Woodturning: An Art Or a Craft?

As August Craft Month continues, woodturner Tom McCosh on why the ancient craft deserves more respect

As far back as 3,000 years ago, salad bowls, ornaments, and even spindles for stairs were being produced by craftspeople and artists using hand-held chisels and a lathe to turn wood.

While it sounds highly-skilled and a thing of the past, woodturner and Ballymena man, Tom McCosh, explains that there are still plenty of people in Ireland ‘making a living from it’.

Speaking after a lecture on woodturning at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh as part of Craft NI's August Craft Month, McCosh said, ‘Woodturning very different to fine art, but there are many woodturning collectors, mainly in America, who see the pieces as an investment.'

McCosh is an active member of the Irish Woodturners’ Guild, which was established in 1983 to promote, foster and develop all aspects of woodturning. It is an all-Ireland organisation, and there are 19 chapters holding monthly workshops, seminars and competitions throughout the year.

McCosh's group – The Ulster Chapter – is based at Woodshed, Templepatrick, and is one of the largest in Ireland, with more than 80 paid-up members. McCosh is well-known for his precision work and has won several competitions.

‘Woodturning is split into two categories,' he explains. 'Functional and non-functional. The side I’m involved in is a more artistic type of woodturning, which is purely decorative. I find it a very relaxing hobby. When I was a teacher it was quite a stressful job, and I always looked forward to getting into the workshop and relaxing in the evenings and weekends.’

Exotic woods can be used for different sculptures, but McCosh prefers to use 'native' woods such as ash and sycamore. While woodturning is just a hobby or past-time for many, McCosh takes it seriously and says that his personal objectives are to develop contemporary design and promote woodturning to young people.

Unfortunately, he adds, it attracts a mainly ‘retired crowd’. He explains, ‘I would like more people to learn about us. Within the last 20 to 25 years the design element of woodturning has really developed. There’s so much out there to buy now compared to what there used to be.’

A hot topic of debate within woodturning circles is whether it should be classed as an art or a craft. McCosh says it could be a while before everyone agrees.

‘It depends how you view art and craft. Personally, I think there is an element of both. It depends on the individual and I would describe myself as a design-driven individual. I spend a lot of time trying to come up with interesting designs and competing in competitions.’

He argues that the main difference between pieces of fine art and sculptures and objects made by woodturning is the price. ‘A piece of fine art A4 sized could attract maybe £300-£400; a woodturned piece would attract a much lower price.’

After viewing some of McCosh’s work it is clear that his is a labour of love, and he is obviously very dedicated. However, he reassures me that there are different levels of commitment for anyone who is interested in learning the art.

‘It really depends what drives you,' he concludes. 'I’m a fairly driven person when it comes to woodturning. Others are happy to do a straightforward bowl and most people can do that type of work. It can be as time-consuming as you like!’

More information on the Irish Woodturners’ Guild can be found at www.irishwoodturnersguild.com. August Craft Month continues until August 31.

'North Coast Pot', by Tom McCosh