Winlock Artist Tests the Limits of Timber



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WINLOCK — Pulling up Bob Espen’s heavily-forested, single-lane gravel driveway, it becomes quickly clear that someone who works with wood lives here. A giant pile of wood chips and shavings lay next to the remnants of what used to be a log. Inside his large shop, it becomes even more evident.

Scattered about are table saws, band saws, sand blasters, bench grinders and numerous lathes of all shapes and sizes. Some of the lathes are custom-made as Espen couldn’t find ones he specifically needed for his woodturning. Surrounding the machinery are all forms of wood in varying stages of being processed, all the way from whole limbs with the bark still attached to finely-sanded maple only needing a coat of finish. 

It’s the workshop of 74-year-old Espen, a wood sculpture artist who has been testing the limits of timber for 60 years. 

His first lathe project was a 32-piece lamp he created at 14 years old in 1960. He still has it in his home. After leaving woodworking behind and attending college, Espen, during a six-year stint in the Navy aboard the aptly-named USS Carpenter, created a drinking mug for his father out of maple, rosewood and vermillion in 1971, which again sparked his interest.

After moving to Anchorage, Alaska to work in a power plant, he spent his free time turning wood he pulled out of the Alaskan wilderness. He soon helped found the Alaska Creative Woodworkers Association. One day, an expert woodturner from Utah, Dale Niche, came in for a demonstration and inspired Espen to take his hobby even further. Espen soon bought two lathes and numerous tools and began honing his craft.

The first creation he sold was in 1988 or 1989, trading it to an accountant in Anchorage in return for doing his taxes. After 23 years in Alaska, Espen moved to Winlock in 2000, bringing his entire woodworking equipment, supplies and wood with him. It took a 45-foot shipping container packed to the brim to carry everything from Anchorage to Washington.

Espen now spends all his time here in his Winlock lumber lab. On one table is a white 1990s 13-inch Quasar TV/VHS combo with a “Men in Black” tape sitting nearby. Everything in the shop has a fine coat of wood dusting on it but the TV screen has been wiped by a hand recently to clear the dust.

Espen crafts all sorts of artwork at this wood shop, from bowls, rolling pins, wall hangings, oil lamps, urns and flower vases. He puts them all on display at Rectangle Art Gallery & Creative Space on North Tower Avenue, where he currently has dozens of pieces for sale. His love for turning wood and churning out artwork is borne from an inquisitive mind.

“It’s like Christmas every day,” Espen said. “You open a piece of wood up and you absolutely never know exactly what’s in it.”

However, he usually has a pretty good idea now after so many years. He can look at a barkless piece of wood and predict fairly accurately what the inside will look like, whis is important when deciding what to keep and what to discard.

His favorite wood to work with is Acacia Koa, the largest native tree in the Hawaiian islands, which is highly-sought and highly-priced. It can run up to $150 a board foot. He also likes maple, which is easy to work with and much easier for him to obtain. The city of Winlock felled an old maple tree downtown on Thursday morning and Epsen planned to go check it out that afternoon to see if there was anything he could use.

He will take requests to create pieces as long as it isn’t furniture, he said, as anything with joints in it is too much effort. Anyone interested in viewing his art or purchasing it can do so by visiting the Rectangle Art Gallery & Creative Space in Centralia. You can also call him at 360-269-5646. 


Reporter Eric Trent can be reached at Visit for more coverage of local businesses.


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