As music to my ears

People sometimes ask what my turnings are for. In return I ask what the painting on the wall is for, or the piece of music playing in the background. Presumably someone went to work creating something they enjoyed doing. I enjoy turning wood.

There’s more to it though. Sound is pre-analyzed in our ears and brain by sensors that are sensitive to different frequencies, and those sensor hair cells are harmonically spaced. That means harmonic sounds are easy to listen to, and don’t need a lot of additional processing before passing on to the conscious brain, to make us feel good. That would explain why atonal music failed to be accepted much beyond its initial stages in the middle of the last century. Once it was no longer new and exciting, all that was left was a disconnect between our deeper brain functions and the noise. It may have been a new development in the art of music, but it failed to be ‘music’. Like a poet placing random letters together, carefully removing any that make a recognizable word, sentence, pattern or meaning, may be interesting once, but not a second time. Similarly the brutalist concrete architecture of the 1960s, of which many sorry examples have already been demolished. Experimenting is good, as without stretching the art form how would we perceive new possibilities? Allow such experimentation, pick out the gems, and let the rest fade gently into history.

I see a similar pattern with woodturning. Our brains have developed over the millennia to recognize and appreciate symmetry, supposedly in part because healthy genes cause symmetrical faces, ones we innately define as pretty. Together with that symmetry we appreciate gentle, organic curves, as in the ideal body shapes of people (both male and female). Woodturning perfectly combines these two aspects: perfect symmetry in one axis, and pleasing curves in the other, linking directly into the primeval shape-analysis parts of our brains.

Maybe this is where the violin compares: when well played it is compared to a human voice, linking to our deep survival instinct of recognizing familiar voices.

Off-axis turnings and other experimental shapes, must therefore strive to overcome expectations of beauty to create appeal – for example by the quality of the workmanship or the choice of material. They do not have the wide, instantaneous appeal of a regular, symmetrical woodturning, and they will sometimes struggle to find enduring appeal. Perhaps this – along with being cheaper to make, of course – is why most turned items for the general public are symmetrical in nature. From furniture and stair spindles, to pepper mills and candlesticks, the 3D wood equivalents of the latest hit song or a favorite oldie, harmonic symmetry links directly deep into the brain, and intuitively feels right, tuneful and even soothing.

As woodturners we have different ways of approaching our work: make something practical or make something just because. In either case,we’re bucking the current i-age and actually creating something by hand. I have seen eyes light up when teaching microturning to people with no woodworking experience at all. Suddenly they made something real from a bland piece of 1/8″ dowel – a doll-house kitchen honey dipper for their next visit from the nieces, or a miniature chess piece, just because.

The lathe is the woodworker’s equivalent of the violin. Positioning the fingers on the neck is not limited to frets or keys, the equivalent of positioning a chisel on the smooth tool rest. The four strings are harmonically tuned to introduce symmetry and harmony: the equivalent of the rotational symmetry from the spinning wood. And the violinist’s bow is obviously the chisel; a finely honed instrument itself playing the wood, slicing intricate details to reveal the shapes from within the brain of the maker to the viewer through wood as a medium. Seeing the lathe as a centerpiece of a shop full of supporting tools, and watching a master woodturner play the lathe and its wood blank with his selection of chisels, and then enjoying the finished article afterwards, is like watching a violinist supported by an orchestra, and listening to the music being created. The long hours of practice fine-tuning the outcome.

I guess I just like woodturning.


  1. My you are in Philosophical mood at the moment!

    But quite right – except that my wood turning is to a master craftsman as a turnup and play folk gathering would be to an orchestral recital – but I get the point.



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