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The virtue of the hard way: In the workshop with craftsman Robert Arnold

In a garage in North Las Vegas, the self-taught artisan makes wonders with his hands

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Robert Arnold of Dog House Workshop poses in his home workshop Thursday, July 31, 2014. Arnold is a craftsman who makes wooden bowls, ceramic pieces, mobiles and prints.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Walking in the front door of Robert Arnold’s North Las Vegas home, it’s hard to know what to admire first. Handmade furniture sits just past the foyer, next to high columns of Shaker boxes in ascending sizes, made the traditional way without a drop of glue. Wooden bowls stand near graceful sculptures, carved smooth with almost liquid curves and gorgeous grain. Look up, and there are shelves of ceramics, framed prints of wartime propaganda and intricate, towering mobiles that hang from the ceiling.

Arnold’s responsible for all of it.

“My attention span is like a fruit fly,” he says by way of explanation. “I just like to make things.”

And that’s exactly what the 46-year-old construction manager does in the home’s three-car garage, retrofitted into a creative playhouse and dubbed the Dog House Workshop after the adopted greyhounds that keep him company there. An image of Arnold’s original shop companion, a dog named Augustus that died of cancer, graces the labels for the bowls and ceramics he sells in local stores like Gaia, One Man’s Trash and the gift shop at the Springs Preserve.

This insect-inspired platter was made entirely on the lathe in Arnold's garage workshop.

This insect-inspired platter was made entirely on the lathe in Arnold's garage workshop.

Inside the garage, it’s the ceramics area that we see first, a narrow corridor that feels almost too small for Arnold’s 6-foot-4 frame.

“It throws a lot of people off when they see me the first time,” he laughs. “Especially with the ceramics, it’s like, ‘You do these delicate vases?’”

Arnold got into clay three years ago when his wife, Gina, wanted him to stop making big furniture that cluttered up the house. The vases and cups are made using an industrial process called slip casting and created completely from scratch: Arnold builds the wooden casts and the plaster molds, he mixes his own clay and glazes, and fires the pieces in a small kiln.

“I did everything the hard way,” he says of learning the intricate process. Even figuring out his clay recipe was a painstaking experience that had the self-taught craftsman calling home fixtures giant Kohler to ask for advice. Sometimes, after running the kiln for 24 hours, he’d open it to find only one piece had survived intact.

“There have been numerous times when I’ve thought about selling the ceramics stuff,” Arnold says, shaking his head.

The Navy vet’s first love is wood—shaping a raw slab of trunk into something beautiful. He uses trees from Nevada, Colorado and Utah—mesquite, ash, even avocado—and his weapon of choice is the lathe, a machine that spins a piece of wood at thousands of RPMs, so the gentlest touch from a metal tool will send shavings flying.

Arnold makes his ceramics from scratch, including building his own casts and molds and mixing his own clay and glazes.

Arnold makes his ceramics from scratch, including building his own casts and molds and mixing his own clay and glazes.

“I like the lathe because it’s self-contained,” he says. “You give me a block, and with just the lathe and the tools that come with it, I can make a bowl.”

If making a bowl sounds basic, Arnold’s work is anything but. Some pieces have raw edges and warm, reverberating grain. Others are perched on lithe, insect-like legs. All are meant to be used but also arrestingly lovely—the kind of work you almost want to stroke.

“I’m a very good turner,” Arnold says of his talents with the lathe. Then he pauses, wrestling with a humility that permeates his work. “As far as technical stuff, I’m probably one of the best in the country.”

Still, even the most experienced turners sometimes find a chunk of wood breaking off unexpectedly and flying past their heads at terrifying speed.

When that happens, Arnold says, he shuts down, catches his breath and calls it a night. He spends 20 to 30 hours a week in the workshop, channeling his energies into the wood or clay when he’s not at work on the new Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in North Las Vegas.

“I would love to be able to make things full time. But then my biggest fear would be that that would make it not fun.”

Back in his living room, Arnold lifts a delicate bowl of avocado wood with thin sides and knots like bull’s-eyes. Its shape is an off-kilter oval that looks totally intentional, but as I’m admiring it, Arnold rotates the piece to show off a neat column of stitches tracing one of the bowl’s walls. It was made from green wood, he says, and as the wood dried it bent and warped, eventually cracking.

Many craftsmen might have seen that shape as a flaw, that crack as a fatal defect, and simply thrown the bowl away. But Arnold sewed it back together again. And it’s beautiful.

Robert Arnold of Dog House Workshop

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