Richard Raffan is a Contributing Editor to AWR. He is famous internationally as a woodturner and author of several classic books and videos on woodturning. Since 1973 his turned bowls and boxes have been acquired for many major public and private collections in Europe, North America, and Australia. He is semi-retired and living in Canberra.
Q: Okay we know you like it, but how did you get into woodworking?
A: I took up woodturning in January 1970 at the age of 26. I knew nothing about the craft but have earned my living from it ever since then. I was looking for a seachange, woodturning was suggested, and it seemed the right thing for me to do. I assumed I’d know if was going to enjoy the craft within a couple of weeks, and if I might be any good at it in a couple of months. I negotiated a deal with a small country production workshop: I paid a small fee for a year’s instruction and they kept everything I made.
After that I intended to set up a small factory with maybe six employees making a range of wooden kitchenware. I went out on my own five months later, selling bowls, scoops, chopping boards, and lamp bases to gift and kitchen shops out of the back of the car. Everything was sold on invoice and usually paid for in exchange for the goods. And that is essentially how I have continued to run my business, but with fewer retailers taking more work at a time.
Q: Who are your woodworking heroes/gods/gurus?
A: Successful designer/makers like Australians Tony Kenway, Greg Collins, and Jan Saltet, or Britons Chris Faulkner and Alan Peters. As a bowl-turner and boxmaker I’m more influenced by Korean, Japanese and Middle Eastern ceramics than woodworkers. The turners whose work I admire most are Irishman Liam Flynn, and local heroes Greg Collins and Grant Vaughn.
Q: What do you mainly make?
A: These days a range of bowls using green (unseasoned) wood, and a few boxes. In the 1970s I made and sold at least 100 scoops a week, plus bowls, plates, trays, chopping boards, boxes with suction fit lids, and spindles for antique restoration and the joinery and building trades.
Q: Your thoughts on traditional vs ‘new’ and digital?
A: As a designer/maker I try to think in terms of ‘timeless’. I want what I turn to last for centuries, otherwise why bother.
Q: What are you pet woodworking hates?
A: Woodturners preoccupied with finish and pretty wood at the expense of form. My Citadel Boxes are a statement against this. Furniture or turnings accompanied by pretentious explanatory essays: work should be able to stand on its own.
Q: What is your favourite hand tool/ machine/ timber/ woodie book?
A: Favourite handtool: My 50mm wide slick or 50mm carving gouge.
Favourite machine tool: I’m pushed to choose between my trusty 30 year old bandsaw and my relatively new Vicmarc VL300 lathe and the chucks that go with it. On the bandsaw I can cut just about any shape I want up to 30mm thick. Then the Vicmarc lathe is head and shoulders above its rivals for useability, making all turning jobs a lot easier.
Favourite turning tool: Raffan Kryo endgrain-hollowing gouge. Favourite Wood: Manchurian pear or claret ash.
Favourite woodie books: The Workbench Book by Scott Landis.
To the proverbial ‘desert island’ I’d take my version of a Japanese slick as it can be used for carving, turning, sharpening stakes, and other cutting. I’d build a pole lathe and get turning for the inevitable tourists so they have some souvenirs when they go away.
Q: The best thing you’ve ever made?
A: There have been some very good bowls ranging from 70mm to 450mm diameter.
Q: Your best excuse for not getting something quite right?
A: It’s my hope that everything is as good as I can make it at the time. Objects should only be not quite right in relation to the next generation of objects.
Q: Your most often-made mistake?
A: Mis-measuring for chucks—and this invariably adds another step to the project or becomes a design opportunity.
Q: Your biggest woodworking disaster!!?
A: Kiln drying large ash salad bowls in 1973: they looked fine on the outside but 90% had severe honeycomb splits internally that were revealed as I trued the bowls. These days turners might detail the splits and pass the degraded timber off as art, but in 1973 they were merely split and close on 100 roughed bowls went for firewood. I wasn’t earning much at the time.
Q: The thing I would most like to change about wood is…
A: I’d like to be able to freeze a wood at a given point in its deterioration to preserve it in the condition in which I should like to work it. Thus freshly felled casuarinas would stay wet and split-free for green turning; spalting could be halted at its prettiest just before the log softens to pulp.
Q: The thing I would most like to change about woodworkers is…
A: What can there be to change! I thought everyone knows that woodworkers are perfect beings without any of the faults of their chosen material…
Q: The thing I would most like to change about my own woodworking is…
A: Always I want to be more proficient and work more fluently.
Q: My final word on woodwork is…
A: Final is a bit final: As I drift into my retirement years woodturning has become my hobby rather than my profession. I expect to make fewer but ever better bowls and boxes, striving for the simplicity exemplified by the finest utilitarian bowls thrown throughout centuries by unknown Japanese and Korean potters.