“You could say I’m obsessed,” Chris Hansen said of his passion for making wooden bowls from fallen trees.
“I’m not into cars or going down the road to the Casino and,” he added with a laugh, “my wife always knows where to find me.”
Hansen retired after 26 years working for the cities of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, and says he was “more than ready to work the left side of my brain again.” He also knew exactly what he wanted to do with that part of his brain: work with wood.
“I inherited my grandfather’s 1936 lathe,” Hansen explained. “He made all sorts of functional things for the family, like wooden spoons and platters, as well as some furniture. One day I threw a piece of wood on his old lathe and really enjoyed myself. So, I’ve just continued from there.”
Several years and lathes later, Hansen’s current lathe is a far cry from his grandfather’s humble tabletop machine. The Powermatic lathe, purchased in 2008, is a large, freestanding machine that dominates the center of the workshop. Hansen considers it his “lifetime” lathe.
“Even though our house had a three-car garage, I knew I would have to add on to it to make enough space for my lathe and create a big enough workshop,” he said.
Luckily for Hansen, the shape of his garage, attached to his house in the Santa Ynez Valley, allowed him to make “a box-like extension.” And, the addition of a large side entrance into the workshop means that Hansen, with the help of his riding lawnmower, can drag tree trunks directly into his workspace, safely bypassing the family cars.
Hansen turns pieces mainly from Santa Ynez Valley trees that have been cut down out of necessity or have fallen down naturally.
“These are from a Red Alder,” said Hansen, pointing to the fairy-like cluster of red-hued tree trunks sitting on his workshop floor. “The homeowner got tired of cleaning up its leaves.
“I get a lot of oak, too. Oak usually gets made into firewood, so it’s nice to save some of it from going up in smoke.”
Working with some of nature’s biggest structures takes a lot of energy. Hansen happily explained the process of acquiring his fallen wood.
“I have friends on tree-clearing crews who alert me to a good source of wood,” he said. “Sometimes I am lucky and they drop the wood off outside my garage. It’s a good arrangement for them because it saves them taking the wood to the landfill and paying the fees. But often it’s just me going out to get the wood in my truck. Then I have to cut the wood up into smaller pieces and drag it up on to the bed of my truck.”
Back in the workshop, Hansen cuts the tree trunks length-wise and the drying-out process begins.
“A freshly felled tree contains 35 (percent) to 40 percent water,” said Hansen. “Once I start working on a piece, I have to control the drying process because if it is too fast, the bowl can crack. But sometimes I want bowls to distort as they dry because it creates interesting shapes.”
Kitchen-style cabinets line the workshop walls and give Hanson’s space a familiar, homey feel. Open up these cupboards and you will find them stuffed with brown paper bags, inside of which sit wooden bowls. He explains that the brown bags help to slow the drying process.
“It’s an eight- to 12-week process to create a final product,” he said. “The bowls in these cupboards are at various stages of dryness and completeness so I always have something to work on.”
Hansen enjoys making wooden bowls so much that he shares his experience with others in the hope of encouraging more people into wood working.
“Every Tuesday night we have a meeting of fellow turners here in the Santa Ynez area,” he said. “We meet in one of our workshops and everyone is welcome, regardless of their skill level.”
He also sells his handiwork through his Web site, Fallen Tree Art.
Hansen plunges his hands into the wood shavings piled high on the floor around the lathe, feels around, and then pulls out a large bowl that just begs to be filled with a tossed green salad.
“I’m slowing down the drying process on this one,” he noted. “The shavings keep it moist, and that’s a good thing because it helps keep it cool while I work on it.”
He brushes the shavings free to reveal more of the natural beauty and color of the turned wood.
“It’s all mother nature’s work,” he said with great satisfaction. “I don’t do any coloring myself. One of the things I enjoy so much about the turning process is that the wooden structure is gradually revealed in ways you can’t anticipate.”
So now that Hansen is happily working during the day at something that was once his hobby, does he ever stop to enjoy his retirement?
“Oh yes,” he said, “but when the beer goes up, the shop closes down.
“That’s my rule because I want to stay a 10-fingered craftsman!” he chuckled.
Knee deep in wood shavings, Hansen looks around his workshop and said with a smile, “I’m really happy here! You could bury me in these shavings.”