Hand-Crafting Bowls in Vermont | A Tale of Sustainability
Dave Brown likes to make things. Along with his wife, Ann, he’s hewed most of their home’s furnishings: beds, tables, desks—everything but a brown couch and a reading chair that outfit the house they built. When it came time to make the spindles for the ladder back chairs, Dave purchased a second hand lathe, which he used to turn the chair legs, and which eventually turned into his business: bowls. Yankee’s senior editor, Ian Aldrich wrote an inspiring feature on The Naked Table, a project empowering eaters to extend their concern for provenance to the manufacture of the thing one eats upon. Dave Brown’s work continues this interest, this deepening investment in a meal, as he sustainably crafts the thing that cradles the food.
Dave’s bowl business began as a sideline to his furniture business. Making attractive furniture is one thing, he tells me, but marketing it is another. Dave took a ceramics course in college, and found the form of bowls appealing. Then his friend Al showed him the basics of splitting a log, cutting out a solid “rough,” mounting it on the lathe, and using the curved chisel to turn it into the pleasing hollow half- sphere we know as a bowl. Then Dave began toting along a few bowls to craft shows only to discover that at the end of the day he’s sold everything but the furniture. Hence, for the last 15 years, in the basement of his home, he’s made mostly bowls, (and plates and platters and rolling pins).
When I stop over to visit Dave, I love to play the bowl game whereby I ask him to narrate the life stories of his current inventory. It goes like this: “Hey, Dave—tell me about this one,” I’ll say, picking up a buttery smooth specimen and he’ll say, “Well, that’s basswood, which is sort of a bland vanilla wood, nothing spectacular, but I’d always wanted to try making a bowl with it. I got the basswood out of Sonny’s sugar woods.” Then I hand him another, and he’ll look at it and reply, “Oh that’s a cherry, that came from a log in John’s woodlot.” And this one? “That’s made from a white ash from the Virginia Russell Woods up on the Common, and this is one’s from a sugar maple log I bought off a former Sterling College student whose now a consulting forester for the Vermont Land Trust. And that’s from a butternut that was growing along the King Farm Road. I had my eye on that for years and when the tree started to decline I asked the owners if I could have some of it when it came down.”
It takes Dave about a year to go from downed log— he processes about six to eight logs a year– to finished bowl. Their electricity, including the power that runs Dave’s lathe comes mostly from a huge solar panel standing like a giant lectern by the garden. Ann uses the wood shavings as mulch around their berry plants and apple trees. On my most recent visit I caught them at lunch. They were sitting at the table they made, eating off of plates they made. Their sandwiches included vegetables they grew, served on bread Dave made and baked in the wood fired oven they built in the back yard. Their hands, lifting the thick sandwiches seem oddly delicate, unspectacular considering all the work they do.
My hands are much less capable, though I’ve spent every year since my late teens deliberately learning how to build and grow and fix and hew. I regale anyone who eats here (sorry) with where it came from and how it grew, and serve it all into the four bowls Dave made – and then I play the bowl game, too. Three are from the downed limb of the hundred- year- old oak lording over our yard. And one is from the dead elm, its lovely blonde wood netted with spalting.