Mark Zander grew up in Rochester, New York, and prepared to go into a culinary career following his graduation from University of Wisconsin. After a few years in the restaurant business, he found himself in Scranton. He also worked for UPS for a good portion of his life, and even though he is retired, he works as a stone wall builder for his own company, T & M Stone Co. In the last few years, he discovered he has a passion for spinning tops and spends much of his free time exploring the craft of the wooden trinket. He has two children, Nathan and Megen, and lives in Moosic with his wife, Mimi.
Meet Mark Zander…
Q: Tell me a little of your background.
A: I studied to be a chef and opened five restaurants (for other people) as chef manager. I ended up in Naples, Florida, after leaving Wisconsin. After working for five years, I was ready for a break. About six months later, I got an opportunity to move to North Carolina. I stopped in Scranton, met a girl, and we got married. I haven’t left Scranton since. I’ve lived in Clarks Summit and raised two children. I found out I had a knack for putting stone walls together and gave up my job at UPS. For the last 15 years, I’ve been building stone walls for a living. It’s seasonal.
Q: What led you to making and spinning tops?
A: In 2017, it was a banner year for walnuts. It was called a mast year, which is when the tree reaches its peak performance. I gathered many thousands of walnuts because they were in the way. I found a couple trees in Moosic and parking lots were just covered. I went with a five-gallon pail and picked up 200 in a matter of a few minutes. At first I couldn’t crack them open. I tried everything and even drove my truck over them. I finally learned how to open them, eat them, get the crap off them. One day I was looking at one and thought maybe I could make a top out of one. I had to try. It was not successful, because they’re not solid on the inside. That led me to my love for tops. I did a lot of research and watched a lot of videos. I figured out I could make more if I had a lathe.
Q: Tell me about the spinning tops. You make them, but it wasn’t always easy.
A: I started experimenting with blanks, or trunks of wood. They weren’t round, but with knives and carving tools and pointers, I could shape them. It was a very scary tool because the lathe is spinning at a very high speed. I had a couple of really close calls. I realized it was all about patience, and I was able to start fashioning round things.
Q: What goes into making a top? Why do you search for particular kinds of wood?
A: You have to have a lathe. I’ve found that any wood works, but harder woods like cherry, walnut, ash and maple are better and keep a nicer shine. For many, I used old baseball bats. They’re roughly round, and I take a large, curved roughing gouge. The wood is spinning at about 800 rotations per minute, and I put it in very lightly and it starts to take off chips. When it gets closer to round, I take another chisel and start cutting in. It took a long time to get this to work properly. After making about 50 to 60 tops, I realized I wanted to share this.
Q: What makes you so passionate about tops, from the building to the spinning?
A: The creating of the tops from wood that could be burned in the fireplace or thrown through a wood chipper. If I can turn that into something that can be played with, I’m really doing the ultimate repurposing. I must admit it is somewhat magical to be able to create something as perfect from something imperfect. I’m taking something that has no business spinning and turning it into something that will spin, only if someone gives it direction. One of the attractions to spinning for me is that it’s completely under my control. I decide if I want to pick it up, spin it slow, spin it fast and if I want to watch it until the end or pick it up and abort the spin. It is a challenge to set a solid, unmoving mass into orbit. It’s a mystery if (different types of tops) will spin well; the spin time is always unknown. Curiosity drives me to spin again and again.
Q: Would you say tops are intended to be a children’s toy? Why or
A: In certain parts of the world, more adults use them than children. Grown men have arenas where they go and show of their prowess. In Japan, there are top arenas where kids go by the hundreds. They’ve developed these things called beyblades, which you can buy. You can put different wings or spinner bases on them. They get them going then drop them into this arena and battle. The tops will hit each other, and whichever one is the last one standing is the winner. When people take it seriously, it’s adults. Serious tops are made of high-end metals such as zirconium or tungsten and sell for hundreds of dollars. They can spin for more than 15 minutes. What child would wait for 15 minutes? But a grown person might be sitting at a desk on a conference call and be spinning. That’s where the fidget spinners came in. Grown adults will spin if it’s a more complex spin. My grandson loves to spin; he’s going to be 2. He asks for his toy. It’s neat to watch my grandchildren get into it. I think there is a universal appeal, unlike some toys adults will look at and say “not a chance.”
Q: What other hobbies/interests do you have?
A: I like to kayak, canoe and fish. I feel like I’m on vacation every day. My wife and I enjoy water, and we live really close to the water.
Q: What has been the most impactful moment or part of your life?
A: It would have to be the birth of my children. It made me grow up a little bit, not that much, but some. I realized I need to be responsible and make sure these kids are fed. I endured 15 years of working at UPS so the kids could have a college education and a roof over their heads.