When Ray Kling sees a pile of chopped firewood, his first reaction isn’t just to give it the ol’ heave ho into a fire pit, but to cautiously pick up the wood. He’ll look at the intricacies. The lines. He’ll stare at the imperfections and see if there’s something unique about this piece of wood.
Where others might see disease and criss-crossed lines that couldn’t possibly be used for a table leg or a 2 x 4, Kling could take that same piece of wood and craft a spectacular plate, vase,or even a table.
He calls it “revealing nature’s beauty.”
“You put an old gnarly piece of wood on a lathe and you don’t know what’s inside until you cut some of it,” Kling said. “And it just pops.”
The work is available for sale at the Grays Harbor Public Market.
“His work has been very popular from the minute he came into the market,” said Barbara Bennett Parsons, manager at the market. “People respond to it. It’s so organic. It looks like this bowl or vessel came from the earth, and all he had to do was harvest it.”
Kling, who lives out near Iron Springs on Copalis Beach, has been a wood artist since he first took a half-day course on how to use a lathe in 2003. Since then, he’s pretty much been self-taught.
“I’m not sure how I got started turning,” he said. “I think I read an article one time and thought, ‘Gee, that sounds interesting.’”
After he took the class — where the instructor taught his students to retrieve firewood from a blacksmith’s shop that truly was destined for the burners — Kling would look for his own treasures buried in his own firewood pile.
Kling grew up in Indiana, but he never had an artistic mind. Instead, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology. Eventually, he’d earn a doctorate in physiology/biochemistry. In 1970, he’d get his first and only job at Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. Starting as a researcher, he’d move up the ranks until he retired as dean of the graduate college some 35 years later.
“Most people don’t even know that I used to go by Dr. Kling,” he said. “They don’t know my background. It just doesn’t come up. …
“I started coming out here in 1990 to get away from the 110-degree temperatures of summers in Oklahoma,” Kling said. “That’s how I got to know Iron Springs Resort. When they did their addition in 1995, I bought a lot and built my dream home in 2004. Some people may complain it’s not hot enough here. For me, it’s perfect. Until this year, it was pretty much a vacation home. My shop wasn’t here. I did all my work back in Oklahoma.”
But the love of his life, his wife Nancy, was dying. Coping with her disease and the dementia that she was dealing with led Kling to embrace his woodturning more. She died last year.
“It was something I could do to escape, relax,” Kling said. “It was something I could do that didn’t necessarily remind me of her because it was something I discovered later. …
“This is my therapy. When I started this, my wife was very ill and I needed something and she passed away in December after five years of being sick. So this was my therapy; something I started after she got ill. So she wasn’t really a part of this.”
Walking on the beach, working on the house, those things still reminded him of Nancy. But he could escape into his shop and work on a piece of wood for hours.
“This was my total escape and I absolutely love it,” Kling said.
Enter Parsons, an art lover and manager of the Grays Harbor Public Market in Hoquiam. Parsons said she first met Kling a couple of years ago when he was passing through town as a customer.
“At one point, he handed me a card and it said he was a wood artist,” Parsons said. “I urged him to bring in some of his work. It took me a year to get him to lower his defenses.”
Kling recalled his basement was full of about 130 pieces of his work — from tables to fruit bowls to planters and platters.
“After staring at all my work, some untouched for months or years, I decided I had to do something, so I set up a booth at the public market about a year ago and sold a few pieces. Now, I have a permanent spot in the market.”
“He does glorious work,” Parsons said. “It’s unusual and unlike anything I have offered at the market. The imperfections are part of the miracles that he does. I love the jagged nature that he incorporates and he celebrates it rather than trying to hide it. It’s glorious.”
Kling volunteers at the market now and talks often about the process he uses to make his work.
“It took me five years before I would even consider myself an artist,” he said. “And when I got into these pieces here, putting a clock in a piece and doing elaborate designs, that’s when I would finally acknowledge, ‘OK this is art.’ …
“I’m big into natural inclusions. If I can leave them, I do. My card says ‘revealing Mother Nature’ and the way I figure Mother Nature already designs this stuff, so why should I try to do better than Mother Nature? So I let Mother Nature do it. All I do is highlight it.”
