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updated: 3/7/2013 8:18 AM

Peoria man carves niche as woodturner

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  • Richard Coers uses a lathe and a chisel to transform a block of wood into a bowl at The Atelier Building in Peoria.

    Richard Coers uses a lathe and a chisel to transform a block of wood into a bowl at The Atelier Building in Peoria.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

PEORIA -- You could say there are two sides to Richard Coers.

There's the left-brained side that works at Caterpillar, producing models out of wood, steel and foam. Then there's the right-brained side, the artist who uses a lathe and a chisel to transform blocks of wood into elegant pieces of art.

Coers works in the Industrial Design Group at Caterpillar Inc. and is one of two employees who create models of machines for trade shows and trial exhibits, and to send to dealers and operators.

When he's not at his day job, Coers is turning wooden bowls and helping to further the Central Illinois Artists Organization, of which he is a member. He'll be the featured artist at CIAO's First Friday event on March 1. Coers will display his work at The Atelier Building, 1000 SW Adams St.

"I think it is somewhat unusual," he says of his engineering-art combo. "I love to problem-solve and come up with ideas at Cat, because it's all specialty work. But I do get a lot of joy from developing something that's pleasing to look at."

Coers, 60, has always worked with his hands. He was raised on a farm in Hartsburg, about 35 miles south of Peoria.

"(I) couldn't wait to get off the farm, but my work ethic, decision making and confidence to make or fix anything was started there," said Coers, who preferred working in the repair shop over caring for livestock any day.

Coers was first hired at Caterpillar in 1972, after graduating from a technical school in Indianapolis. He started as a draftsman, then left after 14 years to start Coers Custom Woodworking and to work for the Peoria-based magazine Woodworkers Journal.

When the magazine was sold, he returned to Caterpillar about 15 years ago, to work as a designer.

"When I started, we were more like sculptors. Now, much of the work is done by computer," Coers said recently at Caterpillar's Mossville plant, as he guided a computer numerical controlled router -- a robot that basically does the work of a sculptor -- to mechanically shave a piece of rigid urethane foam into a grooved footpad. The model pieces are much lighter than the real machinery and more affordable to ship.

In the evenings and on weekends, Coers -- a member of Central Illinois Woodturners -- creates decorative bowls and jewelry.

When he's at the lathe, he is fully engrossed, attentive to the pull of the wood's grain. Wood chips fly into the air, landing on his shoulders and in his beard, the curls piling up at his feet.

"Woodturning is a lot about subtlety -- subtlety of hand and arm direction and hand turning," he said recently while turning a maple bowl at The Atelier Building. "There's a lot about woodturning that's a lot more personal," he said.

These days, Coers has scaled back his furniture production; he can't sling around a full sheet of plywood like he used to, and the arthritis in his hands sometimes flares ("I've been using these things like clamps for 40 years.")

He prefers smaller projects, such as a line of pendants he creates from the wood left over from pistol handles. With the bowls, he experiments with texture and color and uses a soldering tool to burn decorative details.

Coers says retirement from his day job is not too far out, and when that happens, he'll add large-scale wall-hangings to his art repertoire, travel to more art fairs and become more involved in CIAO. He says the organization is bringing a vibrant presence to Peoria's Warehouse District.

"You're going to studios, seeing work spaces, seeing finished art, meeting the artist and seeing when and where it was created. To me, that puts a personality on the art itself," he said.

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