Self-proclaimed “wood nerd” makes unique bowls and art pieces, often with wood found right in Flint

FLINT, Michigan -- Flint native Russ Dotson was attending a friend’s wedding in Grand Blanc when something else caught his eye -- a wood pile behind the church.

Dotson spotted some oak with some unique spalting on it. Spalting is caused by bacteria as wood begins to break down, but it can cause unique patterns and colors to form, so he wasn’t simply going to leave it there.

“I got yelled at for grabbing a log in my tux,” Dotson said.

That scene might be odd for a wedding, but it accurately represents Dotson’s interest in and eye for unique woods. The College Cultural Neighborhood resident frequently finds branches, logs, and wood scraps in Flint and surrounding areas and uses those pieces to create beautiful wood bowls with his lathe in his garage studio. 

For Dotson, the process in creating his pieces is perhaps more important than the final products themselves.
Flint's Russ Dotson finds unique pieces of wood from sources all over the city, and turns them into beautiful art pieces.“I don’t make these to make money,” Dotson said. “This is therapeutic and Zen-ish for me. You get into a project and, before you know it, four hours have gone by. I’ve been out of my head for four hours, which is nice.”

Dotson, who served in the military for 22 years and currently works in human resources for an automotive supplier, began creating bowls after seeing a video on wood-turning in the YouTube ‘Oddly Satisfying Videos’ series. He bought a lathe on Craigslist, then a slightly better one when he burned that one out. He’s now on his third one, and continues to build his skills. 

“We were at the Renaissance Festive and my wife wanted one of the wood beer steins,” Dotson said. “I thought, ‘we’re not gonna pay $75 for that, I can make one!’”

Dotson has been perfecting his craft for about four years now and did his first show at the Greater Flint Arts Council in 2018. He was pleasantly surprised by the turnout and interest in his work.

“I went there with 60 pieces and sold all but two of them,” he said.

One of the things Dotson’s hobby has unearthed is the interest that other people share in unique woods. People are buying bowls and art pieces, but they’re also able to get stories from him about where the wood came from, usually even telling them the street he found a log that was used in a particular piece. 

He also gets calls from neighbors and friends who find downed branches or trees for him to come check out.

“I do like to find the local stuff,” he said. “I’m a wood nerd, and I just find it amazing that there’s really people who will stand in front of me and let me talk about wood! Learned that some people really like to nerd out over it too.”

He’s also found that people share his interest in pieces that aren’t necessarily “perfect.” His pieces with imperfections or live or rough edges tend to sell well and generate a lot of interest.

“The first show I did, I had this giant 16-inch cherry bowl,” Dotson said. “It was a perfect piece of wood, the angle of the bowl was perfect. And no one wanted anything to do with it. However, the moldy old log with five holes in it that frankly can’t even hold anything, people loved that. The uglier the log, the more people want it and the perfect bowl that looks like you could buy online, no one wants it.”

Dotson did end up finding a home for the cherry bowl, though. A friend who runs a catering company now uses it to prepare caesar salads table-side during events. And that also fits a theme of Dotson’s work -- he tries as much as possible to fully use every single piece of wood he can find.

“I like not wasting wood,” he said. “I use the end pieces, scraps. I try to use as much as humanly possible, unless it is too small or cracked to work with. I try to mill them into usable shapes. It hurts me to know that anyone would throw away wood this nice, especially since the tree had to die, right?”

Dotson said he particularly likes working with cherry and walnut, noting that they have beautiful colors. They’re also hard, but not too hard to work with. There are also woods that are difficult to work with because of their softness.
His entire process can take anywhere from five to 40 hours depending on the steps needed. Some pieces require cutting and gluing. The wood also has to be prepared with a wax coating to slow down the drying and prevent cracks before it is used. After pieces are formed, they can also work or become more oblong. Some pieces get put back on the lathee to have a more perfect shape and in some cases, the warping makes the pieces more interesting.

“It’s cool that people like them,” Dotson said. “I can start with some scraps and walk out of here in an hour with a thing that’s done. I believe human beings aren’t really fulfilled when they’re not making something.”

Dotson’s work can be seen on his Instagram page. His pieces are also available at Flint Trading Co. downtown Flint (note: Flint Trading Co. is temporarily closed after a building fire, but will reopen).

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.