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'SAVE THE TREES' TAKES A TURN: Woodworkers turn felled Fourth Street trees into bowls

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Jon Stephenson of Superior uses a lathe to core a bowl from one of the trees that once lined Fourth Street in Duluth. The Lake Superior Woodturners group will donate bowls to the Empty Bowl fundraiser in April. (Bob King / / 15
Jon Stephenson creates several types of bowls using woodturning equipment in his garage in Superior. (Bob King / / 15
Jon Stephenson dates a rough-cut wooden bowl he just turned on the lathe. The date helps in determining when the piece is dry enough to finish. (Bob King / / 15
Jon Stephenson uses a tool rest to keep a steady hand while coring out a bowl. (Bob King / / 15
Jon Stephenson talks about the importance of getting the right finish on the wooden bowls he creates at his shop in Billings Park in Superior. (Bob King / / 15
Jon Stephenson demonstrates how he uses a laser to set a bowl’s thickness that would otherwise be hard to measure with the eye alone. (Bob King / / 15
Molly Johnson of Barnum uses a coring knife to create the shape of a bowl from a chunk of wood from a Fourth Street tree. (Bob King / / 15
Dick Adams of Superior places unfinished wood bowls in wood shavings to help with the slow-drying process. (Bob King / / 15
Molly Johnson shows off a nearly-finished silver maple bowl. (Bob King / / 15
Turning wood to create bowls and other vessels creates wood shavings, which decorate many surfaces in the shop owned by Dick Adams in Superior. (Bob King / / 15
Terry Hallback of Cloquet uses a lathe to shape wood from trees cut down on Fourth Street in Duluth last fall to shape bowl forms that will be used to make wooden bowls at the Duluth Woodturners Club in Morgan Park. (Clint Austin / / 15
Terry Hallback of Cloquet uses a lathe to shape wood from trees cut down on Fourth Street in Duluth in December to shape bowl forms at the Lake Superior Woodturners space in Morgan Park. (Clint Austin / / 15
Dick Adams of Superior uses a large bandsaw to shape wood from trees cut down on Fourth Street in Duluth last fall to shape bowl forms that will be used to make wooden bowls at the Lake Superior Woodturners space in Morgan Park. (Clint Austin / / 15
Wooden bowl blanks from trees cut down on Fourth Street in Duluth last fall that will be used to make wooden bowls at the Duluth Woodturners Club in Morgan Park. (Clint Austin / / 15

Dick Adams’ shop is a Salvador Dali painting done in wood shavings. Every surface is draped and dripping with the curlicues formed from what goes on in this space in Billings Park in Superior. On the floor and on tables, nestled among those leavings from lathes, are the fruits of those efforts: elegant bowls and vases made from wood.

Adams is a woodturner, one of dozens in the Twin Ports area. On this day, he is working with Molly Johnson of Barnum, a fellow member of the Lake Superior Woodturners group.

“This is such a cool project,” Johnson says, taking a break from the concentration required in using a handheld turning tool to transform a rotating block of wood into the curved shape of a vessel. “It puts a positive spin on what some people found tragic.”

Adams and Johnson were turning pieces of trunks obtained from the felled silver maples along Fourth Street in Duluth.

Some of the wood came from the yard of 85-year-old resident Myrna Matheson.

Have at it, she told the group. “I didn’t want them.”

Woodworker John Thompson gained some publicity at the end of last year, not long after the trees were dropped in preparation for a complete reconstruction of the busy street. He carved intricate miniature trees from the wood, just in time for holiday gift-giving.

The woodturners are taking advantage as well. The plan is to use the maple for bowls to be donated for the annual Empty Bowl fundraiser in April.

Matheson remains nonplussed. “Good for them,” she said. “At least they put the wood to use. It was a minor comfort to me. A cold comfort.”

Matheson said any reminders of the loss of her towering maples — “all cut up like a corpse” on her lawn — remains painful. “I’ll never get used to it,” she said of the barren streetscape left in the wake of the December cutdowns. Despite that, the woodworkers’ repurposing efforts and the condolences about the trees have shown that “people can be very kind.”

