Turning Big Old Tree Stumps Into Works of Art
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because no two bowls are ever the same.
By Nick Dall
How do you go about turning a 200-pound hunk of wood into a bowl that doubles as a work of art? It takes South African artist Rodney Band about a week in a process that is not only dangerous and compelling to watch, but results in gnarled masterpieces that distill the power of massive trees into delicate vessels.
Band and his apprentice Gift bolt a huge piece of wild olive to a steel faceplate and heave it onto the lathe. Before even turning the machine on, Band gives the log a shove and watches as it spins awkwardly around the axis. Experience tells him to chainsaw a bit off both ends — a poorly balanced log of this size could fly off the lathe and through the walls of his studio. Once the log is spinning, it’s hand-shaped with a three-foot-long steel chisel over the course of a few days. Next, Band flips the faceplate over and hollows out the inside. After a few days of turning, the bowl is removed from the lathe and shaped further manually before being sanded — a three-day process he’s recently outsourced to Gift — and polished.
The bowls come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but they’re invariably delicate, highly polished and punctuated with unexpected whorls and chasms. They smell great (you can’t go wrong with beeswax), and the wood is so thin that they can’t weigh more than a pound or two each. Beware: They will crack if dropped. And they’re totally unsuitable for fruit, salad or keys. The bowls go for between $2,000 and $4,000 apiece and are shipped to buyers and galleries all over the world.
I traded all my friends for logs. They don’t answer back, and they give me great pleasure.
Artist Rodney Band
Band, 62, first discovered wood turning while living on South Africa’s Garden Route, a forested area known for its craftsmen, some 25 years ago. He started by making “normal stuff” like peanut dishes and salad bowls when he wasn’t working as a tour guide. But he soon grew bored and started to experiment with wood that had irregularities and imperfections. In 2009 he packed in his day job and started working with huge logs, roots and stumps. “I traded all my friends for logs,” he laughs. “They don’t answer back, and they give me great pleasure.”
The featherlight bowls are the secret star of Cape Town’s Imhoff Farm Village, a rough-and-ready collection of quirky shops, restaurants and galleries near the rugged Atlantic surf suburb of Kommetjie. While Band doesn’t keep set hours, you can expect to find him in his little studio next to the goat paddocks seven days a week — unless he’s away on his annual visit to Israel, where his dad lives. Afterward, spend some time exploring the rest of the village: ride a camel, eat a pizza from the Blue Water Café (the salmon and cream cheese is delish) or make your own soap at Scented Life.
Band scrounges his raw materials from rubbish dumps and tree fellers who are happy for him to take the logs off their hands. While he’ll work with any hard wood — “the harder the wood, the more the chisel loves it,” he says — he does have a few favorites, notably wild olive, African blackwood, Norfolk pine and cork oak. Once he’s chosen where the faceplate will go, he steps back and allows the chisel and the wood to do the rest of the work, he says.
A couple of years back he was sent to a trade show in Paris by the South African government. The response was incredible, and he came back with a book full of orders. “As soon as I got home I threw that book away,” he laughs. “I don’t want a business, I want to have fun.” And it shows.
Go there: Rodney Band’s Studio
- Where: Imhoff Farm Village is 25 miles from the center of Cape Town. Map. Band’s studio is to the left of the main parking lot, away from the other buildings.
- When: It’s best to contact Band in advance to set up a time. Otherwise just try your luck — if the door’s open, he’ll gladly show you around.
- How much: Bowl prices range from about $2,000 to around $4,000, depending on how much time has gone into the piece. They can also be made to order.
- Pro tip: Visit Band as part of a Peninsula Tour: The studio is midway between Cape Point (the southern tip of Africa) and the incredibly scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive.
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall