The Art of Turning

BEGINNING WOOD TURNING - Getting Started

For an in-depth look at turning "green" wood click here.

In the winter of 2010 I decided to pursue a private study of bowl turning. I became interested in turning artistic utilitarian bowls; wood salad bowls, fruit bowls, kitchen bowls, nut and candy bowls, popcorn bowls and general presentation bowls. I read two books (Tauntons Complete Illustrated Guide To Turning by Richard Raffan and Turning Bowls with Richard Raffan by Richard Raffan) and watched YouTube videos (e.g. Wood Turning A Bowl : Wood Turning a Bowl: Rough Cuts ) over and over before I purchased my Nova DVR XP lathe, a 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch Crown bowl gouge, a parting tool, a large scraper, a Makita right angle drill, belt sander, orbital sander, grinding wheel, Stihl chainsaw, buffing wheel, sanding discs, sand paper, CA glue, walnut oil, lacquer, beeswax, rags, wood to build a heavy duty mounting surface for the lathe and sand bags to stabilize the table. I never took woodshop nor did I have any previous experience turning bowls. I had built a 2 story log cabin in Canada and always nurtured a love for wood and trees.

I ordered most of my turning equipment from http://www.woodturnerscatalog.com/ and have been amazed how the tools and equipment lived up to my expectations and how quickly my orders have arrived.

At the same time that I built my lathe table (per Nova DVR specifications downloaded from the internet), I set out to find sources for logs. I placed free ads on Craigslist asking for large logs which resulted in my acquiring some very large Dutch Elm and Oak logs and some medium size Cypress logs. I also called various firewood suppliers, most of whom did not have whole logs available or wood that was favorable to wood turning. However, one tree cutter did contact me and he expressed a true love of wood and interest in helping me to find good wood. I drove out to his storage yard where I found large diameter logs of cedar, oak, pecan and massive slabs of black walnut that his father had saved and protected.

On another occasion I stopped by a firewood yard in the foothills and looked out upon an endless supply of huge rounds of ash, oak, cherry, and species unknown. I soon had a good stockpile of logs which I stacked in the shade of an avocado tree in my backyard and loosely covered with a plastic tarp. I kept the logs off the ground with pieces of firewood and timber I had laying around. On average, excluding the black walnut which was expensive, I could fill my Ford truck with large chunks of wood for $20 to $60. In comparison, upon visiting stores that supply bowl blanks, I found that most resale blanks were both small and very expensive and imported. One blank could cost as much as a truckload of un-split firewood. Buying firewood meant dealing with wet or damp wood but avoids contributing to deforestation and often provides uniquely pleasing results. Here is a link to a website for purchasing bowl blanks: http://www.turningblanks.net . Notice that a 17" x 6" blank can cost $62.00.

Not having a garage to house my equipment, I built a small shed using plywood and a tarp to protect my work area. I use a small BBQ cover to protect my lathe within the shed. My tools are readily available from a shelf below the lathe bench.

I purposely avoided purchasing costly equipment like a band saw or unnecessary tools like grinding guides, etc. My intention was to create natural looking rustic bowls using the least amount of equipment possible.

There are so many opinions on what equipment and tools are needed, how to manipulate your tools, how to sharpen your tools, what is the right wood to use, and what constitutes an acceptable bowl...I decided to just plow through it, do my own thing, and learn as I go. The chainsaw, lathe, bowl gouge, sander and grinder are at the heart of everything I do. Proper manipulation of the tools came from trial and error as well as info I captured off the internet.

I began looking at other artist's bowls in artist shops  and online. I saw the most beautifully finished hollow forms, some sitting behind locked glass...only $800.00!  I also  found web sites with really nice bowls for sale for such a low price that I can't imagine how the artist could pay for their supplies. These observations left me perplexed and, again, I just decided to do my own thing and see what happens.

My lack of experience, use of partially seasoned and cracked firewood and utilitarian interest in bowl turning caused me to think that my work would be sneered at by seasoned professionals. It was to my amazement that several of my bowls, sold privately or through silent auctions, were pieces that had visible sealed cracks, surface irregularities or warped sides and rims. That's when I realized that I don't need to please other artists; there are people who find imperfections most interesting and I must admit that when fruit or a salad mix is placed in a bowl with various imperfections, the overall look is very appealing. I've had friends remind me not to move too far away from the rustic appeal of my first pieces and  I have taken their suggestion to heart, although as the months go by I do find that I am continually striving to produce more professional looking pieces.

