You could call Jason Van Duyn a storm chaser of a different sort. While the Raleigh woodworker doesn’t track menacing skies, he does reap the harvest from high winds – felled trees.
“Most people cringe when they see storms coming through,” said Van Duyn (pronounced Van DINE). “I go ‘woo-hoo!’ ”
Save for a few exotic hardwoods that Van Duyn purchases, almost all his wood comes from local trees, including chestnut, pecan and elm.
“I’m working with about 30 species just around here,” said the woodworker, who specializes in turned functional pieces such as bowls and platters, as well as free-form sculptural work.
The 32-year-old grew up in Edenton and first dabbled in wood with his father, but he was more interested in playing the tuba in high school and college bands than he was in learning woodworking. He graduated from N.C. State in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering.
Van Duyn spent the summer before his senior year in college helping his parents build several arbors and a large trellis, prompting his mother to suggest he take a course in making reproduction Queen Anne chairs taught by Ben Hobbs in nearby Hertford.
“It was one of those eye-opening experiences,” Van Duyn recalled of the weeklong tutorial he shared with a small group of older men. “I was exposed to traditional furniture making and a lot of new techniques.”
He returned for a course in using a lathe, a machine that makes round pieces. Armed with his newfound skills, Van Duyn’s interest grew.
“From that point on, I started to read magazines about woodworking and furniture building. It really broadened my horizons.”
When Van Duyn didn’t find appealing work in the materials science and engineering field, he decided to follow his passion for wood and ended up working on some historical restoration projects in Edenton. He also used his boss’s lathe to experiment with making bowls and other turned forms.
“At the time I just made a couple Christmas presents, not having a clue of how to do anything right, just dabbling.”
Van Duyn returned to Raleigh in 2007 and started working with woodworkers in the custom-home industry – just in time for the recession. After his parents gave him a lathe for Christmas the following year, he realized he had enough tools and know-how to set up shop. He continued taking classes, this time through the wood-turning business Craft Supplies USA.
“You learn you’re doing things maybe a little bit the right way, but mostly the wrong way with the wrong tools. I made a lot of really big professional jumps when I took those classes.”
While Van Duyn shapes a variety of decorative and utilitarian pieces, his specialty has become sculptural hollow forms with craggy natural edges.
“I really like the way the natural edges look,” he said. “One of the reasons I like turning is that, opposed to making furniture where everything is cut out, this is a lot more organic. You’re like a sculptor, taking a raw piece of wood and peeling it back.”
Like many sculptural wood workers, he goes after wood that has burls (tumor-like growths) or spalting (coloration caused by fungi) because it enhances the grain’s appearance.
“You can get a lot of crazy patterning that happens naturally,” he said. “But you never know looking at the outside of a piece you cut what it’s going to look like inside. It’s like you’re finding something new every time, which is exciting.”
A few years ago, Van Duyn started selling at craft fairs. He enjoys attending local shows, including Lazy Daze in Cary later this month and the Boylan Heights Art Walk in December. With a young daughter at home, he decided to avoid the traveling-show circuit. He’s focusing on galleries, and has found the most success at the high-end ones, including Shop at the Umstead, in the five-star hotel and spa in Cary.
“Our hotel and gift shop design theme is ‘art in nature,’ so Jason’s work makes perfect sense for us,” said Marcelle Kick, Umstead design coordinator and assistant retail manager. “When he brought in his samples, we just oohed and aahed because they’re so beautifully done. He can manipulate the wood to be so thin it’s amazing, plus he’s using local wood. People love taking a piece of North Carolina home with them.”
While Van Duyn no longer plays the tuba, he was surprised to discover that his musical training came in handy with wood turning.
“A lot of what happens now is I turn more by sound than by sight. Particularly in hollow forms, when you get to about a quarter-inch thickness, every 16th of an inch thinner starts to resonate in a different pitch, so I use my musical background to gauge where I am in the process.”
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