Crafters turn hobbies into lessons for local students

From L-R, Carmine Prioli, Cecil Sparrow and Frank Penta show off Wood Sprite Turnings, the studio that houses the Chapel Hill Woodturners.
From L-R, Carmine Prioli, Cecil Sparrow and Frank Penta show off Wood Sprite Turnings, the studio that houses the Chapel Hill Woodturners.

For the Chapel Hill Woodturners, retirement has afforded not only an opportunity to focus attention on a hobby, but also a chance to pass on valuable skills to the next generation.

Since last fall, the group has developed a course at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough to educate students about the unique and meticulous trade of woodturning. Titled Creative Woodturning, the course arose out of a partnership with the school’s furniture and cabinet-making program and was sparked by a desire to engage young students in manual labor.

The course focuses on the development of fundamental skills related to woodturning machine operation and wood shaping. After receiving a grant from the Orange County Arts Commission last year, the school was able to purchase four new devices, called lathes, for the course.

“The most important thing, for me at least, is the way that we are committed to outreach and public service,” said Carmine Prioli, a member of the Chapel Hill Woodturners who spearheaded the Cedar Ridge partnership.

Woodturning refers to a type of woodworking in which a lathe, a machine that holds the material and rotates it against a stationary tool, is employed to shape a piece of wood. Woodturning is utilized to create a multitude of different objects that serve both practical and artistic purposes said Cecil Sparrow, another member of the Chapel Hill Woodturners who helps teach the course at Cedar Ridge.

Frank Penta, a founding member of the Chapel Hill Woodturners, discusses woodturning with Cedar Ridge student Hunter Thompson, left, and CHHS furniture and cabinetmaking instructor Keith Yow. (Photo courtesy of CH Woodturners)
Frank Penta, a founding member of the Chapel Hill Woodturners, discusses woodturning with Cedar Ridge student Hunter Thompson, left, and CRHS furniture and cabinetmaking instructor Keith Yow. (Photo courtesy of CH Woodturners)

“Woodturning is making decorative items out of wood or useful items out of wood,” Sparrow said. “We turn utensils like salad bowls that you can actually use. But primarily it’s more decorative.”

Prioli, a retired professor of English at North Carolina State University, volunteers four to five times a week at Cedar Ridge assisting students in the woodturning course. He said part of the motivation for launching the course was to promote manual work education in public schools.

“The biggest mistake that the schools have made is de-emphasizing manual work because of all of the other demands that are placed on the students and faculty these days,” Prioli said. “This comes from the lips of someone who has a Ph.D. in English and taught English and the humanities for 36 years.”

Prioli explained, “We’ve lost sight of the fact that human beings need to use their hands as well as their heads. So what we’ve tried to do in our woodturning is to combine creative making with creative thinking and satisfy that manual component of who we are as human beings.”

Prioli recently applied for a $1,500 grant from the American Association of Woodturners, the national parent organization of the Chapel Hill chapter, that, if funded, would create a summer woodturning program for a group of Cedar Ridge students. With the grant, the students would be given a stipend to produce objects that would be donated to two local nonprofits: Durham-based Partners in Youth Opportunity and Hillsborough-based Orange Congregations in Mission, allowing the nonprofits to raise funds by selling the creations.

Prioli said the decision regarding the grant application will not be given until April.

Frank Penta, whose Chapel Hill studio, Wood Sprite Turnings, serves as something of a home base for the Woodturners, said he hopes the Cedar Ridge program helps high school students appreciate manual labor from an early age — something he says is uncommon among his club’s older members.

“All these professionals who have been very successful in their careers and when they retire, they come to woodturning,” Penta said. “They want to work with their hands.”

“It is a paradox. They stop the wood shop for kids in high school, yet as people retire, they are coming back to woodworking.”

“My wife and I both have Ph.D.s,” Penta said. “She does jewelry, I do woodturning.”

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Author of the article

Chris is a UNC-CH senior journalism major from Wake Forest, N.C., serving as co-editor of the Carrboro Commons.