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The Lathe

I love my Nova DVR XP. I looked at many other models including ones that I could not afford and inexpensive ones that required moving the belt across pulleys to change the turning speed. Now that I'm actually turning bowls I can't imagine using anything but a constant variable speed direct drive lathe that allows you to change speeds with the touch of a finger on a digital pad. This doesn't mean that the DVR XP is absolutely perfect...large out-of-round blanks can cause my heavy work bench to jump around at higher speeds, the safety mechanism that stops the machine during a significant "catch" can kick in too easily with large blanks turning at lower speeds, and there have been minor issues like a nut coming loose inside the housing. I've learned to correct or work around these issues with great satisfaction. I have NOT tried the outrigger for turning bowls over 16 inches in diameter but would imagine there will be some taxing of the lathe with my current work station. The DVR was under $2200.00 and was my only large ticket purchase. I purchased it from http://www.woodturnerscatalog.com/ . It was delivered by freight to my driveway and the delivery man helped me lift it onto my work station. Of course it would be nice to have a 6 to 8 thousand dollar lathe but ....there really hasn't been anything I can't do on the DVR.

Why is it so important to be able to change speed quickly? You'll know the answer to that question when you make your first bowl. Initial gouging, finish gouging, scraping, sanding, applying a finish, buffing...you'll use a wide range of speeds to perform all these tasks.

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Breaking the Rules (you may want to check out a new page I'm writing called Turning Green Wood).

There's nothing wrong with being a strict disciplinarian.  There's nothing wrong with proper training and education. It's in my nature to go-it-alone and a big part of the fun is learning as you go and experimenting with your own ideas. As an example; Everything I've read and watched on video about turning bowls showed mounting the bowl to shape the outside of the bowl, then remounting the bowl to shape the inside of the bowl. This involves using a faceplate and then using a chuck for the remainder of turning. I was amazed to learn that I could cut both the outside and inside without ever removing the faceplate and still NOT have screw holes in the bottom of my bowl. Why didn't anyone mention this?

Using firewood rather than expensive exotics, I am at liberty to increase the depth of my bowl blank by the length of screws used to secure the faceplate. I shape the outside of the bowl, including 75% of the bottom, leaving only that section of wood at the faceplate un-tooled, avoiding cutting too close to the plate. Without dismounting the blank, I then shape the rim and inside of the bowl and follow shaping with scraping, sanding and polishing. I use a parting tool and finally a hand saw to separate the extra wood at the faceplate from the bottom of the bowl. A belt sander is used to level out the bottom.

     


 

Another rule breaker involves turning green or wet wood. I've found that the results depend on the wood, the amount of moisture and your willingness to deal with warping issues. Available data shows that you can turn a rough version of the bowl with even wall thickness and set the bowl aside for a few months in a cool area. I've read that you can put the bowl in paper bags until moisture is no longer evident on the bag. I am, at this point, too impatient to wait a few months (I want to make bowls!) and the only time I tried the paper bag trick, the bowl was covered in mold when I brought it out. For an in depth look at my experimenting with turning green wood and finishing green wood please follow this link: Turning Green Wood

When I turn damp or wet wood, one of four things occurs. 1) The bowl warps to varying degrees. 2) Cracks may or may not develop. That's what CA glue is for. 3) The finishing process may need to be delayed. 4) Very little warping occurs and you are able to create a lasting finish within 3 to 5 days.

The bottom line: other than some issues with cracks, which I repaired as needed with CA glue (fine, medium or thick), and some warping which I kept or re-tooled to remove, I've turned many really cool looking green bowls without any problem. Here's one I did this week. I did 3 similar bowls that were damp or wet in the past week. One has gone oblong, one has rim edge bumps, two are in fine condition. The two that have minor disfiguration were so wet that my face plate was opaque during turning. The two that came out as shown below were damp but not saturated.

Here's a photograph of several large diameter bowls which have been turned, sanded, rubbed with walnut oil, re-sanded and, in some cases, buffed out. They are drying ON paper bags in a shady room in my house. Some will have the rims turned a second time. I am watching them daily and sealing cracks as they occur. There have been very few cracks except for surface shrinkage stress cracks on the highly figured Dutch Elm vessel seen below.

 

Recently I've lost some beautiful oak bowls to excessive warping and it IS disappointing to see a perfectly cut shape turn into something so odd that it becomes unusable. On the plus side, I have tons of 150 year old green oak that I traded for a finished bowl and the practice of cutting a wide variety of designs is invaluable.

