"Turning Wood into Art"

"Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink,
and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor...."
-Ecclesiastes 2, 24

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

French Polishing on a Wood Lathe, Part 2

Back in June, I published what has become a very popular post about French Polishing. (See french-polishing-on-wood-lathe.html) Since then, I've gotten several requests for more information.  So here goes...

First, surface preparation is key.  Go back and re-read the above post, if necessary.  And secondly, the materials (Disclaimer: although I periodically teach at the Allentown, PA Woodcraft store, I have no other commercial affiliations with any of the companies listed below - just a delighted customer!):
  • Shellac.  I use a hand-mixed shellac using a garnet button lac called "bysakhi" that I buy from Shellac.net  mixed to a 2 lb cut.  I mix and store about a 2-week supply in a plastic squeeze bottle.  We want our shellac very fresh!
  • I grind the shellac "buttons" in a coffee grinder and dissolve the resulting powder in 200-proof grain alcohol, which we can buy from any Woodcraft store or Tools for Working Wood in Brooklyn, NY.  Tools for Working Wood is also a great resource for all things "woodturning."  (Incidentally, Joel's blog is a great read.  Check it out.)  We can also use 190-proof grain alcohol available in liquor stores in most states (not PA, unfortunately!) Regardless, it's your choice. I do avoid commercial denatured alcohol (DNA), because (a) it's anything BUT eco-friendly and (b) don't think it works as well as grain alcohol.
  • Alcohol.  You'll also need another squeeze bottle containing nothing but pure grain alcohol for diluting the shellac in Step 3 of the french-polishing process.
  • Oil.  I use pure (it's actually "kosher") walnut oil that I buy in bulk from JEdwards up in Cambridge, MA.  Any vegetable oil will work, but I like walnut oil because I think it gives a slightly harder finish, it's inexpensive and I keep a lot on hand for finishing my wood turned bowls. (BTW, for the bowl turners in the audience, walnut is a penetrating oil that hardens (polymerizes) to form a durable finish that's food-safe right from the get-go. No waiting 72 - or more - hours to "cure.")
  • Pumice or Rottenstone.  You can use either 4F pumice or rottenstone in the pore filling process.  I think rottenstone might be a little easier for beginners to work with, but again it's your choice.  Both are widely available at most hardware stores.
  • Cloth.  I use sections of an old cotton undershirt folded into 3 - 4 layers, which I hold against the workpiece with my index finger.  (That said: please use common sense and be very careful about wrapping cloth around your finger - and don't get anything caught in the lathe.  Accidents can happen in a millisecond if you're not paying attention!  Safety first....)
Ok, so let's get to it.  There are three basic steps to French Polishing on the wood lathe:
  1. The first is provide a base layer of shellac that will be used in the wood pore filling step (step 2.)  We do this by applying multiple heavy layers of shellac while running the lathe at VERY low speed.   We wet our folded rag with a dozen or more drops of shellac and apply the shellac to the workpiece using finger pressure.  As we move along, we drizzle drops of shellac on the turning workpiece as necessary while spreading it from below with our rag.  (I know: we just violated a bunch of rules that apply to manual French-Polishing, but bear with me - it works!)

    Let me say this again: slow speed is critical to your success. Our hand-mixed shellac dries very quickly and will streak very badly if you apply it at too high rate of speed.  As an example, I finish my "Olde Tyme" pepper mills (~3" in diameter) at about 120 rpm.  Larger pieces are turned even slower.  A 14" platter might be turned at 20 - 40 rpm.  Use the hand wheel if your lathe can't be turned-down that low.  Apply a drop of oil to the rag and spread it around with a finger if you find the rag dragging or sticking to the workpiece.

    After applying 2 - 3 passes of shellac, we speed the lathe up to 500 - 600 rpm, let it run for a few seconds, then buff the workpiece using a DRY section of rag. There are two objectives here: (1) although the alcohol will have mostly evaporated, we need to force out any adulterants (mainly water) that might remain in the finish and (2) to level out the previously applied shellac.  The finish will "cloud" as we start, due to mild abrasion from the cloth. Our shellac is still very soft at this point, so start with minimal pressure and gradually increase pressure as the finish clears.  Change sections of the cloth periodically until the cloth comes away clean.  This only takes a minute or so.

    Repeat the process until the pores are covered.  Close grained maples may only take one repetition, while open-grained woods like ash or hickory might take 4 - 5 passes.  It's tough to over-do at this stage, so I find a little more is generally better.  We can also add a drop of oil to the rag along with the shellac if the rag drags or pulls on the workpiece.

  2. Step 2: Pore filling.  Shake a small amount of pumice (or rottenstone) onto a sheet of paper.  Spread it around to an even thickness - about 1/16th of an inch works for me.  Now, we wet our rag with 4 - 5 drops of shellac, apply a drop of oil and mix the two together with a finger.  Backing the wet section of rag with our finger, we dab a "cut" of pumice onto the wet rag from the paper.  Next (and this is important!) spread the pumice around the wet portion of the rag with another finger until the pumice "clarifies."  (We REALLY don't want to apply unclarified pumice/rottenstone to the turning workpiece.) 

