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Wood 'tells you what it wants to be,' says artisan

'My passion has always been wood. I love the feel of it, the smell of it, too. If you’ve every turned a cherrywood bowl. It’s heaven!'

Bill Burlton started working with wood “at a very, very young age,” but it wasn’t exactly “art.”

It was all simple carpentry and basic woodworking.

“Two pieces of wood made a snow plow,” said the Bradford West Gwillimbury resident. “I didn’t go to school for it, although I did take shop in Grade 6.”

It was only later in life that Burlton bought himself a lathe, “a Canadian Tire special,” and started on the path that was to earn him a reputation as an artisan and wood-turner.

His first project was to make a rocking horse for each of his grandchildren – rocking horses that are still treasured by his family – and then wooden pens to sell at the annual Danube Seniors Leisure Centre craft show.

The turning point, in a manner of speaking, was a visit by local wood-turner George Burt in 2010.

Burt, who at the time lived in the Foster’s Forest subdivision in Bond Head, came to the Danube centre to give a demonstration of how to turn a wooden bowl – “but we didn’t have the right equipment,” said Burlton.

The session had to be cancelled, but Burt and Burlton struck up a friendship that turned into weekly visits to Burt’s Bond Head home and a mentoring relationship.

“There’s a lot of knowledge. You just have to be taught,” said Burlton. “He inspires you.”

Burlton learned to turn wooden bowls, vases, and platters. Burt even shared with him the secret of turning cedar rails vases. “That’s his trademark,” said Burlton.

The mentoring was important, but Burlton has always had an innate feeling for the craft.

“My passion has always been wood,” he said. “I love the feel of it, the smell of it, too. If you’ve every turned a cherrywood bowl – it’s heaven!”

Burt now lives in Schomberg, but they still meet every now and then to trade ideas. They also trade wood – fallen branches, wood dug up in the Holland Marsh, wood from trees that have had to be removed by homeowners and the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury.  

Recently, he was offered crabapple wood by a customer in Holland Landing who had to take down a mature tree. After aging and drying the wood for three months, Burlton put it on the lathe.

“It has a beautiful colour. It has red through it,” he said, adding Manitoba maple, considered a weed tree, also has “beautiful wood.”

Maple, fruitwoods, honey locust – asked which he uses most, Burlton replied, “FOG wood. Found On Ground... I’ve never killed a tree to make a bowl.”

Wood-turning brings out a special relationship between the turner and the inanimate wood, he said. 

“To my mind, it brings the tree to life,” Burlton said. “You try to figure out what’s inside that wood. You try to envision it. The wood speaks to you. You put it on the lathe, and if it’s not turning quite right, you put it the other way.

“It tells you what it wants to be.”

Burlton continues to explore new forms and techniques, like the “emerging bowl” that retains part of the natural block of wood, and his latest experiment: Lichtenberg fractal burning.

It is a complicated technique that uses high-voltage electricity to burn the wood, in delicate, branching patterns. Since wood is normally a poor conductor of electricity, it takes a fair amount of preparation for the technique to work – and even more to clean, smooth, bleach and then neutralize the wood surface.

“It’s quite a procedure,” said Burlton.

His son made him a Lichtenberg burner using the transformer from a microwave, and it can generate 2,000 volts.

“It’s not to play with,” said Burlton, who plans to show Burt his latest work using the technique. “We’ve both seen it on YouTube." 

During the summer and fall, Burlton works in his unheated garage studio, which contains pieces of drying wood, bowls, vases, and other turned wood objects in various stages of completion for craft shows that include Art in the Park in Uxbridge on Aug. 17, and the BWG Passion Made Artisan Tour in September.

“I like meeting people,” Burlton said. “And to have someone appreciate your work…”

The BWG Passion Made Artisan Tour is a self-directed tour, Sept. 21 and 22, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Stops include the BWG Public Library and Cultural Centre, BWG Leisure Centre, Art in the Barn at 291 Morris Rd., and Echoes in the Attic, 22 Gres Court. See for more details.

Miriam King

About the Author: Miriam King

Miriam King is a journalist and photographer with Bradford Today, covering news and events in Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil.
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