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Articles & Press


Carving his niche

Haymarket man finds passion in woodturning

By Emily Brown, Potomac News, Thursday, September 30, 2004

As a carpenter and cabinetmaker, Walt Bennett was constantly making right angles. He enjoyed working with wood, but said: “I was never really all that great at doing square things.”

It wasn’t until his wife asked a favor about two years ago that Bennett, 60, found a new world of woodwork - one where corners give way to curves.

Woodturning, or the process of turning a tree into art, became Bennett’s new passion. He mostly makes bowls, which are on display at the Waddell Art Gallery at the Northern Virginia Community College Loudoun Campus through Oct. 15.

“The idea to me is to show the wood,” Bennett said. “The medium is more important than my skills.”

Bennett of Haymarket makes simple, clean forms, mostly following an “S” shape called Roman ogee. He also believes in quality and diverse woods, both domestic and imported. He only uses clear glosses, never painting his bowls.

“When I turn wood, I try very hard to maximize the wood pattern, the grain,” he said.

But Bennett may not have found his new desire if it weren’t for his wife Adrienne’s hat making. She needed hat and brim blocks and asked Bennett to make them. Between projects for his wife, he began turning.

The type, size and overall appearance of the wood predetermine the size and shape for Bennett. He screws a faceplate onto one side of the block and spins it on a lathe to shape it with different chisels. Bennett then sands and smoothes the bowl before coating it with a gloss finish.

“I guess I’ve been so impressed at how naturally this comes to him,” said Polly Knight, an attorney in Manassas who has one of Bennett’s Bird’s Eye Maple bowls. The woods he uses are unique, she said, “and the shapes he creates are unusual as well.”

One bowl takes one to two days, he said. He sells his products - made from woods from cherry, oak and mahogany to Purpleheart, Yellowheart and zebrawood - in galleries around Northern Virginia and at craft shows, alongside his wife’s hats. They are priced between $30 and $500.

Bennett gets wood from downed trees in people’s yards or trees that must be cut down for other reasons.

“I don’t cut down trees for the sake of cutting them down,” he said. Bennett also has planted 15 to 20 trees around his home and, when he buys wood from lumberyards, he only buys from environmentally responsible sources, he said.

Tunde Mosunmade has a large walnut bowl in his Montgomery County, Md., living room.

“I like the wood and workmanship,” Mosunmade said. “He works with the grain of the wood, and more, it fits with my [decor].”
People in his home often comment on the bowl, he said.

“It’s thoughtfully made,” he said. “When I saw this, it was more like an art piece than a craft.”

Bennett, currently working for a technology solutions company, eventually wants to turn wood full time. He’s found the right way for him to work with wood, he said. The only bad part: “I was damn near 60 when I found it out.”

Staff writer Emily Brown can be reached at (703) 878-4650.

This story can be found at:!lifestyle!features

Walt Bennett 'reads' wood to perfection

By Eileen M. Carlton, 10/07/2004, Times Community Newspapers, Loudoun Times

Walter Bennett, of Haymarket, began at the top when he started his wood-turning career.

Not the top -- as in the top of the corporate ladder -- but the top as in head, as in hats, as in making hat blocks for his wife, Adrienne.

“My wife makes handmade hats, which have to be formed over blocks. She started asking me to make some of these blocks because they don't make them anymore," Bennett explains. "Today, hats are all factory-made and stamped out by machine."

The first step, Bennett says, was to purchase a wood lathe and a belt sander.

"You have to have a belt sander because the blocks have to be oval. They are not really round because head shapes are not really round. They are oval," Bennett recalls. "I started turning molds and one thing led to another."

Now he makes beautiful wooden bowls. You can see his bowls at the Waddell Gallery on the Loudoun campus of Northern Virginia Community College through Oct. 15.

Like many artists, the Bennetts travel to craft shows regularly. Walt Bennett has sold some bowls at craft shows, but primarily he shows his works at galleries such as A Classic Touch in Orange, Twin Rivers Gallery in Oak Hill, W.Va., and the Racine Center in Wilmington, N.C.

For Bennett, each piece of wood speaks a different language and carries a different message. Much of his talent is his ability to “read” the wood.

"What I prefer doing as a wood turner,” he says, “is to put the media's texture and figure above what I can do with it as far as shape is concerned. The appearance of the wood is really the figure it includes, not the shape, not the form. The grain describes the pores of the wood. That wavy look, called curly grain, is part of the figure. Another part is burl. It's the way wood grows..”

Bennett explains that the term “figure” is the name given to the overall appearance of wood.

"I try to maximize the appearance of figure,” he says. “I don't lay my own skills and ability on top of that. I want the wood to be the most important part.”

Bennett uses a curly chestnut piece to illustrate his point.

"It's very simple looking, about eight or nine inches. But it's relatively rare and very hard. You find curly chestnut in one in a million trees, chestnut that will have that ripply look to it," Bennett says. "The bowl itself is very smooth but it has waves. I chose the form of the bowls to maximize what you would see of that figure."

Bennett, now 60, has been turning wood full time for 2 1/2 years. He has been a woodworker for 20 years.

"I am self-taught. I have never had a class,” he says. "I am getting better at not hurting myself."

Bennett learns from videos. He has never been to a seminar, never to a hands-on class.

“Longtime wood turners kind of get perturbed with me because I haven't,” he says. “I do have a sense for what looks good, for what is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It feels right. I never claimed to be a really good wood turner, but I am getting better and better at technique.”

His favorite wood to work is maple because it “machines very well,” which means it's predictable. “Another favorite wood is bubinga from Africa. It's kind of reddish-brown to blondish-red, has kind of a flaming transition in its color," Bennett explains.

Tony Mosunmade, of Olney, Md., might not be able to explain why the large walnut bowl he has is beautiful, but he is proud to have a Bennett original in his home.

"I love the wood. I love the bowl," Mosunmade says. "It's really the quality of the wood and the way it looks. You have to see it to believe it, what he has turned the wood into. The craftsmanship is really excellent. Almost everyone who comes to my house has something wonderful to say about it."

Bennett loves to do commissioned work from favorite trees that have been downed in a storm, or from some other wooden artifact from a barn or building.

"I plant more hardwood trees than I harvest, and I attempt to harvest downed trees from storms or disease, as much as possible,” he says. “I'm reclaiming leftover hardwood flooring to eventually use in glued-up bowls."

Contact Walter Bennett at 703-864-2767 or by e-mail at More information may also be found at

©Times Community Newspapers 2004