In The Studio: Niles Wertz
A chat about woodworking in Northern California.
Niles, tell us a bit about yourself and your background. How did you arrive at woodworking and where are you based right now?
I began turning wooden bowls when I was nine years old. From the outset, I knew that this medium would be something I would continually pursue. Woodturning has many technical aspects alongside the creative form finding process. The combination of these factors is what has kept me engaged and allowed me to express the craft in unique ways.
Throughout high school and college, I have continued to develop my woodturning technique, allowing me to produce larger and more refined pieces.
I grew up in Marin County which has a deep history of craft and woodworking. As a young woodturner, I was taught and inspired by many local craftsmen, from which I learned the importance of sourcing quality and sustainable material from local trees. Much of my passion for woodturning comes from wanting to reveal the natural wonder within the diverse treescape of California.
Can you tell us a little more about the diverse treescape of California and more specifically the treescape of Marin County in which you grew up?
With many microclimates throughout California and especially around the Bay Area, a wide range of tree species thrive. With access to native, agricultural, or urban trees around my workshop, I am able to experiment with a broad range of form, features, and colors within the wood. My most recent collection of bowls for Commune are from a walnut tree native to California. This wood has rich tones and swirling grain throughout, making it both beautiful and durable.
The grain is very impressive in these walnut bowls. And how did you come to connect with Commune?
I connected with Roman Alonso of Commune while working at Arborica. Arborica is a sawmill that acts as a hub for the woodworking and design community. Roman and I bonded over our shared interest in sourcing materials, specifically wood, from a local and sustainable source.
Materiality is a huge part of our design process as well. We admire the care and thought you take in picking the perfect wood specimen for each piece. Tell us a bit more about your process. There must be some special things to be noted here, however much you’re willing to share. The scale of these bowls is incredible and the way the grain lines up through each consecutive bowl is something we’ve never seen before. What about the wood itself? What kind of wood are we seeing and what can you tell us about its source?
In this set of three nesting bowls, the wood grain maintains its unique appearance and flow throughout each consecutive bowl. This is achieved by carving each bowl from the wood within the next larger bowl (thinking Russian nesting dolls). This process yields a set of bowls that are complimentary to one another in both material and form.
To achieve this harmony of the grain at such a large scale, I have developed custom tooling and methods that have allowed me to create unconventionally large yet light sets, all carved from one piece of wood.
The use of highly figured California sourced Walnut provides both a durable and smooth surface. The bowls are finished with a food-safe and allergen-free oil.
I’ve heard you are also into machinery and I am curious how this plays into the custom tooling you have developed?
Much of my craft and creative process stems from the tools I use. Over the years, I have developed methods for turning bowls from logs which utilize a combination of age-old tools alongside modern equipment. By finding a balance between the centuries old tools of the trade and new tooling, I am able to produce larger work while still maintaining the refined thinness this craft is known for.
You can see from the scale and thinness of the bowls that a unique step was taken to achieve this look and feel. Now for our final question… What else are you working on right now? What’s next for you?
I am currently a college student (20 years old) pursuing a degree in Architecture at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo as a third year student.
Studying architecture and design in a formal setting has been a great opportunity to apply my woodworking and design skills to larger projects. It has led me to the realization that quality design at an architectural or household scale stems from the same principles within form and function that I strive to capture in my woodturning. What I appreciate about working with Commune, is the understanding of and attention to design detail across all scales. Like Roman, I am a believer that craft should be seen and felt throughout a space, from the small details like the rim of a salad bowl, to the larger gestures like lighting in a restaurant.
I have begun working for Evan Shively at Arborica. This has presented me with the opportunity to create work that is much larger and more architectural. These works, whether seating, coffee tables, accent walls, or outdoor furniture, share a level of refinement and craft with my bowls, and are made from the same quality material from Arborica.
Thank you, Niles!
Interview by Josie Ford