Arizona woodturner Galen Carpenter uses rich color and spectacular grain to entice customers to his bowls

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A dry streambed outside Sedona provides the backdrop for Galenu2019s turnings of exotic wood. The one at top center, for example, is black palm with antler rim. A tall vessel of oriented strand board (OSB) stands at bottom center.

In his Sedona, Arizona, workshop, Galen Carpenter attempts to explain the consumer appeal of his segmented, turned bowls: "I base all my work on the theory that I would rather give somebody a really good taste of the wood instead of a little piece of it." And for that taste of wood, people pay upward of $500 for one of Galen's bowls, usually made from colorful exotic wood, highly figured stock, or quite unusual materials.

"You just can't get the colors out of domestic wood that you can out of exotics," he explains. "And they're intriguing because they're new to people. I don't use American black walnut, for instance, because everyone in the world can see walnut in a furniture store. Most people buy the work because they like the color. They're drawn to them." With that theory in mind, a walk through Galen's shop becomes a journey through the world of wood, and much more.

Come into the wood candy store

"There are a lot of woods I don't use out of respect for their endangered status, such Brazilian rosewood," notes Galen. "Why use it when there are other woods that will work just as well?"

Then the woodturner begins to recite the names of his favorite materials. "Royal palm. That comes from Florida. There's black palm, ramon, and bulletwood from Belize." Galen pauses, then continues. "Rhodesian teak. Indian and Belize rosewood. Australian myrtle and tabari. African oil palm. Alexander palm. Corkscrew palm. Tulipwood and pernambuco out of Brazil. From Mexico, I get chocte and cocobolo.

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Madrone burl, moose and elk antler, and exotic wood species from around the world make up the raw materials for Galen's turnings.

"About the only native American woods I turn are bird's-eye maple and madrone," he adds. "In all, I use maybe 175 species. Then I've employed oriented strand board [OSB], plus corn and other oddities epoxied together. Of course, there are people who have a sentimental tie to a wood species, so they'll commission me to make a bowl from it."

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Can you guess what this bowl's made of? Pine cones joined with epoxy! Galen uses a sanding disc fastened to a metal plate to perfectly flatten its bottom.

Looking around Galen's large material-storage area, you'll spot other things seemingly foreign to a woodworker's shop. There are chunks of semiprecious stones, such as turquoise and lapis lazuli. "When a bowl calls for it, I'll use it, but not to get the Southwest look," he says. A few moose antlers lay about. "They come from friends in Alaska. I can only use the outside layer because the inside is porous. I cut out a thick piece for a bowl rim, then resaw it into two thin rims. I don't put it on everything," Galen notes.

The long trail to success

Confident in his design sense and choice of materials, and skilled as a turner, Galen has developed a following of collectors everywhere he sells. He's also won numerous art-fair awards and best-of-show titles across the country. This national reputation, however, has been nearly 30 years in the making.

In 1974, Galen and his wife, Ann, ran a furniture repair and stripping business in Florence, Kansas. Galen taught himself woodturning because he had to turn rungs for broken chairs. "I would go into the shop at 5 a.m. and turn until 8 a.m., then get on with the other work," he recalls. "I've always worked long hours because I enjoy what I'm doing—or I don't do it. Back then, I'd never seen anyone's woodturnings to compare mine to, but we had a little showroom, and every once in awhile I'd turn a jewelry box or a bowl and put it out marked at $30. When people came to pick up their furniture, they would sometimes buy."

Galen was enjoying his work and his turnings. Then a different opportunity knocked. "One day a customer came in accompanied by a woman who was the curator of the Wichita Art Museum," he remembers. "She was interested in my bowls for an upcoming exhibition. So I made about 15 of them for the show."

That experience got Galen off and running. He began taking his woodturning more seriously, and started accenting the native woods of his bowls with horn and other adornments. "Very Southwestern," he says. Yet, his turnings were getting better and better. At the time, though, Kansas was in an economic downturn. No one wanted to pay what he thought his work was worth.

Following a winter vacation to Sedona in 1983, Galen and Ann decided on a move. "Oil, agriculture, and aircraft made up the economy in Kansas back then, and none of them were doing well," he remembers. "People at home weren't happy. But they were in Sedona, so we sold everything and moved here."

Galen was hired by a Sedona building contractor, but continued turning nights and weekends "I was making bowls on a Craftsman lathe. I had a Craftsman tablesaw, jointer, and sander—enough tools to make a living with if I had to," he recalls. "Eventually I met a local woodworker who used exotic woods exclusively for his intricately inlaid boxes," says Galen. "He gave me a bunch of scraps. It was great. I'd never in all my life seen such beautiful wood!"

Over time, the woodworker also told Galen the ropes of selling at art fairs, a market for his work that he was unfamiliar with. Before long, Galen got accepted at his first one. He and Ann had to travel to California in a rented station wagon, but he surprisingly sold most of the bowls he brought at from $250 to $300 apiece. Encouraged, Galen exhibited at another fair in Florida, and did well. "Ann and I were so excited that we decided that full-time woodturning was the direction I should take," says Galen.

