I can still vividly recall my first experience at the lathe…I turned a pair of walnut candlesticks in high school wood shop. I watched spellbound as the form of each candlestick developed. The intoxicating scent of black walnut filled the air as piles of shavings grew around me. A film of French polish applied to the revolving pieces seemed to bring the swirling grain to life. Something inside of me had come to life as well; I had discovered a passion for woodworking that would endure for a lifetime. My school experiences led me to seek employment in a large cabinetmaking shop. Initially, I was assigned mostly menial tasks, from stacking lumber to sweeping the floors. I started at the bottom, but I had no intention of staying there. I studied the master woodworkers. I observed how they sharpened their tools. I listened to their finely tuned hand planes as they effortlessly produced translucent ribbons of wood. I asked annoying questions, and I watched. And I learned. I took pieces of scrap wood home after work and I practiced. I read every book on woodworking and design I could find.
My perseverance did not go unnoticed; I eventually became assistant to the company President, where I was responsible for designing and building prototype furniture pieces, and the jigs and fixtures required to put them into production. I was granted several design and utility patents for this work. I was also responsible for training new employees and overseeing production in the shop. Subsequently, I was employed by several other cabinet shops before I began my own custom furniture business. Gradually, my interests have evolved, from making functional furniture pieces to creating artistic wood turnings.
It has been over fifty years since I created my first lathe-turned objects, yet I feel the same sense of accomplishment when I take an abstract concept and transform it into a completed object. Working at the lathe gives me a sense of complete freedom; and allows me to explore the limits of my creative ability. I find inspiration comes in many forms; a walk in the woods, the appearance of folds in a piece of fabric, or even a seemingly insignificant life experience. I keep a sketchbook handy; there is no way of knowing when inspiration will hit next. I expect each piece I produce to reflect my experiences as a furniture maker as well as a wood turner, as I strive to produce bold, dynamic pieces that reveal a small part of me. My woodworking career continues to lead me in new and often unexpected directions. I believe the best is yet to come.
Keith P. Tompkins
The sign that was in front of my original cabinet shop, c. 1977 in Kent, CT. Those are some of my early turnings!
My first Wood turnings, a pair of Black Walnut candlesticks, turned my Junior year in High School.