Each year, the woodturners donate up to 60 bowls for the event that supports the Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank. Their bowls have raised thousands of dollars for the hungry since the woodturners started donating in 2000.

There might be at least a dozen bowls finished and dried in time for the fundraiser. That alone is a minor miracle, since it can take up to six months for not-quite-finished bowls to dry properly. Speed things along too fast, and the wood will just crack, said woodturner Jon Stephenson. He’s a Billings Park neighbor and checked in on Adams and Johnson after working on Fourth Street wood in his own shop.

He and Adams have been “carefully microwaving” the bowl forms, and it seems to be working, Stephenson said. The dry winter air can be be a heartbreaking art-breaker, he said.

Once bowl shapes are cut out of the wood chunks, they are date-stamped and usually stored in paper seed bags to dry slowly in a cool space. Stephenson likes to place his in the garage bay next to his shop, where there is more moisture from the snow melting off his pickup and snow plow rig. Adams lets his nestle in the piles of wood shavings.

And then there’s the microwave.

“It saves a year of drying,” Adams said.

Summer is the optimum time to be carving bowls, Stephenson said. There’s more moisture in the air and less that can go wrong in the drying process.

“We’ve got to be patient,” he said.

The silver maple wood is wet. The trees were very much alive when they were cut down. As the piece on Stephenson’s lathe spins, you can feel water whirling out of the grain.

Finding the right core from a piece of wood is key to how the finished bowl will look. You have to study the grains and the angles, Stephenson said. It helps in design and in the carving process.

Birch is a great wood for turning, Stephenson said. “It has nice tight grains. It’s stable and it’s pretty.”

The silver maples have interesting light and dark patterns in the grain, something the turners are trying to showcase.

Stephenson and Adams have witticisms about the trials of working with what can be delicate woods.

“There’s never any mistakes,” Stephenson said. “It’s all design opportunities.”

“Lots and lots of trial and error,” Adams said.

As Stephenson is talking with Adams and Johnson, he gets a call on his cellphone. It’s yet another tip on some wood destined to go to waste due to a construction project. This time it’s near Morgan Park, where Grand Avenue is being reworked. Stephenson sighs. They’d have to collect it in the next 24 hours. He’ll have to get a trailer together and some guys. He’s not sure he can swing it.

He wanted to do some more turning, and “I already have enough wood,” he said. “It’s a disease. And there’s no time.”

Eventually he relents. The thought of wood being wasted has that pull. “We’re harvesting the urban forest.”

The Lake Superior Woodturners meet at the H&H Exports building on 93rd Avenue in Morgan Park. It’s where meetings are held on the second Saturday of each month. There are “sharing sessions” where turners of all skill levels — and those interested in starting — can talk shop and swap advice on techniques.

“There’s all sorts of folks” involved in woodturning, Stephenson said. “It’s a great place to watch and listen and have conversation.”

His shop has all the whiz-bang tools required for a variety of turning projects. Crafted work sits atop the cabinets near the ceiling and on the floor and in nooks and crannies, some of them finished and some not, some ruined by cracking, much of them breathtakingly beautiful.

They shine from the oils or epoxies applied to them. The right finish is an important part of the considerations for a finished piece, Stephenson said.

As he works on the lathe, he tries to keep the shavings contained by surrounding the area in plastic sheeting. Like the scene at Adams’ shop, the flaked pieces tend to get into everything, no matter what you do.

Both men are retired physicians. Stephenson has been at this for about 15 years after taking a woodworking class at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Superior.

He has a lighthearted air while waltzing around the shop. And a good laugh. He says he never has to worry about buying presents at a store. His gifts to family and friends come from his work in the shop. And they are piling up.

“Any hobby can be an addiction,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

More info

About a dozen bowls made for the Empty Bowls fundraiser that begins April 11 at the Depot in downtown Duluth will come from the Lake Superior Woodturners group. Its bowls are often sold during the online auction part of the event, which is now open as bowls are brought in. Hundreds of bowls from artisans of all disciplines are donated and then are sold during Empty Bowls. For event information and to join in on the auction, visit