    Now press the shellac/oil/pumice into the turning workpiece while moving your finger in a circular or "figure-8" motion.  Work on about an inch or two at a time until the entire workpiece is covered.  The finish again will "cloud". Stop and re-load your rag when the finish starts to clarify.  We can get a little aggressive here and apply some pressure with our finger into the workpiece. When you hear a "swishing" sound, you know the process is working.

    Repeat until we've made 3 - 4 passes over the entire workpiece.  You will see a skim of stuff coming off the trailing edge of the cloth - and often layers of cloth will be worn away.  Then you really know the process is working!

    What's happening is this: The alcohol in the shellac is dissolving some of the previous coats of shellac while the pumice/rottenstone is "sanding" down/leveling the microscopic ridges on the wood surface creating loose wood fibers that then combine with the pumice and shellac to create an amalgam that fills the pores in the surface of the workpiece - and is held in place by the shellac.  Instant wood filler!

    Now, run the lathe up to 500-600 rpm and again buff using a dry section of cloth. We are now removing any loose wood fibers, excess pumice/rottenstone, forcing out any adulterants, and again leveling our finish.  At the end of this step, we should have what would ordinarily pass as a reasonable "friction polish."  But the best is yet to come.

    Quick note:  you can repeat Step 2 as often as you need at any subsequent point in the process if/when you mess-up the finish.  Step 2 is also where I often start repairs to a damaged french-polished finish.

    For most work, we can go right to Step 3, but if we're looking for the ultimate finish, it's sometimes good idea to let the workpiece sit overnight (or even for 2 -3 days) to let the finish really "gas-out" and harden a bit more before proceeding to the final steps.  Experience will guide you.

  3. Now the rewarding part:  French polishing.  Take a clean section of rag, fold it over 2 - 3 times and apply 5 - 6 drops of shellac.  Next, take the squeeze bottle of pure alcohol and dilute the shellac by about 50% (the amount isn't critical - just get in the ballpark - we just want very thin shellac at this point) and apply a drop of oil.  Use another finger to spread the mixture around.  We want everything well-mixed before our wet rag touches the turning workpiece.

    Running the lathe at slow speed, gradually work the diluted shellac/oil mixture into the workpiece - once again in a circular/figure-8 motion, using some firm finger pressure. (The idea is to cause the alcohol to partially dissolve the underlying shellac so as to form a firm bond with the next "micro-coat" of shellac and oil.  Don't get carried away and try to muscle things, no broken fingers or workpieces here....)  Again the finish will "cloud" but soon clears.  That tells us the shellac is being applied.  Re-load the rag with shellac/alcohol and a drop of oil and repeat the process whenever the "cloud" disappears.

    By now, the finish should begin to really shine!

    After we've covered the entire workpiece 4 - 5 times, we once again speed the lathe up to 500 - 600 rpm and buff with a dry cloth until the finish takes on a spectacular shine.  We repeat Step 3 again, if necessary. (Once we get the technique down, the finish at this point will be amazing!  Note: If you want to continue french-polishing beyond 2 - 3 repetitions of Step3, it's a good idea to let the piece sit overnight to "gas-out" and harden.  Again, use your judgment.)
  4. Optionally, we can apply a coat of wax.  I use either beeswax of carnauba wax to give a layer of protection against spills (Caveat: alcohol - like from a spilled glass of wine - will harm our finish. Remember, we've been using alcohol as a solvent throughout.  If this happens, all is not lost.  Simply re-mount the piece on the lathe, and re-start at step 2.)
And that's about it.  Like any new technique, French-Polishing on the lathe requires a certain amount of practice to get right.  But with a little patience....

To give you an idea of time, it typically takes me about 45 minutes to an hour to french-polish one of my pepper mills.  So the process isn't terribly quick, but it beats the 3 - 4 weeks normally required of the manual process.

Please feel free to share this post among your friends - and don't hesitate to reach-out to me with questions.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Is it Good Enough to Sell?

When I sell one of my woodturnings, I sell more than a piece of wood - however attractive or well crafted it might be.  When that work goes out my, or one of my gallerys', doors - or leaves my display tent, parts of me go with it.  The intellectual, emotional and perhaps skill that went into its creation.  

At the same time, I find myself asking the same questions over and over.  Did I pick the best wood?  The best finish? Did I craft the piece to the best of my ability?  How could I have improved it?  Those are the technical questions.

The more difficult questions have to do with: "Did the work truly express what I was trying to communicate at the time?  How will I do better next time?  Sometimes the answers come at 3:00AM.  And sometimes it takes a bit longer.

I guess my colleague, Cindy Drozda says it best when she asks, "What is my favorite work?  My last one.  Which is my best work?  My next one."  The Japanese call it "Kai zen" - gradual, incremental improvement.  So I believe the driving force behind fine art and fine craft is bilateral: dissatisfaction paired with yearning for improvement.

