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Bowls of fun for seniors

Friendly Valley resident starts a woodworking group that creates beautiful art

Posted: July 30, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 30, 2012 2:00 a.m.

John Lamkin, left, and Yoshi Muramatsu set up the wood lathe before starting the process of using a wood chisel to shape a laminated hardwood bowl blank on the lathe with in the Friendly Valley wood shop on Thursday.

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When some of the seniors who live in Friendly Valley go “bowling,” it isn’t to knock pins down, it is to, literally, “turn out” wooden works of art. Specifically wooden bowls with layers of wood glued together and then turned on a lathe.

“We’re a bowl-making club, so to speak,” said Gary Simpson, who got the whole thing going. “We have five really serious bowl-makers, and about five that do less.”

This past Thursday, I met with Simpson and two other of the “serious” types, John Lamkin and Yoshi Muramatsu, at the woodworking shop at Friendly Valley. All three of the men have lived in Friendly Valley between one year and two, and all three enjoy many other activities there as well. For example, Simpson and Muramatsu often golf together — which brought out some questions from this reporter when I learned Simpson is legally blind (but that’s another story).

However, Simpson’s loss of eyesight, from macular degeneration, in a way, directly led to the bowl-making club.

Joining the club

After his career as a pipe fitter (“doing anything with pipe”) and having always worked in metal, Simpson said he learned to make wooden bowls through a training program with the Veterans Administration. It was a program designed to help him use his remaining eyesight and make him more independent.

Simpson said he now volunteers with that Vision Impairment Services Team, in downtown Los Angeles.

After his VA training, Simpson was hooked on wood. “When I got home I bought a table saw and a lathe,” he said.

And these had special safety devices to protect someone with limited eyesight. He said he now has a full woodworking shop in his garage — however the bowl-makers do their work in the Friendly Valley woodworking shop.

When other Friendly Valley residents see Simpson’s creations, they are sometimes inspired to take up the art. Such was the case with Lamkin, who said his career was as a carpenter, doing alterations, but he’s only been making bowls for about a year.

Muramatsu said he’s been bowl-making for about a year as well. His career was first as an employee of the Japanese agricultural department in the U.S., and then later as an agricultural consultant, shipping food items to Japan.

Currently, Muramatsu is working with basic wooden bowls of one or two layers of wood, but he hopes to increase his skill and make those with multiple layers soon, as do Lamkin and Simpson.


The bowl-making process has several steps. A simple, two-layer bowl is made of two pieces of wood and can take a couple hours to fashion. A multiple-layer bowl can take up to 14 hours of work — and that’s aside from time waiting while glue dries.

The multi-layer process begins with the creation of seven rings, each with 12 pieces of wood, cut with a 15 degree angle on each end. Mixing the hardwoods used, such as red oak, birch and poplar, helps create elegant color patterns in the final product. These pieces are glued in a ring (Titebond Wood Glue), and when securely set, the rings are glued on top of each other, with their “points” staggered. The rings are then glued to the base.

When all this is set, the bowl is turned on the lathe to smooth the outside and inside, and when this is accomplished, the bowl is sanded with ever-finer grits of sandpaper.

The last step is rubbing the bowl with canola oil, which imparts an attractive gloss and brings out the colors and grain of the wood. Canola oil is also safe to use with food in the bowls.

Turning out bowls

A multi-layered wooden bowl can be a beautiful thing, with offset patterns of wood of different colors. Simpson said his better bowls could possibly fetch $300 to $400 dollars if he sold them. But he doesn’t.

In fact, all three of the men said their bowls are either kept, or given as gifts to friends or family. They aren’t doing it for profit, they are doing it for the satisfaction of creating such beauty, and for the camaraderie with the other bowl-makers, who share ideas and help each other.



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