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Former city of Decatur engineer transforms dead trees into beautiful bowls

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Former city of Decatur engineer transforms dead trees into beautiful bowls

John Madajewski practicing his craft. Photo by Ellie Ritter

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John Madajewski practicing his craft. Photo by Ellie Ritter

For local woodturner John Madajewski, big hunks of wood are far more than just kindling: they’re an opportunity for art.

Madajewski, who was the senior engineer for the city of Decatur until he retired two years ago, first started woodturning in 1998.

“I’ve only taken two classes,” he said. “I really enjoyed it right away and wanted to keep at it.”

Woodturning is an art form that crafts pieces like bowls, platters, vases or even sculptural works out of wood. By using a lathe, some small tools and quite a bit of patience, branches and tree stumps can transform into intricate works.

To make a piece, woodturners like Madajewski put a piece of wood into a mechanical rotating tool called a lathe. The lathe spins around rapidly, similarly to a potter’s wheel, while the woodturner uses other tools to chip away at other parts of the wood, resulting in forms like bowls or platters.


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His first class was at John Campbell, a craft school offering classes in things like basketry, writing and woodworking, where he took weekend classes.

Even when he first started, working the lathe felt natural to Madajewski. His first project was a simple honey pot.

Now, the backyard of Madajewski’s Lilburn home and his woodturning shed is filled with dozens of wood stumps. But Madajewski doesn’t simply buy his wood from anywhere – instead, all of the wood he uses comes from dead trees local to Decatur.

Madajewski said he uses local trees for a couple of reasons: it distinguishes his pieces and can make them more sentimental, and, of course, it’s convenient to find.

“Often, someone will commission a piece from me using a tree that fell that was important to them, which just shows how meaningful it can be,” he said.

Lori Ronca, owner of local art shop Homegrown who sells Madajewski’s work, believes his choice of wood gives his work an important tie to the community.

“[Madajewski’s work] allows buyers of his work to have a piece of our community, made by a longtime member of our community from a tree that stood in our community, quietly bearing witness to the people that live and have lived here,” Ronca said.

Ronca began selling Madajewski’s bowls in 2014, back when he was a city engineer, after seeing a bowl he had presented to the city.

Ronca believes Madajewski’s work is even more special because of how knowledgeable he is about each piece.

“John is always able to tell us the type of tree, the location where it came down in a storm or was felled and even the part of the tree from which each individual piece is formed,” she said. “For example, [there was] a white poplar on the grounds of the Decatur Recreation Center that fell in last May’s thunderstorm, and the piece was formed from a large branch with coloring or marbling as a result of insect activity.”

As an art form, woodturning requires a lot of patience. A piece for Madajewski could take months to complete.

“There are layers of little intricacies that you have to be really careful with as you work,” he said. “The time spent on a piece really does depend on the wood, but you never know what it’s going to require. You just have to stick with it and see.”

According to Madajewski, woodturning can also be difficult since the character and shape of the wood doesn’t always become clear until after the process begins.

“The wood often starts very wet, but as you work, it dries and its size can alter quite a bit,” he said. “There are also parts of the wood that you uncover, like piths, that you have to figure out and work with. It makes it very interesting, though.”

Despite the complex process and care required, Ronca believes that Madajewski has practically mastered the craft. She thinks his bowls exemplify both form and function.

“Much like a sculptor, John, as a skilled wood turner, transforms a block of wood into an object of both beauty and utility,” Ronca said.

For Madajewski, woodturning and engineering, his career, share many parallels. Like engineering, woodturning requires patience and a knowledge of structure. 

“Like woodturning, engineering allows you to understand planning and allows patience and timing,” he said. “And in both, you kind of learn to see things in nature and you get to have a sort of creativity.”

Another aspect of woodturning that Madajewski appreciates is the community surrounding it, which he said is supportive and encouraging.

“I’ve never met a woodturner who didn’t want to share any information or advice,” he said. “They’re all just good people.”

Although the process can be challenging, Madajewski finds woodturning to be therapeutic (he even owns a shirt saying “wood turning is cheaper than therapy”).

“Think of any activity you do that you love, and remember how time just flies by without you knowing,” he said. “That’s woodturning for me.”

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