Teaching at the Folkschool

I’m back at John C. Campbell Folkschool again, but this time I am neither a student nor assistant, but am the Woodturning teacher. I’ve been excited about this for over a year and had a pretty ambitious plan for this beginner’s class. The last couple of weeks I have been prepping project kits for the students and finally got them all done last Saturday. I packed them up in the car along with as much of my other turning and embellishment stuff the car could carry. I thought I was all set, however, after a quick 8 ½ hour trip, I met with Marsha Barnes, head of the Woodturning department and found out I had two more students in the week long class and four more students in the weekend class. So much for well laid plans.

I met the students last night to review some of my direction and a basic safety and lathe review, as well as getting them all signed in with their tools and lathe stations. I had talked to all of the original students a week or two ago and had a good idea of there skill levels. When I talked to the new students it was confirmed that they were all true beginners and most had never been up close and personal to a lathe. This was exactly what I had planned the class for, since I really wanted to have the opportunity to spark that new interest in woodturning in my students.

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Willard Baxter Woodturning Studio

I’m staying in the Farmhouse for the first time. They often put the teachers here, but I usually been in housing closer to the woodturning studio. This is one of the original houses that Olive Campbell lived in.

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The Farm House – Olive Campbell’s home and my lodging for the week

After the session last night I was very tired, but also excited about this week. I fell right asleep, but woke up a couple of hours later just thinking of all the options I had in presenting the class material and the projects we’d work and also how I was going to scramble to find enough wood to cover all the additional students.

I started the class today with some basics – turning a square blank to a cylinder and then turning beads and coves. I knew that this would be a challenge. I don’t know anyone that has picked up the three independent motions that are required to turn a bead on the first try. Even though it was a challenge, it was the basis of all the other projects we would be doing. The students were really persistent however and gave it a real go. We broke for lunch and when we came back switched from practice to a project, making a mallet. Of course, I asked them to add some bead elements to integrate what they had done in the morning and while some did better than others, all of them really made a commitment. Half of the students came back after dinner, intent on adding some more bead and cove practice. One student, Leigh, wanted to go a bit farther, so I showed her how to turn a honey dipper and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody so excited about successfully completing a woodturning project. She certainly made my day.

Tomorrow will be a real challenge for them, since I’ll have them start off with a honey dipper and then we’ll switch into some design discussions before making a “weed pot”, a vase for dried flowers. I’m going to ask then to design their own weedpot and then accurately reproduce that shape in wood.

I always like being back at the Folkschool. It’s a very comfortable environment and you meet so many nice people.

John C. Campbell Campus

John C. Campbell Campus

However, some of that feeling is clashing with the Memorial Day car races taking place close to the Folkschool. It’s quite late and the sounds of revving engines, announcements from the loudspeakers and intermittent fireworks are up close and personal.

Day Two was a real learning experience for the students. It was great to watch how they had developed. One student, Jacob, a work study student, who had been having trouble with beads came back last night to work and wanted to work some more this morning before he started working on his weedpot design. He was determined to get it and lo and behold, after a few more attempts, he got it. By the end of the day he had challenged himself to make a honeydipper with a perfect teardrop shape and he pulled it off beautifully. There was good progress from everyone today and although not all of them created the weedpot shape they had planned, they all succeeded in creating a functional weedpot and some of the designs turned out to be really creative. There is a lot of overt enthusiasm, which really helps an instructor feel that what is being presented meets the needs of the students.

Ed is working on his weedpot

Ed is working on his weedpot

It was clear that we had to have a serious discussion this afternoon about the rest of the week. It turns out I had way too many projects for them to complete. Each one was an incremental building of skills, but I underestimated just how much time it would take for each to complete each project. In addition, several of the students had spouses with them at the Folkschool and wanted to participate in the school activities in the evening, so for most the projects were confined to standard studio hours. Anyway, it was decided that the group really wanted to learn about bowl making, so we’re going to skip three of the planned projects and hit bowl making first thing tomorrow. This will give them a chance to do two bowls and also enough time to talk about design. Design is so important with bowl making, both for functionality and inherent beauty.

Experience with the students has made me have to rethink my plans for the weekend mini-lathe class. Once again I have too many projects and need to cut back. In addition, I now heard that the class is up to nine students and they are trying to find me an assistant.

Day Three started with me doing a bowl demo. Working in poplar it was fairly easy and I was happy I had no mistakes. Then they were off to their lathes. As expected with doing something very different from what they have done so far, it took a lot of coaching to keep them on the straight and narrow. After we had a discussion about design, most of them created bowl designs that were both good and within their capability. We did have a few exciting moments, where a lapse of concentration caused some pretty significant catches, but we had some other folks that went through their bowl making experience with flying colors. I will say most really handled their problems well and are ready to give it another try. Tomorrow they switch maple, which will prove to be more of a challenge, but will turn out a more spectacular bowl.

Jim is working on his bowl

Jim is working on his bowl

Tonight was a short night, since only one person came back after dinner and that was only to regrind some tools. I think tomorrow will be a bit different with the students trying to finish their projects for show and tell on Friday.

