"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

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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