Profiles in Conservation
Retired Farmer Makes Wooden Bowls for Fun and Profit
By Glenn Rosenholm
Retired Midwest dairy farmer Louis Christen has been making bowls from trees grown on his land for nearly a decade.
His hobby gives him a creative outlet after his long career of farming. It also gives him an opportunity to socialize, and it helps him to stay connected to his land.
“I was born on the farm and farmed all my life,” he said. “I live on the farm in Elgin, Iowa. This is where I grew up. I moved here when I was 15 months old.”
He said his father bought land that had some timber on it in the early 1960s.
“That was 150 acres or so, with about half of it being timber. He was buying farmland, and the trees were on the land. He mostly wanted the land for cropland. He grew tall grains and hay.”
“We live in what’s called the Driftless Area, an area of Wisconsin and Iowa that didn’t get flattened by the glaciers,” he said. “It’s hillier and can get pretty rough in this corner of northeast Iowa. We’re about 35 miles from the Mississippi River.”
Louis bought some more land for the farm around 1975 and then again in the late 1990s.
“I used the land for cropland. I also had 40 head of [Holstein] cows. I grew the corn, and hay, and small grains.” The crops were grown in part to feed his cattle.
Christen launched his retirement and subsequent bowl-making venture in 2008 after selling off his cows.
Bowl-Making Secrets Revealed
Christen described his start in the bowl-making business.
“A few years before, I picked up a knot of wood that my neighbor gave me. Then I looked in a magazine and found a carving tool that could be used on that knot.”
That first odd-looking hunk of wood supplied by his neighbor helped Christen to get started making bowls. Now, he finds the right kinds of wood pieces for his bowls easily enough in his own woods. He enjoys looking for and picking up odd-shaped wood in his forest, and he often looks for burls or a crotch.
Burls are places in a tree with unusual shapes, such as large bulges or lumps. Inside, these burls often possess striking patterns and rich, eye-catching wood grain.
A crotch is any part on a tree where two pieces come together, such as a trunk and a limb. A large broken branch might have a piece where it broke off from the tree.
“You just use what you have. I don’t go out to cut a tree just to make a bowl. The only exception is a tree with a really good burl on it. Cherry is the most common one to have a burl,” he added.
All of Christen’s trees are native hardwoods.
“I have hickory and walnut on my land. I like to use hickory and walnut because you get crotch wood, particularly in walnut, and you get some really good results. The figure in the grain is fantastic.”
“You just look at them [burls and crotch wood] and later you just cut them up with the chainsaw and hope for the best.”
It typically takes Christen about 3–4 hours to fully carve and sand one of his bowls.
“Most of the wood would be firewood if I didn’t make a bowl out of it,” he said.
“When I first started, I used a chainsaw. Now I use a disk with carbide cutters on it, an angle grinder. I do most of the sanding with a drill with a flexible pad on it.”
“I start by flattening the wood with a chainsaw so that it has two flat sides on it. Next, I have a router table to flatten it further on both sides,” he said. “The router table is mounted on a frame above the block of wood and I just slide it back and forth.”
“Then if the burl is large enough I draw freehand the outline of my bowl shape that I’m looking for,” he said. “Then I start shaping it with the chainsaw and use the angle grinder to finish it.” The bowls end up being 10 to 18 inches long and 5 to 12 inches wide depending on the size and shape of the original burl.
“Next, I draw another line for the outside of the bowl, and I use a bandsaw to shape the outside.” He also uses an angle grinder to shape it further.
Christen then puts the rough bowl-shaped piece of wood in a plastic bag and turns the bag inside out every day to control the moisture in the wood so that it doesn’t crack.
“That might take 2–4 months,” he added. “I’ve had very few pieces of wood crack when they were dry. I’m generally able to salvage a piece that I start on,” he added.
“After that, it’s ready to start sanding and finishing.” He sands each bowl until he gets it smooth, using three different grits of sandpaper—80, 120, and then 220.
“The sanding actually takes twice as long as the carving, which often takes about an hour. Then I put a salad bowl/butcher block finish on it with a commercial beeswax finish. It’s a food-safe finish,” he said.
Christen said he is a little surprised at how popular his bowls have become and how easy it is to make them.