Kling said he gets his wood from just about anywhere. He has friends who will cart hundreds of pounds of wood to his shop at Copalis Beach, if they find a unique piece. He’s responded to tips of a broken cherry tree in Aberdeen to retrieve wood. Sometimes, he has to wait years to cut favorite slices of wood to give it time to dry out.
“I can’t wait for this because cherry burls are rare,” he said. “Burls form around the base of the tree and there’s a big argument over what causes it. But it’s not a disease, it’s a genetic defect in the wood. For me, it’s perfect because it’ll serve as the natural base for a bowl. It’s going to take a couple of years to completely dry out. It may start out at 30 to 40 percent moisture and I really don’t want it cut until it’s below 20 percent. Being cut like this and stored in here on a drying shelf, it’ll dry faster.”
He said he’ll also wander the beach and see if there’s any wood to be found.
“I really like Northwest wood because it’s so unique,” he added. “We have myrtle, madrone, big-leaf maple and this is the only place you can find that. I’ve searched around and have a couple of sources in Washington and in Bend, Ore. where I get some of my supply.”
His favorite kind of wood is spaltered wood.
Showing off a chunk of the wood, criss-crossed with black lines, he says, “When a tree dies or a log is laying on the ground, the first thing that happens in the decay process is fungi invade the log. And this is called black-line spalt. The fungi cause the black lines and the decoloration, so this is the first stage of decomposition of the wood and this is called spalt. There’s also a fire spalt that’s red.”
By turning the lathe — at a typical 800 to 1,000 rotations per minute — and placing a specially designed chisel on a tool rest, he’s able to chew away the outside revealing a dazzling array of criss-cross designs within a lightly shaded wood.
“This is probably going to be a vase,” he said, getting a feel for the wood as it spins.
By using the edge of the tool, he can make a rough and quick turn, digging deeper into the wood. But in seconds, he can flip the tool to the flat side and make it so smooth, you’d have trouble finding a splinter.
“The sharper your tool, the smoother cut you can get,” he said, pointing to a stand of tools he uses. “The technique is when I’m doing it this way, it’s just this point catches the fiber and pulls it out. Those are just techniques you pick up over the years.”
The actual turning part doesn’t take that long — maybe an hour to 90 minutes. Then, he will use the lathe to drill a small hole in the center of the vase and use a small blade to hollow it out.
He’ll wait a full day before he begins to sand the work. Then, it’s on to eight hours of consistent polishing and adding coats of finish, sometimes waiting days between periods of sanding and polishing to give it time to dry out again.
“The turning is the fun part and the easy part,” he said. “The rest I do to look presentable.”
Sometimes, he makes a vase with a wide enough opening to fit a glass enclosure he can stick inside of it. Other times, he’ll apply waterproof epoxy inside a vase so it can hold water. If he didn’t do anything to the wood, it’s a good bet water would seep through the wood.
If he needs tips, he belongs to the Central Oklahoma Woodturners chapter of the American Association of Woodturners, which has meetings in Lacey. The organization also has a magazine and its members have blogs.
“If I need to figure out how to get rid of stickiness in a two-part epoxy, I have people to turn to ask,” he said.
Most of his designs come from his imagination, although he says he flips through a woodturning magazine every now and then and gets inspired.
“Usually, it’s just me and the dog at the lathe here for a couple hours until I figure out what I want to do,” he said. “It’s relaxing for me.”
He says he loves working with green wood from a big-leaf maple, but says the challenge there is making sure the wood is dry enough.
“When you have the finished product, as it dries it will split, because as the moisture content of the wood dries the work, it changes shape. Sometimes I will take a bowl that’s perfectly round and two days later it’s oval because as it dries, parts of it dries faster than the rest. But maple is superb. I can turn this kind of wood and it rarely cracks and it rarely moves. It dries fairly in uniform.”
Kling said it’s not unusual for him to start creating a small bowl and end up with a vase or something else instead, based on what he sees in the wood as he’s spinning the lathe.
“Once you get into the wood, if I see a grain pattern that I didn’t know was in there, I may change what I’m going to make to highlight the pattern,” he said.
Kling said one thing he has absolutely no interest in doing is work on commissions.
“As long as I like it, I don’t care what people think about it and I won’t do commissions for that very reason,” he said. “As soon as I do commissions, it’s no longer my work, it’s theirs. I’m doing this for myself, not anyone else. It’s just me and the dog.”
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3927, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.