Keith Tompkins archive

Friday 13 December 2013

Keith Tompkins relishes the freedom he finds at his lathe. Lindy Dunlop discovers how important it is to him to explore his creative side


Keith's work has been featured in many publications and exhibitions, including the Del Mano Gallery in California, the Cooperstown Art Association in New York State, and the Rochester Art Center in Minnesota. He has received many awards for his work, and continues to contribute to the world of turning through his many demonstrations and talks, and the odd tool design ... a special chisel - the Tompkins V-skew - was designed to his personal specifications.

He turns a wide variety of pieces and is always looking to something new to try in his work. Despite his best efforts, Keith has developed something of a signature style, known as he is for his spiral forms, which could be seen as a progression in style from his earlier segmented work.

For me his 'signature' is finish. Looking at his work one aspect - the finish - consistently sings clear and what it sings is 'perfection'. Shiny, smooth, textured, folded, patterned or gilt... whatever the finish he requires, he achieves. I stifled a chuckle of 'recognition' when he said: "I've heard other turners say they hate to sand, but not me! I love to sand. While I'm sanding, I'm anticipating the way the wood will 'pop' when the first coat of finish is applied. The better the sanding job, the better the final results will be."


Keith started woodturning in high school, as part of his wood shop studies, and received his first award - Craftsman of the Year - in his senior year. After graduating, he immediately started work in a cabinetmaking shop. He started at the bottom, but he studied the masters... "I observed how they sharpened their tools. I listened to their finely tuned hand planes. I asked annoying questions. And I learned. I took pieces of scrap wood home after work and I practised. I read every book on woodworking and design I could find," he explains.

Eventually Keith became assistant to the company President, responsible for developing prototype furniture for the company's commercial line of tables and chairs, and for putting them into production. He continued to use the lathe whenever custom turnings were required in his work. He worked at the cabinetmakers for about nine years, expanding on and developing his skills, before embarking on his own custom furniture business.

Following this, he took a break from woodworking for several years and worked in the automotive field with his brother, but woodworking remained a hobby. Around 1990 he decided to focus on woodturning: "I felt it was the weakest of my woodworking skills, and wanted to bring things up to par. I was unaware of the AAW or any turning clubs at the time. I've been turning ever since." Currently, he is employed by the State of New York, training inmates to operate high-tech CNC equipment in an industrial woodworking environment.

Turning style

Turners often find it difficult to describe their own style and Keith stays true to turning form... "Describe my turning style! Oh boy. That is a tricky one! I usually tell people, 'You may want to look at a few pictures; my work is quite hard to describe'." However difficult it is to describe, it is clear that Keith's style and approach to turning owes something to his background as a furniture maker - the catalyst for a quiet rebellion against conformity. He first turned as part of his woodworking career, creating mostly furniture parts and architectural details." As a furniture maker, I was forced to stick to blueprints without variation, but as a turner, I don't want any self-imposed limitations. I have been encouraged to develop a 'known' style and then stick to it, but I'm definitely an outside-the-box thinker! I turn spirals and off-centre work, and even cubes... My work leans toward the artistic side, but I can't deny that I enjoy turning traditional pieces as well," he says.

Inspirational sources

My inquiry after what inspires this particular turner sparks an enthusiastic response: "What inspires me? Inspiration is everywhere! Even the most seemingly mundane occurrence can be the spark behind a new turning. A walk in the woods, the sight of a flower unfurling, the folds of a dinner napkin have all been the inspiration for new work. I keep a sketchbook in order to capture new ideas when they hit," he tells me.

And while his creativity is sparked 'everywhere', his natural tendency away from conformity keeps him from taking on direct influences. "Although I admire many contemporary turners, I try to avoid being influenced by them as much as possible."

Keith lists his biggest influences as Mr 'Doc' Travis - his high-school shop teacher - Wendell Castle and David Ellsworth. "I called Doc Travis a few years back to thank him for his encouragement and support, and to let him know one of his students had been published in Fine Woodworking magazine." Wendell Castle's work, especially his grandfather clock draped with a sheet, has the perhaps unique distinction of having had a direct influence on Keith's work, "even my turned pieces," he says. And the only turning class Keith ever took was with David.

Work ethos

As a turner, Keith can justifiably be described as committed. "I use every skill I possess when creating my work," he explains. To Keith, the appearance and quality of the finished piece is what matters, not the method or madness to get there. "I don't care much about classifications such as 'pure turning'. What's important to me is to feel I've done the best work I'm capable of producing when a piece is completed." He elaborates: "Painting wood? If my vision calls for colour, by all means I'm going to paint, dye or otherwise embellish the piece. In the end, it's my work that matters, not which equipment I used to create it."

