For the past 4 years I’ve been going to the Southwest Area Turners Association Symposium (SWAT) held in Waco during the summer. This is the second largest turning symposium in the country and it is by far the biggest inspiration for me every year to try more and do better. Applying what I see and learn to everything from cabinet making to, of course… turning. I could spend the entire weekend exploring the 734 pieces in the instant gallery alone. The quality you find, designs you see, and level of execution is awe-inspiring. What’s more amazing is almost all of them were provided by attendees with a few from presenters. These are items that with a little practice and forethought even I might be able to create! (well, roughly create)
Most years I blast thru the gallery on day one taking lots of pictures and seeing what I think will be my inspiration piece of the year. And then it’s to the vendor’s area and lectures. But during each break I make it a point to go back in and linger. Giving yourself time lets you notice things that were so subtle as to be overlooked in a casual glance. I find that the more time I spend it’s these little things that keep drawing me back and holding my interest. The best ones are the pieces I didn’t even notice on the first go around because of their seeming simplicity but on closer examination your mind explodes as the execution is so perfect it hides the complexity and skill needed to accomplish the task. To me… that is quality art. A piece so perfect as to hold your attention and make your imagination go wild.
One of the pieces that intrigued me this year was this small, slightly offset, turned box. At first glance you say, ‘oh, nice shape’, and then move on as you know how to make boxes and it only takes a cursory glance to register the overall shape for future use. But then on the next day I spend time some with it. I noticed how thin the walls are yet the weight is appropriate and nicely balanced. The flare down the sides was a graceful curve blending with a slight offset to create a visually different curve at all angles of the box yet the grain itself matched perfectly top to bottom when angled right. The base was sized just right to hold the off center weight of the piece. The clincher in the piece was the slightest of cutouts in the top. And then it hit me, this wasn’t just a single offset, it had a multitude! The forethought that went into this piece was phenomenal! I spent the next hour with this little piece in my palm (that’s how big it was) showing other attendees asking questions on how they thought she did it. Boom… mind blown.
Another piece I saw was a simple small platter. Curly maple that had a dye treatment to the rim. Sure in had a slightly different shape in that it didn’t use a traditional ogee but it wasn’t a piece I noticed my first time around. Or the second. Or even the third. It wasn’t until late in the second day did a little glint of light draw my attention to the rim. And there I was for 30 minutes racking mine and every other brain around me to figure out how this guy created this oblong spherical brass rim embedded into the ridge while maintaining depth. I think by the end of the day I figured it out but my theory is he used 3 different types of epoxy, hand braided brass wire, and formed it all into a mold in three steps just to get glint of light on the edge. I’m definitely going to try this in place of holly in a federal piece someday!
Can you tell my mind was swimming with ideas. And these were just 2 of the 734 pieces present. Another nice thing at SWAT is that several hundred of these pieces are given away! Yes, items you’d think would sell for several $100’s in a gallery are given away to kids with cancer thru the Beads of Courage Program. Woodworkers really are a generous bunch. The contributions took up 2 tables.
This year SWAT broke every record with the exception of total attendance. More vendors, more instant gallery participants, more raffle entries, more raffle donations, more, more, more…
What I like so much about symposiums like this, be it turning or hand tools, is the breadth of people that come together from all walks of life. You have retired executives and extrusion workers, artists and accountants, oil field workers and optometrists all laughing, learning, admiring and ogling together with non of the barriers you might find in normal life. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, turning is a decidedly ‘white’ hobby and I haven’t a clue why.
What SWAT does so well is keep costs low. The event is organized by local clubs, each of whom host a room and arrange it’s presenters. Most have one nationally known ‘name’ instructor who puts on several presentations in a day and a couple of the clubs more talented presenters filling in gaps. All in all you got 24 presenters in 36 classes and 5 special interest groups. More than enough variety for the 880 full registrations sold.
Yet thru careful planning they still provide a pen turning area for first time turners, a ‘spouses’ area providing a chance to show off other crafts, and some really great food for the 3 lunches and 2 dinners they provide.
I’m also told they keep the costs to vendors low so you get a larger group and larger variety. It attracts locals such as the small sawmill in S. TX run by a lady and her friends in addition to the international brands who bring along crowd pleasing presenters such as Jimmy Clewes, Stuart Batty, Alan Lacer, and Carl Jacobson. The vendor gallery alone draws a huge crowd every year and since those people aren’t counted as registrants it’s likely attendance this year was way above 1000!
Because the place is so conducive for the vendors they contributed wildly this year to the raffle. I’d say they provided several times the value in prizes as SWAT did with the three grand prizes of Jet and Vicmarc lathes. All I know is the give-a-ways took well over an hour to get thru even moving at the auctioneers fast pace.
Next year is SWAT’s 25th anniversary and they promise it’s be the biggest one yet because they’ve been holding some funds back the past few years in preparation. They hinted that they will be opening up a few more rooms (each meaning another 9 classes and a special interest) and a handful more of nationally known presenters.
This year I went to see Lyle Jamieson demonstrating his hollowing techniques. I gleaned some good tips on reducing vibration, face plates, and using hunter style bits. Plus a simple pen laser makes blind measuring easier. Kirk DeHeer gave a nice presentation on using iron infused finishes and the patina possible. Kevin Felderhoff did a crotch turning that took advantage of a cool tail stock jam chuck that I just need to now make. Dennis Ford showed some small hollow forms. And Derek Weidman… ya, that guys brain works differently. I actually watched him turn a longhorn bull on the lathe. Or was he carving in the round. I was confused and in awe.
By the end of day 3 I was wiped out and all I did was eat and sit the entire time. Talk about brain overload. Which is a good thing as I now have an entire year to try out new things.
If you ever get a chance to go to a symposium or meet up like this make it a priority to attend. Even if it’s just to attend the free gallery of works.