Cooking up colour: Stuart King’s turned wooden pots

Ash token pot with rafia tiesVessels come in all shapes and sizes and most lathe artists try to achieve a silhouette that first and foremost appeals to the eye. A beautiful form, balance, a pretty profile, outline is just one part of the whole.

Choice of material is usually of major importance. It must of course be fit for the intended purpose whether this is to exploit an example of highly figured grain or a plain wood that will allow the viewer to concentrate upon the form alone.

Finish is another consideration and to many this will mean polish to enhance some beautiful grain and to give a smooth surface.

Then there is texture. Texture can be visually pleasing when enhanced by directional light. Indeed by altering the lighting the character of a piece can be changed quite dramatically. Texture is also tactile, it can feed both the visual and the touching senses. One can close ones eyes and enjoy the changing sensations of a well-formed and textured vessel as it is caressed and stroked. If this concept is new to you try it, and feed all the senses, it will open up your word of artistic and sensual appreciation to a new dimension. Collectors, who are not always practical people, will often look at an object in a different way from the artist who fashioned it. They will often know nothing of the trials, techniques, frustration and exhilaration of the creative process but will appreciate the resulting piece as something very special judging it from their own individual artistic stand point. I mention this, being a minor collector of antique treen, where one is not always aware of a particular pieces exact history but where the object itself is sufficient to give pleasure. Pleasure of texture, form and colour. In antique pieces texture can be the result of general ‘wear and tear’ and colour partly the result of years of domestic use imparting a glowing ‘patina’. It is this love of the ‘antique’ and ‘patina’ that has inspired my ‘token pot’ adventure.

Ash token pot with found objectsTexture is achieved in a variety of ways, indeed, timber could be said to have a texture in it’s own right from the marble smoothness of a close grained wood (Box, Ebony) to the coarseness of say, Oak or Elm. I am interested here in three approaches to texture. Firstly the enhancing of the existing grain of the wood, secondly altering the surface in a major way by mechanical means and thirdly enhancement by the application of additional material.

Most wood workers have an abiding appreciation of beautiful grain; it is one of the things that set them apart from workers in ceramic and metal. Some wood is so attractive that it should be allowed to speak in it’s own right while others can, I think, be enhanced by a little manipulation. A good example of this is the use of wire brushes to open up the soft summer growth in ‘ring porous’ woods. Because there is a considerable difference in hardness between the summer and winter growth rings it can be exploited. This Ash pot is a good candidate for treatment and illustration no.—depicts the easiest method of removing the softwood using a handled wire brush. This is working with nature, as the existing grain will influence the eventual effect. In this instance the hard winter growth will dictate to a large extent the removal of soft areas due to the difference in resistance, thereby enhancing what is already there.

Standard wire brushes will have some effect but if you can obtain a stainless steel example it will be even more effective due to its stiffer nature. If something more aggressive is required wire wheels powered by an electric drill offer possibilities, try rotating the wheels in different directions and at differing angles. The amount of wood removal will depend upon the general hardness or otherwise of the material and the contrast of hardness and softness between the annual rings. If the wood is spalted resulting in some general areas being softer than others, then the quicker removal of these softer areas can result in quite spectacular texture. Ensure that the vessel wall thickness is sufficient to withstand the amount of waste removal, check regularly. Always use eye protection with wire brushes.

Ash lidded token potsTexturing alone is often sufficient to ‘lift’ an ordinary piece to the realm of something more interesting but scorching or the addition of colour can itself enhance it. The untextured interior of this pot was lightly scorched with a butane blowtorch; this was sufficient to highlight the winter growth rings and so emphasising an almost hidden grain. The exterior was also given the blowtorch treatment with the aim of producing a dramatic contrast between the high and low relief of the textured surface. Blowtorches need to be treated with respect and it must be remembered that they remain hot for a time after they have been turned off! It is a wise precaution to ensure that the work area is free from shavings etc. All the work so far was done whilst the pot was still held in the lathe, there was to be one more treatment before parting off time. This pot was destined to take on the appearance of an ancient well-patinated bronze like vessel.

There are many preparations on the market for colouring wood but the ingredients for my bronzing agent come from the workshop and the kitchen, they are fine steel wool and vinegar. Vinegar has a typical aceatic acid content of 5 – 7%, this is the ‘active’ ingredient for our purpose. Very fine steel wool is steeped in the vinegar and is slowly dissolved by the aceatic acid producing the equivalent of ‘liquid iron’. In theory the type of vinegar used should not make much difference but in testing various derivatives (malt, apple, wine etc) I have experienced a wide range of results. My experiments are not scientific and may have more to do with the varying strength of the vinegar and the time allowed for steeping.

Using this ‘liquid Iron’ receipt is for those who like to experiment, each batch seems to give different results. It works by the Iron reacting with the tannin contained in certain woods, the higher the tanning content the more marked will be the reaction. Oak, Sweet chestnut and walnut react immediately by turning a deep blue with subsequent applications resulting in jet black. English Sycamore turns a light grey getting slowly darker with each coat. Ash and Beech have a medium reaction and after several coats ash can reach a very pleasant bronze hue. Each application needs to be dry before another can be applied. The drying process can be speeded up by use of a blowtorch, hot air gun or hair dryer. It took four coats of ‘liquid Iron’ to give me my desired bronze look.

Ash token potIt was now parting off time. The pot was removed from the chuck held spigot, cleaned up and placed upside down on a metal turntable in readiness for some more torch treatment. Because the pot was turned green and in the round there was still scope for textural treatment on the base. By burning an area of approximately one third from the centre radial shrinkage was encouraged. This would enhance the antique appearance of the finished item and has become a feature of all my ‘token pots’. The loose carbon (burnt wood) was removed using a kitchen scouring pad rather than sandpaper. Burnt Ash itself has a bronze like appearance and so the scorched base of this vessel blended nicely into the ‘Ionised’ side.

Red oxide car undercoat was sprayed into the radial fissures on the base, most of this was removed with four oooo steel wool but what remained blended nicely into the overall bronzeness and also help to seal the end grain. The final finish was a sprayed acrylic lacquer rubbed down using the finest steel wool and then waxed to give a silken surface, one that is seeking to be gently caressed!

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