Let’s Talk SHOP: William Steffen

Abby Leon, Paradigm Gallery Director

William Steffen. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Wood is one of the first materials humans worked with over 40,000 years ago and was essential in the development of civilization. As time advanced, so did the degrees of skill. Wood was originally used for survival to provide tools, hunting gear, shelters, transportation, and even household items. It has also been used universally, throughout history, to create decorative and ornate objects of all forms. To this day, many still practice the art of skilled, fine woodworking, ensuring it continues to evolve. This week, we introduce you to artist William Steffen. William has the uncanny ability to highlight what this reliable, yet often unpredictable, medium can do. Throughout his career, he has produced a diverse body of artwork that makes you stop and think… “How did he do that?”! Let’s talk shop and find out!

“I have been working with wood for as long as I can remember. I had an excellent instructor in middle school who taught me things that often get overlooked in woodworking. Things like how to read a figured board to show off its beauty in the best way, and that perfecting a curve is done more by feel than by sight – the fingers can actually detect imperfections better than the eyes.

I love working with wood that no one else would touch. Logs that are cracked, rotten, over stressed, and disfigured are my favorites to work with; there is a certain element of discovery and surprise in each piece.

I am often asked if I know what I am going to do with a piece of wood when I start a project, and the answer is yes, but more often than not the wood guides me soon after the project begins. I love to show off the surprises, the hidden beauty in the tree. This is what keeps me coming back to the studio… every piece is a challenge.”

The process:  

The pictures (below) show the log roughed out. I use a splitting maul to rough the log into a usable size, then once it is mounted on the lathe, I refine it slightly with a hatchet and chain saw. 

Once the rough blank is turned to a cylinder, I step back and get a feel for how to turn it to best show off the grain. When a plan of attack is made, I start to refine its shape.   

A hewn log stands in the artist's workshop. After turning it into a cylinder, the artist then approaches it from every angle to determine the best sides.
Determining the plan of attack. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Every now and then a surprise will emerge, in this case, it was a giant steel nail. After carefully digging it out, I was able to highlight the area that was turned jet black from the walnut tree’s reaction to the nail.

Then the shape is further refined. I was able to pull off a bowl from the end waste on this one.

Once the log has been turned, the vases are placed in paper bags to dry for a few weeks. Then, when they have had a chance to dry out, I start to lay out the carving and design work. The bowls, however, get oiled and waxed right away, and are essentially finished. 

With the design work laid out, the vases are ready for burning and inlays. This series features silver leaf and solid brass inlays. This process is all done by hand, and takes an incredible amount of time.

Once all the features are added, they get their first coat of finish. I use a classic oil finish blend of boiled linseed oil, poly urethane, and mineral spirits. These vases will get 7 coats.  The last step is waxing and buffing, which is essential to the overall beauty in each piece. It is also important for the texture of each piece, as it gives the wood a silky feel. 

To see these incredible vases, or more of William Steffen’s work, come visit us at the Paradigm Gallery! Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm; Thursday 10am-8pm; Sunday 12pm-5pm.

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