Off the northwestern shore of Lake Superior in Ashland, North Wisconsin, woodworker Jarrod Dahl and his wife, weaver and dyer Jazmin Hicks-Dahl, have built a home and life devoted to craft.
Practically every inch of their early 20th century Victorian house is dedicated to some form of creation. In the yard, Dahl processes local timber which he uses to turn bowls in his basement workshop—one room houses his Japanese electric lathe and pole lathe, another holds his Western lathe and other tools. His bowls are turned primarily on the Japanese electric lathe, his pole lathe is reserved for handled lámhóg drinking cups. On the second floor of the house, Hicks-Dahl stencil-prints katazome fabrics and deftly weaves ikat patterns on her two looms. She dyes her pieces in the indigo fermentation vats brewing in the basement; recently she has begun to grow her own flax in the garden. On the ground floor, a back room operates as both a gallery and for finishing woodenware. A separate room is dedicated to applying urushi—Dahl works mostly on brushed lacquer while Hicks-Dahl handles the fuki-urushi, or wiped lacquer. Yet another room is reserved for birchbark basket weaving. In the works is a garage with a classroom space, replete with a living space above where the duo hopes to host students and craftspeople from around the world to stay and learn about woodturning, craft, and bask in the beauty of the area.
The sharing of the knowledge of Traditional Craft—across time and cultures—is deeply ingrained in Dahl’s ethos as a craftsman. "Craft really ties people together. It's such a human thing, working with our hands and using the natural world to make stuff that we need." As such, he has helped to cultivate an ever-growing online community of woodworkers, teaches craft workshops at the North House Folk School in Northern Wisconsin and throughout the country, and crosses the globe cultivating and sharing his experiences in traditional craft. Dahl advocates for a movement back toward making and using quality handmade items that are a joy to use; a movement that supports local artisans and economies, carries on age-old traditions, and helps connect people to the natural world.
Dahl has worked with wood for most of his life. He built an early livelihood designing and constructing elaborate log and timber frame houses for the summer home families on Lake Superior. As timber framing and log-building required the use of hand tools not found in modern carpentry, the work inspired Dahl to look deeper into the world of hand tools. After more than a decade in construction and carpentry, Dahl's transition to the craft world was natural. He began to carve spoons, weave birchbark baskets inspired by Swedish and local Ojibwe traditions, and explore a lifestyle with a close connection to the natural world.
“Then I needed something to go with my spoons!” Dahl chuckles. His search for tools led him to the pole lathe, which fit snugly into his pre-industrial toolkit. At the time few were using the tool except the British woodturner Robin Wood, one of the earliest contemporary revivalists of the pole lathe and later friend and mentor to Dahl.
The pole lathe, or reciprocating lathe, likely had roots in the Middle East over 5000 years ago. The tool then spread and evolved in form across the east and west, through Europe, China, and Japan. All forms use hooks, and all reciprocate; the tools and techniques remain the same. Not only must the lathe itself be built by hand, but the turning hooks as well—the hooks are too individual to each turner's style and craft. Dahl, who has been blacksmithing since the 1990s, found it natural to forge his own turning hooks. He became a living master of the pole lathe, demonstrating and teaching both online and across the world.
After a decade of foot-powering a pole lathe, the strenuous physicality resulted in a pinched nerve and nudged Dahl to reexamine his craft and tools. He came across the Japanese electric lathe and was instantly drawn to its similarity in tools and techniques to the pole lathe—both lathes require the turner to design and forge their own hooks, and use the hooks to pivot cut.
Working from photos and videos from friends and the internet, Dahl built his own Japanese electric lathe. It quickly overtook the pole lathe as his tool of choice. He learned only later after studying with master craftsmen in Yamanaka-onsen, Japan that what he built was called a Yamanaka lathe.
Dahl is ever driven by curiosity; his methods and inspirations are layered with cross-cultural influence from research and his travels. He scours museum archives and the internet for photos of old Swedish drinking bowls from the 17-1800s. He has worked with local Ojibwe community members to help rekindle lost or abandoned crafts. He travels around the world—England, Sweden, and Japan—sharing his mastery and knowledge of spoon carving and pole lathe turning.
During his time in Sweden and Japan, Dahl was particularly interested in learning from cultures with long cultures of everyday woodenware. "Sweden is and was a wood culture. Everything is made from wood." When he visited Borås in southwest Sweden, an area once lush with beech forests and a rich history of woodenware, he was astounded to discover that in the 1600s-1800s the area produced over 50,000 pole-lathe-turned wooden boxes (and other wooden craft products) per year. In Japan, he observed the rich and unbroken 10,000-year tradition of wooden tableware, learning about craftspeople that produced large quantities of tableware annually, all while earning the same status and respect as artists. He studied Japanese wood-turning techniques from master wood-turners Takehito Najima and Kawakami Kenichi and urushi lacquer from Madoka Kutsuwa.
Dahl regards his training in the 8000-year-old urushi lacquer craft with careful dedication and respect. He theorizes that the use of lacquer was key to the woodenware’s continuous use in Japan; the lacquer protected the woodenware from cracks and breaks that resulted in wood being cast aside for more durable materials. He is also enthusiastic about newer blends of drying oils as well as Hassui Ceramic Coating, a liquid silica that turns to glass when applied to wood. “Today we have these new finishes so maybe now is time to reexamine wood and woodenware—it can hold up to our modern lifestyle.”
Despite once having the shared history of using everyday woodenware in the U.S., with a few exceptions, the continuum of production was broken due to the advent of industrial processes and materials like plastic, metal, and industrial pottery. “We’re not used to using woodenware here in the U.S. anymore, and I’m trying to get people to reconsider that.” With the rise of the contemporary craft world and hobbyists, wood-turning began to take on a more sculptural, one-off, art-driven slant in the U.S. The line between craft and art is a point of lively debate within the western craft community, but Dahl believes for the wood culture renaissance to thrive there should be space for a range of approaches.
It is ultimately a traditional utilitarian function that drives Dahl's own work. He is inspired by people and what they want, buy, and actually use. "They need to touch it, they need to hold it, and connect to it with their hands.” The past craft industry of Borås and the living present in Japan began to spark Dahl’s thinking on production work as an essential key in bringing woodenware back into everyday use.
Dahl emphasizes that craft production isn't mass production. Instead, production is a way of honing skill until it becomes instinctual and quicker to create. “If you stick with one design or two, you're going to learn those nuances and you learn to really understand the shape.” Dahl often makes twenty or so one-off forms, then watches to see which one stands out. More often than not, it's obvious. “When we see beauty, it hits us instantly.” He then studies the shape, and attempts to make it again by only memory. Production is process. Refining is a way of discovering beauty. “Aesthetic sense is a tacit knowledge—you have to practice it.” He believes craft production is the key to creating woodenware that is affordable, beautiful, and well-crafted and to bringing back the use of everyday woodenware to contemporary times.
With each practiced turn of his lathe, Dahl moves us little by little towards a new wood culture. “Wood connects us to the natural world in a very instant, archetypal way. Woodenware is beautiful, quiet and warm to use. When we use these objects we slow down, we turn daily life into a ceremony. We're more mindful, more thoughtful, more self-aware, more contemplative. Maybe that's what these objects can do for people.”