In a basement converted into a woodshop, Ivan Braun affixes a small block of wood to his Australian lathe. From this point, he could make anything: a small bowl, a vase for short flowers, or even an urn for a cat.
Braun is a professional woodturner, a craft he picked up from his father, working out of his home.
“I grew up in a house where my parents made stuff,” Braun said.
His mother made jewelry, and woodturning was a hobby for his father. It was his parents’ penchant for handmade crafts that inspired him to take up the lathe, a machine that turns a piece of wood at a high speed.
Braun then shapes the spinning wood by pressing a chisel to it, hence “woodturning.”
Bowls and vases are nice, but it was the death of a friend’s cat in 2015 that inspired Braun to explore making urns for felines.
“What I first made was really taking a vase and putting a lid on it,” Braun said.
It was an entirely new thing for Braun, but as an owner of two five-year-old cats — Lulu and Archie — Braun saw an opportunity.
“It’s being able to bring some solace to somebody that’s dealing with the loss of their pet,” Braun said.
Urns for cats are considerably smaller than they are for humans. The general rule is that one pound yields one cubic inch of ashes. That means a 15-pound cat would create 15 cubic inches of ash.
Competition, however, is tough. A quick search for “cat urns” yields a list of cheap results, some for as low as $10. Braun’s handmade urns command a high price, ranging anywhere from $100 to $300.
Urns are not Braun’s main business. Most of his output comes from an arrangement he has with the New York Botanical Garden, which provides Braun with wood it no longer needs. Braun fashions them into bowls and vases, which is then sold in the botanical garden’s gift shop.
Woodturning is an almost meditative practice for Braun.
“If you’ve got a piece of wood spinning on the lathe, that’s what you got to think about,” he said. “If you start thinking about something else, something bad is going to happen.”
The bowls, vases and urns are more utilitarian than they are ornate. Braun believes in function over fashion, wanting people to get the most out of what we makes. Beyond the shape, the wood he uses typically determines the look.
When Braun works in his basement, Lulu and Archie occasionally join him. Both are rescues from the street outside, abandoned as kittens.
“Once you pick up a kitten, you’re dead meat,” Braun said, adding it’s impossible to say no to taking that kitten in.
Five years later, Lulu and Archie have the run of the house while Braun is working to give departed cats a handmade home.
Braun has considered making urns for dogs, but it’s his own cats and the sheer popularity of cats that keep focused on felines.
“There are more cat pictures than selfies on the internet,” Braun said.