John Jordan Demo

by Bob Hunt

On Saturday, November 19, John Jordan, one of the most renowned woodturners, demonstrators and teachers in the world, gave a day-long demonstration to our local woodturning club.  Instead of writing the usual blog entry on the demonstration, techniques and methods the turner used, and a how-to, I decided that because of the gentle soul and Southern charm and wit John possesses, I would write about the man, his philosophies on turning and his humor.

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John and his wife Vicki live in Cane Ridge, TN, near Nashville, on a 28-acre farm in a house built in 1806.

He built a 1,000 sf shop with great lighting, heat and air conditioning, and used to have many lathes for teaching classes.  Now he just has one for his own turning.  John joined the AAW in its first year of existence (1986) and counts all the greats in this field as his friends and colleagues.  His work has been exhibited in galleries all over the world, is collected by every major turning collector, and is even in the White House Collection of American Crafts.  John also sells a line of turning tools he designed and produces himself, and represents Robust lathes.

So, I think that is enough to tell you who John is, how he started and what he does.  Now, let’s talk about the real John Jordan.  This gentle man turns as slowly and deliberately as he speaks.

Everything he does is on purpose, with no wasted energy.  While turning he is always talking, describing what he is doing, and throwing in pearls of wisdom gained over 25 or more years of experience.

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For example, one of my favorite sayings is Life’s too short to turn crappy wood.

On the surface, this is just a simple expression.  But only an experienced turner would fully understand what he is saying in this short sentence.  When we all start turning, we get a piece of nice wood, maybe with some spaulting, maybe even a piece of exotic wood, and we want to use every cubic inch of it.  We will try to turn through the punky wood, run to the big box store and get a can of wood hardener  and apply several liberal coats trying to strengthen the wood so it will not crumble under our heavy-handed use of a scraper.  We never think about the waste of time on this crappy wood, when the same amount of time and effort could have been used to find a better piece of wood that would have produced better results in a much shorter time.

We often get so caught up in trying to perfect one part of the turning  that it loses its relationship to the rest of the piece.  Work for 20 minutes on getting a perfectly shaped foot  and find that it is now too small in relation to the rest of the vase.  John says, People work on parts that don’t need working on.

He said in 9 words what it took me 52 words to say.

John is able to control the movement and ease of cutting of wood grain by knowing how it will react.

Hollowing a side grain vessel requires different techniques than hollowing end grain.  With side grain you hollow from the rim towards the center.  End grain requires you to cut from the center towards the rim.  John makes this easy to remember by simply saying, You cut into the end grain and it pokes back.

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Many (most) of us don’t like to stop turning to sharpen our tools.  We will just push a little harder so we can keep our rhythm, our flow, our being in the moment.  Johns hollowing tools use small cutting inserts that you must remove to sharpen.  This is an added step that we often try to avoid.  But, John says, Cutters wear out.  If you just leave them in a drawer they last a long time.

Even the height of the tool rest is critical to John.  He would rather stop to adjust it than change the angle of the cutting tool to try to make up for it.  He will change the height of the tool rest because, It’s just a whisker too high.

When I first started turning, my first attempt was using too much pressure on the wrong tool while turning a too hard and too large piece of wood at too high a speed with too little knowledge of what would happen.  The result was a broken tool rest, a bent tool and bursitis in my shoulder.  John says, If you use a gentle touch, then when things go wrong they go gently wrong.

Lastly, those of us who are not natural artists, and don’t have the eye for shape and proportions, will often see a template or jig used by another turner (who is usually selling them) and spend quite a few bucks on something we may use only once or twice, then relegate it to the tool crypt.  There are endless books and articles on using the Golden Ratio, the rule of thirds, etc. when deciding where the shoulder of a vase should be.  John has a different opinion.  Practice will not only teach you how to achieve that graceful curve, it is not about absolute perfection.  He simply says, You can use a jig or do it by eye. This has a little more life. Perfection is flat and boring.  Working by eye and touch produces a piece that is much more real.

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John Jordan.  Woodturner, teacher, demonstrator, equipment salesman, mentor, friend and philosopher.  We should all be lucky enough to have just a couple of these characteristics.  John rolls them all up into one soft-spoken package.  Thank you, John, for your wonderful presentation, and for everything you do for our wonderful craft.

Oh, and watch out for the handicapped ramps!

Bob Hunt

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