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Woodturner Galen Carpenter leans against a deck railing that he crafted of local juniper branches and western red cedar.

Bowls by the golden mean

"When a bowl sits on a mantle, you can't tell its wall thickness or how heavy it is. It should simply be aesthetically pleasing," says the woodturner. "And that's a combination of the material and the shape."

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To get an eye-appealing bowl shape requires a sense of proportion. An ancient Greek formula called the Golden Mean frequently guides Galen. "It's really about using the ratio 1:1.618 to find the length of the long side in relation to the short side of a rectangle," he explains. "But in bowl turning, it's used to calculate the diameter of the rim in relation to the height of the bowl, or of the base diameter to the height." (See the drawing above.)

Galen, though, sometimes turns to a design method somewhat less sophisticated than that of the Greeks. Snatching a used auto fan belt from the shop wall, the lanky turner strides outside, into the sunlight. Holding the belt in the air, he twists and turns it. Looking down at the belt's shadow on the driveway, he says, "That shape would make a nice bowl." Then, while holding the twisted belt in configuration with one hand, he traces the shadow onto the cement with chalk.

He works segments two by two

"I don't know that I've ever turned a bowl that wasn't multipiece. Even in the beginning, I'd drill holes in the bowl blank to insert contrasting dowels around the shape. Looking back, I guess they were real crafty," Galen says with much amusement.

Now, all of Galen's work is segmented. His bowls have either 8, 10, 12, 16, 20, or 24 segments in what he calls their "feature" ring. "How many segments they have depends on the size of the stock that I'm cutting them from," he says, "but I like best to work with a 12- to 16-piece bowl."

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The segments of a turning begin as triangular markings across the face of a board. Galen numbers them in order down the board for bookmatching.

Galen marks and numbers the segments directly on the board from which they'll be sawn, as shown in the photo above. "Then, I cut them on the mitersaw, keeping them numbered for use in sequence. (For how to calculate angles, refer to "What's the angle?" below.)

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I always work with paired segments," he notes. "Like numbers 1 and 2, 3 and 4, and so on. I sand them at the belt sander with 60-grit in pairs, too. I use coarse paper because the glue grips the wood better."

When he has sanded all the paired segments, the woodturner glues up the ring with yellow glue. But he defies tradition by not clamping. "That freaks people out," he says. "But I don't clamp because a clamp always puts the wood in stress. You see, wood always wants to go back to the way it was. When you add stress with a clamp, the wood's eventually going to go somewhere. There's no stress in my bowls."

On gluing, Galen offers some advice: "You never want to glue up the segments right after sanding. The wood gets hot from it and sucks up the glue. Then, what you get is a starved joint that will eventually separate.

"Remember, too, that if you want to insert veneer accents between each of the segments," he adds, "run the grain perpendicular to that of the segments. That way, the veneer acts just like crossbanding in plywood and gives the bowl lots more strength."

Galen's bowls also grow stronger with additions. "The rim, of antler or solid wood, helps strengthen the segments below it just as the solid wood base holds the segments above it in place," he points out.

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The segments, cut to the correct angle at the mitersaw, are glued up to form rings. Veneer accents between the rings act as crossbanding to strengthen the bowl.

Tools to shed end grain

Because of the way Galen lays out and cuts the segments, he ends up turning end grain for the bowl body. "Most woodturners say that's harder to do, but if you're turning a solid-piece bowl, every 180 degrees of rotation you're hitting hard end grain," he comments. "But if you begin with a blank that's entirely end grain, it's harder all the way through and thus more predictable."

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Chucked onto his 5-speed Woodfast lathe, the segmented ring presents solid end grain to Galen's turning tool.

As unconventional as Galen's endgrain turning are the tools he employs to do it. Rather than a traditional gouge, he prefers hollow-handle turning tools with replaceable high-speed steel cutting tips in straight and bent versions. "They were designed by noted woodturner David Ellsworth," he notes. "The tips are held on with cyanoacrylate glue. Want to change a dull tip? Just heat it up with a propane torch, then tap it against something solid, and it pops out. But I do use a Sorby parting tool, too. And for hollowing, I go to a Thompson tool. With those four, I can make about anything."

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"The high-speed steel cutting tip actually shears the end grain, although it looks as if I'm scraping because there are no long curls," says Galen.

Galen strives to turn all his bowls with ¤"-thick walls, but some of his chosen materials won't allow it. "Like black palm, for instance. If I turn that very thin, it becomes a border-line explosion because it's fibrous. I can break out a big hole with my turning tool for no apparent reason," he says. "I can stabilize the material with cyanoacrylate, but if I happen to cut myself out of the area where the cyanoacrylate has penetrated, I might blow out a big hole. So the material can limit what I'm able to do with it."

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With the outside of the bowl turned to shape, Galen turns his attention to the inside with a Thompson hollowing tool. After the bowl has been finely sanded, he'll finish it with three or four coats of Waterlox, a tung-oil based clear finish.