The 100-mile-per hour winds that pummeled the Quad-Cities on Aug. 10 produced more than power outages, downed trees, and other property damage. The fast- moving derecho gave wood artist Steve Sinner of Bettendorf an opportunity.
The 78-year-old native of Omaha, Neb., is an internationally acclaimed woodturner and one of his latest projects is turning a chunk of a large tree trunk downed in Bettendorf, into a beautifully polished vessel. Sinner found the hard maple trunk along Devils Glen Road, ideal for his use since pieces he needs have to be as close to the center of the tree as possible.
“In the entire time I’ve been working wood, I purchased a tree one time. That was a hard maple, that came from a woods near Donahue and Dixon, that’s a wooded area out there that’s primarily hard maple, very unusual. It was a trunk that was more than 20 feet long, straight, so that was a lot of really good, centered wood to use.”
He’s so well-known for woodturning, that most of the time, friends or acquaintances will call him and offer a tree they had to take down.
Woodturning is the process of fastening wood to a lathe that rotates around a centralized axis, allowing artists to use a series of chisels, gouges, and other tools to carve away portions of the raw wood to create symmetrical forms.
“These days, I have more access to wood as a general rule than I have time to work on it. We did pick up in McClellan Heights, we did get some maple that was piled along the curb. I didn’t intentionally go driving around and looking for it. I just happened to see these as I went by them.”
Of the calls he gets from people, he goes to look at about 10 percent of trees, and just 10 percent of those are usable.
“If you had a very large hard maple tree, when you cut it up, if you didn’t chip it, it would fill two or three dump trucks. Out of that entire tree, the wood that I would want would easily fit into my SUV.”
The four tree species he’s really interested in are walnut, sugar maple, hickory and cherry. Sinner has produced many detailed pieces for years that are auctioned in fund-raisers for the Figge Art Museum and WQPT-TV, often netting thousands of dollars each. He’s active in the Q-C chapter of the American Association of Woodturners, which is always on the lookout for downed trees. He said he didn’t get many calls after the recent storm.
“I think the storm, it was kind a traumatic experience for a lot of folks and it wasn’t a matter of, I’m looking for an opportunity to make something good out of this,. Plus like most of us, they were left without power or Internet, no way to charge our phones and so on. It wasn’t the normal sort of a situation where you lose a tree.”
As for his own property – where he’s operated a work studio since 2001 – Sinner didn’t see much tree damage. He regained electricity after four and a half days, and was able to use a generator in the interim.
"I lost the top of a sweetgum tree in the backyard, but it’s not a huge loss because the tree was already in the process of dying. It’s been losing limbs for two, three years. I’ll probably have it cut down this fall anyway.”
In addition to his art, which takes months for each piece, Sinner operates Advanced Lathe Tools, which makes and sells tools he developed over the years to create his deep hollow vessels.