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An artist molding clay on a spinning wheel can keep starting over as long as the clay stays moist, but blocks of wood are far less forgiving.
“So, you get what we call ‘creative opportunities!’” said avid woodturner Father David Means, pastor of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Chamois and Assumption Parish in Morrison.
Sometimes, the wood cracks and splinters before it even gets attached to the lathe.
“So, it’s either a design opportunity or it’s firewood, depending the extent of the crack and your attitude that day,” said Fr. Means.
The priest’s enthusiasm for woodturning has reached its zenith in a new workshop he built near Most Pure Heart of Mary Church.
“I like a challenge!” he said. “I like trying different things. I sort of pick up inspiration somewhere along the way and have these ideas and want to try them out.”
Woodturning involves attaching a piece of wood to a lathe, which spins the wood at various speeds, allowing the artisan to shape it with tools and then make it smooth with sandpaper.
Adjusting the lathe and working with tools of various shapes allows the artist to draw increasingly complex textures and designs out of each piece of wood.
“A lot of woodturners think of wood as a medium for them to express their artistic ability,” said Fr. Means. “I see my role as an artist as bringing the beauty of the wood out and letting it be seen to the fullest.”
Although he’s a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Fr. Means has relatives all over the Chamois and Morrison areas, where his parents grew up.
“I think I have some familial connection to at least two-thirds of the people buried in the Morrison Cemetery,” he said.
After ministering in several parishes in the archdiocese and serving as a missionary in Alaska and later in Siberia, he wanted to be stationed close to home so he could look out for his parents, who were elderly.
Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos of Jefferson City and Archbishop Emeritus Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis worked out an agreement for the priest to minister in Chamois and Morrison.
Fr. Means quickly reconnected with woodturning, something he’d dabbled in as a teenager but had been too busy since then to pursue.
“It’s relaxing,” he said. “It’s good to find a hobby and have the ability to work at it and have it keep me from getting too stir-crazy in the evenings.”
He started working on his father’s lathe at his parents’ house outside Chamois, then acquired a larger lathe of his own.
Supplemental acquisitions began filling the rectory garage while Fr. Means’s car got slowly exiled to the driveway.
“It wound up getting beat up in a hailstorm, but it was otherwise a great thing,” he recalled. “I was doing the work out in the garage with this new and larger lathe.”
After Fr. Means’s parents died, he asked Archbishop Carlson and Bishop W. Shawn McKnight if he could continue ministering in Chamois.
Both agreed that he could.
Mr. and Mrs. Means left their son some money, which he used to buy an empty lot across the street from the rectory in Chamois.
There, with Bishop McKnight’s permission, Fr. Means built the wood shop of his dreams.
He constructed the cupulas and turned the pillars for the entrance while the building was going up.
He painted the outside blue in honor of the Blessed Mother, but inside is all St. Joseph — filled with tools and materials.
The priest recently acquired a Robust American Beauty Lathe — one of the largest home lathes on the market.
He purchased an engine lift for moving large, heavy pieces of wood into place for turning.
“You know, any woodturner or wood-worker probably gets accused of collecting too many tools and too much wood,” he said.
Turn, turn, turn!
Fr. Means studied math and physics before entering the seminary, giving him a methodical approach to things.
“I like seeing the whole piece and working with it altogether,” he said of his woodturning projects. “You have to learn to have that vision from the beginning of where it’s going to go.”
The work engages the analytical and artistic sides of his mind: admiring the color, texture and grain of a particular piece of wood, visualizing what kind of object it could be transformed into, and determining how best to fasten it to the lathe to achieve the desired effects.
It requires a strong, steady hand and a responsive-enough touch to notice when the wood is about to give way.
Fr. Means wears thick gloves, protective eyewear and a facemask to avoid inhaling the sawdust.
“Back when I was in school, I had a piece fly off and hit me right above the eye,” he recalled. “I still have a scar there.”
He joined the American Association of Woodturners and a local affiliate, the Mid-Missouri Woodturners.
The local group meets regularly in-person or by webcam to share techniques and inspiration.
The national organization holds annual conventions, most recently in Chattanooga, to showcase new tools and techniques.
