The first time Andrew McCarn turned a log into a bowl was the last time he thought about spending his life doing anything else. McCarn’s path to wood turning was an unexpected one: An unavailable high school elective and a suggestion from his mom to try shop class landed him in front of his first piece of wood. In that moment – shaping the wood, whittling down ambiguous blocks to definable, recognizable figures – McCarn’s fate was sealed.
Today, McCarn has turned his passion project into a full-time venture through Carolina Grain Co., the woodworking company he founded in 2014. Our State sat down with McCarn to find out how a young artisan is using modern technology to learn and embrace a traditional art form.
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OS: How were you first introduced to woodworking?
McCarn: I got my start in woodworking by enrolling in shop class in high school. I had a wonderful teacher named Mr. Weaver, and he’s one of the primary reasons why I still practice woodworking today; you have to learn from someone who’s passionate about the craft, and he definitely is. We started with small projects – my first furniture piece was a night table – and we worked our way up to coffee tables, dressers, and bookcases. I never thought about pursuing woodworking to make money; I just liked the idea of taking a natural product and making something usable out of it, and that’s what drew me in.
OS: Three years ago, you decided to expand your woodworking skills and start turning, or creating, bowls. Tell us about the first bowl you turned.
McCarn: I started with a cheap little $100 lathe, which is a mechanical tool used to shape wood, and a 5-by-5 block of maple. I didn’t know what to turn, I didn’t know what kind of wood to use, I didn’t know how to sharpen my tools; I was just winging it. When I finished, there was so much wrong with the bowl – chips missing, no consistent wall thickness – but it was my first time, and I did make a bowl, so I was happy with it and showed it off to everyone. Looking back, the biggest lesson I learned from that experience is to start by turning cheap wood. I didn’t want to mess up another $35 piece of wood, so after that first time, I started buying little 2-by-10s from Lowe’s.
OS: What modern technologies have allowed you to pursue this very traditional craft?
McCarn: I actually taught myself how to turn using YouTube and Google. I’m a visual learner, so I was drawn to YouTube because I could watch people doing it. Not everyone has the resources to pay for school or classes, so the Internet has opened up a whole new world for people like me. A lot of people say woodworking is a dying art, but I don’t think so. I think the Internet is going to keep woodworking alive because it opens a door to learn as much as you want about anything. With YouTube, you get a peek into the woodworking world without even purchasing your first tool. Also, power plays a huge role in what I do. About 90 percent of the tools I use, including my lathe and bandsaw, are powered by electricity. If I didn’t have power, I would be out of luck.
OS: What types of products do you make?
McCarn: I make a lot of kitchen utensils and tools – spoons, spatulas, cutting boards, rolling pins, and all different types of bowls. Variety is key, because I travel to a lot of festivals and art shows, and I want to have options. There are certain products I like making and specific woods I like using, but my goal is to offer a bit of everything so that if someone comes to my booth looking for a walnut spoon, or a maple cutting board, I can offer them that. However, I would love to start making more furniture. It’s where I got my start, and though I love the instant gratification that comes with turning smaller pieces, I miss watching a project come to fruition over days or weeks of work.
OS: How do you select and source the wood that you use in your projects?
McCarn: Ninety percent of the wood I use comes from within five minutes of my house, and a lot of people are surprised to learn that I mill my own lumber. When I explain to them that I go out with my chainsaw and cut up the wood, they’re shocked. After I cut and mill a log, I’ll use that wood for as much as I can – bowls, salad tongs, spoons – so the grain patterns across a set of products are consistent. I use a lot of maple and oak because that’s what we have the most of in the Triad, but I love experimenting with different types of wood, too. I’m always willing to give any species a try at least once.
OS: You’re a millennial who started his own woodworking business. How has your age played a role in your experiences with the woodworking community?
McCarn: Some people are taken aback by the fact that I’m a 26-year-old wood turner because they are so used to wood turners being older, but woodworking isn’t limited to a specific demographic. Anyone can do it. I’ve seen younger kids turning wood, and I’ve seen older people just starting out. When it comes to my customers, a lot of them don’t even see age because they’re drawn in by the quality of the work. Age isn’t a factor.
OS: Why do you prefer to work with wood over other media?
McCarn: I make stuff out of wood because it’s durable. Though it can crack and split, if you take care of the product, it has the ability to last a lifetime. That’s why you still see wood furniture from the 1800s, or even the 1700s. With just a little bit of love and care, my products will last a lot longer than me. Being able to pass down a wooden cutting board or a wooden bowl that your great-grandparent used allows you to keep the stories and memories around that piece alive. That adds so much meaning, and it makes what I do so fulfilling.