But to answer the question: "Is it good enough to sell?"  I believe this: if I'm happy to sell a work - or am neutral about it - the answer's "no."  And that piece goes in the scrap bin. On the other hand, if it hurts me - to the bottom of my soul - to put a work up for sale, it's probably good enough.

At least I hope so.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Artisans Gallery Team

We are happy to announce that Brad's Etsy shop( http://www.etsy.com/shop/BradSearsWoodturner ) has been vetted, juried and invited to join the Artisans Gallery team, described as "a juried team of artisans of distinction, vetted by peers for excellence in design, skill, presentation, integrity, and customer service. Our team will offer buyers an online experience akin to shopping in a gallery by creating a marketplace of high quality, exceptionally skilled artisans. As an international team, with volunteer translators, we are a network aligned to promote the goals of the Handmade Revolution, to connect and support each other across language and geographic barriers, and to recognize and encourage professional standards and unique artistic voices."

We invite you to check out and patronize the fine artisans who make up the Artisans Gallery Team.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

French Polishing on a Wood Lathe

As my friends and collectors know, I am passionately committed to environmentally friendly finishes - what the FDA calls "GRAS" ("Generally Regarded As Safe.")  For me, that usually means using pure, food-grade walnut oil on all pieces intended for direct food contact. For other work, I generally favor my own beeswax and walnut oil polish, the Real Milk Paint Company's "Dark Tung Oil" or Tried 'n True's "Original" finish.  All of these products produce surfaces ranging from mat to a warm satin sheen, largely depending on the wood.  "Hard" hardwoods like ash, oak, beech, and hard maples, when properly dried, can be sanded and polished so that a touch of walnut oil produces a bright, almost semi-gloss, finish.  While the softer hardwoods like walnut and birch take on a softer mat glow.

Some work, like the candlestick set shown above, however, cries-out for a high-gloss finish.  Problem is: most glossy finishes are anything but eco-friendly.  (Yes, I know: after 72 - or so - hours, just about any commercial finish is considered "safe," but until then exposing oneself to mineral spirits and other VOC's is not something I care to do.)

Another technique, familiar to woodturners - especially pen turners - is called "friction polishing."   Friction polishing is a fairly simple technique that uses a shellac-based finish that is applied directly via a rag held against the spinning workpiece.  As the finish is applied, friction-induced heat dries it almost instantly.  Although comparatively easy, friction polishing isn't foolproof.  But with a little practice, one can obtain a pretty decent gloss finish.  The nice things about friction polishing are (a) it's quick and (b) shellac is a natural product that, when dissolved in grain alcohol (I use 190-proof from the liquor store), fits into the GRAS category. (Shellac is also used as a pill coating, btw.)

While friction polishing can produce a pretty good finish, there are times, like with this walnut platter, when something even better is desired.  At times like that, I turn to the time-honored technique known as "french polishing."  Please note that I called french polish a "technique" - not a "product."  That's because, contrary to its name, french polishing relies on the gradual buildup of hundreds - if not thousands - of micro-coats of shellac, oil and other products to obtain what is widely considered the most beautiful way to finish highly figured wood.

The basic technique, which was more-or-less settled by the 18th century, is accomplished by using a wadded cloth pad called a "rubber" to hand rub the micro-coats of shellac and other materials into the wood surface.  This is done in continuous circular and figure-8 patterns.  Any resulting streaks are then "spirited off" with a fine application of alcohol - also applied with the rubber. The process is repeated - in various forms - 12 to 15 times over a period of two weeks to a month until the final finish at last emerges.  (Fair warning: french polishing is anything but easy - and it sure ain't fast.  Ask a luthier to french polish your custom guitar and you just added $1,500 - $2,000 to the tab and another month to your wait time.)

As we will see, the classic process is indeed labor intensive.  The basic process works like this:  the workpiece is first sanded to at least 600 - 800 grit to remove all toolmarks and all but the finest micro-scratches.  Such fine sanding is needed because the french polish will magnify even the smallest defect(!)  Next, we use our rubber to build-up a base coat shellac over 6 - 8 "bodying sessions" where we apply 2 lb cut shellac using continuous, overlapping circular and figure-8 motions. We can do 2 - 3 of these "bodying sessions" a day allowing 3 - 4 hours for the previous coat to dry and harden.  (We should note that shellac takes weeks - if not months - to fully "harden."  But 3 - 4 hours is sufficient for our purposes at this stage of the game.)  After 3 - 4 days, having built up a reasonable shellac base, we fill the wood grain by rubbing the piece down as before, except now we add a drop of oil (I prefer walnut because I believe it gives a slightly harder final finish) and a dab of 4F pumice. (You can actually hear the pumice working with the shellac and wood fibers to fill the grain.  Kinda neat, really.)  We then set the piece aside for 2 - 3 days to harden-up.

