The branch of a sea grape, the trunk of a guinep tree … where most of us would see only those, Len Layman sees bowls, pens or decorative ducks. It’s not that Layman’s mind works against the grain, it’s just that he’s a wood turner.
“When I see a downed tree, I do not see a log, but rather, I wonder what treasure might be contained in its wood,” he said.
Most people know him through his involvement in campaigns against domestic violence. In fact, his work as a founding member and former chairman of the board of the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre for more than 14 years earned him the Cayman Islands Certificate and Badge of Honor for his commitment to community service.
Away from his demanding day job as a realtor, Layman is quietly carving out an all-consuming pastime for himself. A while back, he started off whittling wooden pipes, progressed to wood turning, and is now on his second lathe.
Layman specializes in faceplate turning – used mainly for decorative wood turning, whereas spindle turning is more for furniture making. He finds that it not only keeps him close to nature, but also exercises his creative and technical sides.
Wood turning for Layman is a chance to retreat from the bustle of everyday life. “After a day of incessant phone calls and jumping from one appointment to another, I like to turn off the noise and head off to my shed to work on a piece. It’s my escape. A few hours of turning wood on my Powermatic 3520B and I’m relaxed and generally at peace with the world.”
Asked how he decides what a piece of wood will be made into, Layman gave this Zen-like response: “Most times I’ve got in mind what I want to make and choose my piece accordingly. But it can sometimes take up to six months for a piece to tell me what it wants me to make of it.”
Soothed by music (anything from Sinatra to Santana and Shostakovich), the steady hum of his latest piece taking shape in his hands, and the aroma of wood dust motes drifting through the air, Layman has devoted hours to his pursuit.
Snatching an hour or two after the office is closed and at weekends, Layman heads off to his custom-built 12-by-12-foot shed. It’s a space to create that feels like a world away from daily distractions. With his trusty gouges and lathe and the music on low, time dissolves.
During another Zen-moment, Layman explains that wood has an inherent beauty that working on the lathe releases. Each piece is painstakingly crafted, and unlike other types of wood carving, with wood turning the wood moves while the tools are stationary.
Depending on to what use the end piece will be put, Layman finishes off by giving it an oil finish with polyurethane or varnish.
Given the beauty of his creative yet functional pieces, which these days run to salad bowls, pens and round ornamental boxes, vases, salt and pepper grinders and decorative orbs, it was not too long before he was giving them to family and friends for anniversaries.
Word spread, people started giving him commissions, and now Layman sells his work through the gift shop at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and through his website caymanturnings.ky. He also displays his work at local craft shows.
Bitten by the woodworking bug, he now makes a regular pilgrimage to the American Association of Woodturners symposium. Held in Atlanta this year, the four-day conference is part trade show and part demonstrations venue. Over and above that, visitors attend seminars on the latest techniques, enter competitions and meet and mingle with like-minded fans of this burgeoning art.
Whenever possible, Layman prefers to turn his creations using local woods such as mahogany, se
a grape, neem and almond. He’s serious about his stock (the type of wood he uses) and enjoys reclaiming wood that would have ended up being tossed in the dump.
“It really bugs me when developers unthinkingly bulldoze and trash what are perfect good trees which have sound wood,” he added.
Layman’s most ambitious pieces are made using segmented turning. Rather than hollowing wood out, he cuts it into small segments and glues them together to get a rough shape before smoothing the surfaces on the lathe to create multi-tonal designs.
“I use this technique mainly for my decorative pieces,” he explained. “Segmented turning creates different effects in contrasting wood colors. The types of pattern you can create are only limited by your skill level and your imagination,” he said.
To hear him speak about the different techniques he has employed over the years, you would think he had been turning for decades – which is not the case. Rather than learning the craft from a relative as a youth, Layman is entirely self-taught and took up the craft six years ago. Trial and error for him are the greatest teachers.
“You can’t be impatient when wood turning, you have to feel your way through,” he advised.
Sometimes his working and wood turning lives merge.
“Once in a while, clients buy land, and knowing what I do, they’ll give me wood from the property so I can make them keepsakes,” he adds.
Sharing his pastime
One day a colleague approached him saying that his son wanted “Mr. Len” to make a pen for him. Layman ended up teaching the lad how to make one, which gave both of them a tremendous sense of achievement. In fact, Layman would like to pass on his passion to anyone interested in picking up the basics.
Perhaps he may not have to wait that long.
Asked what his family thinks of his hobby, he said his young granddaughters’ attitude is typical.
“I’ve two smashing granddaughters here who I’ve made ornamental ducks for. While Abby, the youngest, loves coming to my shop and watching ‘Peepaw’ make pieces, the other, bless her, couldn’t care less.”
With Layman’s obvious skill in breathing life into wood, perhaps the former will prove to be a chip off the old block.
To view more of his artisanal pieces, visit caymanturnings.ky. To commission work, email Len Layman at [email protected]