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Morro Bay artist brings ornamental turning to the Central Coast

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It happened purely by chance.

Rob Lichty was a mechanical engineering student studying away in the Cal Poly library and he needed a break. As a side hobby, Lichty did woodworking and built cabinets for cash, so naturally he moseyed over to that section of the library. He reached into the bookshelves and, at random, grabbed one on ornamental turning, an ancient craft that involves cutting shapes and designs into a material like bone, metal, or wood by using a tool that must be kept rotating.

Lichty was hooked.

AN ANCIENT ART Some of the equipment that artist Rob Lichty uses for ornamental turning dates back to the 1800s. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • AN ANCIENT ART Some of the equipment that artist Rob Lichty uses for ornamental turning dates back to the 1800s.

"As a mechanical engineer who was really into woodworking, I kind of freaked out," he said.

Years later, Lichty is self-taught in the art of ornamental turning and continues his craft at his same studio in Morro Bay where he also works as an engineer in product design development to create medical equipment and sports equipment.

While Lichty's day job is decidedly modern, his chosen art has roots going back to the early 1500s when turning spread in places like England, Russia, Germany, Austria, and Prussia to create delicate, intricately carved pieces out of materials like ivory. It was even part of the education of princes.

HOME SWEET HOME One of Rob Lichty's engraved pieces features Morro Rock in the background. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • HOME SWEET HOME One of Rob Lichty's engraved pieces features Morro Rock in the background.

"If you were a good ornamental turner, it was assumed you would be a good ruler, though it has nothing to do with people," Lichty said. "It's a very solitary art, though it does teach things like precision and patience."

Although ornamental turning isn't an art most are familiar with today, high-profile artisans like Peter Carl Fabergé used the method on intricately designed eggs made of jewels for the Russian Imperial family in the late 1800s. Tiffany & Co. even used the method at one point for engraving its high-end jewelry for clients.

Now, Lichty is hoping to bring the intricate and time-intensive art form to the Central Coast. In his studio, he has several lathes and rose engine machines used for ornamental turning. The oldest machine dates back to 1840. Such equipment is hard to come by as much of it was lost or destroyed during both World Wars in Europe. In the next few years, Lichty hopes to open a second space to serve as a nonprofit ornamental turning museum and studio, where underserved kids and single moms can learn Lichty's craft.

"They can sell the art through the museum and part of the proceeds will go towards keeping the museum open and part will go towards an account for that person for further education or if they want to buy their own piece of equipment to make and sell jewelry," he said.

A PROCESS This silver engraved frame that Rob Lichty is currently making could take anywhere from 30 to 40 hours to complete by hand. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • A PROCESS This silver engraved frame that Rob Lichty is currently making could take anywhere from 30 to 40 hours to complete by hand.

Lichty's personal workspace in Morro Bay is currently open by appointment to any one looking to learn more about a forgotten aspect of art and history. Ornamental turning work accounts for about 15 percent of the orders Lichty receives from clients. Using materials like African black wood or precious metals, Lichty spends hours creating bottle stoppers, napkin holders, jewelry, and picture frames.

"Once you start a pattern, you can't stop until it's finished or you've ruined a whole piece," Lichty said. "It's exceptionally rare, unique, really not something you're going to find today. It's beautiful work." Δ

Arts Writer Ryah Cooley is bringing back an afternoon break for tea. Contact her at rcooley@newtimesslo.com.

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