Now the real work begins.  Using our rubber and an equal amount of 2 lb shellac, (for me) grain alcohol, and a drop of walnut oil, we do the actual french polishing.  This consists of another 6 - 8 sessions (at 2 sessions a day separated by 4 - 6 hours.)  After each session, we "spirit-off" any streaks with our rubber moistened with a few drops of our grain alcohol.  By the 3rd or 4th day, our workpiece shows some minor unevenness, which we level off with 800-grit sandpaper soaked in walnut oil.  After another "spiriting-off,"  we follow-up with another 3 - 4 french-polishing sessions - this time with a 1 lb cut of shellac.  (Almost done.)  By now, we set our workpiece aside for another 3 - 4 days to allow the finish to stabilize and harden before a final sanding at 1200 - 1800 grit (again with walnut oil lubricant.)  One more spiriting-off and we set the piece aside for 1 - 2 WEEKS to really harden.  As a last step, I give the piece a final polishing with my home-brewed walnut oil/beeswax/rottenstone polish. E voila'! (I know of one artisan who uses a high-grade automobile polish - but since it ain't eco-friendly, I don't.  No worries - to each his own....) 

Fortunately, we woodturners can make things a little easier by using the lathe, rather than hand-power, at most stages of the game.  One well-respected turner also advocates using thin CA glue as a base/grain-filling coat instead of shellac.  (I have no experience with that technique, but it sounds promising.)  In practice, I've found using the lathe makes each session easier, at least through the "rough-leveling."  But it still leaves an uneven finish that must be rough-leveled by hand, as described above. (One could try power buffing, but I'm not crazy about it on a shellac finish.)  I also find I get best results by doing the last french polishing sessions,  with 1 lb shellac, by hand - with the final hand beeswax/walnut oil/rottenstone rubdown.

Candidly, I only invest this amount of time for special pieces like those shown.  It is a lot of work, but the payoff - both in results and personal satisfaction - is more than worth it!

I hope you agree.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Misunderstood Skew, Part 2

The previous post on the "Misunderstood Skew" drew some positive Facebook feedback, so I thought it might be good to follow-up with a little bit of technique.  This post won't go into a lot of detail, but will hopefully whet the appetite for a video.  In this post, we'll look at tool selection, (including my personal preferences), talk about how to sharpen the skew (and keep it sharp!) and lastly the different kinds of cuts that make the skew such a versatile tool.

Tool Selection
The skew chisel is simply a straight tool sharpened at one end so as to present an angled ("skewed") or curved cutting surface to the workpiece.  The bottom of the angled/curved edge is called the "short point" while the top is referred to as the "long point."  Skew chisels come in three cross-sections: round, oval and flat.   The round skew is basically a round rod with a skew cutting surface ground into the working end.   Although some love it, the round skew is really a specialized tool with limited applicability in my experience.  And since this is a more general conversation, we'll limit the remainder of this discussion to the flat and oval skews.
The oval skew, shown on the far right, is ground with slightly rounded sides.  The theory being that the oval cross section makes the tool a little easier to control.  In practice however, I find the oval skew blade a bit light, prone to flexing and more difficult to sharpen.  Many turners swear by the oval skew, but because it tends to be heavier and stiffer in use, I prefer the flat tool.  I leave it to the reader to determine his/her own preference. 

As one reader correctly pointed out, the skew needs to be sharp to be effective.  I think the term, "scary sharp" is not too much of an exaggeration.  The logic is: a sharp tool cuts easily, cleanly - and goes where you want it go.  A dull tool requires additional force resulting in less (and possibly loss of) control and an inferior workpiece surface.

Sharpening the skew is fairly simple.  After establishing the cutting edge on the bench grinder, we simply hone all four sides of the cutting surface (yes, 4: both sides, then the top and bottom) with a diamond sharpener to the point where the tool will cut hair.  (Sounds tough, but in practice, it's very quick and easy.  After a while, it becomes automatic.)  This honing is necessary because the skew edge is sharpened at a very shallow angle (I sharpen mine at around 25 degrees), and is thus not as durable as, say, that of a gouge.   By honing and keeping the skew sharp, I rarely find myself returning the skew to the grinder.


We use the skew to perform five different types of cut: the scraping cut to gently refine a shape, the roughing cut to reduce a square block to a cylinder, the shearing cut to clean-up and/or refine end-grain surfaces, the planing cut to smooth and refine the sides of the workpiece, and the v-cut; plus, what I call "compound" cuts to produce beads (convex shapes) and coves (concave shapes.)

With all of these cuts, I find tool rest height one of the keys to success.  With a gouge, we typically set the tool rest to a height that places the cutting edge at or slightly below the centerline of the workpiece.  But with the skew, I'm most comfortable with the top of the tool rest slightly below the top of the workpiece.  (The exact height is determined by practice.)  The other thing I do is to run the lathe at a moderate speed - rarely going above about 1600 rpms for most work.  A "scary sharp" skew cuts well at moderate speeds and stays sharp longer than if the lathe is screaming.  (Lidded box finials and pens are exceptions, but the key is to be sure you are comfortable in all aspects before beginning work.)

