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Forsyth man shows off handmade bowls, woodturning skills
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Forsyth County resident Nathan Butterfield turns downed trees into into bowls and other works of art.

400 Studio: Turning chunks of wood into functional works of art

By: Bradley Wiseman

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Earlier this week, Nathan Butterfield got a call from a friend letting him know a red oak tree fell in his driveway and Butterfield could remove it.

But what might sound like yard work or the need to call a tree service for some is just the beginning of Butterfield turning downed trees into works of art.

When not working his regular job as a network engineer, Butterfield is turning the slabs of wood into handmade bowls, a process that can range to a few months for smaller bowls to years long for larger specimens.

“It’s a very fun process. I get home from work, and this is what I start doing. All weekend, this is what I do unless I’m doing something else that takes me away from it,” Butterfield said. “I always say that I do two full-time jobs. I do my normal job, then I want to say I spend at least 25 to 30 to 40 hours a week doing this.”

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After being shaped a first time, bowls are dried on a rack. Depending on the size of the bowl, the process can last a few weeks to years.

Butterfield said he has been woodturning for “a few years,” including building a cedar strip canoe, a coop for his chickens and pepper mills. But the bowls are Butterfield’s favorite.

“There’s a lot of things you can make in woodturning, but the bowls just kind of do it for me,” he said.  “I like their shape, and I like their usability. A big thing for me for wood products is the usability of it. You can actually eat anything you want. Wet foods are not the best, but you can eat anything you want out of a wood bowl, it’s not going to hurt it.”

Butterfield starts the process by selecting the wood – preferably maple and fruit trees, occasionally trees like red oaks and poplars, never soft woods like pines – and cutting it into logs.

He uses a chainsaw to get the wood into smaller, more workable chunks that can be placed on a lathe to be turned and shaped into what is essentially a first draft of the bowls. 

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Butterfield uses a lathe to shape bowls before drying them.

Up to that point, the work can be done fairly quickly, but once the bowls are shaped and oiled, it begins a long process of letting the bowls dry. As the moisture leaves, the wood shrinks and takes different, less perfect shapes. Sometimes they crack, rendering them unusable.

“It depends on so many things,” Butterfield said. “It depends on the moisture in the air. It depends on the type of wood. It depends on how thick it is especially.”

Once the bowls are dry, Butterfield shapes them again into a smoother bowl and finishes them – without staining the wood. Then they are ready for customers, who he said have been more receptive than he was expecting.

“It’s very satisfying having other people like your work as well,” he said. “I like my work on its own and I like my work for itself, but it’s nice having other people like it as well.”

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A collection of finished bowls and pepper mills crafted by Butterfield.

Though only working with wood for a few years, Butterfield said he comes from a family of artists and has made things his entire life.

“I grew up doing things on a potter’s wheel, he said. “So, it’s very similar to that except you’re starting from something and going down and shaping it out of a big piece, whereas pottery you’re starting with nothing and creating something.”

Butterfield said working with wood is a combination of his loves of art and nature and that he has learned something from such a lengthy process.

“That’s one thing about woodturning. I’ve never had patience in my life, and I’ve had to learn patience significantly because of this,” Butterfield said. “If you don’t have patience with wood-turning, you’re just going to mess everything up.”

To check out or purchase Butterfield’s work, go to ButterfieldWood.com.