R. David Kaylor | WOOD TURNER
Your Subtitle text
Articles and reviews

    Joyce Kilmer marveled at the beauty of the tree, emphasizing its outward grandeur. I join him in that admiration, but I also have begun to learn about the inner beauty of this wonderful creation God has given us. Trees can tell us their history, of dynamic growth, of recovery from injury, of struggle in the midst of disease and decay. In looking for wood to turn, I seek pieces that fascinate by their unusual character and that promise to reveal their story.
    One favorite of mine is a burl, often see as a round outgrowth on a limb or a tree trunk. A sort of malignancy, it has grown in a deformed manner without the characteristic grain pattern of the wood. A burl results from a tree undergoing some form of stress, a wound or some environmental factor. The tree’s suffering can produce a beautiful effect.
    Another favorite is wood which has been attacked by the Ambrosia Beetle, which I have seen most commonly in Maple, Dogwood and Sycamore. The beetles tunnel into the wood of dead or dying trees, introducing a fungus which stains the wood, leaving brown, gray or black streaks along the tunnels. 
    I also like to find spalted wood, especially Oak Maple. Spalting is a part of the rotting process, as fungus enters the wood, making fine markings in which I often find images of objects, human, animal or inanimate. Once a friend was watching me turn, and exclaimed when the wood stopped spinning: “Look, there’s a Pegasus.” She was right.
    In addition to their own history, trees are also connected to the history of places or people. I like to turn wood that has comes from a special place (such as the big Red Oak that was once on Davidson’s Town Green); or that has been given to me by a friend, or by someone who treasured a tree and wants to keep a piece as a memento. I try to acknowledge those connections as I sign the bottom of the work.
    In all my work, I try to reveal the natural beauty and character of the wood through creating pieces with simple lines and soft finishes.
David Kaylor

Kaylor Turns to Nature in Retirement

The walls of Kaylor's basement woodturning shop are lined with chisels for the specialized tasks of the trade.
Davidson College Communications office, 1/7/2005
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

David Kaylor offers a theory that people, like him, who spend their careers in intellectual pursuit, harbor a pent-up desire to leave a legacy of something more physical than lecture notes and journal articles. Small wonder, then, that this James Sprunt Professor Emeritus of Religion has gravitated to woodturning as the primary enterprise of his retirement.

Surrounded in his basement workshop by wall racks of tools and shelves loaded with rough-hewn, drying wooden bowls, he said, “When your profession is so much related to people and not to any product, having something tangible as a result of your work becomes more important. There's a human need to create something you can hold in your hands.”

He continued with a chuckle, “In that same vein, I love gardening too. But the deer and voles have about done me in there!”

Kaylor spent thirty-five years in Davidson classrooms from 1964-1999, teaching primarily about the pertinence of Biblical texts to the contemporary world. He published two longer pieces, Paul's Covenant Community and Jesus the Prophet, and conducts some scholarly activity still. But his heart is in his home workshop, where he spends up to twenty hours a week at his lathe, turning out bowls, vases, candlesticks and an occasional wooden egg.

He learned handiwork as a child at his father's side in northern Alabama, and has put it to practical use throughout his life. “My father did everything that needed to be done,” he said. “I grew up thinking I could figure out how to do things, or at least get someone to explain it to me.”

He was handy enough to finish the basement of the house he and his spouse, Dot, built in 1969. He also put his skills to public service for many years through Habitat for Humanity. Kaylor co-founded the Davidson version of that international housing agency in 1987, served as construction leader for the first home it built, and applied his hands in a multitude of ways to many others.

But through all the years of nail pounding and sheet rock hanging, a long-suppressed curiosity about woodturning itched in the palms of his hands. “My brother with whom I lived a summer when in college had a shopsmith machine, and I had turned a cylinder with it one day,” he said. “I hadn't made anything out of it, but I had my hands on it that one time, and knew since then I wanted to try woodturning.”
About three decades later, in 1993, he got his first real lathe and joined the American Association of Woodturners. He got hooked when he attended the association's three-day national convention. “I ate it up,” he said. “It grabbed me in a way nothing else did. The more I got into woodturning, the less other forms of woodwork and construction appealed to me.”

