As the Wheel TurnsAt first glance, Tom Dunne’s workspace could be that of any carpenter’s—until you spy the 50-year-old wood-turning lathe covered in dust (primarily used for teaching these days) and that some of the boards leaning against the walls are zebrawood from Africa.
“I’ve had a passion for wood as long as I can remember,” Dunne smiles. When he was eight he studied the cello from a man who was also a luther (someone who crafts violins by hand). While his sister was taking her violin lessons, Dunne would wander into his teacher’s workshop and stare at the tools and
at the violins in various states of completion, imagining what it would be like to make one.
Though Dunne picked up some woodworking skills fixing the boats his uncle made, his “first training came in seventh grade shop class.” After receiving his bachelor of science in mathematics from the University of Michigan, Dunne signed up for the Peace Corps and spent two years in Peru and three in Ecuador. It was here, while helping indigenous people market and develop their techniques and designs, that Dunne received his first training in wood carving.
As the Wheel Turns“I’m mostly self-taught,” Dunne says. “That’s one of the reasons that I got into teaching, it gives me a chance to help others avoid the pitfalls of trying to learn something that is not intuitively obvious.”
After earning his M.B.A. from Harvard University, spending 25 years in the corporate finance world, raising three children and losing his first wife to cancer, Dunne decided that it was time to “listen to his inner voice” and give wood turning a full-time chance. “If you’re trained to do something,” Dunne says, “you think that’s what you’re supposed to do forever, whether you like what you’re doing or not. I’m probably the only Harvard Business graduate who turns wood.”
Dunne calls himself a wood turner, but he does much more than just “turn.”
As the Wheel Turns“I don’t have a signature style and that’s hurt me commercially because you can’t point to one of my pieces and say, ‘that’s a Dunne.’ A lot of people go out looking for a piece of wood that will fit within their style, but I find the wood first and wait for it to tell me what to make it into.”
Dunne makes everything from bowls and serving pieces to sculptures and collectable art pieces. Some of it is turned, some of it is carved, some of it is segmented—and all of it is beautiful. “Some pieces of wood are really challenging—I might keep it around for 10 years before I decide what to do with it,” Dunne says.
As the Wheel TurnsAfter Dunne chooses a piece of wood, he rough turns it while it’s still green. “If you can turn it while it’s still wet, you can hopefully minimize it cracking as it dries,” Dunne explains. Depending on what he wants the finished product to look like, it could take a piece anywhere from six weeks to six months to dry. After a piece dries, Dunne will then re-turn it and if it’s a segmented piece, glue it. It sounds like a simple process, but when you take into account that as a piece of wood dries it will warp and often crack, not to mention that about one-third of pieces are lost at this stage, a simple wood bowl becomes a complex conglomeration of time, talent and luck.
Since the storm, Dunne has taken on a new type of project: Commission pieces. “I’ve gotten calls from people from all over asking me to take a piece of a favorite tree that fell on their property and make something out of it. I’ve been calling them the ‘Katrina series.’” Dunne says. “In Louisiana, wood rots so quickly from humidity, bugs, etcetera, that if I can use the wood, it then becomes a question of what to make. One commission told me price was not an object, another asked me to make eight pieces for $800—both are challenging in their own ways.”
As for what’s next, Dunne hopes to continue teaching and he and his second wife Sarah Ashe, an artist who makes light sculptures our of paper and reeds, are contemplating traveling more, giving back any way they can. “We want to re-capture that feeling of helping others we found in our time in the Peace Corps.” (Tom met Sarah when they were in the Peace Corps together.)
Dunne is also hard at work on that violin that he promised himself so many years ago, “I’m three-quarters through with it,” Dunne smiles wistfully, “I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be, but I’ve always wanted to make it.” One thing is for certain, we will be seeing more of Dunne in the years to come, “I love turning and I think I’ll probably continue turning until I can’t stand up anymore.” •

Tom Dunne: 891-0428,