Woodturner carves his way back into Boarkwalk art festival

Tom Frey has always enjoyed working with his hands. He spent most of his years tuning up cars in auto body shops. It was a dirty, demanding job — not one that most would technically refer to as “artsy” or “crafty.”

wood turner 2007.08.24: Tom Frey turns some wood on a lathe in his Millville shop.Coastal Point • RYAN SAXTON
Tom Frey turns some wood on a lathe in his Millville shop.

Now, though, after decades, Frey has perfected his talent and moved from metal to a different medium — wood. He will return this year with his woodturning crafts to the Bethany Boardwalk Art Festival on Saturday, Sept. 8, an event that he has been a part of before. He has participated in craft shows all along the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Florida, and even west to Chicago. He had also been active with Delaware’s own Brandywine art show before scheduling conflicts came about.

Woodturning has become Frey’s new life, as he takes sections of trunks, branches and burls from falling and decaying trees, and works at “turning” them, creating one-of-a-kind decorations, from bowls and vases to miniatures, even birdhouse Christmas ornaments. He keeps a natural edge on some of them, exposing the actual outer layer of the bark along the rim.

Still working with his hands, he said he can’t get away from his passion that he picked up in 1987, a craft that hadn’t been a part of his life since shop class in high school.

“It was something I had always wanted to do,” Frey said. “So I just started doing it. I spent a lot of time learning about different machines. I read all of the books, so I’m basically self-taught.”

He works strictly with what he wants to work with, though. Frey has never been commissioned, nor does he wish to.

“I turn what I want to turn,” he said. Serving as his own boss is one of the easiest and most enjoyable aspects of woodturning.

His products have been recognized nationwide, from collectors, aficionados and enthusiasts to the everyday person who shares an appreciation for fine crafts.

“People are really attracted to the things I turn,” he said. “A lot of the time, they’ll see something they can’t do without.”

Word about his pieces has gained a reputation for him, traveling through word-of-mouth. The only other exposure Frey receives is through craft shows, including the popular fall-time SouthEastern Delaware Art Studio Tour (SEDAST), which raises money for local art education programs.

A graduate of the former Lord Baltimore High School, Frey considers himself a true local. His father’s side of the family came from a long line of boat-builders, while his mother, originally from Muddy Neck, was an avid quilter with her friends.

The creative crafting bug stuck with Frey from a young age. After retiring and settling down, Frey quickly picked up the hobby, which grew, almost immediately, into a full-time passion.

He began with a lathe, a machine used by woodturners that rotates a piece of wood while tools carve, sand and drill their way through. He soon found out, after speaking with other woodturners he’d meet at craft shows, that simply one lathe wasn’t going to cut it.

“You need to have more than one,” he said. “If you want to have an inventory, you need to keep things moving. You can’t be tied up, waiting to finish on one lathe.” Frey currently works with three lathes at his shop at his Millville home. As one piece comes off of one lathe, it’s brought to another, where different effects and varying styles are carved into the wood. Some woodturners Frey has encountered work with up to as many as five or six lathes at their shops.

The burl — a growth on the tree’s exterior — is one of Frey’s preferred mediums. It doesn’t contain the typical grain found within the rest of the tree trunk, which makes movement of the tools across it smoother. The burl, or another desired piece, is placed upon the lathe’s spindle, which rotates the wood at tremendous speeds.

A variety of tools can be locked into the tailstock, which serves as a pivot point, and can be rotated to almost every possible angle, allowing for the greatest versatility. The tools are moved forward toward the wood, sitting upon a tool rest — a part of the lathe that prevents the tools from flying out of the woodturner’s hands. Different tools will allow for different effects on the spinning wood.

“I go by sound,” Frey said. “I listen for my tool hitting the wood, and just go across it.” With the burl spinning at high speeds, he slowly moves his tools laterally and inward across the wood to achieve the desired shape. “It takes a lot of time and concentration,” he said. “There’s a lot of coordination involved.”

The end product is then sanded down, and usually polished for a shiny affect. Frey works with all sorts of wood, from cherry, maple, oak, mesquite and black walnut to the base of some bushier plants, like rhododendron and azaleas, whose root base can often make for very peculiar pieces. Most of the wood, Frey finds himself, but he’s also had some shipped in from Texas, and even Australia. “You get to learn your woods,” Frey said. “There’s all types of different kinds you can work with.”

He has vast wood piles out behind his home, where pieces of all kinds of wood dry and harden before they’re fitted for the lathes. “I know where each kind of wood is, and I can have access to whatever I want,” he said. “There’s some wood here back from 1987, when I started.”

Wood can be turned in any stage, though “green-turning” (turning wood that has not yet dried out) limits the potential thickness of the finished final piece.

Burrowing worms can get into the wood, which can add different effects, be it holes within the finished bowl or a different pattern against the grain. Carpenter ants crawl through his waiting pieces in the woodpile, too, leaving trails that can also be seen in the final product. Termites, however, are an unwanted guest. “You don’t want them,” Frey said. “They just destroy the wood.”

Most of the work Frey does is decorative, though it can be functional, too. Bowls and vases can serve as centerpieces in kitchens and dining rooms, for a rustic appeal, and he has even equipped doll houses with the same pieces. Tiny miniatures, even mini salad-bowl sets, are spun upon the great lathes.

“There’s so much creativity in woodturning,” Frey said, “and there are always new pieces of wood and new things to try.”

The 29th Annual Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival, sponsored by the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce will be held on Saturday, Sept. 8, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., on the boardwalk and adjacent streets, premiering fine arts from more than 100 artists and crafters. Live music and a silent auction will also be available to the public. For more information, visit the Chamber’s Web site at www.bethany-fenwick.org or call (302) 539-2100.