Jim Bridger opened the large, black garbage bag with the attitude of an eternal optimist. Inside, water pooled under a big chunk of rotting walnut tree and spilled onto the cement floor. The log had been sitting in his garage for two years, and he smiled as he surveyed the results.
“It’s a moldy piece of wood, but in it is hopefully something beautiful,” Bridger said.
As a member of the Glacier Woodturners Association, Bridger sees potential in every fallen tree. The woodturners transform old logs into intricate bowls, platters, snowmen, whistles and even cowboy hats, using a machine called a lathe which spins the wood while homemade tools carve and design it.
On a warm morning last week, four of the GWA members drank coffee on Bridger’s back porch. They admired each other’s work, looking over several pieces on the outdoor table.
“John sets the bar pretty high,” said Alan Butler, 66, the “newbie” of the group.
He referred to John Kidwell, 64, who makes multi-colored wooden bowls that can include as many as 769 pieces. Kidwell is also known for his wood-spun cowboy hats, which are so thin the sunlight shines through them.
The other members, including Bridger and Dan Olson, 73, murmured unanimous agreement about Kidwell’s talent. These pieces of art bring in crowds during shows and other community events. The club had a room at the Northwest Montana Fair this year, where they taught people how to turn wood and made whistles to give to children.
Bridger estimated that about 50 people an hour visited their exhibit – a good place to spark an interest in their club. The GWA will begin to meet monthly in September to mentor new woodturners and to critique the experienced members’ projects, a process that can be “plum irritating,” Bridger said, laughing.
With only four women in the 50-person club, the men encouraged anyone who is interested to come to a meeting and check it out. Most of the members are over 30 years old since it is so time consuming, but all ages are welcome.
The GWA is the Kalispell chapter of the American Woodturners Association, a national organization dedicated to the art.
Woodturning is a craft that requires dedication and patience, but it is also forgiving.
“You never really make a mistake unless you can’t repair it,” Bridger said. If a tool slips while the wood is spinning, the artist just needs to change the design, he said.
They said they do it because they love it – Bridger said he makes no money off his projects because donates at least 10 pieces a year to various causes and gives others as gifts.
Bridger’s garage doubles as a workshop, where hot woodchips fly off new and ongoing projects. The men are in their element as they take turns at the lathe, complimenting each individual’s talents and admiring different species of trees in the shop.
“If you have a good day of turning, you’ll have half a pickup load of shavings,” Bridger said.
Most of the wood they work with is donated, coming from landowners whose apple or birch tree has fallen. The gift is usually reciprocated, the men said.
“If someone gives us a log, they’ll get a bowl or something,” Butler said.
The next club meeting will be Sept. 19 at the Kalispell Middle School shop, but the GWA will also have an exhibit at the Northwest Montana Antique Power Association and Threshing Bee on Sept. 11-13 on Pioneer Road.
Back at the workshop, the woodturners lamented projects ruined by a bad piece of wood. The hardest part about woodturning is finding the right characteristic, they said; a chunk that doesn’t split while it’s spinning.
But when they do find that perfect piece, it can be turned into something extraordinary.
For more information on the Glacier Woodturners Association, visit www.glacierwoodturner.com.
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