Jim Syvertsen About

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In the Navy

I was very fortunate to grow up in the small hamlet of Wading River on the north shore of eastern Long Island (as I found out in November, little more than a stone's throw from where Ruth Niles lived in Baiting Hollow), the oldest of 3 children to the two finest parents any children have ever known. They are, and always will be, my two personal idols. In June 1981, I graduated from Shoreham-Wading River High School where wrestling coach Joe Ferriera greatly influenced me as a young man and helped keep me on the straight and narrow. When we needed to raise money for a digital Toledo scale for our wrestling team, I learned most everything I would later need to know about business selling small SWR Wildcat trash cans. I am forever in his debt for his positive influence.

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Little more than 2 weeks after graduation, I entered the US Naval Academy, graduating in 1985 with a BS in Naval Architecture. We were honored to have President Ronald Reagan attend our graduation ceremony, and despite efforts by Academy officials to have him sit down after presenting diplomas to the top 100 graduates, President Reagan stood for 3-1/2 hours to shake the hand of every graduate. It was an incredible honor and great privilege to meet and shake the hand of such an extraordinary, honorable, humble and consequential man - a truly great American.

I spent the next 5 years stationed in San Diego in USS Truxtun (CGN-35) and USS Constellation (CV-64). After attending the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA and earning an MS in Mechanical Engineering in 1992, I went to Department Head School in one of my favorite places - and one where I would serve two subsequent tours - Newport, RI. I then served as Engineer Officer in USS Barry (DDG-52) followed by a tour as Squadron Material Officer (Engineer) for CDS-31 in Hawaii. I then returned to Newport, RI as head of the Gas Turbine Engineering Directorate. After two great years in Newport (the fishing was truly awesome), I had a fantastic tour in Yokosuka, Japan as Executive Officer in USS O'Brien (DD-975). In 2001, I returned yet again to Newport, RI, earning an MA in National Security and Strategic Studies (and Doctorate in fishing). Subsequently, I served in USS Saipan (LHA-2) and as Executive Officer at SIMA Norfolk prior to retiring in June 2005.


So how did I get involved in woodturning and burl importing/retailing? Like many people, I spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it was I wanted to do when I grew up. As a (younger) kid, I was briefly introduced to woodturning in Mr. Rosen's 7th/8th grade shop class, where I made a non-functional, really crude wooden fishing reel that I have to this day. My father later purchased a lathe and did some terrific spindle turning (especially after a class he took with Russ Zimmerman when he was in Putney, VT). He'd let me play on it when I would come home from school for a visit, but I never had much time to really figure out what I was doing.

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I recall vividly one of my Dad's friends and fishing mentors, Captain Harry Phillips, who ran the Pilot II out of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn (while my Dad ran the Mattie out of nearby Gerritsen Beach), used to turn free spooling wooden fishing reels called Sidewinders out of mahogany. Though his reels were somewhat crude in comparison to the Depression era reels I used to catch Blackfish (Tautog), Sea Bass, and Codfish, a seed had been planted. So being a fishaholic, I often daydreamed of combining my passion for fishing with what little I knew about woodturning and exotic woods when I retired from the Navy to make high quality Sidewinders for sale. So with that "business plan" in mind, I jokingly asked my parents for a mini lathe for Christmas in 2002. Of course, they bought me something much more, a terrific 16" Nova 3000.
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Well, as my father has always said, fate eventually takes a hand, and in November 2003, after returning from a Persian Gulf deployment and finally building a workbench to support my new lathe, a new Woodcraft store opened in nearby Virginia Beach. I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store and by January 2004 I was taking classes, "donating" most of my money to owners Bill and Heather Caillet, and discovering new areas of woodturning I never knew existed . . . and I learned the word "burl."

With the help, encouragement and mentoring of people like Jack Spillane, Bill Caillet, Tom Chandanais and Myron Curtis, my knowledge, passion and desire to challenge myself expanded exponentially. I am indebted to each of them. Via books and the internet, I constantly searched for information on woodturning and inspiration from people like Cindy Drozda, Skip Bellock, Kim Blatt, Mike Kornblum, the late Dale "The Burl Guy" Brobst, David Chapman, Richard Raffan and others. I also scoured the internet and eBay for wood, specifically exotic burls, and quickly (proudly I might add) became addicted.
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As my passion for woodturning grew, I sought out David Ellsworth and other exceptional turners like Kim Blatt, Bruce Hoover and Tom Crabb for instruction to improve my technique and form. I would encourage anyone interested in woodturning to take David Ellsworth's class as early as possible. He's an extraordinary teacher whose technique is unmatched, is self-admittedly low tech, and will teach you - if you pay attention and practice what you learn - skills and a woodturning philosophy that will serve you a lifetime.

By the winter of 2004/2005, having been hooked on the incredible color and diversity of burls from Down Under, I started AustralianBurls.com and have worked very hard since building relationships with suppliers to find the most interesting and exciting burls and hardwoods. In parallel, I worked hard to improve my craft, and for years participated in craft shows from New York to Florida with varying degrees of success. Contrary to what some people may think, neither importing/retailing or woodturning are lucrative and not likely something I would do without the inherent efficiencies of a primarily internet-based business and the backing of a retirement income to pay the mortgage and bills in lean times.

Parenthood, self-employment, hard work, success and failure, and the Great Recession of 2007/2008 have reinforced something I've always believed - in keeping with Frank Capra's great film of the same name - "You Can't Take it With You." I met and worked with some truly terrific people during my 20 years in the Navy, but to find something that I truly love, the success or failure of which is entirely dependent on me, that never seems like work no matter how hard I work or how many hours I put in, and be home everyday to help raise my now soon-to-be16 and 11 year old boys, and earn enough to pay the bills and live comfortably doing so, is truly priceless. I consider myself very blessed. Does life get any better? As the late David Nittmann once told me, "Serendipity!"


As for the woodworking/woodturning aspect of my business, my greatest inspiration, pleasure and challenge comes from working with cutoffs and seemingly non-ideal, oddly shaped or termite/ant damaged burls that few customers buy, to create a work for people to enjoy that showcases the simple natural beauty of burl, often with contrasting heartwood and sapwood, in an aesthetically pleasing form. I consider the economic challenges in the aftermath of the Great Recession to have been a blessing in that I was forced to re-think the products I offered and raw materials I used. Nine of the 11 hollow form below are from scrap/cutoffs and the Red Mallee Burl pedestal went unsold for years before I chose to use it to display my small/mini work.

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So that, in a nutshell, is my story. Fortunately for me, I have a wonderful wife Seiko, who was so anxious to meet me that, in truly serendipitous fashion, she ran through my then 3 week old brick mailbox with her car in August 2002. Domo arigato gozaimashita! We married in January 2003 - in front of the mailbox she paid to rebuild - the night before I deployed to the Persian Gulf. She has been and remains unbelievably supportive of my passion as a business owner and woodturner and blessed us with two healthy, happy, wonderful sons - Charlie and Bryan. I could not do what I do without her. Aishiteru!