At a meeting of the Evergreen Woodworker’s Guild last week, fellow guild member John Swanson handed me a bag filled with finished, turned bowls. “Please give these to your wife, and ask her to turn them in for me.” Like so much of John’s excellent woodwork, they were being donated to charity, this time to Empty Bowls, a local Tacoma group that sells artist’s bowls to provide food for the indigent. Producing yet another bowl, he handed it to my daughter standing beside me and said “This one’s a popcorn bowl, and it’s for you. It’ll come in handy now that you are going away to college.”
Giving to others is a way of life for John Swanson. After five decades of woodworking, this Renton, WA resident spends much of his time teaching, mentoring, and creating beautiful objects for family members, friends, and as often as not, complete strangers. “I love the feel of giving completed projects to everyone, not just family.” he said. “I’m a giver. I love to give.”
At sixty seven, he’s already given up one career and is firmly rooted in another. He left the Navy in 1976 after flying attack bombers during three combat tours in Viet Nam. Six years of flying for FedEx found him at Boeing, where he spent the next fifteen years as an integration test pilot, working the kinks out of both planes and simulators. Along the way, he and his wife raised five children, and now boast ten grandchildren, all of whom are frequent recipients of his woodworking largesse. “I made a lot of the furniture in my home and theirs,” he admitted to me.
Raised on an Iowa farm, Swanson’s education began in a one room country school, and eventually progressed through an engineering degree from Purdue University. His love of woodworking was kindled in high school shop class back in the early 1950’s, but it was only after retirement that it blossomed into a full time occupation.
John has made furniture, boxes, clocks, bowls, toys, and more pens than he cares to remember, and has picked up several ribbons for his work at local competitions. These days, much of his work shows up in the Northwest Fine Woodworking Gallery in Seattle. Not long ago, eight of his boxes were chosen in a juried show and appeared in the book Best Boxes of the World . I’m particularly partial to the threaded lid boxes he makes from banksia pods, their holes neatly filled with epoxy and brass shavings.
In 1999, he authored Turning Threaded Boxes (Schiffer Publishing Ltd.), which, as its name implies, gives step by step instructions in making turned boxes with screw on lids. An expert on routers, he spent a decade doing project design work for “The Router Workshop,” a PBS television show, and invented a clever set of brass setup blocks for router fences in the early 1980s.
John regularly attends meetings at several guilds and clubs, where he is often tapped for his wealth of information and his willingness to share it. He’s a former vice president of the International Wood Collectors Society, and a past president of both the South Puget Sound and the Seattle chapter of the American Association of Woodturners, where he now sits on the board of directors.
A prolific producer, Swanson continues to give away most of what he makes. “I’ve donated items to Empty Bowls, the Overlake School, Toys for the Handicapped, Valley General Hospital, and lots of others” he told me.”My most recent project has been mentoring for the Freedom Pen Project, where I teach others to make pens for our troops overseas. I’ve personally made over 200 pens for our servicemen.”
Eager to share his skill and patience in guiding others, John spends much of his time these days mentoring. Swanson teaches fellow guild members, neighbors; in fact, anyone who wants to learn woodworking. A frequent instructor at the local Woodcraft and Rockler stores, his clear, direct teaching style has won him an appreciative and loyal following. He covers subjects like sharpening, bowl and spindle turning, and router technique at the stores, and has often stepped in to present similar programs for woodworking guilds in the area.
His advice to his students: “Be safe and have fun.”