“It just seemed like it came a little natural to me. It isn’t that hard to do. I do other work with lumber, such as making small pieces of furniture, and that is more of a challenge for me than carving bowls.”
“I’ve made about 500–600 bowls now. I give a few away and donate a few. Then, with word of mouth advertising, I’m now on an artists’ tour, and I sell some there too. I’ve sold some in this country, and there are some in Germany, Switzerland, and Guam now too,” he added.
His bowl-making skills are gradually becoming locally renowned, increasing demand.
“A neighbor will sometimes bring me a piece of wood from the trees on their land for me to carve,” he said.
Forest Land Under Management
Christen, age 70, now lives alone on his 340-acre farm. His father died in 2009. Cheryl, his wife of 30 years, passed away in June 2017.
Louis currently rents out about 140 acres of his land for cropland. He has an additional 15 acres or so in the Conservation Reserve Program.
Both of Louis’ subsequent land purchases over the years included some timberland, so his forested acreage grew to about 340 acres that he has today.
Very soon after his father bought the original land many years ago, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) drew up a management plan for it, and it’s been under a management plan ever since.
“We’ve been a tree farm for 30 years or more,” he said. “The DNR and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach work closely together for forestry field days. They’ve done an awful lot to promote good forestry practices. People are much more aware of forestry now.”
The timber on the original land when they purchased it had exceptional quality walnut, he said. And because it has had more than a half century of good forest management since then, his land still has significant high-quality timber.
“It’s original timber. We’ve taken wood out of the forest for the last 50–60 years, and we still have a good-sized forest. That’s sustainability.” Some of his forest has been clearcut over the years, and that part has naturally regenerated, he added.
The topic of selling more timber sometimes comes up in his conversations with foresters, he said, but he is not inclined to sell many more trees for now.
“I’ve had several field days here, and that’s something they always ask about. At this point in my life I’d rather have the trees than the money.”
Christen strongly encourages other landowners to seek out foresters for professional help and advice.
“I absolutely would recommend landowners working with foresters, public or private, to improve their lands,” he said. “During that tree sale a year ago I worked with a consulting forester. They sold about 33 trees or so for that. Among those, I sold 3 high-quality walnuts from the original 1960s land purchase.”
“There were 10 bids, and the high bid was 2 ½ times higher than the low bid,” he added. “My goal is to someday sell one tree for the same price that my father bought the original land many years ago.”
The retired farmer has worked hard over the years to keep his timber stock replenished.
“We’ve got quite a bit of maple, oak, walnut, hickory, elm, basswood, and cherry. Over the past 25 years I’ve planted 40 of those 140 acres of forest. Most of that has been done with direct seeding, by planting nuts. All of these acres have had walnut planted on them,” he said.
“I’m very satisfied with my improvements to the land. Though one of the things that I’m not satisfied with, is that I’ve planted too much walnut and not enough other species. It’s just that walnut grows really good around here.”
“Next spring I will go through and plant other hardwood seedlings, so I can get hardwood diversity,” he added.
“One of the difficulties in getting variety has to do with oak and our deer problem. The deer like oak seedlings. It’s very hard to grow oak around here without something to keep the deer away.”
The issue of invasive species is another problem.
“We’ve got honeysuckle and garlic mustard here. I’m working on removing the honeysuckle, but I’m not aware of anything you can do to remove the garlic mustard. It spreads so easily,” he added.
In addition to his work planting seedlings and removing invasive plants, Christen further improved his land by adding a 3-acre pond back in 1996. He likes the results of his labors.
“There is a great deal of personal satisfaction from owning property,” he added. “It depends entirely on the land purchase price as to whether you’ll make money through land appreciation. We have a forester here who says the trees themselves will appreciate as an investment.”
Christen seems to have settled into a comfortable retirement routine.
“My primary interests lately are making bowls, socializing, and working in the timber. This involves cutting firewood, taking out undesirable trees, or removing invasive plants.”
Even with all of the hard work and occasional challenges that come with it, Christen likes his land more each day.
“I have no intention of ever selling any of it. Monetarily, it has become more valuable over the years, and I appreciate the land that I have.”
All photos are courtesy photos by Chuck Frieden.