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by Kathleen Menéndez

Pyrography News From Around the World

Newsletter No. 39, Page One of Two


Page One
Hats Off to JoHannes Michelsen and Deb Fanelli—for Originality!

Page Two
Marshall Stokes: New Shows and New Directions
Cheryl Dow: Planning a Woodburning Celebration for August 2007

Hats Off to JoHannes Michelsen and Deb Fanelli
—for Originality!

by JoHannes Michelsen, 2005

Woodturned (full-sized) hat of Beech wood,
with a colored hatband
produced by burnishing the hat
with contrasting dark woods of Ebony and Rosewood
by means of friction and heat

Image courtesy of the artist

Spontaneous Combustion

Danish-born American woodturning artist JoHannes Michelsen and his wife, American wood sculptor Deb Fanelli, live and work in Manchester Center, Vermont—at least when they're not on the road exhibiting at shows and giving demonstrations and workshops.

Although their specialties as artists are quite distinct, this delightful couple met because of their common interest in wood, at an art show in Baltimore, Maryland, where their respective display booths were nearby "neighbors."

As you will see as the stories of their creative endeavors unfold, each developed a unique technique to express their individual artistic visions. In doing that, within the larger technique, each likewise and spontaneously came up with a unique pyro technique as part of that remarkable vision.

From this . . .

. . . To this!

With a "Few" Steps in Between . . .

Images courtesy of the artist

The Unique Technique of the Wood Hat Man

JoHannes recounts that it took him about ten years from the time he first had this brilliant idea of creating woodturned hats to actually thinking through it to the point of beginning and producing his first hat in 1990.

After that, over time and with each new project, he started refining the technique and inventing ways of improving the process, such as his Light Box, which is actually more of a "light cylinder" that fits gently and snugly inside of the hat, attaches to the lathe, and has a lightbulb inside (on bearings) so that he can simultaneously light the hat from the inside while working. He invented this primarily to allow him to continue to turn the hat on the lathe once the wood hat is detached from the lathe near the end of the process, after the waste wood that was used to hold it in place has been cut away. His Light Box invention allows him to more efficiently and precisely continue sanding and shaping the hat, especially at the dome of the hat, where it used to be attached. In this extremely delicate process (and another when he removed the wood from inside the hat and shined a light from the outside in), the light shining through the wood, which is by then extremely thin, allows him to visually gauge (while he is working and the hat is turning) just how much wood to remove without removing too much. He also devised a means of casting a shadow during one part of his amazing process that guides him in accurately shaping the angle of the brim of the hat. All of this is done to create a hat that is thin and flexible like fabric yet still sturdy and very lightweight (only about 6 to 8 ounces).

Another invention, and the focus of this segment, is his Pyroburnishing Process, which he developed so he could color the hatbands of his hats without staining or painting them. His hatbands are essentially wood on wood.

The Lathe and a Bowl with a Pyroburnished Rim
by JoHannes Michelsen

Pictured here are the components of JoHannes Michelsen's
Pyroburnishing Process:
Hand rest or hand support is the whitish metal column
and horizontal piece seen to the left of the bowl.
The stick of Rosewood in his hand is what he uses
to "paint" the color on the bowl rim or on a hatband.
The lathe is attached to the object with "waste wood"
(extra wood that will be cut off later).

Woodturned bowl of Beech wood,
with a colored rim
produced by burnishing the rim
with contrasting Rosewood
by means of friction and heat

Image courtesy of the artist

Turning the Hats

If you review the illustrated process page on JoHannes' web site to see what turning a chunk of wood into a pliable hat is all about, you will get some idea, and I highly recommend your doing that because you will be in awe of what he does. However, I had the privilege of witnessing the process in person and seeing a hat appear while curly chips were flying through the air, and I still cannot adequately describe it.

All I can say is that it is no wonder he is in such demand for workshops and demonstrations even the one that the Smithsonian Museum puts on each year in Washington, D.C. And no wonder that his art work can be found in so many major art collections and featured in an impressive list of magazines and books.

