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Turing Wood into Treasure

Jerry Crowe and Kim Kenney create one-of-a-kind wood turnings from their quaint little Cassville workshop.

By Savannah Waszczuk | Photos by Brandon Alms

Mar 2017

Jerry Crowe uses a lathe to transform a wooden burl into a beautiful showpiece.

Strike up a conversation with Jerry Crowe, and it won’t take you long to realize he’s developed quite the sense of humor over the years. “I’m 80, but I feel like I’m 102,” he says. “But then sometimes I think I’m still 19—until I look in the mirror.”

As he talks about his past, Crowe continues to make several comments that speak to his personality. “I don’t take orders well,” he says, a boyish grin taking over his face. “I do what I want to do.” That’s why years ago, after serving in the United States Navy and Air Force, he found a career that allowed him to do just that: Crowe spent nearly 40 years in the restaurant business working as head chef and owning several eateries, including former Springfield restaurants The Grove and The Sycamore. And his culinary adventures even took him away from Springfield to places like Ponape and Saipan.

As the years passed, Crowe found a new hobby: turning wood. “I started turning in Saipan,” Crowe says. “I’d never even seen a lathe before then. No one was there to teach me—I just started doing it.’” One of his first projects was cutting up trees that blew down in a typhoon. “It was a real pretty wood,” Crowe says. “I had the lathe, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just start turning something.’”

Turning for a Living

Crowe continued teaching himself the trade with hands-on experience, but he got some professional instruction after returning to the United States and attending a three-day woodworking workshop at Brigham Young University. “I learned more in those three days than I had taught myself in five years,” Crowe says. 

In 1988 he returned to 417-land, where he and his wife, Annie, settled down on Annie’s grandparents’ 220-acre farm in Cassville. Nearly 30 years later, it’s still the place the couple calls home, and it’s home to Crowe’s creations, too—a shop and gallery for his business, Unique Turnings (uniqueturnings.com), sit just a quick walk from his front door. He’s had busy and slow times over the decades, with one of his biggest years ever including some 750 creations. 

Today things have slowed down a bit, and he’s fine with that. “I did 49 in 2016,” Crowe says. But those weren’t the only turnings that were made in the shop—he actually shares the workspace and expenses with fellow turner Kim Kenney of Turnings by JusKim (turningsbyjuskim.com), whom he taught to turn wood nearly nine years ago. “She said, ‘I wanna learn how to do this,’ and I said, ‘Well, come on out here Saturday morning,’” Crowe says. “I said, ‘I can teach you to run the machine and I can teach you to use the tools, but if your mind can’t visualize to see what a piece can look like before you’re done—well, I can’t teach you that.’” 

The Process

Visualizing the product is just one part of the multi-step wood-turning process that both Crowe and Kenney have mastered. It all starts when they get burls from local loggers. These burls come from a variety of trees, including apple, cherry, elm, maple, locust, redbud, pine, box elder, mulberry, sassafras, tulip, poplar, walnut, persimmon, cedar and sycamore, and they’re cut into 8- to 10-inch squares. After placing a foot on them for grip, Crowe and Kenney work to shape them on the lathe, starting by shaping the outside and then hollowing out the inside. “What I really like is when you start to see all of those colors coming out,” Crowe says. “That’s when you choose what shape you’re going to make it.” Kenney agrees this is the best part of the process. “When you’re cutting in there, you’re the first person to see what’s inside,” she says. “Some of these trees with these burls are over 100 years old.”

 After the pieces are shaped, they’re waxed, then placed in a kiln for a slow drying process that lasts approximately one month. Next the turners remove the pieces, remove the wax and let them rest again before they’re sanded. One of the last steps is filling all of the cracks in the wood, which Crowe and Kenney do with crushed stones such as turquoise, malachite or lapis. “Those are the only three stones we’ve found that will keep their color,” Crowe says. Then you have the finished products, which range from items such as bowls and platters to vase-like creations. And no matter what kind of wood or stone is used, each and every item takes on a personality of its own. “There are no two alike,” Kenney says. “Every piece is different.”

Want to buy your own? Contact Jerry Crowe at 417-847-2742 or Kim Kenney at 417-847-7227.