Timelines of an Orkney Wood-turner

By Bernie Bell

We’d seen the work of Michael Sinclair, in ‘Artworks of the Earth ‘ in Stromness, at the Ness of Brodgar Open Day event in the Stenness Community Hall, and in the Pier Arts Centre Christmas Exhibition  https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/12/08/a-bit-of-time-travel-at-the-pier-arts-centre-christmas-exhibition/.  After much deliberation, we decided to buy one of his wooden petrospheres ( the one with concentric circles).  We went along to Michael and Sara’s gallery in  Harray, ready to revel in lovely things – and we did!  https://michael-sinclair-woodturner.co.uk/

We arrived, and first went into the Gallery, which is in a wooden cabin next to the house ……….

michael sinclair gallery b bell

……………and is full of things to delight the heart of a wood-lover, including bowls and balls, or, should I say, petrospheres –  bronze and wooden

wooden bowls b bell

We were joined by Sara, who told us that some of the petrospheres are made from old bowling balls, which were shaped from Lignum Vitae. This is a finite resource, as the trees from which Lignum Vitae comes, of the genus Guaiacum, are  now protected.  As someone who likes all things round, I coveted the bowling balls, not only for their shape, but also for their sheen – Lignum Vitae is a lovely wood, and, when given that sheen which can only be produced by handling, even a humble bowling ball becomes a thing of beauty.

bowling ball b bell

Sara showed us a photo of a piece, made by Michael, which had a story attached to it.  A woman came to them, with her Grand-dad’s bowling ball.  Grand-dad had passed from this life, and she asked could Michael make something from his bowling ball, with all its memories of, and associations with, Grand-dad.  Think about it  – her Grand-dad will have handled it so much, and got so much enjoyment from playing bowls with it. Also, the sheen on that ball, would be from his hands and ….be something of Grand-dad!

I thought that was a wonderful memento to have of someone.

The picture Sara showed us, was of a petrosphere  in a bowl. Not the one in this image, but something similar.  And isn’t this one, a beauty?

petrosphere michaal sinclair b bell

By the by – if any Orkney News readers have any old bowling balls, or any interesting bits of wood that they don’t want, please contact Michael and Sara, as workable wood, isn’t always easy to come by, especially on Orkney.

Michael and Sara never have a tree felled , just for their own purposes.  The wood they have is either scavenged on walks, storm damage, or from trees which have needed to be felled, such as this prize piece of sycamore which came from a garden in Kirkwall.

wood sycamore b bell

And, they always plant a tree, to replace one which has needed to be cut down.

Michael’s work is done entirely on the premises, from raw wood to finished product, in his workshop.  Visitors to the gallery can also see the workshop, and have a stroll in the wildy sort of garden, too.  If you go to visit, give yourself plenty of time – to look at the pieces in the gallery, and talk with Sara about them, and also visit the workshop which is full of wonders of a different kind.

michael sinclair workshop b bell

The whole place, is a wood-lovers delight.  In the workshop, you can see the pieces of wood ‘in the raw’, some with very appealing/beautiful markings right in the wood.  This piece, was going to be a bowl, but it didn’t work out, so now it’s going to be placed under the eaves of the house, as a nest for swallows – lucky swallows, they’ll have the lines of an  Orkney sea-scape, decorating their nest.

wooden bowl as nest for swallows b bell

You can see some initial ‘testers’ for ideas which Michael has for how to go about making his pieces.  This one, might end up with concentric circles carved on it –  but, if you look carefully, you can see that it has its own concentric circles!

wood concentric circles b bell

He also ‘experiments’ – he’s tried heating stones and putting them onto a piece of wood, to see if charring would be an effective way of beginning to hollow it out. He’s also used smooth stones to burnish the inside of bowls – possibly very much as the ancient peoples used to – maybe even Michael’s ancestors, as he is born and bred Orcadian, ‘fae Sanday’.  Michael is one of those people, who makes things.  He knows how to make things, likes to find out how to make things, and likes to think about and work out how things used to be made.  A true craftsman, involved with every aspect of what he does.

Here’s a picture of what I see as a tool-kit through the ages –

tool kit michael sinclair b bell

A stone for burnishing  or heating, an antler-pick for ….whatever is needed!, and an implement for doing pyrography (aka poker-work).

And where do the ‘timelines’ come in?  Michael has implements, ancient and modern, and with them, he produces copies of ancient objects, such as the Neolithic carved stone balls, and the bowl which was found at The Cairns dig, last year,   https://archaeologyorkney.com/category/the-cairns-dig-diary-2018/ , as well as his own, new designs.

And, if you look at/into some of his pieces, you can see the growth rings from the original tree – how’s that for timelines?

Learning the craft, takes time, waiting for wood to season, takes time, the actual wood–turning and carving, takes time, but what takes most time, is the  ’raw material’ – the tree – growing, shaping, developing its quirks and patterns and lines within the wood.  Being – a tree, which, after its growth and life are over, finds new life in Michael’s pieces.  Wood still lives, though cut, and some kinds of tree will ‘take’ astonishingly easily, if cuttings are potted up, or even just stuck into the ground.  Michaels pieces, give wood new life in a different way.

Nothing is wasted here –the wood shavings heat the workshop, fuel a smoker to smoke fish, and provide bedding for the chickens. Again, some old ways some new.  Timelines.

workshop michael sinclair b bell

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6 replies »

  1. Such an interesting article, thank you Bernie! I must remember to visit there this year.

  2. Thank you Bernie for this lovely article. We both really enjoyed your visit with Mike, it was great to have time to chat. Your appreciation of Michaels work is an inspiration.

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