Woodturning With Phil Holtan

Phil Holtan

A regular during Ingebretsen’s annual week of craft demonstrations, Phil Holtan, a professional woodturner, is always a crowd pleaser! His visit’s are an unique opportunity to see a demonstration of woodturning and speak with artist behind the lathe.

What is woodturning?

Woodturning is a unique form of woodworking that uses a tool called a lathe. Similar to a potter’s wheel, the wood lathe is a mechanism which can generate a variety of forms. The operator is known as a turner, and the skills needed to use the tools were traditionally known as turnery.

A very special mortar and pestle made for his son Mark’s Doctor of Pharmacy graduation

In the digital age, where so much of our lives seems far removed from the physical act of creation, woodturning is a creative art that literally returns to the roots of  wood that is formed by the seasons, and allows for a unique type of meditation that involves both mind and body.

So it’s not surprising that Phil Holtan is not only a woodturner but also a Lutheran pastor. He was a campus pastor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota for 23 years. Now semi-retired, he is doing both interim pastoral work as well as more turning.

His Work

Phil says, “What both vocations have in common is my calling to explore the gifts we have from God and use them for the service of others and the praise of God. That means making beauty with wood and making joy, justice and community with other people.”

The Kransekake Trees

Phil’s turned wooden bowls are known for their unusual wood, beautiful shapes, natural edges, and translucent thinness.  He has turned wood seriously for the past 30 years and has shown his work, demonstrated and won prizes at shows all over the Upper Midwest.  He is an active and sought-out teacher with over 1600 graduates of his weekend woodturning workshops.

Phil designed what he has calls Kransekake, a a ringed tree inspired by the Norwegian wedding cake, the Kransekake, or “wreathed cake.” Here is a video of his last visit to Ingebretsen’s where he demonstrated how he creates these unique pieces:

“For a wedding, the endless and multiple rings symbolize forever and so does the evergreen tree shape. I often turn them at art shows and people love to watch the rings cut loose.”

Phil’s new workshop

You can hear Phil discuss his work on Ampers. Ampers is a group of 18 different community radio stations throughout Minnesota

Phil recently moved his home and workshop from Perham, Minnesota to Eagan, Minnesota to be closer to his kids and grandkids. It was a major move and took nearly two months of working non-stop to get his new shop set up. You can see the shop he had in Perham in this video. (Note: the beginning is a bit misleading but at :28 Phil will show up.)

A Funny Story

Garrison Keillor once wore one of his bowls on his head, and yes there is a story behind that. In 1992 a number of diseased elm trees and mature box elders were removed from the Prairie Home Cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota. Phil “harvested several of the prime logs” from the trees that were removed “for a special collection of wooden bowls.”

Six nested bowls from a very unusual “eyed” sugar maple burl

Directly from Phil:

In March of 1993, I was commissioned by Minnesota Public Radio to make one of those bowls for Garrison himself to be presented at the close of a live broadcast of the Prairie Home Companion.

I had turned his bowl from the part of the tree I knew would be the most colorful and highly figured, the crotch or “Y” of the tree.

  • I knew enough not to tell him it was from the crotch of the tree, though it was.
  • I knew enough not to tell him it was spalted, that is, rotten, though it was.
  • But I did tell him the bowl from an elm that died from Dutch Elm Disease.

I should have guessed what a comedian might do. He immediately put it on his head and said, “Just what I always wanted, a diseased bowl.”

A few weeks later, he sent me a letter, basically to apologize for what he had said and to explain how uncomfortable he was in receiving awards.  Then he closed the letter as follows:

“The roots of the elm reached down into the earth, gathered nutrition from our ancestors, transferred their earthly remains into wood, and now, the tree itself having fallen victim to disease, this bowl is left to tell the story, and to gather good things and hold them in a graceful way, as a symbol of those who kept the faith.

Please be assured that I will keep this bowl prominently in view and in my mind, will keep only what is most important in it, and will think of the cemetery and you whenever I look in it to find treasures.

With many thanks, Garrison Keillor”

More from Phil

“Working with wood is my passion. I love everything about it,

  • the wood itself, especially in its most humble and distressed forms,
  • the energizing burst of a new idea and the painstaking pace of problem solving,
  • the challenge of mastering tools to bring into being what I had only imagined,
  • the community formed of loggers and clients and fellow turners, And when all goes well,
  • the serendipitous harmony of color and curve, touch and translucence.

For me it is an act of both faith and imagination to turn a bowl. In my callings both as a pastor and an artist, I am reminded that God doesn’t work with perfect materials either. So I also must trust that in this distressed and unlikely wood, burled, decayed, worm eaten, twisted, bird-pecked, in this least likely looking material, most of all, there is the promise of beauty. This is my calling, to be a good steward of the things and people God has placed in my care.

This information was taken from Phil Holtan’s website. You will find more photos and stories as well as information on woodturning classes (if the spirit has moved you) and videos.