He began attending weekend seminars, and joined the North Carolina Woodturners Association in 1998. Retirement the following year freed up his schedule for even more involvement. He became the woodturning instructor at the Icehouse Center of craft when it opened in Davidson in late 2003, and now teaches woodturning classes there two days a week.

For many years the work brought him personal satisfaction, and provided gifts for friends and his five children on special occasions. But recently it has brought him some acclaim as well. Kaylor entered several pieces in a North Carolina Woodturners show in October, and won three first prizes and an honorable mention. He entered a Mooresville Artists Guild show the same month and won another first prize. Shortly thereafter, a piece he entered in a juried Lake Norman Art League benefit show won second place among all kinds of artwork.

Friends and neighbors began asking to purchase his work, so Kaylor has begun selling some. For the past two holiday seasons, he has set up his lathe in the Alvarez College Union for several days to demonstrate his techniques and offer work for purchase.

Woodturning appropriately suits his personality. A colleague at Kaylor's retirement dinner stated, “David Kaylor has stood tall among us, oaken in character. He has done his job with quiet dignity and respect for the tasks that were his.”

Kaylor lives that philosophy in his woodturning by creating mostly simple designs. He said, “What I love is the beauty of the wood. I don't want to make my creation compete with the beauty of the wood. My philosophy of turning is to reveal the inherent qualities of the wood to maximum effect. I like nice form, but am not interested in ornate decoration.”

Kaylor is also not interested in turning exotic woods from faraway places. He inscribes the type of wood and its source on the bottom of most of his work. One reads, “Cherry, from the yard of Dan and Ethel Rhodes.” Rhodes, another emeritus professor in Davidson's religion department, was for many years Kaylor's next door neighbor. He explained, “I don't want to contribute anything to cutting down tropical forests, and I don't want to spend any money on it. There's plenty of local wood I can feel connected to.”

There's a bowl made of hickory from the yard of the late Frontis Johnston, and a piece of sycamore that went down in an ice storm in the yard of Davidson Mayor Randy Kincaid.

He enjoys working with the many varieties of local wood. Maple turns well, holly creates a stark white product, turning walnut reveals rich whirling patterns, and cherry has a rich, tight, symmetrical grain. Lately he has discovered the beauty of Cedar of Lebanon, which smells wonderful as it turns.

He displayed a piece of red oak from the yard of Homer and Catherine Sutton that he shaped to reveal the feathering that occurs in the crotch where trees fork. He explained, “Oak is mostly straight grained, but the tree creates these special cells to support the fork so it won't break off. It would split at the fork if not for the special structures that can withstand the stress.”

He shows off a piece of white oak with a dramatic story. During Kaylor's first woodturning demonstration in the Alvarez College Union on a clear winter morning in 2002, a heavy ice storm the previous day caused a large oak to topple suddenly in front of the building. Pedestrians scattered as the tree fell, but one unfortunate student couldn't escape, and was scratched and terrified by small branches that smashed to the ground around her. When workers chopped up the tree, Kaylor got several pieces. The next year, the student bought a bowl he created from the tree to give to her parents as a gift and memento of her near-death experience!

Kaylor creates some of his more artful pieces from diseased and damaged wood. A fungus in box elder creates mottled splotches of red in a bowl, and partial rot and beetle burrows in ambrosia maple create striking, contrasting lines throughout the even grain of the wood. He turned a piece of rotting dogwood into a prize-winning bowl by including natural bark-lined holes on two sides.

The fine art of creating such beautiful objects begins roughly. Kaylor generally uses a chain saw to cut a slice of tree trunk into a square block of wood, and uses a band saw to shape it into a circle. He affixes that to his lathe and roughs out a bowl with cutting tools, some of which he designed and crafted himself. He must set aside the rough piece for one to four months while it dries to its permanent shape. Forty feet of shelving in his workshop is filled by about 150 of these rough-turned pieces.

Kaylor and some of his creations in the Alvarez College Union during his recent demonstration show there.

He finish turns the dry pieces, then sands them smooth and coats them with polyeurethane, Danish oil, or lacquer. “Really good turners can turn it so smooth with their tools they hardly have to sand it,” he said. “That's my goal, and I'm getting better!”

