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Turning Wood

Of all the skills associated with woodworking and furniture making, there is an argument to be made that woodturning is among the most intuitive and, many would say, the most immediately satisfying. Many people get hooked by woodturning the first time they try it. To literally watch a shape emerge from a hunk of wood under the guidance of the tool and the turner is truly something special and the speed and immediacy of this is virtually unparalleled in the woodworking world. This, I believe, is responsible for the huge popularity of woodturning among hobbyists. A lathe, a small toolkit, a means of sharpening and some suitable wood is all that’s needed to get started. From candlesticks to wooden bowls to full size furniture components woodturning is a valuable skill.

My introduction to woodturning came during trade school while I studied furniture and cabinetmaking. Though turning was not a major component of the program, everyone in the class had to design, draft and turn a mallet. Mine was a basic carver’s mallet turned from a blank of 8/4 maple approximately 10” long. I still use it today. Over the course of the program I returned to the lathe whenever I could; during free time, while varnish dried, whenever. I turned small bowls, a lamp base and other odds and ends. I was practicing skills but it didn’t feel like work. It was fun. In school I learned the rules. Proper lathe speed for a given diameter of stock, stock preparation and the proper sizes and types of tools to use for the given operation all seemed very definite and important. Now, ten years later, I couldn’t honestly tell you what the rpm of my lathe is set at when I rough turn a 3”x3” blank. I just follow the basic idea that the bigger and rougher the blank the slower speed I start with, increasing the speed as the blank becomes true. Likewise, I’m not even sure what sizes of gouges I own. I simply choose the one that is appropriate for what I’m about to do. As I said, woodturning is intuitive. You learn the skills and the feel of the work and you know what to do next.

So where to start? My recommendation to beginning woodturners is to start slowly and start big. How big? I twice spent a month or so apprenticing with a woodturner named Leo Macneil. I learned most of what I know about turning from Leo. He guided me through the process and let me know what was important and what not to worry too much about. Mostly he had me learn by doing. I spent most of my second block of time in Leo’s shop rough turning wet bowl blanks ranging in size from 12 inch to 30 inch diameter and up to 16” deep! Blanks so big I could barely wrestle them onto the lathe! Blanks so big we rebuilt one of Leo’s lathes to handle them! For me, that was big. I wouldn’t recommend starting quite this big but I certainly wouldn’t start with tiny delicately turned spindles as they take a measure of skill and may prove a frustrating introduction. A mallet is an excellent first project. Designs are everywhere. Find one in a tool catalogue and copy it. Make another one and change the handle shape to suit your hand. Rolling pins are also great practice. I turn one piece rolling pins with integral handles. They are excellent practice for turning long consistent cylinders as well as turning identical components (the handles) as mirror images of one another. Again, magazines, kitchen supply catalogues, the library and the internet are all excellent sources of design ideas. Small bowls, mortar and pestle sets and simple vases all make excellent early projects and will help you get a feel for the tools.

Speaking of tools, what should you start with? Of course you need a lathe. There are actually quite a variety of lathes available on the market. There are tiny bench top mini-lathes, massive dedicated bowl lathes and lots in between. The second or third or fourth hand market is also a possibility and there seems to be no shortage of these lathes around, all of varying price, quality and condition. Then there are the person powered lathes. Treadle lathes and spring pole lathes can be shop built or even purchased. The “Great Wheel” lathe is a fascinating and formidable machine but requires two people to operate it; one to turn the wheel and one to turn the wood. I have no experience with these but have long been fascinated by them and continue to look for an antique treadle lathe to someday press into service. A very basic turning kit made up of just a few tools will allow you to get started and turn out some quality projects. I never recommend buying a large set of turning tools to start with. They often come with things you’ll rarely, if ever, need and I suspect that the quality is less than that of many of the individual tools available. For spindle work you need gouges, skew chisels and parting tools to start. Spindle gouges commonly come in ¼”, 3/8” and ½” sizes. You’ll eventually need all three but if you’re going to start with one get the 3/8”. It will serve a wide range of cutting procedures but you will start to find it too big for many finer applications and a bit slow and clumsy for larger scale stuff. I would apply the same basic idea to a skew chisel. As for a parting tool I’ve only ever had one. It is the old-school standard type and I believe it is 1/8” wide. There are other types and sizes available but I’ve never had any need to buy one. One last thing I’d highly recommend is a set of outside calipers. These, combined with your parting tool, allow you to turn precise, repeatable diameters in your stock. I have a set from Lee Valley that is excellent. The ends are rounded over so they don’t (usually) get caught on the spinning wood and launched across the shop. With this simple and inexpensive kit you can do a whole lot of turning. Once you get into it a little deeper you’ll start to realize what you need to add in order to accomplish your goals. Bowl turning is a different procedure requiring a different set of tools that I won’t get into too deeply here. With bowls, proper gouges and a different type of work-holding are my main concerns.

The list of tools that I use regularly while turning is a fair bit longer than this. Of course, I’ve been adding to it for about a decade and have made part of my living as a woodturner from time to time. I also quite prefer bowl turning to spindle work so much of my gear is specific to that. When I’m set up for turning my kit includes:

  • My lathe (duh)
  • 14” bandsaw
  • Gas chainsaw (for turning logs into bowls blanks)
  • Electric chainsaw (for use indoors)
  • Several sizes of spindle gouges including a large one for roughing out
  • Two sizes of skew chisels
  • Several dedicated bowl gouges
  • 1/8” parting tool
  • Various scraper chisels of different shapes and sizes (rarely used)
  • Calipers
  • Bowl chuck (grips a turned mortise in the bottom of a bowl)
  • Measuring tools including a tape, a folding rule and steel rule
  • Bench grinder
  • Water stones (though most of my sharpening is straight from the grinder)

My thoughts and opinions here are by no means the gospel of woodturning. These are simply methods and ideas that I have developed over the past ten years through practice, reading, observing the work of fellow turners and through the instruction of several teachers. Although what I do works for me there are always other opinions, other methods and different tools. The best place to learn woodturning is at the lathe, cautiously, but with tool in hand and wood-a-spinnin’! What I offer here, I hope, is some encouragement to try it out and not have to sell the farm to do it.

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