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Faculty Notes: Actions in Wood

by Kim Johnson
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It began as a project in junior high shop class, and was fed by time working alongside his grandfather on his lathe. Then, seven years ago, with the tools he inherited from his grandfather, Wabash Professor of Mathematics Bob Foote’s fascination with woodturning blossomed into an award-winning respite from teaching and research.

"I had this interest in woodworking in general," Foote recalls. "But once I got the lathe set up and started using it, I thought, This is what I really want to do."

He calls his art S1 Actions in WoodS1 is the mathematical name for a circle and an S1 action refers to objects spun in a circle. Other than the name, Foote uses very little mathematical guidance in his work.

"If I stretched it a bit, I could call it applied geometry, but it’s not really," Foote says. "Most of this is freehand.

"I really enjoy the process. It starts out as just a block of wood. As you’re working on it, you discover interesting features in the wood that suggest a particular direction to go. Then the thing takes shape."
While he purchases a few blocks of wood from local wood importers or specialty woodworking shops, much of his work is made from wood that’s been shared among fellow wood turners. He has even been known to pick up a few pieces around the Wabash College campus.

"When the big oak tree fell in the arboretum two years ago, Mike Abney [another local wood turner]
got permission to cut pieces from the trunk. One evening, I walked by and he said, ‘You want a few pieces?’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, sure!’"

Foote hunts for the furniture makers’ rejects; those pieces with a burl—the rounded outgrowths found on trees; or the crotch pieces, where the tree splits and has branches going in two different directions.
"That separation of the grain starts occurring way down deep," he explains. "It will make a marvelous, marvelous piece because it will look like a flame."

Foote’s keen eye for shape, technique, and texture has already gained him recognition in the local artistic community. In each of the two years he has entered the juried Downtown Crawfordsville Fall Art Exhibit, he has received an award for his work. The art exhibit features select artists from 18 Indiana counties.

Foote puts a great deal of time and care into each piece he crafts. Refining his skills, he has learned techniques that speed up the process as well as make his pieces more beautiful to the eye and the touch.

"Sometimes I’ll be working on something and it will look fine, but when I run my finger over it, I can feel the imperfections.

"Woodworking is very different from paintings; when you see a painting or photograph, you don’t have the urge to touch it. They are purely visual. But I want somebody to not only look at this piece; I want them to pick it up and feel it."

View more of Professor Foote’s work at

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