between a rough tool to a smoother finishing tool on the inside, she gets the inside as smooth as it needs to be and depending on what’s going inside and how likely or possible it’ll be that a buyer’s hand will one day feel the surface. Satisfied with the inside, she’s ready to start shaving off as much as she can of the outside of the base. To finish the bottom, Cindy’s next step involves a hollowing system called the Kirsten Kone (created by San Diego turner, Oskar Kirsten).
“I reverse the vessel onto the lathe so the chuck is gone, and the tailstock holds this Kone gadget in place and centers and presses a disk into the piece’s base and centers it. The tailstock alone might put on too much pressure for a fragile piece. It’s friction from the Kone that now spins the piece, and I can shape and sand almost the entire base. There’s just this little 1/2″ or 3/4″ nubbin left, and I take strapping tape and tape across the vessel and tape it onto the Kone, and with no tailstock support, just whittle away on that last bit.”
When the turning is complete, the entire piece is submersed in a penetrating oil — General Finish’s salad bowl finish — that provides a good first coat. Using fine abrasives between coats, she then applies two to six more coats of True Oil and a gun stock finish consisting mainly of polymerized linseed oil.
“It’s also a low toxic material, but I also like the way it smells and feels on my hands and it dries quickly. Soft and porous wood like buckeye might require lots of coats, but with dense hard wood like Manzanita, you can’t tell the difference between two or six.”
If it’s without voids and a manageable size once it’s cured, Cindy might buff it on a power buffing wheel with wax, and the piece is essentially ready to sell and probably on consignment to one of the galleries offering her work.
Maintaining the balance between the inherent beauty of the burl grain and the beauty of the vessel shape is an ongoing process. Cindy and her life partner (and fellow turner) David Nittmann will line up a group of similar vessels, compare them, and see what it is about each that makes it look or feel different from the others. Hints of Asia and the Middle East are apparent in her work, but she also cites pre-Columbian pottery as an influence.
“If you looked at my work you would see shapes I like to use,” Cindy acknowledged, “but the wood itself has a lot to say about shape and proportions, and it’s important that the wood feels as smooth and sensual as it looks. The warmth of the wood makes it unique from ceramics or other materials. A lot of the shapes I use are like the shape your hand forms when you pick up a cup. Each piece reflects my style, but has its own individuality.”