I gave this bowl to my wife because she likes waterfalls,” says woodworker Tom Pleatman as he shows me a yellowwood bowl he made. It’s a frigid January morning with an icy wind blowing in the tall locust trees outside his Media, Pa., home studio. The bowl warms in my hands, its golden rings of sapwood and heartwood forming the cascading lines of a sonnet to fallen trees.
Tom uses only wood from local trees felled by nature or necessity to, he says, “keep the memory of the tree alive. I make bowls as a tribute to trees. When I take a piece of wood, I feel a responsibility to do it justice. I try to communicate something about what the tree went through in its life.” There’s no room in his studio for anonymous lumber from faraway places. Sometimes Pleatman knew the tree in its glory days growing in a backyard or arboretum. More often, he sets eyes on the donor for the first time after it has lost a limb or its life.
William Penn’s native woods and the Philadelphia region’s abundance of gardens make fallen trees a fact of life. Word of Pleatman’s work travels through the local green community like a gentle breeze in the treetops, from public gardens to college campuses to private homes. Catalpas, cherries, crabapples, dogwoods, hackberries, hawthorns, lindens, locusts, maples, oaks, silverbells, sweetgums, tuliptrees, walnuts—when these trees fall or get pruned due to storms, construction, insects, disease, or simply age, tree huggers call Tom because they know he will make something beautiful to honor their beloved trees.
As a child, Rusty Miller would visit his grandmother at Summerhill, her 100-acre farm along the Crum Creek in Newtown Square. He has vivid memories of the ancient sycamore that grew outside the 18th-century farmhouse on the property. “It engulfed the house,” he says, “and it was much loved.” Rusty is now the steward for the farm. Several years ago, an arborist told him that the sycamore had a canker and must be cut down before it fell on the house. “It was heartbreaking,” says Miller. The arborist, who was familiar with Tom Pleatman’s work, suggested that Rusty have something made with the wood. Today Rusty and his husband, Ken Nimblett, treasure the sycamore bowls that Tom made and their memories of the tree. “We feel the tree lives on,” says Rusty.
Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square lost one of the great players of the garden stage when lightning struck the Kentucky coffee tree behind their Open Air Theatre. The tree never missed a performance from the time it was planted by Pierre du Pont in 1915 to its death in 2007. Longwood commissioned Pleatman to make bowls from the historic tree, including a set that was auctioned off at last spring’s Rare Plant Auction benefiting the Delaware Center for Horticulture.
When Jeff Wilson, Arboretum Manager for Tyler Arboretum in Media, came to work the morning after a heavy April snowstorm, he saw a massive branch from their cedar of Lebanon lying on the ground. The cedar is very special to Tyler people. One of the original trees planted by Arboretum founders Minshall and Jacob Painter in the mid-1800s, it is the largest of its kind in Pennsylvania and quite picturesque. Wilson didn’t want to use it for mulch or firewood. He safeguarded the fallen branch and knew who to call. Pleatman split the logs, shaped the halves into crude circles with a chainsaw, then loaded them into his sturdy car and took them home. Wilson was happy, knowing that the cedar would eventually return to Tyler as beautiful bowls to be sold in its shop.
“A tree does not want to be a log or a bowl,” says Pleatman. “As soon as you cut it, it goes through drastic changes and it takes time.” It can take up to two years from collecting the wood to finish a bowl. After getting the logs to his studio, the next step is what Tom calls the “rough turn” on his 700-pound, two-horsepower lathe. As the wood spins along the lathe’s horizontal axis, Tom shaves it with a sharp gouge that he moves along a fixed support to reveal the outside of the bowl. When the outer contours feel right, he flips the wood and reveals the inside. Sometimes Tom can discover up to four bowls nesting inside one log.
Ranging from six inches to two feet in diameter, the rough-turned bowls are thick-walled and ringed with lines from the gouge. The generous proportions allow room for the wood to change shape as it dries without warping or cracking to the point that it is unusable. After a six-day soak in a dehydrating bath, the bowls are packed in baskets and carried off to the temperate climate of the cellar.
Six months to a year later, the seasoned bowls are ready for the final round of turning and sanding that refines the wood and removes any traces of the gouge. After several coats of tung oil and beeswax, (tung oil is made from the seed of the tung tree and is food safe) and a couple weeks on the drying racks, the bowls are finally ready to go home with people who love trees.
Pleatman’s appreciation for woodworking and trees is deeply ingrained. He grew up watching his father make banisters, spindles, and other woodwork as his parents restored their early 19th-century farmhouse in upstate New York. A seventh-grade shop class introduced him to bowlmaking, and he began experimenting with his dad’s lathe. When Pleatman left home for Haverford College, he discovered that his engineering professor had a wood lathe. Tom practiced making bowls with pieces of mahogany left over from the newly built field house.
Haverford’s landscape is the oldest college arboretum in the country. Thousands of magnificent trees, some dating back to the early 1800s, witnessed Tom’s daily walks through the college campus, teaching the impressionable young student wordless lessons about their beauty and character, their strength and vulnerability.
After graduation, Tom built a career as an electrical and software engineer, but he continued his woodworking studies. Nine years ago, he and his wife Jessica settled in Media, where Tom finally has his own lathe and studio. Today he devotes half his day to working as an independent software and web designer, the other half to woodworking.
The bowls are elegant and clean, without embellishments. “There’s a self-effacing quality about Tom’s art,” says filmmaker and Drexel University professor Dave Jones. “He’s not trying to show off what he can do. He wants to bring out the beauty of the wood, and the contours of a bowl give him a way to express that beauty.” Jones heard about Pleatman several years ago and was so intrigued by the relationship between Tom’s character and his craft that he made the 2005 documentary Beautiful Wood: Tom Pleatman, Bowlmaker. “Tom is authentic,” says Jones, “he’s honest.”
When asked whether his bowls should be used as vessels or viewed as art, Tom smiles and says: “Some people are eager to put things in their bowls. But others can’t put anything in it because it is already full.”