VIDEO: Woodturning... ‘It’s like doing tai chi all day!’

We conclude our series on people who are resurrecting old craft traditions, in association with food and drink, as KATE RYAN talks to woodturner Hilary Hale
VIDEO: Woodturning... ‘It’s like doing tai chi all day!’
Hilary Hale woodturner. Picture Dan Linehan

LOOKING out the window of her gallery at the beautiful, sparkling sea view over Summercove in Kinsale, I’m reminded of images of the Bulman pub being battered by crashing waves during Storm Ophelia.

As destructive as Ophelia was, for one woman it provided an unexpected bounty in the form of storm-felled trees.

Hilary Hale has been a woodturner for 25 years, making beautiful bowls, platters and cutlery from her workshop and gallery where she has no doubt seen many a storm come and go over the years.

“I haven’t always worked with wood but I like being creative; making things out of wood happened purely by accident,” she said.

“I had gone into Cork to buy myself a suit in the January sales. There was nothing I would have been seen dead in, but I spotted McQuillans had a lathe in their sale. I had been saying for years to have a go at woodturning so I decided to buy the lathe instead of a suit, just like that!

Hilary Hale woodturner at her premises in Summercove, Kinsale, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Hilary Hale woodturner at her premises in Summercove, Kinsale, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“It was an awfully little lathe really, but it got me going. Within a few months I bought a more powerful one. The lathe I use now can turn a bowl up to a metre in diameter.”

Hilary is self-taught in her craft, developing skill with the lathe and her own aesthetic through practice and repetition.

“It’s not an option to go to college and learn woodturning, you might do a little bit in an art course but not enough so I did a lot of reading and joined the Wood Turners Guild.”

The tools to turn a plank of wood into an exquisitely finished bowl are of the heavy kind: chainsaws, band saws and giant lathes. Her workshop is like a woodworking bench on steroids and every imaginable surface is littered with sawdust and curled slithers of wood. In the middle of all this heavy metal and dust stands Hilary, moving with ease left to right in time with the lathe.

“It’s like doing Tai Chi all day long, but I can’t let my mind wander otherwise I might wreck the piece I’m working on, so I have to stay focused.

“Before I start, I need to have a good picture in my mind about what I want to make. I don’t always stick to it rigidly, there might be some feature in the wood that I hadn’t anticipated that means I have to readjust, but the more I do the more I know where I am going before I even set foot in the workshop.

Hilary Hale woodturner.
Hilary Hale woodturner.

“I might be sitting in someone’s garden at a fallen tree and I’ll get the chalk out, draw a few lines on the wood, review; redraw. Because the very first cuts I do determine where I am going with a piece much further down the line, I’m designing even as the chainsaw is coming out of the car.

“Most of the wood is given to me by friends who have large gardens and farms, mostly from the Kinsale area and some from my garden. I never know how many trees I work through per year because the wood can take so long to age. I could work on a piece that came down five years ago or I could be working on wood that came to me last week.”

Wood quality is Hilary’s biggest challenge. The age and condition of the tree, when it was cut and its environment all plays a part in what the wood will allow Hillary to make of it — if anything at all.

“It’s all luck really. I got what would have been a lovely oak tree as a result of Ophelia, but over the years people had been banging nails into it which does nothing for my chainsaw blades or the finished piece.

“As I’m working through the wood, there are features that may show itself that haven’t been identified from the surface of the wood: natural or man-made. Once I came across a piece imbedded with plastic orange washing line that had been tied around the tree about 50 years ago. All through the piece were these little orange dots from it - completely unique to that tree, and even that particular piece of the tree.”

Occasionally, Hilary will receive a commission for a piece made from the wood of a specific tree.

“I received a lovely laburnum tree with a memorial commission for their father who had been very fond of it and had sadly passed away. Another commission was for a much-loved cherry tree.

“I like when there is a connection with where the wood comes from: the person who planted the tree or is connected with it in some way, and then it’s coming to you. Commissions can be difficult because you never truly know what is in the customers’ head, but when the instruction is ‘We loved this tree, can you make something from it?’ and I hear the story and why the tree was special, then it’s easier.”

Hilary Hale woodturner at her premises in Summercove, Kinsale, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Hilary Hale woodturner at her premises in Summercove, Kinsale, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

And why bowls in particular, I ask?

“I like the usefulness of bowls; I like that they are open and offering — a bowl is a space to be filled. When I’m making handles for my cutlery, I love using yew because it has a lovely silky texture to it. The bowls are finished with an edible oil, then beeswax from a local beekeeper so it doesn’t taint any food it comes into contact with.

“Once the bowls are at the stage where they resemble the final shape, I leave them for weeks, months or even years occasionally to fully dry out before I put them back on the lathe to be finished.

The time this takes depends on the thickness of the wood and when the tree came down —trees felled in spring will need much more drying than those that came down in autumn.

“How long it takes to make a piece is irrelevant to me really. If I knew exactly how much time I spent I would end up throwing in the towel and getting a job in an office! It is considerable — a bowl would be on the lathe at least four times in different orientations in the course of making it, and that’s before I start sanding the final finish!

“The whole learning process is still going on even after 25 years, and of course techniques and machinery change. The famous designer Rennie Mackintosh did a lot of work using local timbers: plain designs but incorporating tiny details. My current design style is very much influenced by his work: minimalist, letting the wood speak for itself, tiny details and only when the wood lends itself to it. I’m always experimenting, but by now I would say most of my designs are variations on a theme.

“The one element that is unchanging in my bowl design is use of the ‘catenary curve’ — a very natural, organic curved shape.

“It’s nice to see the pieces being used. Sometimes I come across them in people’s houses and think ‘Oh, that looks nice, I wish I could do that’ and then realise it is one of my pieces!”

The whole process of turning chunks of wood into a beautiful object is slow. There’s no rush and it’s not the vocation for those with hectic personalities.

“Anyone I know who works with wood, they’re all really laidback people. Wood needs to dry out slowly so it doesn’t become brittle, crack and destroy itself. Someone once asked me if I could make them a bowl for Christmas. I replied ‘Sure, which Christmas did you have in mind?’”

If visiting the gallery, Hilary says to call in advance in case she is out collecting trees. Her gallery is open from Easter, or visit the online shop at

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