Alan Jacobs published in the April 2021 The Australian Woodworker
Full disclosure – Mike Darlow is a valued member of the Southern Highlands Woodies Group Inc and his intellectual and practical contributions to this group are much appreciated. The reviewer (Alan Jacobs) also is a member of the same woodturners group and is a self-confessed excessive sander – a questionable attribute which Darlow discusses in Chapter I of his latest book – Useful Woodturning Projects.
The seventh book in the Mike Darlow series on woodturning is what some may find a curious mixture of ‘how to’ instructions and sometimes arcane information. For example, the section and sub-sections dealing with chess sets commences with an overview of the origins of these sets and their designers/creators or the men after whom the various designs are named. These include Mathew Flinders, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, among others. Incidentally, feminist who are woodturners will be dismayed to learn that none of the chess sets are named after females!) This information relating the origins & inspirations for the chess sets creates a context for the designs and adds to the entertainment/education value of Useful Woodturning Projects. The history of the designs etc is then supplemented with a ‘how to’ section which focusses on ‘new’ designs created by Darlow. These ‘new’ designs reference the historic originals and promise ‘improvements’ in such things as ‘playability’ and ease of visual recognition. The new designs offer the opportunity for a reasonably competent woodturner to fashion his/her own chess set/s which are a homage to the originals.
Also included in the ‘how to’ component of this volume are objects like an ‘improved’ pepper grinder, spinning tops, funnels, a point-presser and clapper and antiquities like a Negus strainer and monaural stethoscope. Whether all or only some of these projects are ‘useful’ is a moot point that deserves consideration by thoughtful wood turners as it speaks to a fundamental dilemma – why do we bother to pursue our craft and to what end? This is an important question that Darlow highlights in Chapter 1.
Before any discussion of this issue – it is only fair that the quality of the ‘how to’ component of this book is acknowledged.
Anyone familiar with the first six books in the Darlow series on woodturning will know that the ‘how to’ component of this latest offering is full of precise instructions that lead to the promised ‘useful’ woodturning outcome. These ‘useful’ projects are shown via clear instructions on such things as chucking, turning techniques and jigs to ensure a desired outcome. The written step by step instructions are supported by clear dimensional drawings and photographs that show the stages in turning and the resultant product. Darlow claims that these ‘useful objects’ are within the reach of the ‘average woodturner’ and I can verify that he has ‘road-tested’ this claim by demonstrating how they are turned at his local woodturning club. Worse-case scenario – even if you rate yourself as somewhat ‘less than average’ – attempting one or more of these projects will enhance your knowledge of woodturning techniques and the heights that are attainable with diligent practice and a little help from a knowledgeable turner who may be inclined to lend a hand. Access to those who are more competent than yourself is one of the many advantages of joining a dedicated woodturning group or a Men’s Shed.
If we leave the ‘nuts and bolts’ or how-to component of Useful Woodturning Projects aside, there is a theme underpinning this book that I think warrants further discussion. In his Introduction (Chapter 1), Darlow delves into philosophical matters, some of which underpin and question the very existence of a book that overtly addresses the issue of ‘usefulness’. I found this Introduction interesting and it reminded me of banter that I have heard at my local woodturning club or when I have unveiled my latest turned product to my significant other.
“Not another bowl. What am I supposed to do with it? There are dozens of them cluttering up my cupboards or lying around already!”
Darlow alludes to this ‘problem’ and presents his version of why we need to reconsider the role of useful turning. This leads to a justification for his new book on useful woodturning projects. His contention is that in the last few decades the amount of turning of useful items has declined relative to non-useful items. The upward trajectory of the latter is ascribed to multiple factors – notably the rising profile of ‘fine art’ woodturners and the aspirational ‘pull’ that these artistic turners exert on the projects attempted by the average woodturner. The downward trajectory of useful woodturning also is explained by multiple factors including the ‘disappearing’ need for repetitive turned objects and the consequent lack of learnt skill by amateur woodturners. Darlow maintains that poor skills are the result of inadequate tuition and lack of practice. He opines that many woodturners attempt to cover these deficiencies by excessive sanding. To which I plead – Guilty as Charged!
Thus, the aim of Useful Woodturning Projects is to reverse this downward trend and Darlow maintains that there are projects just waiting to be attempted. The ‘how to’ component of his book promises to extend the expertise of the average woodturner. However, we need to explore what he means by useful.
Darlow offers the following definition of useful on the first page:
By useful I mean “can be used for other than aesthetic, contemplative or emotion-creating purposes.” A useful turning’s usefulness may be entirely due to the turning, as in a pastry-cook’s rolling pin. At the other extreme the turning may only add three-dimensional ornament to an item which is no less useful without the turning.”
