Reviving a Craft

Tim Nester’s hand-hewn dough bowls preserve an Appalachian tradition.

Photo courtesy of Tim Nester

The only modern tool involved in making one of Tim Nester’s Appalachian dough bowls is a chainsaw. Nester uses it to split a block of green wood and rough in a couple of lines for cutting the shape. From there, everything is done the way it was 150 years ago, when dough bowls were family heirlooms handed down through generations in the Blue Ridge Mountains around Galax, where Nester carves in a small workshop beside his house.

A retired logger, Nester, 55, got into the craft when he couldn’t find a handmade dough bowl—a gift for his mother—and realized the tradition was being lost. Dough bowls were a central feature of the Appalachian kitchen; Nester remembers his grandmother and many of her generation using wood cook stoves, and making bread as many as two or three times in a day. A mother’s dough bowl was handed down to the eldest daughter, or given as a wedding gift. Today, as Appalachian culture faces social, economic and environmental pressures, maintaining a connection to the past feels more important than ever. 

“If you don’t have a few people coming along who know about the old ways, then it’s going to be entirely lost to the young ones,” he explains.

Nester found blacksmiths to recreate traditional hand tools, and says most old dough bowls were made of poplar because it was easier to carve. His tools are made of steel instead of wrought iron, which holds the edge better and allows him to carve poplar as well as walnut, cherry, elm, and his favorite, maple. “It makes a real pretty bowl, with all of the different grains and stripes,” he says. He works with a hand plane and hand adze, then seasons the bowls for up to two months. 

A flat adze and hand scrapers are used for finish work before the bowls are preserved with beeswax and food-grade mineral oil. 

Nester is a juried member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, Round the Mountain Artisans Network and the Black Horse Artisan Guild and appears at various regional events, including the Harvest Festival at Dollywood in Tennessee. 

Customers in 49 states and eight foreign countries, including Lithuania, South Africa, Ireland, Israel and Bahrain, have purchased his dough bowls. Which country was he most surprised would be interested in this Appalachian tradition? Laughs Nester, “All eight of them.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

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