Woodturner’s Backstory is a Gem

Woodturner Nathan Favors at home in Bakersville with his wife Mariella, who changed the game when she began incorporating semi-precious gem material into Nathan’s burled vessels.
Portrait by Lauren Rutten

Burls are bulbous deformities that grow on the trunks of trees. They develop as a protective response to injuries caused by fungi, bacteria, viruses, or insects — and continue to grow for the life of the tree, sometimes expanding to a few feet in diameter. 

Hikers often find burls weirdly eye-catching. And for elite woodturners, the gnarly bumps are artistic gold.

Nathan Favors prizes burls for their naturally round shape and wildly swirling grain patterns — characteristics that offer him virtually unlimited visual and textural possibilities. Working in his Bakersville studio, he transforms the misshapen lumps into stunning high-end ware including bowls, serving platters, and vases. 

Willow-burl wood vessel with semi-precious stone inlay (aventurine, quartz, rose quartz, apatite, and turquoise)

To avoid wasting any resources, Favors also carves decorative hardwood items like apples and uses the abundant wood shavings as mulch on his multi-acre property. Favors mostly works with burls salvaged from regional species such as maple, walnut, ash, cherry, and buckeye — but has skillfully crafted a number of different exotic woods like cocobolo, bubinga, eucalyptus, mora, and jarrah from Australia, Africa, and Central and South America. 

“I use any type of burl,” he says, “and have never met a burl I didn’t like.” 

Maple-wood vessel with turquoise inlay

Favors — now 82 years old — worked for 35 years as a machinist foreman and also ran his own landscaping and tree-removal business with the help of his six sons. Then, in 1988, he suffered a disastrous injury when he was crushed between two trucks. While recovering, he realized he still had to find a way to provide for his large family. As a young man, he had liked to draw and was interested in industrial arts, and during his adult life he became adept at working with tools. Already familiar with the characteristics of many wood species, he asked a friend who was a woodturner to teach him the art. “He helped get me started, but after one or two lessons he passed away, so I just kept at it and took to it pretty quickly.” 

Dyed oak-burl vessel with inlay of quartz, apatite, and turquoise

Then, seven years ago, he started collaborating with Mariella, an artist whom he met on the craft-show circuit. “I was making and selling lady’s accessories and clothing like handbags, hats, and scarves,” she says. “I gave up that business, and although I knew zero about wood and less than zero about tools, I helped Nathan with ideas for designs.” 

She also helped with woodturning’s many-stepped prep and finishing processes. Before wood is carved or turned on a lathe, it must be painstakingly dried so it won’t split. If thin cracks appear anyway, they can be filled with a clear resin or epoxy. 

Cherry-wood platter with inlay of sodalite, quartz, and aquamarine

But Mariella had a different idea. 

“I was obsessed with contributing my own artistry,” she admits. “So I started experimenting with putting crushed turquoise into the cracks.” 

Art lovers were attracted to the combination of wood and stone, so what started as filler material grew into intricate inlays of copper and larger, bolder gem slabs that contribute shimmering color and reflected light in the finished vessel.

Apple-burl wood vase with inlay of turquoise and amethyst

“People are always telling us that they’ve never seen anything like it,” says Mariella. “Neither have we.” Now about 75 percent of Nathan’s burled pieces are adorned with gem material, and the united elements form a perfect metaphor. 

“A year ago, Nate and I got married.”

Nathan and Mariella Favors, Bakersville — nathanfavors.com and on IG @nathanfavors — represented by Marquee (36 Foundy St. in Asheville’s River Arts District) and at select retail venues and events of the Southern Highland Craft Guild (southernhighlandguild.org), including the Guild’s Pop-Up Mini Fair at the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway) on Saturday,  June 1, 10am-4pm. See the artists’ website for info on more summer shows in Blowing Rock and Banner Elk.

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