If Tahoe’s art and design industries had an MVP, it would easily be one material: wood. It’s ubiquitous here, from the walls and furniture of our homes to the frames of our artwork. This month, I decided to delve into some firsthand experience with the material, and to take a closer look at wood artistry in our community.

Adventures in Woodturning

Picture me: smocked, gloved, safety goggled, and hand on a sharp tool angled at a lathe. I’m not the most coordinated or skilled craftsperson, so this isn’t the clearest picture, but thanks to instructors Joe Donohue and Tom Doud at Reno Woodturning I didn’t lose a finger. Woodturning is a form of woodworking using lathes (machines that rotate the piece on its axis) to create various objects, typically bowls and other vessels. Donohue has been teaching woodturning in Reno for 10 years, and his monthly classes are held at a workshop in Panther Valley, also home of the club Nevada Woodchucks.

New students like me start simple — making a bowl. But despite its simplicity, the attention to detail Donohue and Doud give to their students’ work make even the most humble project a potential family heirloom.

“You probably noticed that Tom and I focus on stretching everyone’s comfort and skill level,” Donohue said. “Good enough is really not. Sometimes an extra five or 10 minutes spent on refining a curve, sanding, or finishing correctly changes a piece from being good to excellent.”

I was surprised with the quality of work I produced that day, and perhaps that’s what makes woodturning so fun, and addictive. There were six other students, both male and female, in the June class I attended. Most of them were repeat students, and some of them Nevada Woodchucks members. They come back for the camaraderie and the refinement of their skill. “They come to the classes for the same reason that Tiger Woods has a swing coach — they cannot watch themselves while they are doing it,” said Donohue.

And with practice, a woodturning hobby can quickly transform into artistry, as it did for Donohue.

“Once a woodturner passes the stage where they get poor cuts or catches,” he said, “where there is still some doubt about exactly what is going to happen when the tool touches the wood, muscle memory takes over. It’s like riding a bike. You don’t have to think about body position, tool rest height, what angle for the gouge, etc. Your body already knows how to do those. At that point you can begin to conceive different shapes, having the confidence that you will be able to produce those shapes. Your mind then determines the shapes. That is when the hobby turned to art for me.”

And that flexibility is the beauty, the art, of turning wood. Donohue contrasts it with furniture making, which involves precise measuring and planning.

“In woodturning, you uncover the beauty of the wood while you work, discovering and deciding upon its final shape as you go.”

Wood Artistry Among Us

With my recent woodturning experience, I now have a new appreciation for the care artisans impart on their wood creations. And looking around town, works of wood art are everywhere. I’m particularly impressed with the new venture of Tyler Joersz (of Tahoe Vista’s Roundwood Furniture). Joersz and Devin Price started TyDe Music this year, custom crafting instruments from Cajon drums to ukuleles. Joersz’s ukuleles, made from cherry, poplar, mahogany, and padauk woods, are stunning. Look for them at Truckee Thursdays.

Tom Beebe has been the local wood artist to watch for years, masterfully creating everything from decorative wall pieces to cabinetry. You can encounter some stunning wood bowls inlaid with turquoise by Whit and Judy Whitmire at Truckee’s Carmel Gallery. Riverside Studios features the carefully crafted game boards of Don Lowder and wooden home goods by Chris Nelson. Bespoke stocks cutting boards by local Matt Dawson, as well as various works by artists nationwide; highlights include wood earrings by Molly M Designs, woodcut wall panels by Blue Sparrow Art, intricate wood arm cuffs by Joyo, and even wooden bike and picnic baskets. A Tahoe wood artistry roundup would not be complete without mentioning the skills of South Lake Tahoe segmented woodturning artist Malcolm Tibbetts, whose works weave wood varieties together like puzzle pieces. Yet we know there are many more. Share your favorite Tahoe wood art and artisans with us at moonshineink.com, where you can take a video tour of Lis’ woodturning class, and see instructor Joe Donohue in action.

To see instructor Joe Donohue in action, click here.

Or  take a video tour of Lis’ woodturning class, watch the video below: