© by Russ Zimmerman, May 2018
MY HISTORY OF TURNING AND MY STUDENTS Home Class details Tuition & contact Gallery Turning basics Resources History


I first turned wood in Junior High School, making a handle for a magazine rack. Four years later Dad bought a Shopsmith which I still have. It is 65 years old and I can tell you, “They don’t make them as they used to.” It’s beyond me why he bought it--except for me and with the thought that he might need it someday. I also think he liked the engineering of it, all cast iron and steel. I used it for wood projects and once turned several legs for animals in a circus we had. Between 1954 and 1969 I was in college or working, and it was not until I came up with the idea of teaching industrial arts that I again began turning. I took a woodworking course in college in which turning an object was a project. The class went to Bob Stocksdale’s home in Berkeley before “Fine Woodworking” introduced him to a bigger world. I bought a piece of teak from him that he said had been cut from a beam that had been removed from Hearst’s San Simeon. $11, I think, and enough wood for an 11“ bowl, 4” high. It was cool. I got an A, though I had little idea what I was doing. Some of the wood handling techniques I saw at Stocksdale’s are presented in the “Turning Letters.” I got a job teaching industrial arts in Williston, Vermont (4th through 8th grade), and ran the shop for five years, from 1970 to 1975. The kids loved turning, and other woodworking, and I had a wonderful time because I was left to innovate, with classes in woodworking, plastics, photography, and bicycle maintenance. But in 1975 after the death of my father in 1974, I needed a new direction. In 1975 I went to England to take Peter Child's woodturning course. His approach was demonstration, followed by your trying the cut once or twice, with the notion that you would practice what you could remember once you got home. I did not like the approach because of its lack of practice while there, but I did like the idea of offering instruction in my home workshop. I negotiated with myself about whether I would build houses or teach woodturning, and since the latter required very little capital, that is what I started with, though I ended up doing both. We bought property in southern Vermont, and I left the Williston shop and a new person came in. (I went back in 2010 to see the changes and almost cried when I looked at the shop with almost all the tools still present, but unused except by the custodial staff. What handyman skills are our children learning?)  I built my second house in Westminster West, with the shop in the basement, and there we opened our woodturning school. (My first two student helped me prop sheetrock up around the toilet so we would all have privacy, but we were still filling the tank with a hose connected in the basement.) Note that when I say “building” I mean carrying and installing every stick of wood, though I did have help from family when I had something heavy to do. (Perhaps you have read Studs Terkel’s idea that a person needs to leave monu- ments; children and buildings I presume.) As is said, “Build it and they will come,” and it was true. Advertising in “Fine Woodworking” also helped. So from 1976 until about 1995, we offered instruction to whomever would come to me, or have me go to them. In 1990, inspired by one of my students, who in addition to turning also owned a lovely sailboat, I started looking for a boat I could afford. It took three years but just before giving up I found a 30’ Irwin sloop. In November, 1997 I sailed out of Boston harbor thinking I was heading for the Caribbean. 55 days later at 2 a.m. I was slogging eastward over the Tongue of the ocean in the Bahamas where the water is 5000+ feet deep. I reflected on the few days on the trip that were really enjoyable, and changed course. After spending two nights on a nearby cay, I headed west toward Miami for 10 hours of wonderful sailing. To make a long story short, I eventually ended up at a marina in Ft. Myers, Fl, and my boat became the home where I lived while building the house I have lived in since 2002, and the shop I teach in. The shop reopened in 2002 when I got my Certificate of Occupancy for the house, and I sold the boat. After 10 years on water I was really glad to come ashore permanently and have been here ever since except in the summer when I go north. As I write this, that is about to change. I am waiting to close on the sale of my house and shop and am returning to New England to see if I have another house and shop in me. I am looking for land in Vermont in particular. Stay tuned 


I’ve had wonderful students since I started offering workshops in 1976. These are some of their stories, illustrative of the point that there is much to be gained from supervised instruction rather than a hit-or-miss approach. There was an art teacher from a New Jersey college. In later years we met occasionally at turning confer- ences and at one he told me that as he had approached my home for the course he had come close to calling up to say he could not make it. The idea of being under the watchful eye of someone else was hard to imagine. Yet he realized he did this all the time to his students. He said studying with me gave him a new perspective on teaching his own students. For many this feeling has to do with the fear of failure. I know the feeling, having given up studying the theory of electrical engineering long ago. But your situation is different. You enjoy turning and want to improve your skills, or you enjoy watching others turn and would like to try to do what they are doing. Don't even think of failure! Since 1976 I can think of only 3 who did "fail," primarily due to temperament. (They were too impatient with themselves.) The course might help you avoid the following situation: A student told me he had bought a lathe. He mounted wood between centers, turned it on, tried a few cuts and turned it off. Ten years later his wife asked him what he was going to do with that piece of wood in that machine in the basement. He called me, came for the course, and after turning two days and making several decent items, announced, "It isn't as much fun as I thought it would be." Turning is not for everyone. Realizing that before investing in a lathe and a bunch of tools, you'd be ahead. If, on the other hand, you found you enjoyed it, then you'd have a good start and some ideas that would help you buy the lathe and tools you need. One student said that he was glad he had come to me first because of the approach I take which prepares you for future turning experiences. My approach combines hands-on activities with some theory that explains why you do things in a particular way. My approach provides you with practice, some immediate successes, and a theoretical reference for all your future turning experiences. The details of the theory are  dealt with in the “Zimmerman Turning Letters.” Some years ago, a student said right off, "I'm scared to death of my lathe." He was the first to say this before starting, but I have always known others felt similarly. I started him turning and he realized he was in control and there was little to fear, "except fear itself," which leads to apprehension, which may lead to loss of control. I keep you turning, and with success you build confidence. A final personal note: I was once at a craft show in Northampton, MA. Three of the exhibitors were former students. It was wonderful to see what they had done with turning since studying with me. One was making amazingly large, turned-wood lamp shades, in addition to his series of turned vessels. Another was making wonderful, large diameter bowls, and a third’s furniture, some of which incorporated turnings, was beautifully crafted. Please note: Whatever these former students have done is attributable to their own creative skill, desire and patience, rather than to me. The same is true of the art teacher who is well known for his giant turned tops. Whatever came from me was new techniques, theory, the idea that turning could be done better, and that you could make a living at it, in my case by teaching. Just this knowledge has kept many turners going. I remember so many of my students, most of whom did woodturning for leisure, as a hobby. Every so often I'll hear from someone who was with me years ago. Sadly, others have died.