El Dorado County's Jeff Nelson: Master of His Craft
Crafting gorgeous hand-turned wooden ware, sculptures, furniture, and other custom projects, Jeff Nelson grew up around the art of woodworking, learning the old-fashioned, artisanal skill through self-teaching and apprenticeships. Known as the “inked woodworker,” with his colorful sleeves of traditional tattoos, Nelson—who resides in Placerville—works with as many native woods as possible and finishes his food-safe wares with local walnut oil and beeswax to protect and highlight its natural beauty. Partial to using claro walnut, which is abundant in these parts, especially for live edge-style furniture, the artist also works with a variety of hard woods, both domestic and exotic, to expertly turn on his lathe—creating bowls, rolling pins, cutting boards, pens, desk accessories, barware, other kitchen cutlery and utensils. “The goal is usually the same—to push the boundaries of creativity and skill,” shares Nelson. “But I’d also like to start getting into working with more mediums that I could blend with wood.” Raised in Fremont, Nelson has shown his work at Olive Hyde Art Gallery, MarchSF Gallery, as well as various craft and artist markets throughout the Bay Area and El Dorado County.
HLB: How did you get started with woodworking?
JN: My father is a woodworker, so I was always around it growing up, but it wasn’t until after high school that I decided to pursue it seriously. I started working in a mill, then went on to building cabinetry for a number of years; eventually, I got into custom furniture and then lathe work.
HLB: How has being an artist impacted your life?
JN: Art is therapy. It’s a powerful experience to pour yourself out emotionally into a tangible object, and then get to see the physical representation of those emotions.
HLB: What do you enjoy most about working with wood, and what are some of the challenges it presents?
JN: Wood is natural, [and] with that comes the unpredictability of Mother Nature. Species, disease, geographical location, drying procedure, milling techniques—all of these have dramatic effects on the state of the wood. I enjoy the constant challenge it presents, as well as having the opportunity to give something that was once living a second lease. There’s a certain level of intuition used to view something in its natural state, and then knowing what to do with it to best exploit its beauty.
HLB: Do 3D printers and the like help or hinder your art?
JN: CNC machinery and 3D printing has really only affected the cabinetry industry, as the bulk of it is essentially building wood boxes. I don’t see it affecting sculpture/lathe work, as there’s no computer program to simulate the “human eye” or that intuition I mentioned.
HLB: What do you enjoy most about your community?
JN: People tend to put their best foot forward, and in good faith, expect the same. There’s such a strong sense of community [here], with tons of awesome small local businesses and artists who all support each other—it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.
By Heather Becker