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Monday, December 8, 2014

This Fort Thomas Man Turns Recovered Wood into Beautiful Art

by Kara Gebhart Uhl
FTM Contributor

Like all things in life there is a cyclical nature to trees. In Fort Thomas, age, wind storms, the emerald ash borer and growth into power lines all can lead to a tree’s last ring. But wood, when in the right hands, can take on a new form and purpose—and in the hands of Jerry W. Warner, wood becomes art.

Warner grew up on a small cotton farm in northeast Louisiana. There he learned to work with his hands, chopping cotton in the spring and handpicking cotton in late summer. Eager to explore different career options, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology at Texas Tech University in 1973, and in 1976 he accepted a faculty position at Northern Kentucky University. Warner’s NKU career in the biological sciences spanned 30 years, and included faculty and administrative positions.

While an undergraduate student Warner participated in Army ROTC, was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and served two years of active duty, including a tour in Vietnam. Warner then joined the Army Reserve serving 27 years until retiring as Colonel in 1993.

Warner retired from NKU in 2006 and, for the first time in his life he had time to spare. So he went back to his roots—working with his hands—and took a series of woodworking courses at the renowned Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Ind., earning master’s status in two years. These courses included several woodturning classes sparking an immediate love of the work and the form. Through dedication, time, practice and classes, Warner has achieved—in fewer than 10 years—what others strive to achieve in a lifetime. He is a craftsman, in every sense of the word.

I first discovered Warner’s work at Fort Thomas Central, and I met him in person at one of the boutique’s artisan markets. I took a tour of his home shop, which is in the basement of his Memory Lane home, last week.

Warner’s woodworking space features incredible 12-foot ceilings, three workbenches and a beautiful Oneway 1224 lathe. Wood, turning tools, a band saw, dust collector and partially finished pieces fill the space.

Almost all of Warner’s wood is local, domestic hardwoods, native to Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, and much of it is from Fort Thomas. He never buys wood. Friends and friends of friends call him, asking him to take their fallen trees and turn it into something beautiful. He shows me an ash bowl, darker than the typical light shade of ash, and tells me the wood was buried for 30 years in a neighbor’s ravine. When the Sanitation District dug it up, he took it and transformed it.

Much of Warner’s pieces are twice turned—once when the wood is green, and then again, perhaps four months later, after it has dried and any warping has occurred. He turns bowls, natural edge pieces, ornaments, hollow forms and deep hollow vessels. He likes to work in walnut and maple, but he shows me work done out of crabapple, osage orange, box elder and gingko.

Warner spends at least 40 hours per week working in his shop. He shows me his handwritten logbook of all the pieces he’s turned since 2006. In 2014 his pieces start at No. 886—right now he’s at No. 1,049. His wife, Catherine, joins us and they talk of their love of travel—she says travel is the one thing that gets Warner out of his shop.

Warner is humble about his work—he shows me his shop and his pieces—but it is his wife Catherine who shows me his ribbons and explains how far, in such a short amount of time, he’s come. An active member of the Ohio Valley Woodturners Guild (he and his wife often host visiting woodturners), Warner joined as a novice and quickly advanced to master status, which can only be done by earning blue ribbons in contests.

While turning is his true love, Warner also has dabbled in other woodworking forms, including sculptural woodworking. He shows me two rocking chairs, built to fit the individual (one for him and one for his wife). I sit and rock, noting how the back spindles move to fit my own curves, feeling how the arms curve into my hands, perfectly.

Although Warner often discovers the forms in the wood he’s turning, he also works on commission. Should you find yourself having to say goodbye to a beloved tree, think of Warner. He can take the wood and turn it into a piece that will last for generations. And in addition to Fort Thomas Central, you can purchase Warner’s pieces directly from his website, here. (He also attends eight to nine fairs each year.)

Everything is cyclical. Just as Warner has turned his retirement into a new vocation that’s also very much his avocation, he has turned so many of our city’s fine, old trees into pieces of art—bowls, vases and ornaments—giving the wood new life, new homes, new love.

Here are a few pieces Warner has crafted:

To see more of Jerry's work, check out his website.

If you know of a Fort Thomas resident with an interesting story, please contact me at

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