This candlestick was produced almost entirely with a 1" skew chisel using all of the cuts described above.  The exception was that a forstener bit was used to drill a hole in the base, which was turned separately, to help support the candlestick stem.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Misunderstood Skew


The skew chisel is probably the single most versatile spindle turning tool at the woodturner's disposal. In fact, nowadays, I find myself relying on skew chisels for the vast majority of my spindle turning work from roughing cuts - reducing a square block to a cylinder - through subtle concave and convex curves all the way through the finest detail in the most delicate finial.  As an added bonus, staying with one or two implements throughout the project saves time that would be otherwise spent reaching for - and having to sharpen - multiple tools.

No, the skew is not for bowl turning or hollowing-out a vase.  There are other tools for those tasks.  But used for its intended purpose, the skew rewards the turner with flexibility and control difficult to achieve with any other spindle turning tool.

It's interesting that when the subject of skew chisels comes up among a group of woodturners, the reaction is either enthusiastic agreement or strained silence.  The silence typically comes from fear, usually instilled by woodturning "teachers" who managed to convince their students early on that successful skew usage is a mysterious art somewhere to the left of black magic.  Used improperly, the skew can produce spectacular "catches" resulting in (1) scaring the dickens out of the turner and (2) an almost perfect spiral cut along the workpiece - usually where the turner just finished working(!).  But used correctly....   

What makes the skew so intriquing is that it is capable of so many different cuts.  Although each cut requires slightly different skills, if we take each cut individually, mastery is not difficult. I have had beginning pen turners performing near perfect roughing and scraping cuts in a matter of minutes.  I just don't tell them that the skew is supposed to be difficult. I simply show them how to position the tool and they take it from there.

For those interested, Alan Lacer's videos are a good place to start - that is: until I get my own out there ;-) .

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fine Wood Artists On-Line Showcase

We are thrilled to announce that Brad's work has been accepted into the Fine Wood Artists On-Line Showcase.  Come check out all the pieces on display in this exciting on-line venue!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Photo Catchup

I'm sure this blog is feeling a bit neglected of late.  So I wanted to post a few photos to illustrate the transformation from log/bowl blank through rough-turned bowl to finished product we talked about in earlier posts.

First, some bowl blanks "On the Hoof!" These happen to be White Oak
rescued from a friend's yard, but they all start out pretty much the same.

Next, here is a rough-turned bowl after 8 months' drying.  It's now ready for finish-turning. This one is Black Walnut.  Notice the hint of fancy figure on the right side. You can also see the tennon at the base used to re-mount the bowl on the lathe. This tennon was turned away in the finished bowl.

Finally the finished bowl. After turning, it was polished to 3500 grit
and soaked in pure walnut oil. The walnut oil darkens the wood and brings out the chatoyant figure - the "depth" in the wood.  The sheen came from pre-finish polishing rather than from the walnut oil bath.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

From Tree to Table, Part 4: Turning a "Green Wood" Bowl

In the preceding parts of this series, we talked about bowl turning techniques that result in the perfectly round  wooden bowls most favored by woodturners today and, perhaps more importantly, by those who purchase their wares(!).  We talked about identifying downed trees most likely to yield usable bowl blanks, how we go about extracting those blanks from the tree, rough-turning and drying our bowls, and finally finish-turning.

But today we are going to talk about turning a bowl from the blank just as it comes from the tree all the way to completion in one fell swoop!  Although we will go into the history of bowl turning in Part 5, it is interesting to note that until the last 50 years or so, wooden bowls were almost always turned to completion from "green" wood.  So, in a way, we're going back in time....

Turning green wood uses almost exactly the same techniques (and safety precautions!) we employed previously. But this time, we will try to anticipate how our bowl will warp and twist as it dries - and adjust our design and embellishment approaches to make that warping and twisting work to our advantage.  We hope (!)

Our first decision is to decide whether we want a "cut-rim" bowl, as described earlier and shown at the top of this page, or a "natural-edge" vessel like the red oak piece on the right, where the bark - or the wood immediately below the bark - forms the rim.  Intended use is our primary consideration, because if we plan to leave the bark in place, the finished bowl almost automatically becomes decorative "art" rather than a utilitarian vessel. (Bark being very fragile.)

That decision made and because our bowl will start to dry while it's being turned, we need to be sure we have enough time to complete our bowl in one session.

Just as described in Part 2, we fix our blank to the lathe and rough-shape the exterior.  (Note that we have not yet completed the exterior shaping.  That comes next.)

At this point, we reverse our blank in the lathe so that the top of our bowl faces away from the headstock. (Several techniques can be employed here.  Each has advantages and nuances that are beyond the scope of this post.  As before, I refer you to the many books on the subject of bowl turning, if you would like further information.)

With the tailstock still in place for safety, we refine the exterior.  We wait until now to refine our exterior for two reasons: first, because of almost certain miss-alignment when we reverse the bowl and secondly, because our bowl has started to dry and is no longer perfectly round.  We expect our bowl to warp and twist over the coming weeks as it dries, but we do need a round exterior at this point so as to be able to apply whatever decoration (beads or coves) we might wish to use(see footnote.)  Once our bowl is again running "true," we take a fresh (read very sharp) bowl gouge and make a series of light cuts to remove any remaining tool marks, along with any grain that might have "torn-out" during the roughing process.  Once the surface is as "clean" as we can get it, we now sand our exterior very lightly with a foam- or sponge-backed sanding pad (or power sander.)  The key at this point is to minimize pressure, friction and the accompanying build-up of heat, which will only hasten the drying process and give us a less-than-satisfactory result.

