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Scrap Wood to Polished Wood


Waste-not, want-not. My parent's advice still rings in my ears. Well, I just met a woodworker who's taking that adage to a whole new level, and it's not because of the down economy. Virgil Lieh, a Minnesota artist, is making use of scrap wood in a really big way - literally.  His scrap wood of choice comes from discarded tree trunks. From these he makes big vases and other large wooden art objects (more pictures below).


Virgil has spent the past five years developing his technique and recently held his first public show His work is drawing attention not only for it's size, but also for something that has most woodworkers asking "How did he do that?"  And it's the fact that in spite of the large diameter of his pieces, there are NO cracks.  If you've ever worked with logs or cut a cross section of a log, then you know that it’s nearly impossible to keep it from cracking or checking. Well not for Virgil, he's figured out how to prevent the cracking and shared his technique with the crowd at his recent show.  And, here's what it takes to turn a one ton log into a crack-free 40 pound, 80 inch tall vessel:

1. Start with a fresh log, preferably the day it's cut, but no more then 4 weeks old.

2. Use a flatbed truck to deliver the log to your shop.

3. Move it around with a forklift.

4. Trim the log to rough shape with chainsaw that has a 60" bar.

5. Mount the log on a $10,000, 8000 pound, 1917 Oliver lathe with a 7' x 7' capacity.

6. Turn the log very slowing - maybe 30 rpm.

7. Use heavy-duty grinders and other industrial tools to shape the log.

8. Remove the pith or center of the log as soon as possible. This helps remove stress in the log and that’s why most of Virgil's vases have no bottoms.

9. Keep the log wet while turning. Use a garden hose if needed.

10. Shrink wrap the log in plastic every night.

11. Turn the vase so the no part of it is thicker than 2 inches. Use very long calipers to measure the thickness so you don't grind through.

12. When you're done turning, put the piece in a custom built, walk-in microwave oven.

13. Slowly "nuke it" for 1 to 3 weeks until dry.

14. Turn it some more to true the shape and then sand to 220 grit.

15. Apply several coats of Shellac.

16. Sand, sand, sand and then buff to 4000 grit.

17. Store in your spare bedroom for a couple years until you have a show.



If you want to try this at home, you best visit Virgil's website for more information:


Virgil Leih the "Tree Trunk Artist"


Grotto                                                              Click image for larger view
Black Walnut
15" x 60"


Trumpet Top Vase (on left)                             Click image for larger view
Green Ash
15" x 80"


Rain Drops                                                Click image for larger view
American Black Walnut
9" x 26" x 23"


In Flight                                              Click image for larger view
Black Walnut
13" x 23" x 36"



Pursuit of Perfection                                      Click image for larger view
Black Walnut
21" diameter


Click image for larger view





Trubs wrote re: Scrap Wood to Polished Wood
on 04-30-2009 1:54 AM

What beautiful work, I am knocked out by the finish. As a frustrated big-bowl turner I envy you your lathe, but then, where would I put it, I only have a double garage to work in and already I am struggling for space. wrote re: Scrap Wood to Polished Wood
on 07-30-2009 9:25 AM

Beautiful! How do you remove the "pith"?