Blake Patterson

I find that creating segmented wood objects involves more science, technology, engineering, artistry, and math (STEAM) than 20-odd years as a Bell Labs systems engineer. Exchanging ideas with- and learning from the smart and funny members of Segmented Woodturners is a real pleasure.

Growing up in Royal Oak, Michigan, I played with electricity, chemicals, motors, model airplanes, and the local fauna. In 10th grade I took bassoon lessons, and two years later tooted with six orchestras and three bands. After engineering and math degrees at the University of Michigan I answered JFK’s call, joined the Peace Corps, and taught two years at the University of Ife in Nigeria. I earned a Ph.D. in physics at UC Berkeley, but my first job was second bassoonist in the New Jersey Symphony, where I met my lovely wife, Ellen Jackson. I played in many New Jersey orchestras, including twenty years with the Garden State Philharmonic and the Metro Lyric Opera.

After I joined Bell Labs, 1975, Ellen and I bought a 30-room fixer-upper in Rumson, NJ, where we hosted dozens of chamber-music concerts. When we decorated the master bath, Ellen asked my favorite color: “Wood!” We covered the walls with diagonal pine strips. We refinished just about every square inch inside and outside that home. I gained lots of experience maintaining two acres and old structural, electrical, plumbing, and heating systems. I built a dock, grape arbor, pergola, railings, furniture, etc. We raised two: Grant, who was Rumson’s 2002 valedictorian and now writes software in San Francisco, and Greer, who is a fine soprano and teaches bilingual students in a Brooklyn elementary school.

In 2007 we moved to a new, low-maintenance condo in Tinton Falls, NJ. At a friend’s suggestion, in 2010 I bought an inexpensive lathe that I used to make a few dowels, the start of my turning adventure.  I later struggled to turn a large log into a small bowl and lots of sawdust. The inefficiency and danger of that effort prompted me to glue together a few pieces of wood into a crude bowl shape that was easier to carve while making less sawdust. I didn’t know that I had just re-invented segmenting.

We also have a pair of small (600 sq. ft.) condos in Boca Raton, FL where we spend our winters. My FL shop is in the (small) kitchen of the second condo. I covered all its appliances, cabinets, and floor and squeezed in a belt sander, band saw, and Harbor Freight lathe. That lathe cost $200 in 2010; I immediately added a $2 switch to make it reversible, a feature I consider essential. Mounted on the lathe are: a DeWALT 10″ chop saw; a 22″ disk sander; a 9″ cut-off abrasive disk (on an old fan motor) — my tool sharpener; a 4″ cut-off wheel on a 7200 rpm dishwasher motor (for aggressive grinding); and stationary and rotating diamond hones. There is no space for a table saw.

Neither in NJ nor in FL have I lived near anyone with expertise in segmented woodturning, so I’ve had to teach myself and work out methods by trial and (lots of) error. For example, I didn’t know about using a jawed-chuck-and-tenon to mount a bowl on the lathe, and using a piece of paper between bowl and faceplate didn’t work for me. My solution: a waste block lag-bolted to my faceplate and a sacrificial ring connecting the bowl to the waste block. I think it is superior to other methods: no cost, very strong, just cut the sacrificial ring to detach the bowl, and reusable forever.

I seem to be unique in using what I call a “male-female” method for joining rings, which has advantages over ring-on-ring construction when a bowl is growing horizontally.

I seem to be nearly alone in using colored epoxy as a design element. It is nasty stuff, but once you understand its challenges, epoxy opens new opportunities and can solve construction problems.

These and other non-standard methods and tools I summarize in an essay called “Contrarian Woodturner,” that is available on our website.

I never use any form-planning method. Tibbetts writes: “YOU HAVE TO HAVE A PLAN.” (I respectfully disagree.) Tibbetts sketches the desired shape of the bowl, divides it into rings, then determines segment dimensions with precision. I make and mount a base, then look around for a stick long enough to make a ring that will fit on or around the base. To minimize waste, I work with whatever dimensions the stick comes with. To use a stick that is too short, I insert filler segments or feature elements. I keep adding rings until I decide it’s time to stop. The final form/shape is always a surprise and usually pleasing, or at least interesting.

I’m out of step with many (most?) segmenters in that my bowls usually have fewer than 100 segments. On the plus side, prior to COVID, I finished over 200 bowls per year, averaging about ten hours per bowl.

My turning skills are embarrassing. I rarely use a bowl gouge. My favorite tools are scrapers made from old files that I grind to useful shapes. (A friend warns me that file metal is brittle and dangerous. For safety, I keep the cutting edge within an inch of the tool rest.) Most beginners are better turners than I am. On the other hand, after all the cutting and gluing, I enjoy the hours it takes me to transform an ugly, rough glue-up into a pretty, curvaceous bowl.

I’m better at making than selling bowls. Sitting in the hot sun at a $500 arts-and-crafts booth doesn’t work for me. The best sales venue for me has been local libraries and community centers that let me show a few dozen bowls for a month in their display cases. Visitors contact me to buy bowls.

Fortunately, we don’t need money from bowl sales to put bread on the table. I happily donate bowls to any worthy charity that can sell bowls for a good price. I hate to see a bowl I spent hours making sell for a few bucks.

Turning is fun. Other fun things I do: (1) Ping pong — I’m a fair amateur — It exercises brain and body, and we laugh a lot; (2) I still toot my bassoon every day in private, but age has damaged my embouchure, etc.; (3) For exercise during COVID I spent 3-5 hours each day in local NJ woods cutting invasive plants that are killing our trees, especially vines of Asiatic bittersweet, porcelain berry, and multiflora rose. I also discourage poison ivy, which is native, but a 3″-thick vine of it kills a tree. I use a battery-powered chainsaw to cut up fallen trees. By “organizing” the forest I lower the local entropy. (Physics joke.)

I’m pushing 81, but except for 3 imperfect rotator-cuff surgeries, my health is good. I don’t enjoy it, but I swim a half mile daily as a low-stress aerobic exercise.

For our website I am writing a follow-along on cube illusions.


July 2021