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Exquisite containers...with a twist!

09 May '14

Dreaming of Spirals

Posted by Lanchi Vo

This is an account of my wood threading saga.

As mentioned elsewhere, I started by turning chopsticks, then things gone wild. Pestles, garlic crushers, dishes, bowls, weed pots, hollow forms, lidded boxes... tumbled out of my lathe in succession... until I hit a speed bump. The obstacle was a simple toothpick holder. I made one for my mom, in the fashion of the slim boxes you see in my store, with a friction fitted cap.

But in the overpopulated, agitated and hostile environment within my mom's handbag, the holder's cap tended to fall off and spilled its gut. Engineering solution called for a more secure, threaded cap, so off I went trying to figure out how to cut spirals.

A researcher by training, it did not take me long to gather all the information about wood threading. I learned about jigs that claim to thread all kinds of wood in a jiffy, and the hand chasers, simple cutters with teeth that required a steep learning curve to master. Jigs sound easier, but they all look kinda clunky for a mini lathe, too big for my limited real estate, and too expensive for my limited bank account. With such a set of limitations, my viable option was to obtain the skills rather than procure the tools. Compared to those jigs, the simple hand chaser looked a lot more appealing.

So, how did I acquired the skill? I went to England, searched for the best Wood-Chasing Master, and apprenticed with him for five long years--like the martial art disciples in Chinese Kung Fu movies... Nahhh, just kidding! I jumped on the internet, searched for thread chasing, then followed the links. Blessed are those who teach on the Internet! Like learning how to bike, this wood threading business is easier than it sounds, but more difficult than it looks. You have to advance the tool at the right speed against the slowly rotating wood stock so that all the teeth fall into the same groove, chasing each other up the spiral. Sounds impossible, considering all the variables involved, but looks so easy watching the Master's demo.

So, I got the chasers, mounted an expensive boxwood block on the lathe, mumbled a sacrificial chant, and began cutting away. Several blocks later, I started to get it. Several months later, I passed the point-of-no-return and became a twisted spiral addict. "Stuck in a groove" took on a special meaning. It is such a satisfying feeling when the two threaded parts fit together smoothly!

Unlike the friction fitted lid, threaded parts just hold on to each other with minimum stress to the timber. The secured cap does add portability to the piece, as proven inside my mom's handbag--the on-going beta testing site. So far, so good...Until I hit a series of speed bumps.

This time, the obstacles are the timber themselves. There are only a hand full of woods that accept threading easily, most are expensive. But as a wood collector, I have more than a hand full, most are beautiful or rarely seen. It is such a waste if I limited my work to a few timbers, so I tried to thread everything: soft woods, porous woods, fibrous woods, and then all kinds of palm nuts. I tried stabilize the woods, tried straight cut, cross cut, angled cut, whichever way work. It's R&D all over again (the thing I used to do in my previous life). Pushing the envelope comes with reward and frustration. Sometimes, I spent the whole time in my workshop and had nothing to show at the end of the day. I went to bed frustrated, dreaming of spirals.

But when I look at the collection of exquisite threaded boxes that I bet you can not find elsewhere, it's all worth it. Up until now, I am still learning the art of wood chasing and enjoy it tremendously.

By the way, my shop logo isn't a self-portrait of me stooping over my lathe, despite the striking resemblance.

Those hands with fingers are actually my threading tools, an end-teethed one for the outer thread and the side-teethed one for cutting the inner. The logo also figuratively spells "LVo," my artist signature. It took me a few designing attempts to come up with such an elegant logo, impregnated with meaning...Well, I better stop right here, to prevent a self-inflicted bragging overdose!