We are fortunate here at Woodturners Unlimited to have one of the most experienced woodturners around as a regular contributing member. Wally Dickerman is an outstanding wood artist with a wealth of life experiences and has agreed to tell us his story for this month’s “Behind the Art” feature.

 

1922, Wally & his Mother
Wally & sisters visiting Grandparents farm in BC, Canada

Born in 1921 on a small farm in a very rural area east of Seattle, Wally had no electricity or telephone until he was several years old. Times were tough growing up with his two sisters during the Great Depression. “Living on a farm meant that we had plenty to eat but we had very little money. Patches on patches became the style”. Despite the times, Wally had no trouble finding work when he was off school. He and his sisters picked berries on nearby farms. He worked in hay fields and had a job at a silver fox farm. One summer he worked at a logging camp harvesting cedar for a shingle mill and as a senior in high school he worked weekends at a roller skating rink where he earned enough money to buy his first car. For $120, he got a 1930 Model A Ford that he filled up with gas at 10 cents a gallon!

 

Wally at 19 years old with his 2nd car, a 1934 Ford


Wally was a high school athlete being a member of the track team as well as a running back on the football team. It was also in high school where Wally was first exposed to woodturning. They had a big heavy Oliver lathe in their shop class but it was generally used only for spindle turning things such as table legs and candle sticks. Wally wanted to turn a bowl but the shop teacher knew nothing about how to do this so, as he would do many times in the years to come, he figured it out on his own. Using a piece of walnut and whatever tools seemed to work, he made a nut bowl for his mother and got an A in the class. The following summer, at age 15, he saved the 2 dollars a day he was earning at the logging camp and bought his first lathe, a small Sears Dunlop.

 

Wally & friend with a very large 20 lb Steelhead

Shortly after graduating high school in 1939 he went to Alaska where he worked at a general store in the Indian village of Yakutat as well as part time on a crab fishing boat. “What a place for a young guy who loved the outdoors. Moose, bear, mountain goats and some of the best trout and salmon fishing imaginable.”  He returned to Seattle two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He married his wife in 1942 and shortly thereafter joined the Navy to do his part in the war effort.

 

He was ultimately assigned to the Navy destroyer USS Cassin Young which is now a national monument in Boston. He saw a lot of combat action, including a couple of kamikaze strikes, while participating in the invasions of Saipan, Leyte, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was discharged from the Navy in late 1945 with 2 purple hearts. He met his daughter for the first time when she was 5 months old, just before he shipped out, and then again on his return when she was 2 years old and the three of them could live together as a family for the first time.

Home on leave, Sept 1945, Carol was a bit over 2 years old.

 

Wally was an avid Duck hunter and considered his Labrador Retriever essential to his hunting experience.

 

 

Being a lover of hunting and fishing, Wally decided to get involved in the sporting goods business. He went to work for a large sporting goods store in Seattle where he was soon put in charge of their gun department. A few years later he got into the wholesale side of things where he remained until he retired in 1986.

 

 

A couple years later, being avid boaters, Wally and his wife sold their home and moved onto their boat, a 45 foot twin diesel craft. Summers were spent cruising Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and north into Canadian waters. Their home port was Anacortes, Washington where he rented some space for a workshop

 

 During the spring and fall, he became a full time wood turner and in the winter they spent a few months in Arizona where he and his wife now live full time, having celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last year! (July 2013 Wally and Jane will celebrate their 71st wedding anniversary and a few days later Wally will turn 92!!

Wally, his wife Jane & daughter Carol

 

Woodturning has been a lifelong hobby for Wally. After that first Sears lathe he bought in high school, he went through a succession of lathes, each a little bigger and better than the last. He is now on number 9, a Oneway that is serving him well. Wally has seen a great deal of change in woodturning through the years. Being interested in bowls when everyone else was turning spindles required a great deal of innovation. “Tools and lathes were made with the spindle turner in mind. I wanted to turn bowls so I had to make my own hollowing tools. Mostly heavy duty scrapers and a lot of 80 grit sandpaper. One of my favorite tools was made from a car leaf spring. I had the local blacksmith temper it and shape it the way I wanted it. I made a screw chuck using a faceplate, a block of wood and a shortened lag bolt. It worked very well.”

