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MEMBER NEWS: Tom Larson, Brainerd, MN - From wood to works of art -Woodturner spins hobby into busin

Tuesday, March 29, 2016   (0 Comments)
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BRAINERD DISPATCH: From wood to works of art - Woodturner spins hobby into business (03/26/2016)

For more than 30 years, Tom's Pet and Hobby was a fixture in downtown Brainerd, so it makes sense Tom Larson was able to turn a hobby picked up later in life into a viable small business.

The hobby store opened downtown in 1969 and closed in 1999, Larson said. He started woodturning in 1993 and his hobby eventually turned into Turning Trail Studio, which he operates out of his home on Wood Crest Road in Brainerd.

Larson started out with a smaller lathe at first, which he used to turn smaller pieces like small bowls. Now he's got five lathes in his workshop, which sprawls throughout an auxiliary garage next to his home. Tools, chisels and wood fill the workshop, with an attached built-on room serving as Larson's studio where he displays pieces for sale. He's very clear about where he stands when it comes to labeling his work.

"I'm not a furniture maker, I'm not a carpenter, i'm just a bowl turner," Larson said. "A person who works on a lathe making things round."

Larson's awakening as a woodturner came shortly after he started turning, when he went to a woodturning symposium and classes in Provo, Utah.

"I wanted to be really, really good or I didn't want to do it," Larson said.

Larson had bought his first lathe and had just started woodturning when he went to the symposium. He had made and brought three pieces as required and didn't think much of it. He wasn't sure what he was getting into, but it turned out to be a phenomenal three days.

"It was the best three days I ever spent in my life," Larson said. "There wasn't a negative word spoken. Everybody shared everything."

There were four two-hour classes each day taught by some of the best woodturners in the world, Larson said. It wasn't hands-on, he said, but the instructors shared everything they knew with everyone else and there were no secret tools or techniques.

"They were the best turners but they were just humble as everybody out there," Larson said. "It was so cool."

It was so great Larson went back five or six more times and met a lot of fellow woodturners and friends.

"It was a sharing of knowledge that you couldn't ask for," Larson said.

Show your work

Shortly after he started woodturning, someone convinced Larson to bring his work to a show. He applied to a show in Orange City, Iowa, during the town's annual Tulip Festival. His work was accepted and he sold a few pieces, so he decided to go to another show.

"I couldn't believe that they even bought this stuff," Larson said.

That success stoked something in Larson and over the next 20 years, he averaged about 22 shows per year. He applied to and was accepted to some of the best art shows in the entire country, traveling to Houston, Miami, Omaha, Detroit, Kansas City and more.

Locally, Larson has shown his work at Brainerd Community Action's Arts in the Park, but he hasn't been there for 3-4 years. He's a member of the Crossing Arts Alliance and still has orders to fill every month. His website hasn't been updated, partly due to his lack of computer literacy, he admitted. But people can still make an appointment at his home studio to view available pieces as well as some pieces at the Crossing Arts Alliance.

Doing a full schedule of art shows means woodturning becomes more of a 24/7 job, Larson said. At the age of 73, "24/7 is getting to be a little harder," he said with a laugh. He's only done one show the past two years, but plans on doing a couple of shows this summer.

"It's something that when it's in you, you can't give it up," Larson said.

The slowing down has been beneficial in that it's given Larson the freedom to produce pieces he wants to make, he said. Instead of just making 10 plain bowls because he has to fill orders for 10 bowls, he can make more artistic pieces.

"I can be more creative now," Larson said. "I can actually do some things that I wanted to do."

Woodturning is a solo endeavor, Larson said, and a hands-on job. You have to make the pieces on your own, go to the shows and run your own booth, he said.

"As an artist, you have to be there," Larson said. "You can't hire somebody to go and sell your wares."

Personal style

There's wood throughout Larson's shop, more than he'll ever be able to turn, he lamented. He also has a lot of exotic wood which he unfortunately keeps forgetting to use. If it goes too long without being used, it rots and Larson has to throw it out.

"I've thrown a lot of wood away over 20 years," Larson said. "Which is not the wood's fault, it's my fault because I can't get to it."

Larson's studio is filled with bowls, urns, platters, spinning tops, pens, wine bottle stops and more. He also makes French rolling pins, which are very popular, he said.

"I've sold a ton of these," Larson said. "People who make pizza, it really works good, and even lefse."

Larson's favorite type of wood to work with is maple, which is good, because there's so many different kinds of maple. He described himself as a purist who prefers woodturned pieces without additional carving or sculpting.

"You do the best you can with what's in the wood," Larson said.

Larson also likes working with woods with burls in the grain, which can create a unique, swirling design effect once the piece is finished. Cherry and black ash are two such woods which can contain burls.

"All of my pieces aren't fantastic, but they're the best I could do with the wood I have," Larson said.

Larson described himself as a "craftsman artist, I guess." He doesn't know where the line between the two is, he said, but he's good at seeing shapes and curves and bringing them out in the wood.

"I believe in simple shapes and simple form," Larson said.

Many people's lives have become busy and complex, Larson said, which is why he thinks his simple pieces sell better than his more decorative, complex ones.

"I think people are so busy and they like simple," Larson said.

Trending up

Woodturning has exploded in popularity since Larson started, he said, and many women have picked it up. It's especially gratifying as a hobby because a woodturner can make a piece in one day, he said. It can become an expensive hobby, but a woodturner can easily get by with less expensive tools.

"If you're really frugal, you can get by pretty cheap," Larson said. "But I've never been frugal and I've never gotten by cheap."

Wood prices have also gone up over the years as woodturning has become more popular, Larson said. A woodturner can invest hundreds of dollars in a piece of wood before even turning it into a finished piece.

"Somebody told me at the beginning, 'Don't get too much wood,'" Larson said. "And I never listened to them."

Larson is also helping to train the next generation of woodturners by teaching a class on it through community education in Brainerd and Pequot Lakes. The classes are twice a year for three students at a time, because that's all the space Larson has room for in his workshop.

"They'll go home with a bowl or they'll go home with some kind of project that they've made," Larson said. "Which is pretty cool."

Woodturned pieces are things to treasure, Larson said, and many people turn them into heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. People will save a rifle from their grandfather, he said, but they'll also hold onto their grandmother's wooden salad bowl.

"The things that were special to her become more special to you," Larson said. "At least that's my opinion."

Larson proudly called himself the best woodturner in Brainerd before admitting he was also the only woodturner in Brainerd. But many cities now have woodturning clubs, he said, including Fargo-Moorhead, Perham, New York Mills and St. Cloud. Not many people were woodturning in Brainerd when Larson started, he said.

"Sometimes it's been really rewarding and other times it's like 'wow, I don't think I'm going to make any money at all.'" Larson said. "This hobby's what you call more fun than profitable."

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