Carving out a new career path

EAGLE GROVE – Most artists will tell you that when they see a piece of raw material – be it a blank canvas, a piece of stone or, in the case of Paul Peterson, of Eagle Grove, a piece of wood – they see what it will become.

Peterson, who turns wood to make everything from coffee mugs to pens, approaches it that way too.

“I remove what isn’t supposed to be there,” he said Saturday at the flea market on the Webster County Fairgrounds.

Wood, being an organic material, isn’t always on the same page with its carver, though.

“Sometimes we don’t agree.”

Peterson, who does business as Elegant Wood Turnings, began woodworking in 1991 with a scroll saw to cut out designs. As lasers became more prevalent for scroll work he decided to go back to lathe turning.

“Turning and wood carving are two of the most difficult disciplines in wood work,” he said.

The majority of the wood he uses is local.

“Most of the wood I harvest myself,” he said. “I’d rather work with domestic woods rather than see them discarded.”

That includes some unusual material.

“This is made from ivy,” he said, holding up a pepper grinder. “It’s from a historic building in Amana.”

The red color and swirl of the wood is similar to another more common wood.

“It almost looks like cedar. They get it confused,” he said.

Using wood from trees that have spent their lives surrounded by the activities of humans makes for interesting discoveries.

“I’ve found bullets, barb wire, bolts and nails,” he said.

One of the more unusual wasn’t metal.

“One piece had a little green army man in it,” he said. “I’m not sure how that got there.”

Peterson does all his work free form; he refuses to use patterns or mechanical copiers.

“I’d rather do it that way,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t feel I’d do the wood justice.”

Therefore, while two of his vases might be similar, they are not identical. He doesn’t push the work either; slow and steady does it.

“God took a long time to grow it,” he said. “I need to take a long time working with it.”

The art is in the final shape. He works with the grain of the wood rather than against it.

“The shape compliments the grain,” he said.

His customers are usually surprised at how the pieces feel, he said. The key is in the finish.

“When I sand I go very fine. I’ve gone down to 1,500 grit.”

That grit is usually reserved for polishing metal and car body work.

Peterson is reverent: “The wood deserves it.”

He spent 28 years as an assembly worker at Electrolux in Webster City before losing his job in 2011 when the plant closed.

“I was a glorified screwdriver operator,” he said.

The plant closing gave him the opportunity to strike out on his own.

“I wanted to try this and see if I can make it full time,” he said.

To do that, he attended about 14 shows last year, including Market on Central in downtown Fort Dodge, and plans on attending about 26 shows in 2014.

“It’s working out,” he said.