RAYMOND, Wash. - His home was without power for more than a week. Trees fell across power lines, another landed on his fence and dozens more came down in his yard and in the woods surrounding his Raymond property.
But what John Hampton, artisan woodturner and president of the Grays Harbor Woodworkers Guild, saw when he surveyed the damage after the storm in December 2007 wasn't just the devastation left in its wake, but rather the endless ideas and possibilities, and all the raw material needed to turn those ideas and possibilities into pieces of art. Despite the destruction, Hampton's eyes saw creation.
"I look at trees a little differently," Hampton said during a recent walk around his yard, where pile after pile of timber awaits his woodshop. "When I see a felled tree, I see all of the things I can make out of it."
And that's plenty. Once Hampton gets his hands on a chunk of wood, he cannot be contained. Hampton crafts decorative pieces such as vases and Christmas ornaments, and more utilitarian items like salad bowls, serving platters and drinking goblets. He's turned everything from baseball bats and bowling pins to ring boxes and rattles, candlesticks, burial urns and even a prosthetic leg. Then there's his specialty: wooden hats. That's right, wooden hats - cowboy hats, baseball hats, top hats, and garden hats that can be fitted to size and comfortably worn.
A self-described "wood junkie," Hampton has worked with exotic woods from outside the country, but said that 99 percent of the wood he turns is local wood that's been salvaged, everything from apple, cherry and pear; yew, black locust and walnut; alder, elm, and birch. He's also been working a lot with maple. Two years ago, an old-growth maple came down in Raymond. Hampton salvaged 68 tons of it. Yes, 68 tons.
Many in the Willapa Harbor understand Hampton's passion for wood. Once his telephone service was restored after the storm, the phone rang off the hook. Hampton said he can't begin to count the number of people who told them they had trees down and that if he wanted the wood, which he certainly did, to come by and get it. Almost a year later, Hampton said he still had a lot to pick up.
Hampton has worked at the Weyerhaeuser planer mill in Raymond for the last 38 years, so his interest in forestry and wood products isn't all that surprising. What's harder to understand is that after a day at the mill, and sometimes even before one, Hampton is usually in his basement woodshop. In fact, he spends as much free time there as he possibly can and on more than one occasion, he's been so engrossed in a project that he's worked through the night, becoming aware of the time only after realizing the sun was coming up.
"You would think that after being at Weyerhaeuser all day, that I would come home and do something different," laughed Hampton. "But this is a little more fun."
Hampton's interest in woodworking goes back to when he was a young boy. His first project was building honeycomb frames for his grandfather's beehives and he can remember watching his father, a carpenter, build houses, cabinets and other things while he was growing up. He was introduced to woodturning at Raymond High School, when he built table legs.
But after graduating from high school in 1968, Hampton set his sights on becoming an architect. When that didn't work out, however, Hampton took a job at Weyerhaeuser and, in his free time, began doing woodworking projects around the house, but was only turning when he needed to add a knob to dresser or a leg to a table.
According to Hampton, there are two events that got him to where he is today as a woodturner. One occurred on a motorcycle trip in 2000. The first happened 18 years earlier and turned his flicker of interest in woodturning into a flame.
The year was 1982 and his daughter, Emily, came home from school with a math assignment. Students had to build a structure and measure its area. Emily decided to build a castle, which ended up requiring woodturning. After the project was completed, Emily told her father that she really liked turning wood and that she wanted to spend more time with him in the shop.
Hampton was ecstatic. "I said to myself, 'Well, I better step up to the plate so I can actually teach her the right way to do it,"' remembered Hampton. "That lasted for a year and then my daughter found boys. But it was too late for me. I was really hooked."
Hampton has been mastering the art of woodturning ever since. He's become an expert on the tools-of-the-trade, including lathes, roughing gouges and bevels, jamb chucks and button chucks, and has dedicated himself to learning different woodturning techniques and approaches.
"Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of woodturners in the area," Hampton said, "so when I started out there was a lot of trial and error. Let's just say I was making a lot of designer firewood."
Therein lies one of the secrets of Hampton's success. "If you can't take a few failures, you better not try it," he said. "It doesn't matter what you're doing, you're going to break something. It's part of the game and you have to be ready for it.
"You have to start slow like you would anything else," he continued. "You don't have to buy every tool on the shelf and you can't think you're going to start off turning the most beautiful thing you ever saw."
