At Work Turning Wood with Richard Montague

At Work Turning Wood with Richard Montague

Photos by Kristen Fountain

The nineteenth-century English bodger is a romantic figure in woodturning lore. Members of that extinct breed made their living in the hilly beech forests north of London. They felled trees, split logs, and shaped the wood into wagonloads of chair legs and spindles for the large Windsor chair factories nearby.

Alone or with a partner, the bodger set up in a new grove every year, bringing only his tools and a handful of other items: some clamps, screws and nails, and a long, sturdy rope. Using these and a long, green sapling, he improvised a foot-powered spring pole lathe, then around it constructed a crude shelter of branches, sticks, and straw. There, inside his hovel, deep in the woods, he turned out thousands of chair pieces, working through every season, by day and by candlelight.

Almost one hundred years have passed since the last bodger in Buckinghamshire made a spring pole lathe among the trees. But professional woodturners and hobbyists the world over remain fascinated by this simple but effective device. One of them is wood-turning instructor Richard Montague.

Montague built a replica of a bodger pole lathe in the mid-1990s to give visitors to the first Traditional Crafts Day at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, a sense of how it worked. Now, he pulls the parts out of storage and puts the lathe together several times a year at his home and workshop in Groton for visitors and students, as well as at summer festivals, camps and woodcraft trade shows, most recently at the 2010 Vermont Fine Furniture and Woodworking Festival in Woodstock last September.

Montague, 70, is a retired industrial arts teacher and public school administrator. He likes to solve problems with his hands, to break down a process into its smaller parts and practice them again and again, alone and together, to perfect each one. Even more than that, he likes to help others learn how to develop and master a skill.

He taught high school students at Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River, Vermont, for about 25 years. His lessons were about “problem-solving using materials and tools,” he said. “Everything from calligraphy to canoe building.” Woodturning was included as one skill in the mix. Teaching remains his vocation – he leads individual and group lessons on turning through the Yestermorrow Design/Build School based in Warren, Vermont. But his subject matter has narrowed to the one he knows best.

Montague is a tall, soft-spoken man with bushy gray eyebrows and beard. Behind them are intelligent eyes and a ready smile. In response to an inquiry, he waits a beat, as if ordering his thoughts, then answers in complete sentences. How many sentences depends a great deal on the question.

About himself, he will offer one or two at a time. He is a native Vermonter, born in Bennington, who grew up in different places, moving with his family when his father, a school superintendent, changed districts. He lived for a few years in Alaska and Virginia, following his wife Martha, then a nurse in the Navy, before they returned to Vermont for good. About turning, he will talk to a group of strangers for hours, answering every question patiently and at length.

“Wood turning is really sculpture,” Montague often explains. “The name of the game is control.”

His first exposure to the craft was fifty years ago at Camp Pinnacle in Lyme, New Hampshire, a summer camp where he worked as a counselor while attending the University of Vermont. He is primarily self-taught. Over the years, he learned through trial and error what size tool to use on which wood to what effect. He became familiar with the feel of holding the tool with precise pressure against the wood, and with the different whirring and chattering sounds that signal whether the gouge is cutting just right.

Montague has made everything from bowls, spatulas, and cooking spoons to birdhouses, whistles, and even a wand for a young Harry Potter enthusiast. He collaborated with an artist in the 1970s, making wooden handles for ceramic baking dishes and pots. In demonstrations with his mechanical lathe, he makes children’s tops because their simple design allows him to show a variety of decorative techniques. The spring pole lathe is better suited to longer items such as tool handles or table legs.

What impresses him is the ingenuity and practicality of the instrument. Turning the wood where the trees were cut saved the bodgers both time and money because only the lighter, finished products had to be transported, so they designed a version of the pole lathe that could be made from the detritus of the forest.

“Like most things in history, it was made from what was around,” Montague said.

Easy to build and easy to work with, these lathes have been used since the Middle Ages. “The pole is simply a spring,” he said. “You just have to tie a string to a branch hanging in the right place.” The springpole, attached by a rope to a pedal, provides all the energy needed to turn the wood.

Bodgers looked for two sturdy, downed trees or thick, straight limbs, and anchored them by burying one end in the dirt. Or they would use two live trees, if they found them the right size and a few feet apart. These would be the poppets, the lathe frame that supported the screws or clamps that hold the wood to be worked. The men also searched for a long, thin, green branch held in place by a pair of forked branches, or a sapling held by its own roots in the ground. This would be the springpole. Montague’s lathe is modeled on this design.

A rope is tied to the free end of the springpole and pulled taut. The other end of the rope is attached with a loop to a makeshift pedal on the ground. The tension in the springpole lifts the pedal at an angle.

The working wood is laid across the poppets, and the rope looped around it between the pole and the pedal. A push down on the pedal turns the wood. The turner presses into the spinning wood with his gouge or other turning tool. The trick to setting up the lathe is making sure the rope is stretched “tight enough so there is no play, but loose enough so (the wood) turns,” Montague said.

When the turner releases the pedal, the springpole pulls it back to its original position. The wood reverses direction, so he removes his tool. Once the springpole straightens out, the turner steps on the pedal again and resumes cutting into the turning wood. When the process is repeated enough times, he turns a rough-shape chunk of wood into a cylinder. Cutting into the cylinder with chisels and scrapers, he removes more wood and makes decorative details in the chair leg or spindle.

Instead of branches or tree trunks, Montague’s spring pole lathe is supported by detachable two-by-fours. It is prettier and more portable than those the bodgers used, which would be abandoned when the wood in the area had been processed. He has found it to be a helpful educational tool for beginning wood turners.

The layout of the spring pole lathe is simple enough that even children and non-mechanically inclined adults can understand how it works, he said. Also, the foot pedal, called the bellows, gives students the ability to easily stop the turning wood, which is safer and increases confidence. However, once students are comfortable with the basic idea of turning, the springpole lathe can frustrate students because of the difficulty of concentrating on using a tool and making the wood turn at the same time.

Montague attracts a crowd at festivals working the spring pole lathe, which takes up a lot of space. He likes at least a 20- foot-long cut sapling for the pole – a longer spring creates more even tension and a more consistent turning speed. While he turns pieces, he describes how the rougher bodger lathes looked and functioned in the forest.

He enjoys the experience of turning on the spring pole lathe, despite its limitations. There is no motor noise to mute the sounds of the tool against the wood, and the turner is in complete control of every rotation, an ideal situation as far as he is concerned.

“The aesthetics of working on it are incredible.”

Kristen Fountain is a freelance writer living in Stowe, Vt.


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