Hats off to a Vermont woodworker


MANCHESTER -- JoHannes Michelsen stands in front of a large lathe, a wood-working tool that turns on an axis. On the tool, a small cylinder with a lip around the edge spins fast, lit from within. Michelsen said the light helps him see how thin the wood is, while he uses a tool to shave and shape what will become a small top hat.

In the past 23 years, he has turned almost 1,800 large hats, large enough to wear, along with 2,200 miniature hats. They dot his workshop in various stages of completion, top hats hanging from a nail, cowboy hats that look weathered, and a baseball cap still being formed into its final shape with rubber bands and a homemade bender.

Michelsen first learned how to turn wood, using a lathe, when he was 9. His father had bought a large barn full of all sorts of tools.

"We got that lathe and we started turning wood, and we had a lot of fun," he said, smiling at the memory.

While he started young, Michelsen did not return to his lathe until after he left the Army and moved to Vermont in 1969. He first worked with his brother as a painter and decided it wasn't for him; instead, he came back to turning wood.

"I went into stair building ... I didn't like the balusters and newel posts available," he said. "I knew I could do better, because I could turn wood."

And so his career with wood began. But it wasn't until 1990 that he made the artwork he is now known for: wooden hats. The idea first popped into his head about 10 years before, he said, after reading a book about wood. By turning wet wood, and then drying it, a wood turner could create an oval shape, what he needed to create a hat.

"I thought, I like ovalness as much as I like round. I could make a hat," he said. "Immediately I dismissed it."

In his workshop, wood shavings create small, fluffy piles all over the floor and the smell of fresh wood and varnish lingers in the air. A piece of rosewood spins on the lathe as he creates a band along the bottom of a top hat.

A friend's wedding inspired his first cowboy hat. He was having a Western wedding, complete with prizes given out for best outfits. Because the friend was also a wood turner, Michelsen felt a wooden hat would be best.

"I had my wood hat on ... and the whole place broke out in bedlam," he said.

Hats are not the only thing Michelsen turns. He also creates chairs and stools, mini chairs and bowls. He stopped building stairs around three years ago, he said. Working on a job site is just too much for him now.

But he's not just an artist; he shares his passion for turned wood with the world as well. He has taught classes on how to turn hats everywhere -- all around the United States, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Austria. At the end of May, he will jet off to France to teach how to turn hats. He's excited for this upcoming trip.

"America is top dog when it comes to turning wood," he said. "But when the French do something good, you bet it's different!"

Even though he dabbles in other types of turned wood designs, Michelsen said he will always return to hats.

"Every single one is a new challenge," he said. "It's so off the edge, off in space. In any second, you can lose the hat."


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