“It just amazes me to see their precision and the care that they take to make a cut,” he said of some of the master craftsmen he sees at the national gatherings.
“They keep their tools sharp,” he added.
’Round and ’round
A large room in Fr. Means’s workshop has shelves for storing works-in-progress and for gently drying wood before turning it.
“I’ve got all kinds of unfinished pieces that didn’t work out, and others that take a different direction,” he said.
If a piece of wood hasn’t dried correctly or evenly, it can crack while he’s carving it on the lathe.
There are tricks for helping wood dry properly — from light wax coatings or storing it in a paper bag with some wood shavings.
“Sometimes, that’s enough to hold a little atmosphere around it, to give it a nice, slow drying, where the moisture can escape evenly,” he said. “That prevents the cracking.”
Sometimes, he’ll rough out a piece of wood into a hint of the shape it will eventually hold, then put it away to dry for several months.
“Then, if you’re lucky, it doesn’t crack when you go back and re-turn it,” he said. “That’s what we call ‘twice-turned.’”
“All kinds of things”
Fr. Means marvels at the diversity of colors, density, texture and grain of wood from various types of trees.
Some he buys from venders specializing in exotic specimens from around the world.
Most comes from much closer to home.
“Parishioners now drop wood off at my driveway, stuff they think I want to turn,” he said.
His rectory is a showcase of his handiwork, including bowls, pillars, medallions and tall, thin goblets, each skillfully fashioned from seemingly the most unlikely materials.
Some of the pieces are almost impossibly delicate, taking the density of the wood to its limit and embellishing it with lace-like intricacy.
He turned one of the medallions from three separate focal points, creating a pattern reminiscent of the Holy Trinity: three yet distinctly one.
He turned the corners for the crown molding around the ceiling of the rectory foyer, dining room, staircase and study, along with the finials mounted above the dining room table.
“Right now, I’m working on a series of boxes,” he said, showing a collection of intricately faceted round containers with equally elaborate, matching lids.
Some of his pieces are made from where two or more branches diverged from the trunk or from one another while the tree was growing. This formation results in some of the most intriguing wood-grain patterns.
“You get this feathering in the middle,” he said while holding a bowl fashioned from such a specimen. “They are some of the prettiest pieces.”
But because they’re very dense, they can also be unpredictable and unwieldly while being turned.
That’s fine with Fr. Means. He’s always up for a challenge.
“I try a lot of different things,” he said. “Even in woodturning, some guys develop a style and sort of stick with it. I enjoy doing all kinds of different things. I want to try everything. I still have a whole wish list of things I should still be doing and haven’t gotten around to trying.”
He created two large pieces for Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri’s new headquarters in Jefferson City when it opened last fall.
The larger piece, which stands near the elevator and the entrance to the chapel, is called, “Open Hands, Open Hearts,” which was the theme of the yearlong capital campaign for constructing the Catholic Charities Center.
Made of a large maple log with two branches and standing over 5 feet tall, the work depicts a deep red heart resting in an open human hand atop an arm lifted into the air.
A simple cross rises above the heart.
Fr. Means ministered in Siberia from 1996-2009, while Russia was shedding its Soviet persona.
Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox clergy and laity enthusiastically cooperated to advance the Christian faith among people who had been deprived of it for decades.
“It was a great thrill to be part of the reemerging Church,” he said. “We were aware of the need for unity and prayed for the unity of the Eastern and Western arms of Christianity.”
Fr. Means still prays the “Our Father” in Russian for the Church in Russia and for unity and peace among all Christians.
Inspired by his experience there, he purchased eight unique pieces of wood and spun them into intricate, onion-shaped domes mimicking those of St. Basil Cathedral in Moscow, a universally-recognizable symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Nearby, numerous other pieces of wood rest in various stages of revelation, awaiting just the right amount of seasoning and inspiration.
Some are pieces that cracked on the lathe. Fr. Means can mix colored sawdust with epoxy to fill the cracks and add unanticipated beauty to the finished work.
“I come back here looking for projects, thinking, ‘What can I finish now?’” he said.
His restless mind relishes the possibilities.
“There’s always another something to try!” he said.