Lots of woodturners hate the skew chisel. It digs in alarmingly, without any warning or provocation, and you might think that it certainly hates you. And yet many turners say it is the most useful tool of the lot, so it is worth persevering with it.
You probably already have some idea of how the skew should be used for cutting beads and planing a cylinder. The basic principles can be found in turning books and DVDs and I don't mean to repeat them. All I can tell you is what you already know - that lots of practice is going to be needed - and show you how to get the most from it.
First, tune up your skew. Although different angles and bevels can be used perfectly well, give your chisel a skew angle of approximately 70 degrees and a bevel length of about 1.5 times the thickness of the tool. A long bevel makes it easier to see what you are doing. Make sure the edge and the points are really sharp, and not rounded over. A long bevel and straight cutting edge are easier for sharpening on an oil stone or diamond hone. It is OK to use either a straight edge or a curved one straight from a grinder. Try the edge on your thumbnail - if the edge or the point slides without biting in, it is not sharp. Make sure you keep the chisel sharp all the time you are using it, but grind away the sharpness from the long side edges of the tool so they slide easily on the tool rest.
Now check your tool rest. Make sure it is smooth. Rub it with a bit of wax to reduce friction.
Practice on relatively soft wood. Don't try to make any specific item at first, just keep making beads and planing cylinders. Start with a blank you have roughed down into a cylinder of about 50mm diameter and about 150mm long. Bigger pieces can be intimidating and long thin ones can be whippy. The blank should be straight-grained and without knots.
Put on your face shield, just in case.
If you are nervous, use a conical fixed centre (one without any teeth) in the headstock and a revolving one in the tailstock. Make a pilot hole about 6-8 mm wide and deep in the headstock end of the blank. The cone centre will give friction drive only, with nothing else forcing the wood round, and is safer than holding the wood in a chuck. Adjust the tailstock until the friction is strong enough to drive the blank but it will stop turning if you cut too deep or have a bad dig-in.
Have the lathe running slowly so you can see what is happening at the point of cut, and don't feel threatened by the spinning wood. Later you will probably want to use higher speeds.
Set the tool rest a little higher than for gouge cutting. This puts the skew's handle in a more convenient position for you.
If possible, use a strong, rigid skew of about 10mm square to practice beads (these are sold as 'beading and parting tools' and are easily ground to a skew angle), and one about 18mm wide for planing. Of course other sizes work perfectly well. But a short edge gives less scope for catching on a bead while cutting on the point, and a wider tool helps keep the long point clear on a cylinder.
Practice making beads of about 12-18mm wide, cut into your cylinder. Use a parting tool first to make a clear space to work in. Later you can use the skew for this.
Use the short point of the skew for cutting beads, although it is certainly possible to use the long point or the edge. Stick with the short point until you are happy with it - later you will try the long point and may end up preferring it. I think the short one is easier to start for many people.
The first few times, you might use a scraper to make a semicircular bead shape that you can then follow with the skew. Yes, the scraper seems easier, but don't be tempted to keep on with it though. When you see the difference in the surface the skew makes, you will understand why. Then, with the lathe switched off, present the skew to that rounded surface, first at the top and then moving down to the bottom of the curve, keeping the point in the proper cutting position as you go. See how you have to move the tool to keep the point in the right position. Repeat the movements round the curve, so your body begins to learn the action.
Although you will be cutting with the point, the short side edge of the bevel (one of the two edges that run back from the point to join the long side of the tool) must float on the cut surface to support the tool. Twist the skew as you go round the curve to keep the point in the cutting position while the bevel and the main cutting edge almost touch the wood. Don't let the edge touch or you might get a catch.
When you are ready, switch on and take a cut. Go slowly so you can see what is happening. As slow as you like (if using a high speed steel chisel, but carbon steel can overheat if kept in the cut too long). No rush. Take a thin shaving. Steer the point all the way round the curve, repeating the movements you started to learn earlier. Try for a smooth, even cut and don't put pressure on the wood.
Pay attention to the handle movements. They are what you are practicing As you try to go round the curve, you may have a tendency to complete the movements either too early or too late. Either will make a poorly shaped bead. It is important to take the whole of the curve to make the handle movements, spreading them out evenly.
Don't work too long on one bead, cutting too deep into the wood, because if the blank gets thin it will start to vibrate and could snap. Start a new bead.
You will probably find one side of the bead easier than the other. It is OK to concentrate on the easy side first, making half beads, until you understand the process and feel ready to change over.
When you get a catch, start again on a fresh part of the blank so the damage does not interfere with the free movement of the skew.
Planing uses the cutting edge of the chisel. Keep the cutting edge at about 45 degrees to the lathe axis, long point up, giving a slicing cut with the shaving coming off near the short point. The key is to keep the bevel floating, without pressure, on the freshly planed surface. It is easy to let the handle lift a little, and immediately you will get problems. At first sign of trouble, lay the handle lower. Feel for the position where the cutting is smooth and quiet and easy. If the handle is too low, the edge just lifts out of the wood, so no harm is done. As long as you pay attention to keeping the long point clear of the wood, you should not get digs when planing. At the ends of the blank, let the cut run off the wood, not onto it, as there will be no bevel support at that point
When you can plane a cylinder without problems, you can try making a planing cut to round over the end - this is another good way to make beads.