We next re-sharpen our bowl gouge and hollow-out our interior.  Timing is now especially critical, because our bowl is drying very fast and starting to warp.  Again, I will refer you to the above-mentioned books for specific techniques, but our objective is to hollow-out our bowl as quickly - and SAFELY(!) - as we are comfortable doing.

Once we have the interior shape and wall thickness to our liking, we again take a freshly sharpened bowl gouge (or specially designed bowl scraper) and clean-up any interior tool marks or torn grain. (We can now apply any desired interior decoration as well.)

As a next-to-final step, we finish-off our base using an appropriate technique (see reference books for ideas - of which there are many.)

Lastly, we apply a liberal coating of pure walnut oil and wrap our new bowl in a paper bag for a week or two to control the initial drying.  At the end of that time, we set our new masterpiece in a reasonably controlled environment to enjoy as it completes the drying process.

Again, I thank you for your attention.  Woodturning techniques are not "etched in stone."  Each craftsman (or -woman) varies these techniques to suit individual style or preference.  And so I invite you to post any questions, comments or suggestions.

Next time: A Brief History of Woodturning.

Until then....

Footnote(1): Depending on wood species, the amount of moisture in the wood, and how we oriented our blank on the lathe, our bowl can be expected to warp in either a nice symmetrical pattern - or a wavy asymmetrical manner.  Both can be quite beautiful.  So we want whatever decoration we apply to accentuate or compliment the final shape.  (For example, the red oak bowl shown above was formed with two fairly dramatic exterior coves, which accentuate its now mildly oval shape.) 

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sometimes you Win, Sometimes....

Planned to come home with a truckload of bowl blanks today.  At least that was the plan.  As it turned-out, most of the wood was either too small  to make salable bowls (i.e., less than 12 - 14" diameter) or too far gone to be of use.  In any event, Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm got a nice load of firewood for their summer educational programs. So the day turned out well, even if not completely as planned.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Culture of "Cheap"

Every so often I run across a piece so timely and  brilliantly written that I'm just blown away.  Megan of CraftMBA.com writes a blog that carries not one, but several such pieces.  I would urge you to check out her blog - and particularly her post on "Etsy and the Culture of Cheap" at http://bit.ly/7U0WcO.  Let me hasten to add that I do like Etsy and maintain a shop there.  (Full disclosure: Etsy is my e-commerce portal - so....)  A great read - Enjoy! 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

From Tree to Table Part 3, Finish turning

Having spent the last week building and publishing my new website, which I hope you've had a chance to look at, I'm running a bit late on this series.  With that said: let's fast-forward 6 - 12 months from where we left off in Part 2.  Our rough-turned bowl is now dry and ready for finish-turning to complete our project.

But first let's look at our rough bowl.  It's certainly very different from when it came off the lathe so many months ago!  In fact it's barely recognizable!  It's warped, twisted, gone oval and done other weird things - all of which need to be fixed before our bowl can be used or sold.

Our first task is to re-mount the bowl on the lathe.  We also bring-up the tailstock to ensure that our bowl doesn't become an "unguided missile" as soon as we make the first cut. (Which can be a little hard on the bowl - not to mention anything (or anyone) that/who happens to be in its path!)

As before, we rotate the bowl through a full 360 degrees to make sure everything is clear- and that nothing untoward will happen when we start turning. We can now power-up the lathe and adjust the speed so that everything's running smoothly.

Using our bowl gouge, our first cuts true-up the rim.  Next, we true-up the exterior and establish its final shape. Then starting at the top/rim, we work our bowl gouge down toward the base.  It takes several passes, but the outside is now round and we're happy with it.   A couple more light scraping passes and the outside is smooth and ready for sanding.  This we do starting with 150 - 180 grit and proceed through 400 grit sandpaper.

We next re-sharpen our bowl gouge to ensure clean cuts, remove the tailstock and start our "inside" work.

As before, we work our bowl gouge from top to bottom to establish a clean, round surface.  With that done, we cut a slight bevel into the rim and then slightly undercut the rim.  This gives a good firm place to grip and makes carrying the bowl much easier - especially when it's full!  Continuing our undercut, we want the thinest point of the bowl about 1/4 - 1/3 of the way down, then gradually increase the wall thickness so as to lower the center of gravity ensuring a stable vessel. Again, we sand down through 400 grit and create a smooth interior surface.

Now, borrowing technique from old-time gunsmiths who needed a glass-smooth finish on their gunstocks, we spray the entire bowl with a light coating of water to raise the grain.  We sand off the raised grain with 400-grit paper and repeat the process 2 - 3 times - or until the grain no longer raises when wet.  We can now move on to 3 grades of non-woven abrasive pads (think nylon scouring pads on steroids!), which remove the last of the micro-scratches and burnish the wood to a soft satin luster.