I interpret this definition as – an object is useful if it has a utility value or usability. Darlow’s definition provides him with a wide canvass with which to justify the inclusion of his suggested projects. Personally, as I read his book, I tended to position Darlow’s projects on a spectrum from ‘Very Useful for me in the here and now’ to ‘Not at all Useful’. I suspect that many readers will do what I did and employ an idiosyncratic schema and class the projects according to their own definition of useful. The Negus strainer, faux bamboo frames, reel stands, funnels and the monoaural stethoscope sadly fall towards the ‘Not at all Useful’ end on my personal spectrum. However, some turners will disagree and label these projects as useful. However, and paradoxically, I must admit to enjoying the sections that deal with these projects and gained some ideas about how I could improve my turning technique. Likewise, I have not played chess for years (blame the internet and work commitments), but I really enjoyed the section on chess pieces and their origins.
What I found most useful was molinillos, an improved pepper grinder and spinning tops (small and not so small children and those ‘young at heart’ seem to love them even in the digital age).
Conclusion. Overall, Useful Woodturning Projects is an entertaining and thoughtful offering that will educate and enhance the skills and aspirations of woodturning enthusiasts. Ultimately, the appeal of the various ‘useful’ projects in this book is a matter for each prospective purchaser to decide for him/herself. I suspect that the average woodturner (whoever he or she is) will find at least a couple of projects in the book to excite their curiosity and tempt them to ‘fire up’ their lathe. Darlow’s instructions and drawings/images are clear and cover all stages in the making of his useful projects. The contextual information may at times border on the ‘quirky’ but will certainly entertain anyone interested in the origins and history associated with Darlow’s projects. At a philosophical (some would say ‘academic’ level), I appreciated Darlow’s prognostications in Chapter 1. I believe that the issue of why we do woodturning and what we produce is not an academic cul-de-sac but rather is a relevant area for passionate debate. I look forward to a more detailed discussion and ideas from Darlow and others regarding how we can produce more interesting and useful ‘work’ without descending to the level of repetitive journeyman projects. Finally, Darlow is to be congratulated on his final Chapter (17) – an unexpected and erudite examination of Typefaces.
Ernie Conover (an American professional turner, and the author of three woodturning books and many articles) published on Amazon.com on March 2021
My friend Mike Darlow has just written another book on wood turning in which he makes a premise that I agree with. Namely, that there is a myriad of interesting and useful things to turn on a wood lathe besides bowls. I would even add that spindle turning has been somewhat forsaken in favor of turned vessels by the turning community these days.
Therefore, I find his book to be a breath of fresh air, for it enumerates a host of useful and whimsical items that can be turned in any wood lathe. Mike’s writing style is precise but fun and interlaced with fascinating details about people, history and stories about the objects he chooses. There is a fair amount of treenware which are useful household objects made of wood. Treenware was the stock and trade of production woodturners up through the early twentieth century. Each object Mike has selected for this fine book has exact scale drawings of the objects. The North American reader will need a ruler in millimeters, but measurement is measurement, and the metric system is actually easier to work in.
To whet your appetite, please find a list of the cool things you can turn other than bowls.
• Back scratcher: I am itching to make one and it is a nice, easy spindle turning project.
• Chess sets: You can’t buy one because of the movie Queen’s Gambit, so it makes sense to turn one and have so much fun doing it. Mike outlines 3 sets.
• Picture frames: Half turnings date to the sixteenth century and were prevalent in mannerist style furniture. Mike comes up with some classical and modern designs.
• Funnels: Highly useful. I am going to turn one for filling my bird feeders. No more sweeping up seed from the kitchen floor.
• Book markers: Not what you think but I need a bunch in my library. They are to mark a place where you extracted a book so that it can be replaced where it was. Dewey Decimal depends on it!
• Molinillos: No cup of coca is right without one.
• Monaural Stethoscopes: A conversation piece at any social gathering and a great gift for parents with a baby on the way.
• Negus Strainer: Useful treenware
• Pepper grinder: Nothing beats freshly ground pepper.
• Reel (spool) stands: My wife being a weaver, we have a gaggle of these, and I shall make more.
• Spinning tops: Always appreciated by children of the child in you.
Interspersed is much on tools and technique which is Mike Darlows’ strong suit. There are myriad photos and illustration, all of them clear and interesting. This book belongs in any turning library. Make turning a book marker the first project so that it can always be returned to the right place in your library.
Dr H. Alison, Amazon.com, February 2021
The previous book in this series on turning chessmen is my most read and referred to reference book on woodturning. This book will likely become similarly well thumbed! I really like the extra contextual information, and historical information around each design. As well as a number of new chess sets, this book contains an eclectic collection of utility items, many of which are different to designs you can find elsewhere, and all of which are described in detail with good colour pictures. A great book for the practical turner!