He works slowly and deliberately. “I'm not in a hurry to get finished with a piece,” he said. “I don't want this to turn into work. I usually don't keep at it for more than a couple of hours at a time. That's not good for me or the piece I'm working on.”

Though his work has been recognized for artistic excellence, he still considers it a craft. “I never thought of myself as an artist,” he said. “There's a fine, maybe indistinguishable line between craft and art, though, and I guess some of my pieces might cross that line.”

Some patrons use his pieces as fruit bowls or salad bowls, bud vases and vases for dried arrangements. But others put his work on the shelf for display only, reflecting their appreciation for its artistic quality.

Woodturning gives him an outlet for his creativity in retirement, and teaching at the Icehouse Center provides him an outlet to continue that career interest without the administrative headaches and tension of grading that college teaching necessitated. “At the conclusion of one of my Icehouse courses I told my students, 'Everyone gets an A!' and that was certainly a pleasant way to end the class!”

The leisure pursuit also allows him time to continue to serve the church as needed. He was interim pastor at the interracial Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte for sixteen months following the departure there of Charlie Summers ' 72, and was also a short-term interim at Grace Presbyterian Church in Ft. Mill, S.C. He continues to preach as invited, and to teach adult education classes. He's particularly interested now in studying how various groups use the Bible in contemporary culture wars, and leads a peace and justice group at Davidson College Presbyterian Church.

When this interviewer clumsily asked whether there was anything to be made from the fact that Kaylor, a scholar of the carpenter Jesus, had turned to a form of carpentry himself, Kaylor was kindly not dismissive. “Well, it's interesting that a lot of ministers I know do woodworking. I think it's a love of the nature of wood, but whether that comes from Biblical inspiration or not, I just can't say!”

Reprinted with permission of Davidson College Communications Office.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is engaged in “Let Learning Be Cherished,” a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.

# # #


“Suffering Produces Character”
Romans 5:3
    Joyce Kilmer marveled at the beauty of the tree, emphasizing its outward grandeur. I join him in that admiration, whether it is covered with summer green or the splendor of fall colors, or whether its winter barrenness reveals to magnificent limbs. But in turning wood on a lathe, I also have begun to learn more about the inner beauty of this wonderful gift of creation. Trees can tell us their history, of dynamic growth, of recovery from injury, of struggle in the midst of disease and decay. In turning, I seek to discover something of that history, and to reveal the natural character and beauty of wood. To do that I concentrate on simple forms and a natural-looking wood surface, trying to function as a midwife more than a creator.
     One of my favorite woods is Cherry Burl; burl is a kind of cancerous growth, often seen as a knot on the trunk or a limb. A second favorite is Maple, Dogwood, Sycamore or Box Elder which has been decorated by the Ambrosia Beetle. The Ambrosia Beetle brings a fungus and leaves holes and the streaks of color: brown or red in varying hues. I also like “spalted” wood of various species. Spalting refers to the fungus that stains the wood as it begins to decay. Usually it appears as black lines through the wood, but it sometime produces various colors as it reacts with the chemistry of the wood.
    The Apostle Paul was referring to the way human suffering can produce or enhance character, depending on the reaction to it. Humans and trees share this in common: What we suffer in life and in death can enhance of character.  
      David Kaylor

    The apostle Paul uses the metaphor of “potter” to speak of God’s relation to humans; I like the metaphor of “woodturner.” The potter begins with material that is neutral, perhaps flawless; the woodturner often begins with something deeply flawed, about which there is doubt as to its redeemability.
    Many of my turnings come from dogwood trees, which sadly are dying at a distressing rate in our area. Others come from wood that seems worthless, disfigured or decaying or insect-ridden. The turner works on wood such as these in faith and hope, though with considerable doubt, and often failure. Can anything of worth or beauty come from such wood? The viewer of the results   can judge the outcome as the viewer wills.
    I think this provides a metaphor of God’s relation to humans. There must be great doubt in the Creator’s mind about whether something good can come from most of us, as deeply flawed as we are. The Creator must be sustained by faith in the ultimate outcome of the Creator’s work.
    David Kaylor

Website Builder