We now reverse the bowl on the lathe and finish the foot/base. Our bowl is ALMOST done!  We can now sign and date the finished bowl and note the wood specie for posterity.  The final step is to soak our finished bowl in pure walnut oil, which penetrates the wood, then hardens (polymerizes) to form a durable, food-safe finish.

After soaking for a couple hours (or overnight), we remove it from its walnut oil bath, wipe off the excess, and set it aside in a warm space for a few days to allow the oil to polymerize.  At the end, we have a piece that, with reasonable care will last for generations! (Good thing given the amount of time and effort we've invested!)

I hope you've enjoyed this series so far.  Please feel free to add any comments.

Next time, we'll look at turning a "green" bowl to completion and finally delve into the history of bowl turning.   Until then...

P.S. Blatant Commercial Plug: You can easily get past all the work described above by buying a finely crafted bowl from me.  Check out my website link on this post!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Woodturning Demo on 1/26

A quick note to all N.E. PA woodturners:  I'll be demonstrating creating my "Acorn Series" lidded boxes at the next meeting of the Lehigh Valley Woodturners on Tuesday, 1/26 at the Allentown Woodcrafter's Store. A great group of folks, as well!  Come on out if you're in the area....

Friday, January 15, 2010

From Tree to Table, Part 2 - Rough-Turning

In our last post, we went through the initial steps of creating a wooden bowl that, with proper care, will last for generations.  We selected the parts of the tree most likely to yield the best bowl "blanks" and cut those blanks to maximize both beauty and longevity. 

In this post, we explore final blank preparation, mounting the blank on the lathe, rough-turning it into basic "cut-rimmed" bowl and setting it aside to dry before re-mounting on the lathe and turning it to its final dimensions.

But before we continue, a word from my legal advisor: As discussed previously, lathe-turning is inherently dangerous and should be NOT undertaken without proper instruction, experience (i.e., knowing your limitations(!), and adherence to the rules of lathe safety.  (The American Association of Woodturners provides a practical set of lathe safety guidelines at http://www.woodturner.org/resources/safety.cfm.  A good read!)  That said: the following is provided for your information only.  Because of the many variables involved, I assume no responsibility for any incidental or consequential damages that might be suffered as a result of your attempting to duplicate these steps.

Now on with the post....

Our first objective - and one of the most important - is align the blank so that the wood grain is centered in the bowl.  We accomplish that by laying the blank on our bench with what used to be the center of the log facing up.  We then use a compass to draw a circle around the most interesting part of the blank, which describes the basic bowl.  We want the circle as large as possible while staying within the boundaries of solid wood.  (Depending on the species, we may - or may not - include sapwood in our bowl.  For lighter woods like ash and maple, I like to include sapwood, but for dark woods like walnut, I stay within the heartwood. The white ash bowl on the right is a good example of what we're looking to achieve.)

We next round off the portions of the blank that fall outside our circle. (Note: this is another "do not attempt without proper training, experience and following appropriate safety rules!" Cutting green wood - and especially THICK green wood like a bowl blank - requires a somewhat different set of skills and precautions.  Be safe....)

We now mount our rounded blank on the lathe and bring up the tailstock to ensure maximum support. (We use a threaded cast iron fitting called a "faceplate" to affix our workpiece to the lathe because it provides the most secure means of affixing large and/or out of balance workpieces.  Other woodturners, whose opinions I respect, use different techniques, but we will stick with this approach.)  With the workpiece mounted on the lathe, we rotate the workpiece by hand to make sure it clears the toolrest, toolrest holder, lathe bed - and double-check that there are no loose objects that will go flying around when we power on the lathe.  (Don't laugh - it's happened!)  We start the lathe at its lowest speed setting and adjust the speed to the point where the lathe is running smoothly.   

Using our bowl gouge, we turn the exterior of the bowl into the approximate shape of our finished bowl.  Because in this example, we are only want a rough-turned bowl that will warp and distort as it dries, we aren't too concerned about achieving a perfect shape or finish.  We will address final finishing in our next post.  (There are several techniques that can be employed here - all are beyond the scope of this post.  Distinguished turners like Richard Raffan, David Ellsworth, Mike Mahoney (and others) have books and videos that drill down on these techniques, if you have an interest in pursuing.  Full disclosure: I have no commercial interest in any of them.)

Once the exterior is done, we reverse the bowl on the lathe and proceed to hollow out the interior.  Our objective at this point is to achieve a uniform wall thickness that is approximately 10% of the total bowl diameter.  (For example: a 12" bowl will have about a 1-1/4" wall thickness.) That leaves enough material to allow for final turning while providing a consistent surface area that minimizes the risk of cracking during the drying process.  (Again, there are several ways of hollowing-out a bowl - see Raffan, Ellsworth, at al. for further information.)

