Bowled Over
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Wednesday, June 26, 2019
By Austin Rese
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Ah…the aroma of fresh cut wood…it is a fragrance as easily identifiable as popcorn or chocolate.

 

The air was thick with it.

 

 

It is always a treat to observe artisans creating. -- The Holland Bowl Mill of Holland, Michigan, is the ideal spot to encounter such. On a recent visit of the area, I did just that.

 

 

It is an unassuming spot. No pretensions. No fanfare. Upon entering the workshop, you are greeted by Kory Gier. His enthusiasm is the spark that makes this experience interesting. No wonder, as he is the great grandson of Chester VanTongeren, the man who started this company in 1926. True to the town’s Dutch roots, the company first offered wooden shoes. Under the insightful guidance of Chester’s grandson, David Grier, the company began creating wooden bowls in the mid-1980’s. I believe Kory’s zeal is in his DNA!

 

Creating a wooden bowl is a multi-step process:

 

1) Harvest Lumber- Of course, it all begins with the wood. This isn’t a happenstance effort. Instead, select cutting is mandatory. By cutting trees of 16” diameter or greater, sunlight is given a window into the forest. This process allows the smaller trees and wildlife to flourish. Holland Bowl Mill features cherry, walnut, beech, hard maple, and red oak…..all species found within the state and that of its neighbors, Indiana & Ohio.

 

2) Cutting---First, large blocks of the 8’-12’ long logs are cut. From these chunks are cut the “bowl blanks” in which a series of bowls is derived.  This is a sustainable process, as even the scraps are turned into fireplace kindling and horse bedding.

 

 

3) Nesting—this was fascinating to watch. Before my very eyes, an extremely skilled artisan took one of these “bowl blanks” and began spinning sets of bowls. Each a descending size of the next until approximately 4 bowls were created. At this point, the wood is rough, round bottom, and potentially full of sap.

 

4) Steaming---for 4 hours the newly cut bowls enjoy a steam bath, allowing the moisture to penetrate the wood’s pores and draw out the sap. This avoids the potential cracking of the wood during the drying process.

 

5) Drying I ---for nearly 30 days, the bowls are allowed to dry, becoming acclimated to the air.

 

6) Sanding—now the bowl gets a smooth finish and a flat bottom.

 

 

7) Oiling---the bowl gets it pedigree of functionality as well as style.  A unique formula of mineral oil + beeswax is spread over each bowl, allowing it to be safe for food.

 

8) Drying II—this is the final stage before it goes to market.

 

9) To Market---at the tune of nearly 1000 bowls per week, these creations find a home in all 50 states as well as a global marketplace.

 

 

Walking about the workshop, you could easily see the rows and rows of drying bowls. They were fascinating, as you could see the various finishes, woodgrains, and shapes. It was easy to spot the creative process in action as some were quite unique in character and detail. My mind began to spin with possibilities!

An onsite retail store shared some of these sculptural creations alongside the mainstay of bowls. The handiwork was amazing. You could easily sense the heart and hand in each piece. From the coos of fellow shoppers, I was not alone in my feelings.

 

In today’s marketplace of “imported everything”, it is quite refreshing to see and touch something that can truly carry the pride of being made in the USA. Maybe that, too, was the glimmer in Kory’s eyes.

 

 

I left with more than a bowl in my hands. I left with a sense of gratification that comes from experiencing dedication to a craft. ---This family of artisans shared that too.

 

 

 

This was A Moment in America.  

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