A revival of interest in the last decade has sparked the ancient art of wood turning
Over the past 10 years, there has been a strong revival of interest in wood turning, one of the traditional hand skills. It intrigues both men and women wood hobbyists, as indicated in the current exhibition, ''The Art of Wood Turning,'' which runs through May 13 at the American Craft Museum II, 77 West 45 Street in New York. Two of the 18 contemporary wood-turners whose work is shown are women.
One of these women, Gail Redman, of San Francisco, is represented by the handsome balusters and newel posts in which she specializes. Another woman, Merryll Saylan, also of San Francisco, is showing bowls, an Indian basket, and a collector's cabinet.
Today's revival actually involves many aspects of the turner's skill. These range from the making of bowls, bottles, chalices, platters, vases, toys, chess sets, and decorative boxes to the turning of purely artistic sculptural forms and the making of chairs and tables from turned elements.
Wood turning refers to the shaping of a piece of wood with gouge or chisel as the piece revolves on a lathe between two fixed points. Historians say wood turning goes back 3,000 years, and in the last few years some conferences and special events have celebrated the craft. One of these was an International Seminar for Wood-Turners held three years ago in England.
Peter the Great of Russia loved to turn wood as a hobby, as did King Louis XVI of France. They and other monarchs sponsored royal turners, who could create the vessels and ornamentation fashionable during their reigns. An international range of pieces from the last four centuries is included in the historical section of this exhibition. Many of these lathe-turned objects were loaned from museums, private collections, and individual artists. Many antique American pieces come from restorations such as Old Sturbridge Village and the Hancock Shaker Community. These include furniture, musical instruments, and such homey utensils as rolling pins, mortar and pestles, butter molds, apple peelers, darners, and mallets.
As one of thousands of turners practicing the craft today, Ron Kent, a Honolulu stockbroker and vice-president of a large brokerage firm, terms himself an ''amateur weekend wood-turner.''
Yet with his wife he shows and sells at several craft fairs each year, and is well represented in the exhibition by his graceful bottles and bowls hand turned from Norfolk pine.
''I get many satisfactions from wood turning on a plane lathe,'' he says.''Just gathering the wood is fun in itself. I start with the logs. I love seeing the individual pieces take shape. I love it when my wife and I sit in the evenings and sand the pieces with warm oil as we listen to quiet jazz, for it is both restful and contemplative. We may spend 16 hours sanding with oil any piece that I spend four hours with on the lathe. The finer we sand, the more translucent the wood becomes and the more we see of its color and grain.''
Mr. Kent explains that, because he is completely self-taught, his tools and procedures are somewhat unorthodox. ''I started with a Rockwell Delta Home Handyman, and when I wanted to do bigger things, I had it modified and spacers put in. Then, when I wanted to do even bigger things, I had a lathe built for me by a local metal worker. I have now advanced from just wanting to show off the beauty of the wood to striving for ever more aesthetically pleasing shapes.
His prices at craft fairs vary from $20 for small pieces up to $300. Shops in Hawaii and California sometimes get as much as $1,500 for some of the pieces. Museum shops at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston also carry a few of his pieces.