Turning blanks?

My mom had some damaged trees from the Halloween surprise snowstorm and recently had a tree guy come and take them down, as well as a few trees that had always worried her. Normally, I’d just be out there splitting the wood for burning next season, but now I’m thinking a few of these should get some anchor seal slapped on the end and used for turning blanks. At the very least some of the straighter branches could used for spindle practice. All red oak, so nothing too exciting.

Day 2, Basic Woodturning

We started with sharpening, always a very important part of any woodworking class. Coming from the hand tool world I was immediately struck by how quick the sharpening generally is for turning–mostly because all the tools come straight from the finer grind wheel straight back to work. While I have a grinder, I have not set it up in my shop yet, so this was lots of good info, especially the Wolverine system the class grinder had installed. One interesting grinding profile that our instructor showed us is the thumbnail (aka Ellsworth) grind on the spindle and bowl gouges. While you can do that freehand on the grinder, there is an extra jig that makes things a lot easier.

During lunch I ran out to the woodcraft store to get my 10% discount and bought some of the necessary gouges for turning. The cool thing was I could use my new bowl gouge (w/ a traditional bowl bevel) in the afternoon project. It was shockingly easy to sharpen. Put the handle in the cradle, pull the cradle out till the bevel matches the wheel, start the grinder and just roll the tool. Check for a nice, even facet. Done. About the only honing required for most turning tools was on the skew, and only at about the 600 grit level. Compare that to getting a plane blade ready for use, where you might need to grind, hone, then polish the edge for a total of 4 or 5 different levels, depending on how crazy you get with the polishing stage.

For the bowl turning, we used a glue block base with a faceplate. The faceplate is attached to the glue block with some wood screws. While somewhat crude compared to more modern methods (four-jaw chuck), this is certainly easily accessible and works just fine. A medium CA glue attached the glue block to the bowl blank. We all had some nice cherry for the bowl. The plan was to turn the outside of the bowl into a nice, pleasing, large half-bead. Well, I managed to not do that. I planned on doing that, thought I was moving correctly to end up with that result, but lo and behold it was almost opposite. I’m sure I’m not the first person to have trouble with this operation, but it sure made for a little bit of frustration. I believe I was starting to move towards the center way too early and so created more of a slightly flared/cove shape rather than a gentle half-bead. Before we moved on to working the inside, we had to finalize sanding and surface treatments on the outside. I put a small line detail and burned it in with the guitar wire (just guitar string strung between two little handles, then with the piece spinning, the friction creates a burn mark in the skew or spindle gouge line). We were starting to hit some time constraints, so the exterior surface treatment is not as great as I’d like (I have a bit of tear-out I need to work on). Still I kind of like the shape, so all was not lost.

With the outside turning on the bowl we had the tailstock engaged (bowl base at the headstock end, bowl opening on the tailstock end). Unfortunately since my bowl shape was close to opposite of everyone else’s, I had to listen to the instruction for what to do on the basic interior bowl shape, and do some translation to my own situation. When the inside work started, we all removed the tailstock from the piece. This was more fun, and I felt like I had a better handle on riding the bevel and getting the cut I wanted. My new Crown gouge worked like a dream. “Uhh, Joe be careful, you’re getting close to the bottom.” Doh! ok with some of the inside cleaned out it was time to focus on getting the sidewall thickness to be consistent. With the flared outside I had to basically do the reverse inside, so again a bead. Double doh! As I was working it, this inside bead shape seemed easier for me. Maybe my head is just wired different. I got the walls pretty consistent all the way down.

On to what I thought would be the most terrifying part of the whole course–turning the bowl around, putting it on a jam chuck and finalizing the turning on the bottom of the bowl. Kind of like expecting to be hit by someone in hockey and escaping unscathed, I was surprised how (relatively) easy it was. We used a plywood round piece for the jam chuck, attached the faceplate to the back, then turned it round and balanced using the roughing gouge. Finally the outline of the bowl is set as close to center as possible (I left my micrometer at home, so I had to eyeball it. Horrors). Trace the outline, then put the jam chuck back on the lathe. I suppose you could do this on the lathe, but I found it easier to do the tracing/centering on the bench. Using the parting tool I cleaned a small portion inside the line I just drew down maybe 1/4″, about as wide as the rim of the bowl. I did a test fit, not quite there, so I took it a bit closer to the line, refit etc. I noticed that the inside of my bowl was rubbing on some of the jam chuck wood in the center, so I cleaned it out almost entirely to the center to give some clearance. I got right up the line with the parting tool and cleaned it up. The test fit and it was a very tight fit. Weee! I then used some of that packing clear plastic wrap to secure the bowl on there better, and put it on the lathe.

