Although he started out as a carpenter, it’s woodturning that Michael Roper fell in love with.
He began working with his master carpenter grandfather at the age of 14 or 15 then, after about 20 years, discovered a fine woodworking program at Red Rocks Community College in Colorado. He thought he would add furniture making skills to his carpentry repertoire, but each incoming student was recommended to take both the introduction to woodworking and introduction to woodturning courses.
Much of the appeal of lathe work, he said, comes from the quick gratification. “On a lathe, once you get comfortable with it, you can do a piece fairly quickly.”
Roper has now been focusing his efforts on woodturning for about nine years, in both sculptural and utilitarian pieces.
“I do production runs of bowls, pepper mills, French style rolling pins, to bring the money in,” he said. “Bowls and pepper mills and stuff like that kind of sell themselves. People will always want them, and the more beautiful you can make them, the more they’re going to want.”
For his more sculptural pieces, Roper has adapted an artistic philosophy: “Everything I make is the greatest I’ve ever made — and the next one will be better.”
Such projects range from his first sculptural piece, entitled Three Wise Men (because he finished it on Christmas Eve), which incorporates three different burls – box elder, maple and buckeye – to one of his latest projects, described as “kind of a donut on top of a pyramid, with color wrapped around it.”
“I never thought that painted wood would be my thing, but the more I mess around with it, the more I like it,” Roper said. He noted that his current sculptural projects are also moving in a three-dimensional direction, and incorporating elements such as woodburning, sandblasting and acrylic paints. “I’m trying to combine all artistic mediums into one piece,” he said.
He’s also been experimenting with TransTint® dyes, and working with a series of small hollow form vessels, titled Lost in Blue, in honor of his 17-year-old blue heeler dog, which recently passed away.
Speaking of his wood choices, Roper said, “I often look for pieces of wood that people think aren’t going to stay together, or that they don’t have the prettiest grain – those are the pieces I’m attracted to. Plus, it’s a little bit of a way of showing people what they passed up.”
In order to turn such pieces, often with voids and cracks, he said it’s necessary to go a little bit slower, and to be very conscious of tool height, and the height of your tool-rest. “You have to know what you’re doing.”
“You always want to use woodturning rules, so you don’t get hurt,” Roper said. That extends to his wood choices, too. He’s grateful that older woodworkers told him what to look out for in terms of allergic reactions to wood, and tries to pass that on to younger woodworkers, too. Roper himself no longer works with cocobolo, after experiencing a reaction to it. “I made it about 15 or 20 minutes into the work, and then my skin started feeling itchy, like bugs were crawling on it, and I was having a hard time breathing. I got in the house, got my clothes off, took a shower, to get it out of my body, but it took a solid three or four days before I felt good again.”
His favorite wood to work with is box elder burl, due to its abundance in the Denver area, its gorgeous colors, and tight grain. Roper also works with several local arborists. “I try to save the wood before it goes to a dump,” he said. If the arborist has to take down a tree, “Once it hits the ground, I come in with a chainsaw.”
Besides the chainsaw, his most-used tools, Roper said would be his ½-inch bowl gouge and his 3/8-inch spindle gouge. “They do most of my work on bowls and vessels; they’re kind of the workhorse of what I do.”
He mentions that he has taken many courses on woodturning. “I try to learn as many techniques as I can” – and he is also an instructor of woodturning. When he was about to graduate from Red Rocks Community College, the lead woodworking instructor was about to retire, and, at the time, Roper was the only student with a serious interest in woodturning. “They offered me a position as a [teaching assistant] for two semesters before he retired, and then when he retired, they offered me his position [as woodturning instructor]. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Roper knew, he said, that “I didn’t want to go back to being a carpenter and pounding nails,” but he didn’t know what he wanted. He has discovered, however, that “I love teaching woodworking.”
Currently, in addition to teaching classes at Red Rocks, he also teaches at the Denver store location of Rockler Woodworking and Hardware, as well as giving one-on-one private lessons at his own facility.
There is a deep sense of satisfaction when someone “gets it,” Roper said. “I love teaching somebody how to pound a nail properly.”