Rick Sammons has spent the last four decades shifting (mostly) seamlessly and skillfully between a motley of pursuits and vocations: Electronic equipment repairman. U.S. Army paratrooper. Rock climber. Coder. Arduino enthusiast. Yarnspinner. Software developer. Aspiring sailor. Bookworm. Chili master. Bass player. IT director.
While isolated at home during the pandemic lockdown, Rick discovered he had a knack for woodcrafting – a new hobby the 53-year-old had yet to explore. While he made his share of napkin and mail holders back in high school woodshop class, Rick never gave it much thought again. That is until a friend made him and his wife, Christine, an artistic bowl for their 10th anniversary in October 2020 and he thought to himself, “I could make this.”
An intellectually curious “maker,” Rick is part of that culture of people who want to learn how something works and then go out and build it themselves. “I think people who do woodturning get into it one of two ways. They grew up watching their father or mother, learned how to do it, and just continued on after inheriting a shop and equipment,” he said.
“Or, there are people like me who get into it because the OCD part of it is fascinating to us – breaking that ‘round’ mold, doing stuff off-center, figuring out the different angles, and completely changing how you look at what you can make.”
Getting into the woodcrafting groove
With his woodturning curiosity sparked, Rick shifted to a constant state of “learning and learning and learning and learning” about handcrafting bowls. For a couple of months, he immersed himself in how-to videos and online forums and picked the brains of his woodturning friends.
After buying a lathe, bowl gouge and other woodcraft must-haves, Rick gathered local wood from his backyard, on the side of the road and from friends. Then, he converted his garage into a woodshop, complete with an electric outlet-power tool-cord combination resembling a Rubik’s cube.
“But you can’t just grab some wood and make a bowl; there are steps to getting everything right to prepare yourself. You have to learn how to dry the wood, you have to know what is dry and what’s too dry, and how the grains grow together in a tree,” he said. “Plus, every tree is a little different, so what you can do on one, you can probably do on another one, but you have to find a different way to approach it.”
Of course, there were a couple of painful missteps along with the way – like the time Rick learned a flimsy mask doesn’t protect against airborne wood chunks. “The tailstock has a piece that holds the other side of the bowl you’re working on so it doesn’t fly off,” he explained. “It’s important to find that out. I had a scar for a while where one popped up and hit me in the forehead.”
Minor head injuries aside, it wasn’t long before Rick was spinning bowls and surrounded by sawdust (aka man glitter). He kept the first piece he made – a small cracked cedar bowl from a fallen tree in his backyard – as a reminder to be patient with each piece.
“You can’t call a bowl finished when it’s not. It’s worth taking the time to make sure that it’s right. I had one almost done, but I had to strip it completely, re-carve it, re-sand it, re-oil it and refinish it,” he said. “So the lesson I learned was when it comes to filling cracks, don’t rush it.”
Function over form … for now
With a 30-year technology-centered career, Rick, who currently leads the IT department of a transport logistics company, understands well how decisions impact results and change paths.
“The moment you’re picking out the wood and you start cutting it out with a chainsaw, you’re already making decisions,” he said. “You’re deciding the shape of the bowl because with every cut you make you’re limiting what could be there.”
He’s also learned his experience with coding and programming (which, he said, is much more creative than people give it credit for) gives him insight into woodworking techniques and efficiencies and how processes flow together.
Rick’s woodworking style leans more toward functional than artistic. “If I’m going to make a bowl, I think I should be able to use it for food,” he said. “Although the more artistic bowls I see, the more I understand why that is impressive to people … and the more I want to try it.”
He added, “All woods have something to offer, but if I had to limit myself to working with one kind of wood for the rest of my life, it would probably be cherry. It darkens with sunlight and the grains are just beautiful.”
Sharpening the woodturning chops
Just as he’s done with every other passion project, Rick is eager to next-level his woodturning game. He wants to experiment with epoxy, and piece and glue together different kinds and colors of woods. And he also wouldn’t mind getting his hands on a thick piece of walnut or some decades-old wood once infested with worms.
Eventually, Rick aims to break out of his mold of thinking of everything as a bowl and create a lamp that combines wood and Arduino.
“I want to push this and see how far I can go. I get better every time I do it, and that’s the satisfying thing for me,” Rick said. “You go through all these steps, and every time you do something, you think, ‘This is the best bowl I’ve ever made!’ … until you make the next one because you’re always learning something new.”
Admittedly though, he’s only happy with his work for “about five minutes.” “Looking at the bowls, I think they’re beautiful because of what the tree has provided. At the same time, I don’t like looking at them because I see every little mistake.”
Feeding (and funding) the habit
After spending nights and weekends turning bowls in his woodshop, it wasn’t long before Rick had an impressive collection of handcrafted (and cleverly named) vessels – from Beam Me Up Woody to Poplar on a Pedestal. “There’s a lot of work that goes into each bowl because they’re all unique, but we didn’t have enough room in our house for all of them, so we had to find new homes for them,” he said.
Most of the bowls were given to family members as Christmas gifts, but once Christine started posting photos on social media, it seemed everyone wanted their own piece of Rick’s wood. So in early March, the couple launched Sam’s Woodcraft to sell the one-of-a-kind wares — less than six months after Rick unearthed his woodworking gift.
“The goal is to keep making bowls fast enough to where I’m still getting satisfaction from it, but I can sell enough to buy a new lathe eventually,” he said. “It’s a way to feed my wood habit so I can continue making even more cool stuff.”