A Day with… Steve Noggle

Steve Noggle, a woodturner from North Carolina, has over 40 years of experience working with wood. He has been a timber cruiser and furniture industry engineer; currently he owns and operates his own studio. His work can be found in galleries throughout North Carolina and Tennessee.

How do you go about picking a piece of wood? Is there a time of day or season that is best?

The best season to get logs is the winter when sap is low, creating less water in the tree. In these conditions, there are fewer problems with cracking deformity, especially when you carve a bowl. However, I get logs year-round because most wood that I use I don’t find in nature. Because I’ve been in the industry for years, individuals seek me out to sell me logs. If that didn’t happen, it would take me forever to search for the right kind of piece. In addition to logs, I also use burls, which is the growth deformity that you see on sides of trees.

The kind of wood I like to work with best are from the local maple, walnut, and cherry trees that are in the big woods in my area (North Carolina), although maple is my favorite. Eucalyptus wood from Australia is nice to work with as well as it is highly textured, has cool colors, and is highly figured.

Are there different logs for different pieces?

When I first started, I used my local wood since I wasn’t too familiar with what made wood pretty; I would take anything I could get my hands on. At the time, I wasn’t working with logs, but instead thick flat boards to make shallow pieces.  

After I moved onto logs - well the sky’s the limit! You can make both tall and deep bowls. The biggest difference when making bowls out of logs is that the bowl is going to deform, since it dries unevenly on different sides. These pieces are called “natural edge bowls,” so it’s okay that this occurs. When the piece is finished (after sitting for a week to dry) it deforms somewhat. It’ll move in one direction over the other. It’s okay because this gives the bowl an organic, natural effect.

What is the name of the machine you are using in some of the pictures? How does that help the process?

The lathe is a machine that constantly rotates the piece I am working on so I can shape it more accurately. It moves the piece at speeds of 500-600 rpm.

The tailstock is a tool that tightens the piece against the other end by turning the handle. When it’s tight, I turn my tool rest on and the wood starts spinning. Simultaneous to the piece is spinning, I am quickly carving it to form the bowl’s initial shape. I form the outside of the piece, which determines what the inside will look like. Since all my pieces follow the same contour, these first steps are essential to the piece's success.

What about cutting - are there different methods for cutting that lead to different types of bowls?

If you want to make a piece kind of round you should use a chainsaw while cutting. The chainsaw is used before the lathe, which is a machine that allows me to shape a piece more accurately.

How long is the selecting and initial cutting process?

I can’t tell anything from just looking at a tree, but I can tell a lot when it’s in log form. The sellers send me a photo from the end of the log after a fresh cut, and I can tell everything I need to know: color texture, grain - really anything that would be pertinent to my work.

How long does that process take?

I probably spend a half hour or more cutting up a piece in the yard and studying it before making the first cut. After the piece goes on the lathe; depending on the size, it could take anywhere from an hour to almost three hours to properly carve. After this is complete, the bowl dries for about a week before it undergoes sanding and other finishing touches.

How do you know when it’s done?

The sanding process is the final step. I start at 80 grit (which is coarseness of the sandpaper) then go up to 320 grit, which is a power sand. After the 320 grit, it’s ready to be oiled. I hand rub multiple coats of tung oil (drying oil); typically, it takes three days of applying one coat per day. After that third coat, it’s ready!

What is your approach each day?

I do a little of everything each day. This morning I cut three big chunks out, which took an hour and a half. I’m going to make big salad bowls out of them. I won’t do any more today- the chainsaw can be exhausting. The lathe is much easier to physically operate although the dexterity can be tricky. I’ll do lathe work and then I’ll do some sanding.

Do you do anything else outside of your studio?

I co-own a co-op gallery called Ariel Gallery in Asheville, North Carolina. I work there three days a month and the other 12 co-owners also work there three days a month year-round. Other than that, I work on my craft every day. I have worked in eight or nine galleries and I do about six or so shows a year.

Learn more about Steve Noggle by visiting his website or checking out his recent segment on Carolina Impact

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