SOMERSET, KY. — How does a guy get from the big cities of New York and California to the hills of Kentucky? And how does a person go from occupations in electronics, banking, and construction to working with chunks of felled trees? Ask Chris Ramsey (aka "Knothead") of Somerset, Ky., and he will explain that it's about a hobby that turned into a passion.
Wood turning is the process of transforming a solid block of wood into something more useful, whether it is furniture, knickknacks, or art. In the case of Knothead, it is definitely art.
Actually, it's wearable art, since he makes unusual wooden hats and caps. His arty headgear is custom -fitted and lightweight, not to mention weatherproof.
His hats have gained so much attention that many celebrities have placed orders. NASCAR drivers, other sports figures, country music stars, and politicians are among the fans of his work. President George W. Bush also has a couple of Mr. Ramsey's hats.
It takes patience, skill, and time to go from a piece of fallen tree to a finished work of art. The first step is to obtain the measurements for the planned hat or cap. The artist not only has to get the correct size, but also the shape of the customer's head. Then he must select just the right piece of wood. If Mr. Ramsey has a certain project in mind, he will look for a specific size and type of tree.
Using a chain saw, his piece of wood, or blank as he calls it, is cut to the approximate size needed and rounded as much as possible. The blank is then placed on a lathe, which spins the blank and roughly rounds the piece of wood. Then Ramsey's artistic side comes into play as he trims away the rougher portions, and the shape of the finished product begins to appear.
Next, work is begun on the inside. The hat or cap must be hollowed out on the lathe. Then, in one of the most critical parts of the process, a low-wattage light bulb is affixed to his lathe so that it is in the hollowed-out area. He turns the lights off in the room so that as he turns the lathe to trim away the excess wood and get the hat to the correct thickness (usually about 3/32nds of an inch), the light shines through. As the wood gets thinner, the light is brighter.
If someone wants a logo on a cap, he allows a thickness of wood to remain while he works on the lathe. The logo is then manually etched. He doesn't need to paint, since he uses a colored piece of wood - ebony, purple heart, or rosewood.
To get the correct shape of the finished hat or cap, Ramsey uses an apparatus that causes stress on the wood to bend or curl the hat and its brim into the desired form. Heat lamps are applied to make the shape hold. After a final hand sanding, up to 20 coats of lacquer are applied over several days. A single hat takes many days.
Southeastern Kentucky attracts artisans working in many media. One reason Ramsey enjoys the art-rich area so much, he says, is that there are more fallen trees here than in other places he has lived.