Wood turning: a satisfying hobby for anyone interested in wood

Frank M. Knox, who lives in an apartment complex in the heart of New York City, is one of the few craftsmen who does ornamental turnery on a 19th-century antique lathe. He has demonstrated his expertise during the museum show, and his exquisitely complex pieces are on display there.

Mr. Knox was a management consultant for 35 years, and when he retired 20 years ago he began devoting his time to the ornamental turnery hobby. He had anticipated his retirement a decade before that by learning cabinetmaking and then turnery.

In 1963 a friend located an antique Holtzapffel lathe for him in England and shipped it to him. He promptly rented a tiny workshop down the hall from his Tudor City Place apartment and began to master the intricacies of his new acquisition. ''There were only 2,500 such lathes made,'' Mr. Knox explains, ''and many of them are in museums or mothballed somewhere. Some are to be found in attics or barns or junkyards, broken and with missing parts. These are now being sought out and restored.

''There are no professional ornamental wood-turners in the world,'' he continues. ''There never were any because it has always been a hobby, enjoyed in centuries past mainly by royalty, the peerage, and other wealthy people who could afford lathes. Many museums in the world now exhibit the embellished wood of those elite wood-turners.''

The hobby almost died out at the end of the Victorian period, he notes, but began to come back in 1949, when a group of engineers and toolmakers in London formed the Society of Turners. All of them owned antique ornamental lathes, since none have been made in the 20th century.

Mr. Knox says it is known that about 500 of the old ornamental lathes exist today, although less than 300 are operable.

Frank Knox terms wood turning a fantastic hobby. ''I love creating and having other people express an interest in what I do,'' he says. ''I have sold almost $ 25,000 worth of my work, although it has never been shown in a gallery or at a fair.'' He says the American Craft Museum exhibition is the first time his work has been seen publicly.

Mr. Knox works mainly in rare woods. He now has an inventory of 467 pieces of wood in 121 different species, including African black wood, olive wood, Swiss pear wood, pink ivory wood from Zululand in Africa, Brazilian tulipwood and rosewood, as well as apricot wood and Ohio buckeye. He is past president of the International Wood Collectors Society, a group with members in 2l countries. Members hold auctions and also trade and sell wood to each other.

Because he has had a little art training, this affable wood-turner does some of his own designing and also gets ideas from books and magazines. He tries to convince other retirees that there is a world of satisfaction in woodworking, and that they probably have more talent than they think. He now has a hobby associate in fellow New Yorker Dick Miller to whom he is teaching what he has learned as they work together.

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