Woodturner says he can teach it all, except the patience

Advocate photo by ROBIN MILLERThis plate is an example of the intricate detail in Bill Toups' wood turning work. An exhibit of his pieces will run through Friday, Nov. 30, at the Iberville Museum in Plaquemine.
Advocate photo by ROBIN MILLERThis plate is an example of the intricate detail in Bill Toups' wood turning work. An exhibit of his pieces will run through Friday, Nov. 30, at the Iberville Museum in Plaquemine.

One piece always leads to another, even if that other piece is a boat.

Yes, a boat. Bill Toups has built one. He’s built a canoe, too, but neither are on display at the Iberville Museum.

But he has photos, and he’s eager to explain how he figured out the design and construction, just as he’s willing to share the secrets behind each of his woodturning pieces.

Which, he’ll quickly point out, are not secrets at all.

“I can teach anyone to do this,” Toups said. “Once I show you the technique, you can turn the piece. But what I can’t teach you is patience.”

Because it takes patience to make a bowl or candlestick or vase while turning a lathe. Lots of it.

When standing before the exhibit of Toups’ work, it’s clear that he has the patience. The show runs through Friday, Nov. 30, at the Iberville Museum in Plaquemine. Toups visited the museum on this particular day not only to talk about the exhibit but how he made the pieces. That’s most important to him, sharing the process and encouraging others to try it.

Just as others were willing to share with him when he started.

Toups’ venture into the woodturning world really was his second. He was first exposed to the craft while taking shop class at Plaquemine High School in the late 1950s. Mechanical and electrical lessons didn’t spark his interest, but there was something about operating a lathe. That’s the key tool used in woodturning. A piece of wood is placed on the lathe’s axis, and the axis rotates while the crafter uses stationary tools to cut and shape the wood.

Think of a potter’s wheel. It turns the clay while a potter uses his hands to shape the piece. Woodturning could be compared to this.

“That’s how I think of it,” Toups said. “But we’re not using clay; we’re using wood.”

The “we” reference is important, because Toups credits the Bayou Woodturners club in New Orleans for his advancement. The club provides a community of woodturners, all of whom are happy to share information about their techniques.

Each has his or her on style, and a mixing of those styles enables Toups to explore new and different woodturning avenues.

“I’m always looking for something different to make,” Toups said. “I’m always learning. I never stop learning.”

But it wasn’t always that way. Toups shelved woodturning after graduating from high school, and eventually went to work for Dow Chemical. He married, had a family and found himself at the annual Broadmoor High School Arts and Crafts Show in 1986.

It was there where a woodturning booth caught his eye, inspiring him to buy and lathe and return to the craft. The only problem was information was limited. There were books and magazines, but the Internet wasn’t immediately available as it is today.

“The Internet is amazing,” Toups said. “It is a wealth of information.”

But in 1986, Toups had to use what was available, which turned out to be enough.

“In woodturning, you know you’ve made a lidded box correctly if there is a suction between the lid and box,” he said. “I returned to the craft show with some of my work for him to critique. The first thing he did was listen for the suction when he took the lids off, then he said he’d be willing to sell my work in his booth.”

But Toups declined. He wanted only a critique, then he sought advice from the Bayou Woodturners.

“They had a meeting in Ponchatoula, and I was instantly hooked,” Toups said. “Everyone in that club is a source, and we invite world class woodturners to speak with us each year. The sources are there, and they’re willing to share.”

The result is the variety in Toups’ exhibit at the Iberville Museum. Some pieces are thin and delicate, others are more utilitarian. And still others are simply fun.

“See this box?” Toups asked.

Now, it should be noted here that Toups’ definition of “box” are rounded pieces instead of square. And the one he held at this point was a three-part box. The top was covered with a lid, while the center was pushed outward to reveal its own compartment, as well as that in the segment at the bottom.

It’s just one of the surprises in Toups’ work, as are the photos of his handcrafted canoe and boat. Woodturning led to the canoe, which led to the boat. There was plenty of information on crafting the canoe, but the boat was another story.

Boat building manuals use boat building terminology, so Toups decided to design his own boat pattern and technique.

Now his son uses the boat on sailing trips.

“He wanted a dingy that he could either sail or row,” Toups said. “So I made one.”

And who knows what the boat will inspire next? There’s always something out there to learn, something new to create.

And Toups is ready for the next challenge.