As a boy sanding boards and sweeping sawdust from the floors of his father's custom cabinet business in Wisconsin, Al Miotke learned how to build things out of wood.
"I picked up an interest that never went away," says Miotke, 58, now an engineer for Chamberlain, the garage-door maker based in Elmhurst. His Mount Prospect home boasts kitchen cabinets, elegant tables and an oak staircase he built. He never tired of working with wood, but wanted to try something new. His wife, Brenda, gave him that push seven years ago on vacation when she spotted a gorgeous wooden vase on sale for $1,000 in a gallery in Sante Fe, N.M.
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"I saw it and said, 'I really like that,'" she recalls.
"I said, 'I can make that,'" Miotke remembers.
And so he did.
"I probably spent $10,000 on the wood equipment to make that $1,000 vase," Miotke says with a chuckle.
The investment has paid off. The 58-year-old Miotke will be one of 16 woodturning experts teaching seminars at "Turn-On! Chicago 2012," a three-day symposium Aug. 3-5. Hosted by the Chicago Woodturners, a 25-year-old club that meets monthly in Arlington Heights, "Turn-On!" will draw woodturners from across the nation and beyond to the campus of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein.
Miotke, editor of the club's newsletter, specializes in "segmented woodturning," a process in which he glues together rings of small pieces of woods of different colors and grains and fashions them into intricate works of art.
"You have to understand how wood changes color over time," says Miotke, holding a display showing how the dynamic yellow of an Osage orange tree will turn to brown, the bold red of an African Padauk will end up as a very dark brown, or how the rich, dark walnut actually will get lighter.
Buying exotic wood from a local hardwood store, Miotke might pay $100 for a square-foot piece of 1-inch-thick ebony, but less for the African Bloodwood or Pau Rosa. Of course, those storms that sweep through the suburbs provide him with great deals.
"Anytime I see a tree down," Miotke says. He recently took his chain saw on a visit to a neighbor struggling to use a handsaw to clear a fallen tree.
"I'll cut it up if you let me take some of the wood," Miotke told the guy, who was happy to oblige. "It's a win-win."
Damaged and sick trees are often beset by marks of rotting or infections that make interesting patterns in the wood. "A perfectly healthy maple tree is boring," Miotke says.
Using the professional lathe installed in his basement wood shop, Miotke can easily spin a 40-pound hunk of tree as he uses an assortment of metal tools to shave, shape and cut spaces in the wood. While he still considers himself "a craftsman wanting to be an artist," one of Miotke's award-winning bowls is featured on the "Turn-On!" website's home page.
Chicago Woodturners meetings (from 7-10 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month at Christian Liberty Academy, 502 W. Euclid Ave. in Arlington Heights) draw a diverse group of usually around 80 members, from beginners to internationally acclaimed artist Binh Pho of Maple Park.
"Twenty years ago, I was just like them," says Pho, whose dramatic and grueling escape from Vietnam after the war goes into his art, which he says "reflects the Far East culture and my journey to the West."
Sharing tips and talents has enabled woodturning to become more popular, he says.
"I don't mind coming and showing them how to do this," says Pho, a member of the local chapter of the American Association of Woodturners. "We show other people what to do."
Membership in Chicago Woodturners is $25 a year, but tickets for the Mundelein symposium range from a $100 day pass to $285 for the entire conference. Visit turnonchicago.com for details. The club plans to donate hundreds of handcrafted pens to military personnel as part of the group's annual "Pens For Troops" program.
A father of two and grandfather of five, Miotke has made items for his home and family members, but he continues to learn new techniques and make more complicated pieces.
"I want to keep this a hobby," Miotke says, "but I'd like to try to get in a gallery someday."
Then maybe one of his pieces will lure somebody else into the world of woodturning.