VIDEO: A good turn deserves another at Cork Craft Month

Tommy Barker joins an expert woodturner in a bid to discover what could have been if he had not thrown out his rusty old lathe.

THE arrival of Cork Craft Month gave me a chance for a spin in the countryside — at several hundred revolutions per minute.

Offered the chance to try my hand for a few hours at a craft with a skilled practitioner just last week, I could have gone for pottery or painting, furniture making or woodcarving. Woodturning it was to be, though. As easy, surely, as falling into a log?

Confession 1: I’d tried woodturning before, so I wasn’t a pure beginner, I was worse than that, the sort that language teachers call a ‘false beginner’… thinking you know something, but needing to go back right to scratch. Or back before scratch and scrape, if that were possible.

I’m reasonably adept at DIY, enough to wield a saw and chisel. For whatever reason, I’d even picked up a cheap lathe (for ye pure beginners out there, that’s the yoke that rotates a piece of wood at speed so you can machine it down into a variety of shapes and uses) many, many moons ago.

With my baby little woodworking lathe, I managed to make a few nice enough lamps, from old stair newel posts. I was ridiculously pleased with myself, shaping them into things like wine bottles and carafes, and also whittled down some lovely piece of apple tree wood into quirky shape... and that was about it.

Due to neglect in a leaky old shed the belt for driving the lathe perished, and it got wet and rusted. It sulked next to an even more rusted chainsaw with seized-solid chain that only a fool would try to fire up again.

Confession 2: When moving house eight years ago, they both, wisely, were fired into a skip, for safety’s sake.

Perhaps that lathe had come from Lidl or Aldi, but probably it was back before the German retailers came to these shores, bearing gifts from the East, every tool you ever needed, many more you never needed, and most certainly didn’t know how to use.

Confession 3: Last year I bought a thing called a router. It’s snug still in the box (to stop it from rusting).


So, signing up for a few hours in the company of a meister craft-worker, wood-turner John McCarthy, at his workshop near Nohoval and Oysterhaven in Co Cork seemed like a chance to find out just what I’d missed out on by jettisoning my own lathe to the sanctuary of a skip.

Cork’s chapter of the Irish Woodturners Guild has 60 or so members, of whom just a handful make a living out of their work. John McCarthy (previously a social worker) has been at it professionally for 20 years, working from converted old stone outbuildings at the back of his remote, renovated farmhouse home, with head-turning views of the Old Head of Kinsale.

Oh, and John had restored and roofed the house himself too — so, no pressure. I felt a bit of a foolish old head admitting I’d binned my own lathe years ago, and was back (in my own head at least) to rehabilitate a reputation, to turn back the clock.

First up, it turns out — and no sniggering in the back of the class — that among his myriad tools, augurs, chucks, calipers, chisels, spigots and widgets, John has a much bigger yoke, a lathe called a VB36, which is a serious, factory-floor-sized piece of kit on which you could almost turn a planet on its axis as easily as a platter.

It did feel far more manly to be gouging down a fair chunk of tree trunk on this one-tonne piece of whirring dervish, than shaving down short lengths of apple tree branch, but one thing was the same: The rush of woody scent being released from its core, and blizzards of wood-shavings and sawdust everywhere. I, generally, felt over-cautious, quite the klutz, and I only all too-infrequently got ‘in the zone’, where the bowl-gouging tool seemed to find its groove, and the shavings hit a stream of consciousness.

“Your mind goes everywhere when you’re working,” John admits. “You could have the bowl finished and you wouldn’t remember starting it.”


Confession 4: My renewed attempts at turning were best forgotten too… but I’d be very keen to give it another few whirls, and John, who gives occasional day and weekend courses, seem like the perfect, patient teacher.

We (ie, John) had decided to ‘rough turn’ a piece of 100-year-old ash tree that had come from Hoddersfield along the coastline by Fountainstown. John, generally, uses trees felled by storms, or affected by disease… so, it’s good to know the tree was effectively a volunteer, a bit like myself.

Rough turning effectively means getting the approximate shape of what you want and then leaving the partially-worked piece to dry sufficiently before finishing it off. The piece we rough-turned was set to go into an adapted, warming, insulated shipping container with a dehumidifier for six weeks.

Then, assuming I didn’t make a complete bags of it on him and that one half-good turn deserves another, he can finish and polish it with Danish oil when it’s done its drying out and fears of cracking evaporate.

At one stage, the grain in the fast-spinning wood created a captivating, almost hypnotic visual vortex.

“It’s like the Time Tunnel,” I enthused, referencing the 1960s TV show of that name and of my youth.

Confession 5: This may hint as to the age demographic of the wider, wood-turning community. What goes around, comes around; perhaps my time for wood-turning has arrived, after a much de-lathed reaction?

Getting crafty in Cork this month

2015 is the designated Year of Irish Design, and this, the sixth annual Cork Craft Month (August 4 to September 5) is a key part of the year’s focus on design.

The month sees a series of exhibitions, ‘Made in Cork’ trials, workshops, open events, in craft workers’ studios, pop-up shops, curated gallery events and the chance for some hand-on participation — and purchases.

The aim is to make craft accessible to all, and add to appreciation for theartistry, skill and design nous that goes into fine craft. Events include:

The TIME Exhibition, in Kinsale’s Old Mill Aug 5-14), indicating the extra dimension added by taking time to create craft; also in Kinsale (Aug 19-Sept 5) is The Home Event, a haven for handmade items for the home.

ADORN, showing millinery, scarfs, bags, belts and other fashion items, on in Midleton’s The Courtyard Gallery, and, there’s also the on-going Cork Craft and Design, Shop and Exhibition Space open daily at Douglas Village Shopping Centre and staffed by craft group members.

See also: John McCarthy at


Video: This chocolate facial is the perfect Easter-themed pampering

Wine with Leslie Williams

The Menu: Food news with Joe McNamee

Restaurant Review: Circa Restaurant, 90 Terenure Road North, Dublin 6w

More From The Irish Examiner