TINTON FALLS – A few years back, a friend suggested to retired Bell Labs engineer Blake Patterson that he might enjoy doing some woodworking on a small lathe.
Patterson gave it a try, shaping some dowels to start and then struggling to turn a large bowl. Four years later, he has not only mastered the tool but has perfected the art of handcrafting bowls from small pieces of recycled wood in a technique called segmenting.
The vast majority of bowl-turners start with a large, 50-pound block of wood to ultimately shape it into a 1-pound bowl. Most experienced bowl-turners acknowledge that a segmenter must be precise, meticulous and patient. They are known to describe them as “a little nuts.”
“I’m not sure about the latter,” the retired engineer laughs, “but I qualify in all the other categories.”
Surrounded by dozens and dozens of bowls, Patterson talks about something that started as a hobby and has turned into almost an obsession.
“A bowl can take nearly 30 hours to finish,” he says, “and each one is unique as I use different wood and recycled materials.” Patterson doesn’t have a specific plan when he adds his first glued segment-circle to a solid base using strong, waterproof glue. “I work from inspiration and decisions I make along the way as the bowl gets larger with each subsequent ring.”
The small, original hobby lathe is long gone with Patterson now using a commercial machine to finish his unique art which has been exhibited and sold regionally.
“I’m self-taught and found working with wood segment rings might be harder, but it was safer than carving from a single block.”
As an engineer (he holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Cal Berkley), Patterson has always been a problem-solver and for years he, wife Ellen and their children, lived in a rambling, 30-room house in Rumson that always needed something fixed or replaced. “I learned along the way, and am not a stranger to figuring things out,” he said.
Patterson keeps many bowls in production at one time. He has converted part of the basement in his Tinton Falls condominium into a workshop with a variety of power tools, including sanders, grinders and his prized lathe.
Patterson’s first lathe cost about $100. Today, he has a small lathe in Florida and nearly half his bowls were finished on these small machines. His large commercial lathe with variable speeds and other bells and whistles costs thousands.
The creative process starts with gluing, mostly recycled, small wood segments into a ring and affixing it to a base. Patterson incorporates wood of contrasting colors and other materials to help make patterns of diamonds, squares and ovals. Rings can take up to an hour to glue and then need time to set.
Additional rings are overlapped and fastened as the bowl grows until Patterson feels it is done and ready for final shaping on the lathe and sander. The final product, ready for sealing with clear varnish to reveal all the beauty of the wood, may not be ready for a month.
Raw materials are mostly free from the wood Patterson can literally pick up off the street. It includes old doors and furniture or pieces from a downed tree or other scrap. He buys small quantities of exotic woods to use as highlights.
Patterson isn’t sure why this hobby has almost become an obsession. He thinks it may have something to do with the problem solving that goes into each creation several times as it emerges from the wood.
“Maybe it is in my engineering blood,” he suggests.
Patterson has always enjoyed technical challenges. A Michigan native, he learned to play the bassoon, a very technical instrument, at an early age.
“My first job after getting my Ph.D. wasn’t as an engineer,” Patterson says, “it was at second bassoonist in the New Jersey Symphony where I met my wife Ellen.”
He has played with many New Jersey orchestras over the years, including two decades with the Garden State Symphony and the Metro Lyric Opera.
Even today, he relaxes playing the bassoon while listening to recordings of the world’s most famous orchestras. “It’s kind of fun to re-record how I sound in a New York Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony concert,” Patterson says with a laugh.
Patterson earned his undergraduate degree in engineering and math at the University of Michigan and as a child of the ‘60s, answered then-President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to serve by spending two years in the Peace Corps in Nigeria, putting his engineering skills to practical use.
Today, Patterson can spend several hours a day working on his creations, both here in New Jersey and at a winter retreat in Florida. With dozens of bowls on display in his home and friends’ homes, he and his wife think it might be time to begin selling some of the inventory and plan to exhibit pieces at local arts and crafts’ festivals in the coming months. There could even be a Blake Patterson Bowls website in the future.
You might think that many of Patterson’s creations never reach completion with the precise gluing stages for each ring before a rough bowl is mounted on the lathe for finishing. “Surprisingly,” he says, “at least for me, that isn’t the case. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of solving problems along the way and coming up with a fix if segments do not meet perfectly.”
Because each bowl is unique and different from the ones made yesterday or the ones to be made next week, Patterson isn’t anxious for a commission of eight pieces that are exactly alike as a set.
When it is all said and done, Patterson says, “Although you can say I create these bowls, I really don’t think I create anything but allow the wood to reveal itself in the objects I fashion.”
Some of Patterson’s segmented bowls are on display through Sunday, June 29, at the Monmouth County Library’s headquarters at 125 Symmes Drive, Manalapan, and the Eastern branch at 1001 Route 35, Shrewsbury.