 

Although proficient at a variety of styles, Wally has been focusing primarily on hollow forms for a number of years. Around 1978, Fine Woodworking ran an article featuring David Ellsworth and his thin walled hollow forms. “Nobody had ever done that kind of work before. I was fascinated and determined that I would try to do that myself. There were no tools available for turning hollow forms so I had to make my own. I started out with a shop-made boring bar. A two foot long ¾ x ¾ inch piece of steel with two 3/16 inch cutters, one at each end. One was bored in straight and the other at around 20 degrees. It worked very well, though by today’s standards was quite limited. My first commercially made hollowing tool was made by Jerry Glaser. A boring bar with an articulated head. My second, bought in 1987 was a Dennis Stewart arm-brace hook tool. I still use that tool today.”

 

The relative isolation Wally experienced was a big difference from the fellowship and camaraderie we as turners enjoy these days. “There were a few woodworkers turning table legs but no bowl turners that I knew of.” That changed in 1983 or 84 when a Seattle woodworking store advertised an all-day demonstration by an accomplished wood turner. That turner was Dale Nish. “I had his first book and it was my turning bible. About 20 turners attended, all with the same question for Dale… What’s the best way to hollow a bowl? Well, Dale showed us. He used a tool that neatly hollowed a bowl in a few minutes. We all sat there wide-eyed as the chips flew. None of us had ever seen a bowl gouge before. That was the first time I’d ever rubbed shoulders with other turners. Several of us became good friends and still are. Later we got together and formed a woodturning club. It later became one of the first AAW chapters. My woodturning life had changed forever.” Wally is a charter member of the AAW and has attended quite a few symposia including their first one in 1987 in Lexington, KY with around 400 in attendance.

 

He has never had a formal lesson but Wally does note that he learned a lot from both Richard Raffan and Rude Osolnik. He spent some time with both of them, assisting in classes they taught in the Seattle area. He has also assisted Ray Key and Vic Wood. When asked who else has influenced him and who’s work he admires, Wally states, “There are several turners that I would love to spend time with. Binh Pho, Alan Carter, David Ellsworth, Terry Scott, Don Derry, and Graeme Priddle, to name a few. Michael Peterson with his Southwest forms was an early influence. I’m hooked on curves. I see curves in nature and that fascinates me.”

 

Wally greatly enjoys teaching as well. During the 1990’s he taught evening classes at a private school woodshop along with Bonnie Klein. He’s demonstrated at many local clubs in Washington and Arizona in addition to being invited to demonstrate at the AAW national meeting and the Utah symposium in Provo. Wally figures he’s taught over 500 students, mostly beginners, and his advice is “Get started right by taking a class from a good instructor or an experienced mentor. Watching videos and demos helps but there is no substitute for hands-on learning.” He taught classes at the woodshop of his retirement community for 10 years though now limits his teaching to an occasional one on one in his shop and limits his demonstrating to his local club in Tucson.

 

There have been a lot of changes since Wally started turning in 1936 and he finds its current popularity to be astounding. “High speed steel tools and the advent of the bowl gouge in the early 80’s really started it. The AAW started in 1986 and now there are over 300 associated clubs. Books, videos, websites and symposiums large and small have given today’s turners opportunities that I never had. The flood of new equipment, such as lathes equipped with sliding headstocks, larger capacities and better controls, and a continuing list of new hollowing tools and gadgets, make woodturning a wonderful hobby for an increasing number of people.”

 

“I became fascinated with woodturning as a boy of 15 and now today at age 91, I’m still just as enthused and fascinated as I was then. What a wonderful lifelong hobby woodturning has been.” It has truly been a pleasure getting to know Wally a little bit while writing this article. He has led a remarkable life, has wealth of knowledge and experience, and is passionate about his art and craft and about helping others along this road. We are very fortunate to have him as an active member of our Woodturners Unlimited community. I also find it inspirational to see a man of 91 years learning and experimenting with new techniques, keeping up with new technologies (he’s quite competent with the computer and online communities), and actively living in the present. As he told me, “My great grandfather died at age 98 and my father was 98 when he died. I plan to live longer than both.” I believe he will.

 

Now that we have gotten to know the man just a bit, here is a small sampling of his art - in no particular order.

 

 

 

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Sunday the 18th. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.