Here's a great large oak bowl with bark inclusions. I have 3 stubborn cracks that require re-sealing and sanding but should stabilize over a 4 week period. Later: new cracks continued developing over 8 weeks but I sealed them, sanded and re-finished the bowl. The form also went from round to somewhat oblong.

 

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Finishing

I've experimented with walnut oil, which I'm told will not go bad, various hand rub finishes, polyurethane, lacquer, bees wax, carnauba wax, buffing compounds, etc. Lacquer (3-4 coats) gives a hard glossy finish and if you wait a few weeks it will buff out like glass. I use spray cans purchased at 10$ a pop from Rocklers. I can finish 3 or 4 medium size bowls with one can of lacquer. It takes a while to get the technique down, don't be discouraged. Most recently I've made some serious changes to my approach and I'm very happy with the results. I've now apply a lacquer sanding coat, sand thru the various grits, buff out the sanded wood using tripoli followed by white diamond on Beale buffing wheels, then apply two lacquer coats with sanding between coats using wet 600 grit sandpaper. I then rub a coat of Formby's Tung Oil Finish over the lacquer coats (on the same day as the lacquer is applied), rag off the excess and then buff with light pressure using the white diamond wheel followed by the wax wheel. I turned this camphor bowl (large deep bowl) in one night and completed all finishing including buffing and wax by the next evening. This technique is causing me to move away from the need to apply excessive coats of lacquer.

II just received the Beal buffing system that I'm using on the lathe. It's unbelievable! There are 3 large thick buffing wheels, a large bar of tripoli compound for taking out fine scratches, a large bar of white diamond for polishing and a thin bar of carnauba wax for finishing. The difference between using separate wheels for each compound and the tripoli-white diamond-carnauba combination on a bowl and subsequently the finish is amazing to behold. I have since passed on using tripoli on a finished bowl. I only use the white diamond and wax wheels and avoid prolonged pressure. Having the buffing wheels on the lathe allows me to polish at around 1600 RPM which I hear is a good speed.

Sanding has gone from a chore to a quick and efficient operation by use of flex edged 2" sanding discs on a right angle drill. I ordered bags of 50 discs for 80, 120, 180, 240, 320 grits and sand each bowl while it is spinning on the lathe. I glue all cracks with CA after applying a sanding coat (lacquer, tung oil, walnut oil or any grain raising sacrificial coat) to help avoid having the glue stain the adjacent bare wood. With the cracks glued and the grains raised, I re-sand thru all grits. I now follow all machine sanding with hand sanding to remove any scratches I can see. A little hand sanding is also  needed on wavy or irregular surfaces where the sanding discs skip over the surface.

Recently I have started detailing using a Dremel. I've only tried it a few times but I love the effect. I am currently trying texturing and relief detailing, drawing leaves and using the Dremel to detail the leaf with a pocked border all contained in a band around the side of the bowl.

     

 

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Spending Money vs. Making Money

My motivation for making bowls is NOT just making money. However, I don't want this hobby to be a hole that all my extra cash disappears in. I DO want to sell the bowls I make. When you first start out it seems that you're experimenting with equipment, tools and supplies that keep piling up the charges on your credit card bill. By avoiding purchasing fancy equipment I can do without and refining the turning and finishing processes, the amount of time and effort I put into a bowl is diminishing. Once I know how to select and sharpen my tools for a particular task, how to most effectively shape and hollow out the bowl, and understand the most direct method of developing a nice finish I will have a systematic approach to creating a bowl that others will find pleasing. At this point the cost per bowl will stabilize and I should see the returns grow accordingly. My first showing was on 11/20/11 and I sold 12 large pieces, which exceeded all my expectations.

A recent bowl that I made came from a 200 lb. trunk root which cost me $22.50. It was loaded with voids and wormholes so I used $5.00 worth of CA glue. I used 5 sanding discs, 3 of which can be re-used at a cost of $2.25. Chainsaw gas and oil $2.00. One can of lacquer $10.00. buffing compound and carnauba wax (under a $1). And finally, a hand rubbed coat of Renaissance wax ($.50). Total cost including travel for wood: around $50.00. The bowl is amazing. This 12" x 7" bowl is one-of-a-kind and sold easily for $290.00. I sold a beautiful large deep camphor bowl with beautiful grain patterns for $350.00.

 

For an in-depth look at turning "green" wood click here.

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This page is a work in progress to assist others in gaining entry level knowledge on bowl turning and to learn from my mistakes. I do NOT profess to have any definitive answers to effective bowl turning and finishing.

 

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