Prof. branches out with Yale Bowls

On a recent Sunday morning, chemistry professor Scott Strobel drove down Whitney Ave. in a black pick-up truck. He was on the look-out for remnants of a honey locust tree recently deemed unstable and cut down by city workers. The city would soon send more employees to clean the site, but Strobel wanted to get there first.

After a quick survey, Strobel donned a protective visor, yellow gloves and orange ear defenders, and pulled the cord on his orange chainsaw. A storm of sawdust and noise ensued as Strobel divided the tree trunk into smaller and smaller hunks. He stopped cutting when the pieces were light enough to haul in his truck, and paused briefly to count the rings on the stump. 40 years old, he said.

The tree is now part of Strobel’s collection of on-campus wood sources, which he will eventually convert into art for his new venture, Yale Bowls.

A University-licensed business, Yale Bowls handcrafts and sells wooden curios made from Yale trees. Strobel has only been “turning,” or woodworking, for six years, and he’s been using Yale wood in his work for a year. He works out of his garage-turned-studio in Hamden, Conn. and has spent a little over four years collecting 12 trees from more than 10 different on-campus sources — from his first tree, a beech outside the Office of Undergraduate Admissions in 2006, to wood from actual Yale Bowl benches.

“A HANDS-ON OUTLET”

A former chair of the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department, Strobel is currently on sabbatical, though he still advises Ph.D candidates’ independent research and goes to his office every weekday during regular business hours. Strobel, however, never intended to spend his newfound time on woodturning: Yale Bowls is only a side project while he takes this year to pursue his own research on the biochemistry of RNA.

“As a bench scientist, I like working with my hands,” he said. “I don’t get to do too much experimenting, it’s the nature of my job. So wood turning is a hands-on outlet.”

This quirky undertaking came as no surprise to Joann DelVecchio, business manager for the Statistics Department and a former assistant to Strobel during his term as director of undergraduate studies for the MB&B major. By all accounts, she said, Strobel is not only an involved instructor, but an all-around “cool guy.”

Strobel and his family are no strangers to unusual pastimes. Strobel has only turned wood for six years, but his teachers — his brother, David and father, Gary — have more than 20 years of combined experience in the craft. They are still involved in Yale Bowls, helping with the production process and occasionally earning profits from some items. Strobel’s wife, Lynnette, is always on the lookout for trees that her husband could use. (And, when not on duty as a nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Lynnette is pursuing her own hobby: beekeeping. The dining table in the Strobels’ Hamden home is ringed by dozens of jars of honey she has recently collected.)

In the past year, Strobel has rough-turned around 80 bowls from on-campus wood, and invested around $15,000 in tools, equipment and advertising for his business. Since he began selling his wares online in late August, he has made about $2500 in sales and counts Provost Peter Salovey among his fans.

Yale Bowls sells wooden bowls and pens for between $99 and $279. Woodturning is time-consuming and the equipment required for some of the projects can be expensive.

“If you look at other high-end artisan pens, they run for much higher,” Strobel said. For pens made from Wrigley Field, he argues, materials cost as much as $250.

To create these artisan items, Strobel first goes straight to the source. He collects wood in huge lumps, which he then cuts in semi-cylindrical pieces. If the wood is wet, it takes about one year per inch for it get dry, he said, and bowls can only be as big as the widest diameter of the trunk. It takes him around 30 minutes to rough-turn a bowl. To finish a single bowl, though, can take upwards of two hours.

Once a chunk is rough-turned on a lathe, the wood begins to warp as it dries. During the finishing process, Strobel (or his brother or father) evens out the thickness of the bowl’s walls, applies several layers of sealant and coatings, adds decorative details and brands the base with the Yale Bowls logo. The woodturner finishing the bowl will engrave his initials on the final product to help determine who gets the profits once the bowl is sold.

THE BUSINESS OF BOWLS

Strobel must pay a 10 percent licensing fee on his Yale Bowls earnings to use the Yale name. Linda Lorimer, vice president and secretary of the University, said that she was excited to grant Strobel a license in part because Strobel is a “distinguished member of the faculty.”

When asked about expanding his fledgling enterprise, Strobel maintains that the nature of Yale Bowls will always keep it as a small business due to the measured pace by which trees are cut down on campus.

“I like the idea of giving something longevity even if it’s gone,” he said. “It’s always going to be a niche artisan thing.”

Even if Yale Bowls never grows to be a multi-employee project, it will still have its admirers.

For Salovey, an avid pen collector, Strobel made a fountain pen from the beech tree outside the Office of Undergraduate Admissions that fit Salovey’s hand “perfectly.” It’s the provost’s favorite pen.

“If the RNA splicing business ever slows down,” Salovey said, “Professor Strobel would also have an outstanding career in handcrafting wooden pens.”

But Strobel does not see Yale Bowls as a replacement to his job as a professor. Instead, it is “just a fun thing to do, something a little eclectic.”

The actual handcrafting is often the easiest part of Strobel’s job. First, he’s got to find the wood. He has no formal system in place for finding wood sources, and must depend on word of mouth and keep an eye out for newly downed trees before they are removed and turned into mulch by city or University workers.

Luck plays a big role in being able to get trees that are being disposed of. Although his search always focuses more on variety than quantity, he still relies on the way some of his colleagues have spread the word out about Yale Bowls.

“I get tips from people here and there,” he said. “The more who know, the more I collect. I’m sure I’m missing a lot.”

When part of the Farmington Canal Trail was under reparation, the project manager told former assistant DelVecchio that some trees down the canal line would have to be removed as part of a beautification project. DelVecchio recognized the potential value the trees held for Strobel, and called him to gave him the tip.

Campus construction has also sided with Strobel’s cause: four out of the 12 Yale trees he has ever collected come from the School of Management’s new site.

An American elm, a rare New Haven specimen and the city’s official tree, stands by the entrance to the intended SOM campus, and architects had to plan their redesign around that tree, Strobel said. Though he made every call necessary to track the tree and ensure he would collect the wood were it to be removed, he admits he’s glad it was  not cut down.

All the same, missed chances are unavoidable. Eventually, Strobel would like to scavenge wood from all the residential colleges, even though the college renovation process is well underway and about to reach its end.

Despite this desire to get a tree from every possible area on campus, Strobel said he is not hoping for trees to die or rot. For now, he is content to recycle trees after they have met their ends.

“I like the idea of working with wood that has a story,” he said, brandishing a varnished bowl. “It keeps it interesting.”

Comments

  • rammedearth

    Prof Strobel’s modus operandi for finding raw material for his bowls sounds very much like that of George Nakashima, the famous furniture maker. He, too, was eager to have the tree live on in a different but respectful way. And he writes at length about his philosophy in “The Soul of a Tree.” I hope Prof Strobel has had an opportunity to “tune in” to someone who shares his worldview.