This article describes treen, the utility woodturning of the past, and the ornamental and segmented turning that is popular today.
‘Treen’ is a word unfamiliar to many. It’s a flexible term used for a great variety of small, antique, domestic, functional wood ware. The sort of work that might be described as ‘wooden bygones’. Turners made much of it, though not all. It is often decorated with turned details or carving, and is handmade. Treen does not include non-functional items and furniture. So although an old turned and carved box is treen, a carved ornament is not.
Examples of treen include candlesticks, bowls, boxes, snuff boxes, egg cups, goblets, lemon squeezers, spoons, plates, corkscrews, string boxes, darning mushrooms, needle cases and wooden tools. They show wear and tear and sometimes old repairs. These tell of the worth of the piece and the long use it has had. They may still be in use today. Until Edward Pinto wrote about treen in the 1960s, people paid little regard to these pieces. Now they are very collectible and can fetch good prices.
Before the mass production of metal and plastic ware, most of these items were of close-grained wood, usually sycamore, beech and boxwood. Most treen was country work, purely functional. But some pieces were valuable in their own time. Surviving pieces are often top quality work. Skilled craftsmen made these pieces, although it is rarely possible to name makers.
Almost all the pieces I sell are plain turned. I make them by applying a more or less stationary cutting tool to the spinning wood. If, instead, the cutter and work piece each move in a precisely controlled way, the result need not be circular in cross-section. The tool makes a pattern or shape on the wood. For example, six cuts spaced around the work piece could leave it hexagonal. This is ‘complex’ turning, and it’s a very different craft to mine. It depends much more on specialised tools. It is often known as ornamental turning, because it applies ornamentation to surfaces.
Great ingenuity has gone into developing the equipment. Originating in the late 15th century, the craft later became primarily a rich man’s hobby. The kit was beautifully made, and highly priced. Surviving examples are now highly sought after.
Ornamental turning requires a special lathe, tools, chucks and elaborate gearing systems to control the relative motion of the cutting tool and the work piece. Modern set-ups are sometimes computer controlled. This equipment allows complex motions of tool and work piece, generating ornamentation that is sometimes baffling to see.
These motions are eccentric, epicyclic, radial, elliptical, linear or reciprocating. They may follow an irregular template or one with a pattern. The cutting tool may move, or the work piece, or both simultaneously. Cuts are accurately indexed so they start and stop in exactly the right place.
Materials used for ornamental turning include wood, ivory, bone and some plastics. The material must cut very cleanly, as sanding is rarely possible on this type of work. The finish is that left by the tool. This means that few wood species are suitable. Boxwood and African blackwood are good for this work, because they are hard and fine-grained. They respond well to cutting tools, leaving a polished surface. The cutter is extremely sharp, and sharpening needs special equipment too. Certainly the standard of sharpness required for plain turning would not do for complex turning.
Above is a bowl in teak. I used a rotating fly cutter (which flies in a circle and cuts circles in the wood) with the bowl stationary. I indexed it round a few degrees between cuts to form overlapping circles. Then I removed part of them by plain turning. Teak is really too coarse-grained for this work. I’m quite pleased with the bowl, but a real ornamental turner would think it very crude.
Segmented turning is another branch of the turners’ craft. Like ornamental turning, it is extremely labour-intensive, and produces spectacular results. I have never tried decorative segmented turning. It appeals to people who like to immerse themselves in a project for however long it takes.
The maker carefully plans and constructs the turning blank, which might eventually become a bowl, vase or box, before the turning begins. Separate pieces of wood, sometimes many thousands, are carefully cut at precisely calculated angles. Then the maker glues them together in stages to build up a block. The pieces are normally of contrasting colours, and arranged to make a pattern in the finished item. A very simple example is the ubiquitous brown and white chequered fruit bowl. Sometimes the pieces are all the same species. The turner selects them for their grain and not contrasting colour. The work needs great precision and accuracy so that the pieces go together without voids or prominent glue lines.
But sometimes, makers deliberately leave gaps between the parts. The finished item will have a honeycomb appearance. Irregular gaps can make the finished item ‘fade away’ to nothing, perhaps on one side of a vase.
If the block is large, large turnings are possible. It avoids the problems that plain turners often face when using one single big chunk of wood. Knots, cracks and bark inclusions can make turning difficult. When the block is complete, normal turning begins. A catch or dig-in with the tool could destroy all the earlier work. Even the sanding and finishing need extra care, because the colour of one part can bleed over into the adjacent ones.
But if all goes well, the turning process reveals the pattern planned in the beginning. It may resemble mosaic tiling or basketwork, or have a pictorial design. The result is often stunning. You can see lots of examples here.
Segmented turning blanks often serve a purely practical purpose – small pieces built up simply to make large blanks, without attempting to make patterns. If placed end to end in a ring, there will be no exposed end grain in the blank. The turning is easier. It also avoids short-grain sections in the ring, so it is stronger than if made from a single large piece of wood. I make large horizon rings for globe stands by joining short boards end to end, and join boards edge to edge to make large discs.