As final steps, we write the wood specie and today's date on the bottom of our bowl, apply a liberal coating of "Anchorseal(r)" or an equivalent coating to control the drying process and set the piece in a climate-controlled space for 6 - 12 months to dry. (Again, there are innumerable techniques - and variation of same(!) - for drying rough-turned bowls.  The above folks discuss at length.  Enough said....)

Well, if you've stayed with me this long - congratulations!  I hope you have found this informative and at least mildly entertaining!

Next time: Finish Turning.

Until then....

Friday, January 8, 2010

From Tree to Table, Part 1 - How it Begins

A well-designed, superbly-turned wooden bowl - be it a large salad bowl or a small candy dish - is a unique and often treasured possession.  But what went into its creation?  How did it get "from tree to table?"

My idea for writing this series is to explore how that metamorphosis comes about.   This first post talks about what happens when a tree is taken (or comes) down, how wood is selected for bowl turning, and how we go about forming a bowl "blank."

In later posts, we'll talk about rough-turning that blank into a basic bowl form that can be set aside to dry without (hopefully!) cracking or splitting in the process.  We will talk about "cut-rim" versus "natural edge" and "green" v. "twice-turned" bowls.  And we will also delve a little into the history of bowl turning. How bowls were made before 220-volt, 3-phase power became available!  Finally, we'll talk about "finish turning" and my thoughts about proper bowl finishes.

So lets begin.

Bowl turning is a large subject and the techniques I will focus on are the ones that work for me after watching and studying others, applying years of practice (and, in the process, cranking-out literally tons of  sawdust), and making LOTS of mistakes.  Others may do things differently.  That said (and this is where my lawyer starts talking): if you are a bowl turner - or have any ideas of becoming a bowl turner - be aware that wood turning, chain sawing, and all related activities are inherently dangerous!  That danger includes significant risk of injury or even death to the operator and/or bystanders.  The activities described herein should NOT be undertaken without proper instruction by a qualified teacher and appropriate experience.  I assume no liability for incidental or consequential damages or anything else that might occur as a result of anyone's trying to duplicate what I describe in these posts.  (Translation:  I presume you're a competent, responsible adult.  Be safe.  If you're uncomfortable, nervous, tired, taking medication, or in any way impaired or distracted, STOP - go do something else.)

Now back to the story.

Living in the mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania, I'm fortunate to have an abundant supply of ash, cherry, elm, maple, oak. walnut, and other hardwood trees that is perfect for creating wooden bowls that can last for generations.    Every year, hundreds (if not thousands) of local trees are toppled by forces of nature or cut for urban renewal and other reasons.  So, it's basically a matter of being in the right place at the right time to rescue one of these magnificent creations that would otherwise be left to rot or cut-up for firewood.

So what happens when we find a downed tree?  The first thing is to obtain the landowner's or township's permission to work on it.  (We value the rights of others, and will not trespass on another's property without the owner's consent.  Most of the time, the owner (or township) is delighted to have us haul away the downed leviathan!  But we do need tah ask(sic!))

Next, we examine the main trunk.  We want solid wood at least 14" - 16" in diameter (and larger, if possible) with no visible rot or insect infestation. We also look at crotch pieces where two or more large branches split off at the top of the trunk.  These intersecting pieces are usually incredibly strong and often contain interesting grain patterns that yield spectacular bowls!  Sad experience, however, has taught us to avoid nails, barbed wire and other visible foreign matter that can ruin an expensive chainsaw or lathe tool.  We also stay away from limbs.  Because of the forces exerted on them while the tree was growing, limbs seldom make satisfactory bowls.

We next cut the trunk into pieces that are about as long as the tree is in diameter at the point of each cut.  So if the tree is 20" in diameter where we're cutting, we make that piece 20 - 21" long.  The length of the pieces will naturally decrease with lessening diameter as we work up the trunk.  Thus, the next piece might be 19 - 20" long and so on.... These days, for reasons we'll discuss later, we seldom bother with pieces less than about 12" in diameter.

Now that the tree is "sectioned," our next task is to cut each section in half lengthwise to remove the pith and create the beginning of a bowl blank. (We avoid cracks at all cost and the pith is where 99% of cracks start.)   The pith will often already have a longitudinal crack, so with the piece still on its side, we carefully align our saw with those cracks and execute a longitudinal "rip" cut about an inch outside the pith (or whatever distance safely clears any cracks/checks radiating from it.)

If we did this right, we now have two half logs that are ready to be turned into bowl blanks.  This last step can be accomplished in one of two ways: either by using the chainsaw to round-off the corners or - for smaller pieces - by transporting the half-logs back to the shop/studio and using our bandsaw to create a circular "blank" ready for mounting on the lathe. (In most cases, the larger pieces will also need to be "cleaned-up" on the bandsaw to ensure a reasonably well-balanced blank suitable for turning.)

We repeat these steps for every section of log and haul our blanks back to our shop/studio.  After unloading and setting our bowl blanks in a cool, shaded place - out of the sun and away from any heat source, we take a well-earned rest!  (But not for long.  We've got to rough-turn our blanks before they have a chance to even THINK of cracking!) But that's the subject of our next post.

Until then....

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