Exotic Woods, Metal Cutters and Dale Chase: Ornamental Turnings from the Walter Balliet Collection
March 4 – July 23, 2011
Essay by Tina C. LeCoff, Philadelphia
Ornamental turning (OT) is a historic and complex art form wherein artists must configure and master their precise machines, their elaborate cutters and rosettes, and the materials which they select for ornamentation. Today it thrives in the UK and the United States where organizations facilitate the art, respectively the Society of Ornamental Turners (S.O.T.) in the UK, and Ornamental Turners International in the US. Websites and bi-annual meetings provide networking, technology sharing, instant galleries and healthy competition.
These professional collaborations and friendships resulted in Walter Balliet’s large collection of ornamental turning. Recently donated to the Wood Turning Center’s museum collection, the Balliet Collection reflects decades of meticulous experimentation and collaboration by retired tool and die maker, Balliet, and his friends. These masterpieces include over eighty precious hand-size boxes by the late Dale Chase of California, the largest comprehensive museum collection to date. Other historic pieces, by Balliet and the late Frank Knox, are complemented by contemporary ornamental turning (OT) by Fred Armbruster, Paul Cler, and Gorst duPlessis. The experimental materials include over 25 varieties of wood including African Blackwood, Pink Ivory, and Bubinga, and jade, acrylic and precious metals.
Walter Balliet and Friends
Half of the pieces in the Balliet collection were made by him; working with others stimulated his innovations in tools, cutters and design. Walter Balliet discovered ornamental turning in the Fall of 1976, in the 4th issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine. John Kelsey’s article on ornamental turning included work by Frank Knox. Based on his tool and die making skills, Balliet told himself, “I can do this…”. With drawings from the original Holtzapffel books, he built an ornamental lathe in his basement. When he met Frank Knox and saw his Holtz machine, Balliet discovered he had built his lathe at 2 times the scale (since the Holtz book provided no measurements or scale).
Balliet next observed OT directly at the Wood Turning Center’s 1987 International Turned Objects Show (ITOS) in Philadelphia, PA. He was particularly intrigued by the work of Dale Chase. They met at the exhibition and this led to a collaboration and friendship that spanned two decades. From 1988 through 2006, Balliet and Chase talked almost daily and used the mail to expedite their exchange of ideas, designs, tools, cutters and products. Every time Balliet made Chase a new cutter or tool, Chase sent Balliet a box showing the magnificent results of their collaboration. Only Chase’s untimely death in 2007 halted their collaboration. Now in his mid-nineties, Balliet lives independently at home.
Based on interviews with Walter Balliet between 2008 and 2011 and Mrs. Charlene Chase in 2011.
2 Dale Chase, Artist’s Statement; del Mano Gallery, CA