Highs & lows

Keith tells me of the many rewards he has gained from woodturning and of the great friendships he has formed through it. One standout event in fact began as a 'low'. "I could not attend the AAW symposium in California one year, but I did send a piece for the annual benefit auction. A friend of mine who did attend managed to speak to the person who bid on my piece, and gave me the buyer's card when they returned home, with the message to give him a call. That buyer was Ray Leier from Del Mano Gallery, who represented my work for several years after that. The association with Ray and Jan opened many doors for me." At the opposite end of the spectrum... "I think the low point in my career was after I ended my woodworking business, and had sold most of my equipment. That was a decision I regretted for some time. I have often wondered what I could have accomplished if I had chosen to stay in the furniture business." But, as Keith elaborates, there were mounting pressures that couldn't be ignored. Too many 18-hour days for too small a return, a growing family to support, and a rocky relationship with his business partner all contributed to his decision to leave the business. "Ironically, my decision to take up woodturning has been successful beyond my wildest expectations, so I'm now looking ahead, not back. I feel I'm right where I should be," he tells me.


It's surprising how often turners express a dislike for self-promotion. Or is it. In Keith's words: "No matter how unpleasant, it is a necessity. After all, nobody else is going to do it for you." Still, the routes he recommends follow a traditional rather than the digital path. "Producing work of the highest calibre is paramount to me; nothing else matters if the work doesn't stand up. Name recognition is important! My work has appeared in numerous publications, and I've written a few articles that were well received. I've demonstrated fairly extensively, including several AAW national symposiums. An award scattered in here and there doesn't hurt either. As a result, the demand for my work and for my demonstrations has steadily grown."

Workshop & tools

Keith's current workshop is in his basement. While he doesn't find this perfect, it does at least give him an adequate space - 28 x 40ft - that's cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And there he can spend the time he needs to finish turning pieces to his own exacting standards. "Many of my pieces take in excess of 40 hours to produce, but I can turn a delicate finial in under 10 minutes."

He has a fairly comprehensive workshop, with a small collection of 'special tools', including a carving chisel set he has had for almost 40 years. "They were a gift from a retired carver," he tells me, going on to say, "I use my airbrush extensively, and would be lost without it. And I have my own custom-made Tompkins Gage'T bowl calliper, which I'm pretty fond of," he finishes.

The future

The spectre of limitation looms again when our conversation turns to the future. Never one to be boxed in, Keith doesn't see himself settling into a comfortable style. "As far as my work is concerned, I've got sketchbooks full of exciting new ideas I've yet to try."

Keith's turning now is about pleasure and pride in work rather than future plans, though he does like to set goals in his turning career and has managed to achieve many of them. As he explains: "My turning career has already exceeded my wildest expectations. My work has been published and is included in many collections. My grandchildren have watched me turn on national television. I have a wall full of awards," he says.

Keith tells me he would like to teach at Arrowmont, the School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and that, being of English and Scottish descent, he would love to demonstrate in the UK. Other than that... "I want to continue producing the best work I can, and I'll just see where it takes me. I feel truly blessed."

Tegan Foley

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Keith Tompkins , Lindy Dunlop

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Contact Details


Top Techniques

1. Most of my turnings begin as a rough sketch, a concept. I refine my idea on paper, working out any technical difficulties before I begin the project. Once I locate the appropriate piece of wood, I am able to approach the lathe with a clear goal in mind. I seldom purchase a pretty piece of wood and then decide what it would like to be
2. Sometimes, while turning a piece a new idea will pop into my head. Rather than making a design change, I will complete the piece as planned and then add the new idea to my sketch book. This process leaves me with an abundance of design possibilities that I can draw upon for subsequent works. I find one idea often leads to another, each piece serves as the inspiration for the next
3. I have developed a course outlining the basic cuts I employ, which I titled The 10 Essential Cuts. I tell students that if they learn these fundamental cuts, they will be able to turn anything

Handy Hints

1. Find the best people you can to learn from; good teachers will save you years of learning by trial and error
2. Learn from the styles and techniques of others, but find your inspiration within
3. Draw upon your own life experiences and interests; do not be afraid to let these influences be reflected in your work
4. Learn to observe the world around you; many of my pieces are based on observations of simple, everyday occurrences
5. Master the fundamentals of tool sharpening and tool presentation rather than looking to the newest gadget to solve your problems
6. Avoid self-imposed limitations and use all of your skills and abilities

Likes & Dislikes

1. The feeling of standing at my lathe with a sense of complete freedom to create anything I can imagine
2. The sound of a sharp tool cleanly slicing through a piece of wood
3. The scent of freshly cut black walnut - indescribably delicious
4. Polish bringing the swirling grain of wood to life
1. Self-promotion