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Self-taught craftsman hones skill over a half century



16 Jan, 2023




thumbnail 1 MF-TurnPost1 copy-379A local workshop and gallery showcasing a variety of beautifully turned natural wood pieces has roots which stretch back nearly five decades to a more simple time, where everyday housewares were sought and handcrafted by talented kiwi craftspeople.


Local woodturner Denis McCartain opened The Turning Post in February 2022 on his family’s homeland close to the southern turn-off to Waipu township, and although the self-taught craftsman does not consider himself an artist, his impressive work tells a different story. From the graceful curve of puriri vases and glossy Tasmanian blackwood bowls, to large statement totara urns and the smooth plains of kauri chopping boards, some delicately decorated with slices of paua, each piece highlights the natural beauty of New Zealand’s native woods and Denis’ skilled hand.

For the past 49 years, the father of four has honed his talent, managing to make a living and support his growing family despite receiving no official training.

“My wife Robyn and I got married really young in the Seventies, the time of the hippies, she was a farm girl and I wanted to live in the country not work in the city,” he says. “I heard about a guy who made a living as a wood turner and just thought I’d give it a go, so I bought a bandsaw and a lathe… and then read a book.”

thumbnail 1 MF-TurnPost2 copy-788From the family’s former home in Marua, near Hikurangi, Denis was kept busy for over thirty years supplying tourist shops in Kerikeri, Auckland and even Rotorua as well as Matakohe Museum, with a range of sought-after items including various sized salad bowls, serving spoons, trinket boxes, pate trays, teething rattles, platters, and ‘thousands’ of wine goblets ‘which are really good to drink cold white wine from as wood is an insulative type material so the wine will stay cool longer and it doesn’t sweat on the outside’ says Denis.

In 1999, the couple also opened a gallery from their home, the first ‘Turning Post’, which allowed Denis to move slowly away from full-on production mode ‘as its quite hard on the body’ to a slower pace, a good move at the time he says as tourism was in full swing and their home was on the Twin Coast Highway. The family then moved to Waipu in 2017.

With wood sourced mainly from mills or cleared from private properties, Denis has a large stock of dry and green wood in various stages of drying, stored in his shed waiting for his magic touch. Some items, such as urns, which are hollowed out by hand using long chisels and hooks, are ‘green turned’ he says, allowing for easier shaping and shrinkage, ‘where the wood warps but doesn’t crack.’

“Wood dries from the outside in, and when it dries it shrinks, so the outside is drying and shrinking, and the inside is not. Wood can’t be dried out quickly, so people wanting items made from fallen trees on their property, usually have to wait for more than a year or so before the wood is ready.”

Although in his production days Denis’ work had to be flawless, he says today’s market embraces imperfections, with cracks, nail holes and even old borer holes desired as features which add originality to the pieces. Alongside the joy of creating beautiful items, turning also has its dangers, with the fast-turning lathe sometimes causing chisels to break and wood to splinter, leading to bits of steel becoming airborne.

“I’ve had a broken tooth after being hit in the face, and a window was broken by flying wood pieces from a bowl I’d spent hours on and was nearly finished, so there was a bit of colourful language also being flung around.”

Despite the hard work – and hazards – Denis says he has always enjoyed the work, especially now his turning is more for satisfaction than profit.

“I enjoy working with pohutukawa, pieces with legs, large platters the most, as well as decoration, as these tasks are more difficult. After putting a piece I’ve green turned aside for a year or two, then putting it back on the lathe, working it, then seeing the wood grain come to life after finishing it, is a real buzz,” he says. “To end up with something like that out of a piece of tree is quite a thrill.”


Self-taught Waipu woodturner Denis McCartain, surrounded by a handful of stunning pieces showcased in his gallery, The Turning Post. PHOTO/JULIA WADE


Drying out in Denis’ shed is a large stock of green wood pieces awaiting his magic final touch. PHOTO/JULIA WADE


“… just thought I’d give it a go, so I bought a bandsaw and a lathe… and then read a book.”

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