Day Four and you could see the the energetic romp of the week was taking it’s toll. People worked hard on their maple bowls all morning, but were beginning to fade in the afternoon. I was very pleased with the progress that had been made and everybody finished their maple bowl, even if some had to rework it a couple of times. Some had very nice designs and some were really well executed. Some did hang in there though and wondered what the next project was. I had two of the students start with tea lights and were happy to return to the softer poplar. By this evening we just buffed a few of the pieces to make them look beautiful for the Show and Tell tomorrow. I also cranked up my woodburner so that people could sign their work.

I also had fun with the afternoon demo for all Campbell attendees. About ten people came and I produced a simple poplar bowl and talked about woodturning in the past. It was probably more that people wanted to hear about springpole lathes, etc., but I am always amazed at what they were able to accomplish with such basic tools. It really puts in perspective our complaints about needing yet another fancy tool to complete a project.

Tomorrow is some last minute work and then cleaning up. One of my students had to leave tonight, but the rest will be there tomorrow and will hopefully stay for the show.

A happy crew after a week of work

A happy crew after a week of work

After the show we have lunch and then I have to start all over with the weekend class. We’ll set up the minilathes and get people all sorted, then later in the afternoon we’ll start the new class, but I think I’ll need to do less talking and have them do more talking in the short time we’ll have.

Day Five was a day of endings and beginnings. I went to see the hammer dulcimer class do Morningsong, especially since Anne Lough was the teacher this week. Sunnie had taken mountain dulcimer from her several years ago.

Anne Lough at the hammered dulcimer

Anne Lough at the hammered dulcimer

The five remaining students came back this morning and did some final buffing and cleaning. People were pretty much done though and only one student worked on something new while we all watched. What made me feel really good was that while he was doing his stick pen, he was using the spindle grip I had show everybody and was doing it very naturally. People were really happy with what they had produced and were happy to take it down to the Show and Tell. I had several people come up to me amazed with what they had done as rank beginners. It made me proud. Fond farewells and they were on their way.

Student Display

Student Display

After lunch I headed up to the studio to cut some more blanks for the minilathe class and pretty soon Marsha showed up and we went through all the things we needed for the class. Don Marks came in as well. Don will be my assistant for the weekend and I am glad he was there since it turned out the class has a full roster of ten. Don set up the minilathes while I cut the blanks. I ended up spending quite a bit of time, but at 3:00, I needed to rest a bit and went back to Farm House.

Minilathes set up right next to the Powermatics

Minilathes set up right next to the Powermatics

Don and I then went to the instructors meeting and then hung around for orientation and a quick introduction and defining where the group would meet after dinner for the trek to the studio. I ended up sitting with one of my students and after dinner met with the rest and confirmed that nearly everyone was new to woodturning. We all got to the studio and I did a brief safety discussion and went over the anatomy of the lathe and reviewed the tools. I then did the beads and coves demo and let them have at it. Thank God Don was there. With ten people, there was no way I could have given everyone the attention they needed. Don’s a nice and knowledgeable guy and I think our styles will work well together. We spent a lot of hands on time with the people, but by the end of the night, most had made some significant progress. Everybody seemed pretty upbeat and everyone had conked out by 9:45, but are enthusiastic about coming back tomorrow morning. We only got to beads and coves tonight and didn’t manage the honey dipper, but we’ll hit that first thing tomorrow. I’m tired too and ready to call it a day.

Gon is helping Sandi with her honeydipper

Don is helping Sandi with her honeydipper

Day Six was a whirlwind and I am exhausted. We went right into honey dippers this morning, then into weedpots and tealight holders. The students made good time and really had improved since yesterday. Many of them were a bit more fearless at the lathe and a few had very good designs for their pieces. We finished some of them and they look good. I think it’s going to be an impressive display tomorrow. Folks were far enough ahead and nearly all wanted to come back tonight, so we went into acorn making. This was definitely the hardest of the projects since it included making several jamb chucks, but they persevered. By 9:00 we still had a few going strong, but I was fading. Thankfully Don said he would stay and help the last person finish their acorn. Tomorrow we’ll buff some of the work and clean up and I may do one more demo of making a Harry Potter wand.

Terry giving a weedpot a whirl

Terry giving a weedpot a whirl

I think everybody really enjoyed themselves and even though there was some frustration from nearly all of them, I think they are all amazed at what they produced. I feel good about my two Campbell classes, that they were paced appropriately and people felt good about their skill acquisition.

Even with all the good feelings I’ll be glad to hit the road and get back home. I hope I can do this again.

Day Seven did start off with a wand demo and then everybody buffed their pieces. The weather had turned bad and it had rained all night, but stopped long enough for us to take a group picture.

The Weekend Gang

The Weekend Gang

We only had six of the ten students display their work at the Show and Tell, but I was very proud of what they had done. All of them had worked very hard.

Weekend Student Display

Weekend Student Display

After the show I had a quick lunch and hit the road. It was a much tougher drive back with very serious rainstorms and even some hail.

It was a  tiring week, but very fulfilling. I think everyone really enjoyed their first forays into woodturning and I hope the school invites me back to teach again.

1 comment to Teaching at the Folkschool

  • Walt Wager

    Ed,
    It looks like you had a great time. I think we take for granted the time we have spent at the lathe. I am guilty of over estimating what students will be able to finish. We did beads and coves in my last workshop, and students made candlesticks. I enjoyed reading your journal, keep up the good work.
    Walt Wager

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