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December 16, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

Glowing stones Glowing stones (December 16, 2005)

Artist finds new life in turning stones

by Suman Mudamula

Steve "Spike" Finch's craft of turning stone on a lathe walks the thin line between art and home décor. Made from soapstone, and alabaster combined with wood inlays, his stone vessels -- vases, bowls or urns -- have an exotic appeal.

Finch is relatively new to creating artistic vessels. A heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technician until December 2003, he suffered a debilitating back injury. Looking for a diversion from the pain, he turned to his life-long hobby of wood turning. In the process he discovered not only the therapeutic effects on his body and mind, but a whole new career as an artist.

In an eerie but uplifting coincidence Finch recently discovered -- through an old newspaper article -- that his grandfather established a successful boat-building business after suffering a similar back injury.

Now 42, Finch was born in Menlo Park and grew up in a house just a block away from where he lives now with his wife Stephanie, who serves as marketing director for his new business. He attended Menlo-Atherton High School. As a teenager he learned woodturning on a lathe from his father. "I was fortunate to grow up around my parents who always built things at home and taught us kids how to make them," he said.

Nevertheless, it was his wife's love for stone vessels that prompted Finch to try his hand at stone turning. He started off by researching stones. With the elements of geological history and mystery associated with the stones, Finch found out that working with stone felt more fulfilling.

"It's not that I chose the stone but the stone chose me," he said. "With wood you pretty much know how it is going to turn out. It is mostly predictable."

Finch's newfound love for stone is steadfast and growing. "It's the wow factor for me. Every single time it's such a feeling that you get because the stone is so old. It is discovering history in your hands," he added.

To increase the beauty of his vessels Finch developed his signature ringed bases. Apart from reducing wood wastage, the ringed bases allow light to enter the vessels from all sides, and also show the best ingrain from every angle when on display.

Finch uses 18 pieces of Madagascar redwood or desert ironwood to make the ringed bases and rims. "I choose to make 18 pieces every time to be consistent and because I could set my wood-cutting equipment at a 10-degree angle. It is important to match up the pieces to form a perfect ring," he said.

With anywhere between six and 12 hours spent in his workshop every day Finch has developed a craftsman's skilled hands that can turn the stones up to 3/16-inch thin. He was disappointed that the vessels were getting unstable when he tried to turn them thinner.

Although not noticeable to an untrained eye, Finch abandons such vessels lacking uniformity to maintain his customer's trust. Sometimes he has to let an entire day's worth of work go to waste. "Wood is lot more forgiving, but stone could break easily. If made thinner, it has repercussions," he said.

Once Finch mounts the stone on the lathe with the help of a custom-made overhead hoist, and starts turning it while carving it with a carbide-tipped steel tool. "It could be dangerous if not for the system. So I have designed it, as I knew exactly what I needed," he said.

He calls the lathe "a horizontal potter's wheel." After giving the stone a rough shape, he attaches the wooden rim to the vessel. Putting it back on the lathe, he chisels it until he gets a final acceptable form. A simple squirt of water from a pre-installed thin hose sets off the patterns inside the stone in full view. The next step is to carve out the inner chunks of the stone to make the vessel hollow.

Finch has also perfected his carving tools to reduce wastage. He uses the chunks of stones carved out from inside the vessels to make smaller vessels. Anything is better than turning it into just dust, he said. Each palette of soapstone could cost anywhere from $80 to $250.

In order to bring out the trademark translucent quality of the stone vessels Finch undertakes extensive sandpapering. Working with the regular 60-grid to the very fine 12,000-grid sandpapers he brings out the vessel's smoothness and uniformity throughout. That is also "to get rid of any carving marks and give it a soft glow," he said. Then he makes sure the vessel is stable without any cracks. "Some can be fixed but some cannot." Later, he does wet-sanding, drying the vessel and gives it one final inspection.

When it comes to the finishing part, Finch likes to stay organic. He uses an organic paste wax, which smells of orange. "It doesn't have the repulsive chemical smell present in other finishing products," he said. As stone is porous, he seals the vessel with gel varnish before applying the finishing wax.

According to Finch, the stone turning made good business sense because it hit the right market. Except one other stone turner there is little competition in this field in this area, he said. Every gallery he visited received his work with great enthusiasm and thereafter it "just exploded," he added. He has sold close to 120 vessels so far.

Finch's labor-intensive pieces command from $225 to $1,500, a bit higher than when he started out a few months back.

Whereas Finch used to do a lot of complicated segmentation work combining wood and stone -- including the first one with half wood and half stone-- he is bowing to an increase in the demand for simpler vessels. "I sit back and let the stone do the speaking," he said.

"I'm always looking to evolve," Finch said, adding "I am always looking for ways to advance my skills. I am thinking about ways to take my vessels to the next level." He harbors ideas of using softer metals like copper for the rims, instead of wood. "I just hope it does what I want to do with it. Wouldn't that be cool?" he asked.

When not turning stone Finch is busy teaching or giving free demonstrations at Woodcraft in San Carlos. His work is currently on exhibit at the Between Waters Gallery & Design Group at Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park and Gump's in San Francisco.

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