Leaning close over a sparking, spinning metal sharpener, Ben Carpenter readies a gouge to rough turn his latest creation. Hanging lights glint off his large glasses and he tests the tip before pressing it against the octagonal hunk of maple fastened in the lathe.
Legs splayed on either side of the lathe and curly, brown hair full of maple shavings, the 30-year-old flashes a crooked smile. He’s thin and dressed in thrift store clothes, which he began wearing after his trust fund ran out three years ago.
Carpenter learned woodturning 15 years ago from his former elementary school principal Jim Christiansen. Sculpting drew his interest from the start, but push came to financial shove and Carpenter had to turn his hobby into a profitable way of life.
“I decided it was time to see if I could make a living on my own,” Carpenter said.
He began producing high-quality, hand-turned wooden bowls out of scavenged wood to sell at the Moscow Farmers Market several years ago. Yes, he said, at least four people remind him every Saturday that his name is also his job title. The market’s drawback is that it only lasts half the year, so Carpenter lives through the winter on summer savings.
“Right now I’m just scraping the bottom of the barrel,” he said in March.
He lived in a modified short bus for a year in Portland and another in Moscow, and after five years of driving it, said the looks he gets from passersby still justify getting eight miles to the gallon. These days, he uses the bus to haul maple, walnut and oak logs to a shared shop in Christiansen’s backyard.
Christiansen, a 68-year-old educator, said several people make use of his shop daily, and estimated he’s tutored about 25 serious woodturners.
“Now in the Moscow area we have quite a few who are ‘world class,’” he said.
Carpenter scaled back his sculpting in favor of more marketable products.
“I sold three sculptures and more than a hundred bowls last season,” Carpenter said.
His father was a general contractor who worked in construction and built furniture while he was growing up. His whittling habit started early and with an entrepreneurial twist.
“I carved wooden sticks when I was like 8 years old and set up shop on a sidewalk,” Carpenter said. “They didn’t sell.”
Later, he and a classmate fashioned wooden yo-yos to sell for a junior high project that were more fiscally successful. Soon after, he saw woodturning on TV and his parents directed him across the block to “Dr. C,” who mentored him as part of the gifted and talented enrichment/exploration learning program at Moscow Junior High.
Carpenter still does most of his work in the shared shop across from the house he grew up in. He said working in a communal shop has its challenges, but he’s made a series of improvements with salvaged items: A University of Idaho projector screen can be pulled down to contain wood shavings, a Habitat for Humanity oven vent sucks toxic fumes from the small shop, a dining room tabletop from Carpenter’s childhood is re-purposed to a desktop, and a vacuum system crafted from Moscow-Pullman Daily News tubing hangs at the ready.
Carpenter likes to keep his work close to home, and is reluctant to ship pieces to galleries or far-off boutiques.
“The market is great,” Carpenter said. “I can make stuff every week and people buy it. It’s super motivating.”
Carpenter said the solitary nature of his profession is tough, but the pay-off for discipline is dinner. Since his practical ventures bolstered his bank account, Carpenter has begun enterprising again. He introduced lamp bases at a winter market, and plans to get into furniture building or blacksmithing. Although household items pay most of his bills, art is still part of his business.
Carpenter’s sculptures were recently featured in the first One World Cafe art show. Sarah Hultin, OWC art coordinator, said Carpenter was an easy choice for the exhibition. A variety of media adorned the coffee shop’s walls in February, and Carpenter’s were the only sculptures. He was also the only artist of 75 who responded to Hultin’s call for submissions in person.
“He walked in with a piece of wood on his back,” Hultin said. “It was a memorable first impression.”
Most of Carpenter’s traits are a little out of the ordinary, from his ride to his work, and he’s made a business out of singularity.
“I started with art, then the bowls and now I’m getting into furniture,” Carpenter said. “I guess that’s a little opposite of how most people do it.”
Opposite or otherwise, Carpenter fulfills the legacy of his surname as an artist and entrepreneur.
Alex Aguirre — Blot Ben Carpenter selects a piece of wood, sharpens his gouge and shapes the bowl. The transformation from hunk of green wood to completed bowl is speedy, seamless and beautiful to watch. After making substantial process turning a new bowl on his lathe, Carpenter shows off some of his most time consuming pieces, which he stores in his Moscow home.