An Artist

A man who works with his hands is a laborer;
a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman;
but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.

Louis Nizer, Between You and Me, 1948.

My father shared this with me, but I doubt he knew the attribution. Thanks to Google and the internet, now I know who first said it.



I’ve long been a fan of lap times on the Nurburgring Nordscheife. The fastest lap ever recorded was in 1983 by Stefan Bellof in a Porsche 956C at 6:11. That was in qualifying and stood for 35 years until now. In June, 2018 Porsche took their unleashed LMP1 race car, the Porsche 919 Evo, to the track with team hot shoe Timo Bernhard, and smashed the lap record. They didn’t just go under six minutes, they almost took one entire minute off Bellof’s record. The in-car video is incredible, looking more like a video game than a real driver in a real car on a real track taking real risks…

In-car video

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 10.08.34 PM.png
1160HP, 850kg, Power to weight ratio: 1.366.

New Pikes Peak record – set by VW EV


Setting out to break the electric vehicle (EV) record at Pikes Peak International Hillclimb of 8:57, Volkswagen brought Romain Dumas (3 time PP winner and Le Mans winner) to pilot the VW I. D. R Pikes Peak vehicle. Not an insane amount of power or torque, but a complete design with massive aero. Despite what Dumas claimed as difficult conditions in the middle section of the course, he not only smashed the EV record, but also set a new sub-8 minute overall record: 7:57! I saw the car in testing, and it surely moves faster than you can imagine, the impression helped by the whir and whine of the electric motors. It’s not silent, (which is good I think), but very different to the sound of any combustion engined car.

the Art of Zen

I defined a simple measure of top performance and called it the Zen Ratio. It is so named as it came out of conversations with Marc Osgood, the owner of the Zen Spin Works Facebook group, after he had created a top he called the 1:1 that spun in minutes its weight in grams. 17g for 17 minutes. A very beautiful top, and an impressive performance.


We could calculate the ratio of spin time in minutes to top weight in grams for any and every top. The calculation is quite simple: Z = t/m, where Z is Zen ratio, t is time in minutes, and m is mass or weight in grams.
I have done this for all the metal tops in my collection and the graph is shown below.
The highest Zen ratio I have heard about is for a tiny top weighing about 3g that spun for nearly 9 minutes for a Zen ratio of over 3.
As you can see from the graph, the relationship between the Zen ratio and weight is negative, i.e. lighter tops are more likely to have higher Zen ratios.
The obvious challenge is to make a heavy top with a Zen ratio over 1.0. The heaviest top I have with a Zen ratio greater than 1 is a tungsten and titanium top made by John Phillips of JP Momentum. I have heard of a Billetspin Infinity top (weighing about 30g) that spun for over 40 minutes, which is likely the record holder for heaviest top with a Zen ratio over 1.

You can read a little more about the Zen Ratio here.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 7.59.05 AM

The origins of design

In a recent post on my Facebook group Spin In Style, it was claimed that my tops reflected the “many influences of different makers” and that one could “see wooden CDCs and DITs in there.” These are references to well-known top “brands” Chris Dean Customs and Dynamic Inertia Tops.

Every artist and craftsperson is influenced by other artists and the physical world around them, both consciously and subconsciously. Jonathan Jones, and art critic for The Guardian wrote in 2014:

“…any acquaintance with the Old Masters reveals that art has always been an exchange of ideas in which influence is not just omnipresent but proudly accepted. The story of art is largely a story of homages, remakes, rivalrous borrowings, nuanced imitations.”

As I have developed my craft of woodturning, making spin stations and spinning tops, I have reflected upon those things that have influenced me. My research identified strong influences from neo-classical design, in particular architecture. These influences are perfectly embodied in the design of the Staunton Chess set, used in all official tournaments and championships. Designed in 1849 by Nathaniel Cook an architect, these chess pieces have come to represent and embody neo-classical design.


As described in an article written for the Smithsonian Museum, Nathaniel Cook found influences in classical architectural elements from Roman and Greek civilizations.

Classical Balusters

Just as I have been influenced, knowingly or not, by these classical shapes, so have all artists, and the makers of spinning tops. Even if not acknowledged explicitly people such as Gavin Sexton (DIT), Joshua Dawson, Harold Edwards (Topped Out), Dee and Steve Aiena (Top Dawg), just to name a few, employ elements of classical design and the Staunton Chess pieces in their designs, particularly the stems. Stems are the most obvious part of a top to reflect classical columns and pillars.

A quote often attributed to Pablo Picasso, but originating in 1892 in the Gentleman’s Magazine seems appropriate here. W. H. Davenport Adams wrote of Alfred Lord Tennyson: “…(G)reat poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

It is not theft or plagiarism, intentional or otherwise, to make things that look like things that others make. It is quite natural to imitate, perfect, and build on ideas and designs from the past. All artists stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. To the extent that designs by top makers have influenced me, so too have the designs of ancient Roman and Greek architects and artists influenced me, and influenced those top makers.

Here are some examples of tops made “under the influence of Staunton”.

Gavin Sexton (Dynamic Inertia Tops)
Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.36.16 AM

Harold Edwards (Topped Out)

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 2.44.43 PM

Chris Dean (CDC)
Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 9.35.23 AM

Steve Aiena (Top Dawg Design)
Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 1.54.03 PM

Joshua Dawson (Joshua Dawson Precision Spinning Tops)
Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 9.40.22 AM

Cody Mayfield (Upside Down Works)
Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 2.29.00 PM

An old thing, new to me

Spinning tops have been around for thousands of years, and wooden spinning tops are pretty standard fare among children’s toys, even today.
This week I started selling the wood spinning tops I’ve been making. Having bought a wood lathe and been making spin bowls, I didn’t think I would want to make tops, but now that’s all I want to make! And it’s been a blast. The top shown below is a hybrid of wood dowels, poplar and oak, set in a black acrylic resin. I call it my flower top.