He shapes both the crown of the hat and the brim of the hat while the dome of it is attached to the lathe. Afterwards, he goes in and routs out the inside of the hat, first in more generous sweeps and turns. But then, as he starts to really shape it and get to the inside wall of the crown, he shines a light from the outside in. He can see the light more and more clearly through the ever thinner wall of the hat, so he can gauge how close he can keep cutting and shaving without going through the wood. It is something wondrous to behold.

He has studied the proportions and the ratios of the various parts of the hats (in a variety styles of hats for men and women, as you will see on his website), and he has such an eye for knowing just how much to cut, shave, and sand in every direction, that it is amazing. When he thinks he's done it, he measures with the calipers and he is almost always exactly right down to the sixteenth of an inch!

JoHannes Michelsen Beginning to Burnish a Hatband

Note that he is holding in his hand
the burnishing stick of Rosewood
(which you can more easily see
in the picture immediately above)
and is pressing it against the area of the hatband
as the hat is turning on the lathe.

Note also that at this point in the process,
the hat is already partially
—but not completely—
shaped on the lathe.

The lathe turns the wood at high speed,
while he shapes the piece by cutting as it turns,
or burnishes it (as is being shown here)
by steadying his hand on the metal support,
holding the Rosewood stick against the hatband area,
and letting the heat from the friction of the turning lathe
melt the color of the wood and deposit some of the wood
of the Rosewood stick onto the light wood of the hat.

Image courtesy of the artist

Technical Notes on the Pyroburnishing Process

Tool. JoHannes' technique for burnishing is also part of his turning process, because he does his burnishing using one of his two lathes, which are shown in the workshop page on his web site. They are both antiques--one late 19th century and the other early 20th century—and both weigh more than a ton each.

Exotic Woods. The key to the choice of woods, of course, is that they create a color contrast against the (usually) light colored wood like Maple or Beech that is the hat or bowl. For this purpose, JoHannes uses one or more of several exotic woods, depending on the project. His favorites are Madagascar Rosewood, Ebony, Wenge, and Zirocote.

Technique. After the outside of the hat is mostly shaped, and while the dome of the hat still has waste wood at the top, which is firmly attached to the lathe with four wood screws, Johannes cuts a stick of the exotic wood he has chosen as the embellishment for the hatband.

The colored stick of exotic wood (shown in the picture of the bowl and lathe above) will be cut to 3/4-inch wide and 1/16-inch thick. While the hat is turning at 700 rpm on the lathe (as seen in the close-up view immediately above), with his hand steadied in front and to the side of the lathe on the support (which is shown in the first picture of the lathe above), JoHannes presses the edge of the stick against the area of the hatband.

The intense speed of the turning lathe plus the pressure he exerts with the stick of exotic wood against the turning hat cause the friction that in turn creates the heat that melts and therefore burns the exotic wood (and also deposits some of it) onto the hatband.

JoHannes Michelsen Completing the Pyroburnishing on a Hatband

At this point in the process,
notice that JoHannes, using the first ring
of burnishing as a visual guide
has removed additional wood
from the upper part of the hat brim
before completing the pyroburnishing here,
below what he had put in earlier

Image courtesy of the artist

Sanding the Stick of Exotic Wood. Once the stick of exotic wood has been used, it soon needs to be freshened because it gets rounded and slick and sealed at the end from the heat. That is when JoHannes sands the end clean on both sides at a 45-degree angle to then use not the point but the edge on each side to continue working.


JoHannes Michelsen has a beautifully prepared and wonderfully informative web site at www.woodhat.com, which you will want to explore at length.

See the workshop page on his web site to see his studio in Vermont, his lathes, and his Light Box invention, and much more.

See the process page on his web site to see more details about the entire process of making a hat.

Link here to the Capital Area Woodturners where JoHannes Michelsen gave his recent demonstration and workshop.

The JoHannes Michelsen Salon in the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art is another site that features his outstanding work.

Closing Notes

I was putting this segment together for publication when only a week ago I had the serendipitous opportunity of seeing JoHannes' demonstration at the Capital Area Woodturners in Alexandria, Virginia, where it was standing room only on the day of the demonstration. What a treat it was!

In the demo room, there was also a display of JoHannes' hats—full-sized ones, as well as some of his mini hats. JoHannes has expanded his repertoire to include four sizes of hats: Full-sized (including custom fitted), Mini, Sub-mini, and Micro!

His wife Deb Fanelli was there to help out and during our interview even modeled one of his beautiful hats for me—a stylish ebonized one he had made especially for her—fabulous!

Stack of Bowls
by Deb Fanelli

Pyrosculpture on Stack of Turned Wooden Bowls

Image courtesy of the artist

Discovery of the Pyrosculpture Technique

It is hard to conjure the image of a diminutive woman like Deb Fanelli wielding an angle grinder to make bold, burned cuts in wood works. Yet, despite her small size, when she walks into a room, in her quiet confident way, dressed in her trademark black and sporting her large collection of striking silver bangles, she already makes a bold statement.

Before she hit on her innovative technique, Deb was already working in wood sculpture and using an angle grinder. It was when the disk wore down and she noticed the irregularities and burn marks she would get—a situation that normally is the signal to replace the disk—that she decided to start experimenting.

Deb Fanelli Pyrosculpting a Bowl
In her studio in Vermont

Pyrosculpture of concentric circle patterns on a wooden bowl of Beech

Image courtesy of the artist

The Pyrosculpture Process

Deb decided to try sacrificing the sharp cuts she could get using an angle grinder with a sharp disk, to create instead designs making cuts that simultaneously produced a burned shadow.

Her canvas in great part is the smooth large surface of woodturned salad bowls—both the wide shallow salad bowls, as well as the deep "calabash" salad bowls.

Deb Fanelli's Angle Grinder

Image courtesy of the artist

The Angle Grinder As a Pyrotool

On the table in the image above is Deb's DeWalt four-and-a-half-inch angle grinder, laid out to show all of its components.

The nut that holds all of the parts on the assembled tool together is on the far left. The large disk leaning against the tool is the back-up pad. On the far right is her 36-grit disk.

Notice that her 36-grit disk is a worn one and is somewhat rounded, especially on the outer edge. It has also gotten dark on that outer edge because, as it is used, it cakes with the oils of the woods. This is the ideal disk for the effects that Deb wants to produce—the simultaneous bold cuts with striking burned shadows that are her pyrosculpture process.

Dotted and Tangled Utensils on Leaf Board
by Deb Fanelli

Wall hung carved wooden utensils mounted on board
pyrosculpted with a leaf pattern

Image courtesy of the artist

A Second Aspect—Tangled Utensils—and a Second Tool

Deb pairs her pyrosculpture salad bowls with utensils she carves. Some she carves into gracefully dynamic leaves, worked with the angle grinder as she does the bowls, while others she carves into bold, twisted shapes, which she calls her "tangled" utensils. To these she adds texture usually in the form of dots produced by making a deep burned cut with a stone bit in a flex shaft Dremel carving tool.

She often mounts the utensils in decorative ways, and her leaf pattern sometimes returns in variations, such as in the background, shown above.

Pyrosculpting a Bowl, close-up view
Deb Fanelli working with her angle grinder

Image courtesy of the artist

A Concentric Conclusion

In the past we have seen a wide variety of pyrotools—some with solid points, some with wire tips, some temperature controlled, others not, and some not even electric, like a knife or a nail heated over a charcoal fire. Now we are seeing high speed power tools being used as pyrotools, yet in the end what really counts is always the same—the hand of the artist who is using whatever tool.

Look for additional pyrosculptures by Deb Fanelli —including her Salad Bowl with Concentric Circles that you have seen in progress here—in the exhibit of the Deb Fanelli Salon in the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art. You won't want to miss it.

Calabash Bowl with Dotted and Tangled Utensils
by Deb Fanelli

Striped pyrosculpture on wall hanging calabash salad bowl
containing a set of carved utensils pyrosculpted with dots
and suspended on a donut-shaped wood hook with pyroburnished detail

Image courtesy of the artist

Bon Voyage

P. S. As this article goes to press, JoHannes and Deb are off to do demonstrations in Austria, Switzerland, and Denmark, and to participate in the Irish Woodturners' Guild Annual Seminar 2006.

Detail of Tangled Utensils
by Deb Fanelli

Click here to go to page two

2006, Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.