Shop Class Redux

Bob Millikin and the art of wood turning

By Mike Savicki


Most guys I know don’t do art. We don’t do crafts either. It’s just not our style. We don’t speak that language. If art is creating something, well, we can’t, won’t and don’t create.


If you pushed me to name the most artistic guy I know, I’d likely tell you it is my neighbor, Lonnie, because he has this amazing ability to design beautiful patterns and carve symmetric lines into his lawn with his riding mower when he cuts it each week. I marvel at his lawn when he’s finished.


But if lawn mowing isn’t art, then I don’t know many guys who paint, sew, sing, dance, or even act. I know a few politicians, so maybe they count. Maybe not.


So writing a column about the arts from a guy perspective, at first, seemed like an impossibility until I thought about my friend, Bob Millikin, and realized, yes, I actually do know a real live artist. In the flesh. And by artist, I mean someone who can take something in one form, add some sort of artistic magic and wizardry to it, and transform it into something that people look at with marvel, wonder and awe.


Bob is a wood turner, and if you don’t know what a wood turner does, think back to high school shop class. Remember when the teacher gave you a block of wood and a pair of safety glasses before showing you how to attach the wood to a lathe and turn it on? He would then hand you a sharp tool and say something like, “There you go, Savicki, when the wood starts turning, just start carving and before you know it, you’ll have a lamp that you can take home to your family and keep for generations.” Within thirty seconds, I usually had a huge pile of sawdust that wound up in the trash barrel, not on our mantle.


When Bob retired and moved to The Pines several years ago, he became friends with another resident named Don Oetjen. A World War II vet in his eighties who was a generation older than Bob, Don took Bob under his wing and, together, the pair began spending countless days and nights working the lathe in the maintenance shop. Don was an expert wood turner. Bob hadn’t touched a lathe since freshman year of high school.


But Bob fell in love with the craft and began turning and finishing pieces of all shapes and sizes on his own. Bowls, platters, dishes, cups, and trays made from pecan, cherry, walnut and pear. He loved to create. He became an artist. He even gave his first finished piece, a small wooden vase, to his wife, Karalee, as a token of love.


“When I start with a block of wood, I may have a general idea of what I’m making, but that often changes, sometimes drastically,” Bob, now 71, tells me. “I may take a piece of wood and start two or three or even four pieces at once and move them through various stages, or I’ll take one from start to finish.”


Don’t look for Bob to display and sell his work at each and every arts and crafts show across the Carolinas, because that’s not his style. He mainly takes requests from other residents of The Pines, makes pieces as holiday gifts for friends and family members, and even works on special occasion pieces that may only be used once, like a cake platter for a wedding or a pair of burial urns that a couple asked him to make for, well, you get the picture.


Bob delights in everything he makes. It’s satisfaction, not money, which fills his soul. His pieces sit in homes across the United States and Europe. He doesn’t keep a record of what piece winds up where. That’s not his style either.


Sometimes, Bob is called into action.


“My phone rings and it could be someone from church asking if I know they are taking down a tree on Lorimer Street and do I want to come and get the wood before it is hauled away,” he laughs. “Or it could be a neighbor telling me he cut down a cherry tree or a pecan tree and can I do something with it?”


But Bob’s storage space is limited and his shop is small. He likes it that way. And he prefers working with green wood and laments when the wood dries and cracks before he can transform it into something magical, so sometimes he has to say “no.”


Bob feels no pressure to rush through a project and miss seeing the beauty that appears during the process. After all, he shares, wood turning shouldn’t come with pressure and deadlines. To Bob, working with wood is a form of free flowing graciousness, and there is natural beauty to be discovered in every piece of wood. That’s why he creates. That’s why he turns. That’s why he is an artist.


This article was originally published in Currents Magazine.