I looked at the start switch. Ground my teeth a few times, blinked, held my breath a few seconds then yelled out “WOLVERINES!” and turned it on. No flying cherry bowl bits. Phew. I cleaned up the outside of the bowl as best I could in the time that we had left, put a little dish at the base so the bowl would sit without rocking too much, and called it a class. My bowl ended up looking like an upside-down UFO. After I knocked it off the jam chuck I was immediately struck by how light it was. I expected it to be a bit heavier and commented on that to our instructor, Corey. He suggested that if, as a viewer, you see a piece, then go over and pick it up–your mind is calculating what it ‘ought’ to weigh without you realizing it. Often if it is lighter than expected or about the same weight, the viewer leaves with a favorable impression. On the other hand, if it is heavier then the viewer’s mind becomes concerned that maybe there is some hidden problem with the piece their mind hadn’t considered. Part of that might due to inconsistent wall thickness or a thicker base than the design suggests. All of which were things I’d never thought much about to be honest.

So with my first couple of turnings behind me, I think I’ll be working on this aspect of woodworking some more in the year to come. I had fun, and I can see myself doing some spindle legs, perhaps some William & Mary pieces or decorative items. I think I learned more in two days than in any other class I’ve taken, just because I hadn’t read much about turning beforehand. I’m sure that actually helped me learn some of the techniques because I had no clue (other than seeing David Marks or Roy Underhill on TV) how most of the spindle or bowl turnings were done.

Day 1, Basic Woodturning

So for anyone who has turned before, I’m sure this is all old hat, but it sure was a fun first day woodturning. Our instructor was Corey Anderson, president of the Central CT Woodturners Guild. We started with basic tool safety and then jumped right in to turning with the roughing gouge. We used a piece of poplar for our first exercises, and started with basic center finding, lathe operation, and initial roughing/rounding of the square stock. I was on a Jet mini-lathe on top of the bench and it was at a perfect height for me.
After rounding the stock, we moved on to another use for the roughing gouge to clean up the cut and smooth it out. He also showed us the skew for even more smoothing. Despite cautions that it was a difficult tool to use, I enjoyed using the skew throughout the night, at least for this type of smoothing cut.

Our first spindle element was learning how to make a bead using a 3/8″ spindle gouge. Wow, not the easiest motion to get down and frankly I had the hardest time with getting this correct. Comparatively the cove using the same gouge was a lot easier to get looking right. Our final element with spindle turnings was the fillet with the diamond parting tool.
After our practice with the poplar piece we moved on to our first project, a maple carving mallet. None of these billets seemed to be square so it was good practice to get the piece roughed in and balanced before moving on to the actual layout. The layout of the mallet consisted of six basic transition areas–1) the headstock waste piece, 2) the mallet head, 3) the base of the mallet area, 4) top of the handle, 5) bottom of the handle, and 6) tailstock waste area. Between 3 & 4 I planned a decorative element to set off the handle, and another between the end of the handle and the end of the mallet.

We used the parting tool to define these elements–for the handle, I used an existing mallet and a set of calipers with the parting tool. I first defined roughly the middle of the handle, then the ends. Switching to the roughing gouge, I roughed in the handle, making sure to avoid taking any little bites out of the end of the handle area. Once satisfied with the basic handle shape, and shutting of the lathe a few times to test with my own hand, I then smoothed out the handle area with the skew gouge.

The next element to get correct was the striking area of the mallet. Since this is meant to be a mallet for hitting chisels, it helps to have a bit of taper from the top to the base of the striking area. As with other elements, I started with the roughing gouge and got the basic taper correct. Here it helped to keep the piece spinning and look at it from a few different angles, and also stop the lathe and get a sense of the proportion compared to the planned length. I finished it off with the skew.

Now comes the fun part, getting the decorative elements defined. For the area between the striking part of the mallet and the handle, I planned a cove and bead, with a bead at the base of the handle. My beads turned out a little less ‘bead’ like and more either offset beads or more triangular beads. I sense practice, lots of practice in my future.

Our instructor showed us a few more decorative elements which are basically small grooves, which are then friction burned to show up as black lines on the piece. He showed us two basic ways to create these little grooves, either using the skew on edge or using the spindle gouge. I elected to use the skew, followed by an old guitar string (hey, a reason to keep my old strings) between two little holders to provide the friction burn. He suggested we should use an odd number and not more than 11, as apparently the human brain will see a lot of these lines and decide it needs to count them. Of course this kind of makes the purpose of the grooves as accent elements mute.

A bit of sanding on the handle and decorative elements and this piece was ready to be cut away from the waste piece at the headstock. First we put a little concavity at the head so that the mallet would sit flat on a bench. Then using the spindle gouge, we carefully cut down the headstock waste and the mallet comes off the lather. A little backsaw work on the tailstock area, and some sanding of the nubbins at head and tail end, and this first turning is finished. Weee!

Now since it will likely be used to bang things in controlled anger, there isn’t much purpose in putting an actual finish on the mallet. I suppose if it was going to decorate a Cracker Barrel someplace, you might.

I’m pretty happy with how this turned out. It has a nice feel to it and seems quite well balanced. My beads will need some practice, but frankly I think I’ve caught the wood turning bug. One of the big pluses in my mind is the availability of raw material–we are literally surrounded by forest here in Connecticut, and green wood turning seems like an inexpensive way to make some beautiful and functional pieces. Now if I can get into a Peter Follansbee class (and buy his forthcoming book) I could also do some green furniture woodworking.

Tomorrow is sharpening and bowl turning, so that should also be fun. I can see a few Christmas presents coming out of this class or the practice after it.