In its simplest form, woodturning starts with a piece of wood that is trimmed down to size with a band saw. The piece of wood is then secured on a lathe - a machine that spins the wood in order for it to be shaped using a chuck, which holds the wood in place. As the wood spins, a gouge shaves the green, wet wood into a rough shape of what is being created.
The piece is then dried, which takes anywhere from six months to three years. According to Hampton, this is the most important step. Too much moisture in the wood will cause it to warp and distort once it's shaped; too little will cause the wood to crack and split. Hampton manages the ambient humidity with a digital hygrometer and currently has more than 1,500 bowls and other pieces of once-turned wood drying. Once Hampton feels they are ready to be crafted, he turns them a second time for a perfect shape. After that, he applies a wax finish and the piece is completed.
"I try to improve with everything I do," said Hampton. "It's an ongoing process and I'm always learning. There are always new challenges. But that's part of the fun. When it's no longer a challenge and it's no longer fun, then I'll quit."
It doesn't appear that that will happen anytime soon. Hampton actively seeks inspiration from professional and hobbyist woodturners, as well as from glass blowers, ceramists and sculptors. And, he said, there are challenges aplenty. One just needs to look in the right place.
If you're in the market for a Zen awakening, most people will tell you to hop on a Harley Davidson and ride cross-country. Hampton wasn't looking for enlightenment - inspiration perhaps - and he wasn't riding a Harley - it was a Honda Gold Wing - when a motorcycle run took him through the high plains of Wyoming in 2000.
While stopping at galleries and shops, Hampton came across something that would change his perception of woodturning and inspire him to take his hobby to a new level. It was a wooden cowboy hat, turned on a lathe and finished to perfection. He had heard that JoHannes Michelson, a Denmark-born, Vermont-based woodturner, was making wood hats, but when Hampton laid eyes on one that day in Cheyenne, he knew he had to make one.
"It looked like a good challenge," he said. "At that point I had been turning for a while, so I decided to try it."
The process of making a wooden hat is steeped in precision. First, a block of wood weighing between 60 and 80 pounds, is cut to about 16 inches in diameter. The green, wet wood is then turned and shaved down to its general shape, with some areas, like the brim, practically paper-thin. From there, Hampton places the hat in a jig and stretches rubber bands over it, which bends the wet wood to give the hat its shape. During this stage, which lasts two days, many adjustments are made to the jig for consistency and evenness. The hat remains in the jig until the hat dries and then Hampton takes great care to seal the wood so moisture doesn't get back in and distort the shape he worked so hard to attain. In all, it takes about 20 hours of work to make a hat.
It took Hampton several tries to successfully build a wood hat, but when he did, that flicker of interest that turned into a flame in 1982, was now a blaze that was being stoked by passion and total immersion in the artistry of woodturning. He's made 40 hats now, and while he stills makes more utilitarian items, and less-complicated pieces, Hampton has progressed to doing extremely complex pieces, like the hats and segmented pieces, which use different woods to create patterns and designs.
But does he really consider himself an artist, or just a guy who was able to get really good at his hobby?
"I get called an artist a lot," admitted Hampton, "but I don't really consider myself one. From the time I started, I was always intent on making something that was going to last. I was trying to build something that was durable enough to be around for a couple of generations. I didn't want to make throwaway items. We've got a lot of that already.
"I guess part of it is taking a piece of wood that no one wants and turning it into something that's desirable," he added.
Hampton doesn't really consider himself an artist, and he doesn't consider himself a professional, either, even though his work is displayed in shops and stores around the Northwest. He also has a Web site where he sells his stuff and takes orders for custom-crafted pieces.
The way Hampton sees it, if he sells a piece, it simply means that he's supplementing his woodturning hobby and allowing his interest and ability to continue to grow. As he likes to say, "I hope it never becomes a job."
One thing he does hope for is that woodturning gains popularity as a hobby and that more people become aware of just how fun and rewarding it can be. A member of the American Association of Woodturners and president of the Grays Harbor Woodworkers guild, Hampton is dedicated to passing on his knowledge and experiences as a woodturner. He's held seminars at local high schools and colleges, and has been part of several area workshops showcasing the hobby of woodturning. And while Hampton often does most of the teaching, he's also learning.
"It doesn't matter what skill level you're at," he said, "there always someone who can teach you something."
As for Hampton's skill level?
"I never dreamed that I would get to this point," he said.
So will he ever become a full-on professional woodturner?
"I'm just playing," he said, laughing at the suggestion of even being called semi-professional. "I'm a long way from being a professional, but it always depends on how you look at it. The one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind."