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Plain turning

This article is about 'plain' turning, as distinct from complex turning (which is the application of ornamentation to a surface by precisely controlled mechanical means). All the work for sale here is plain turned, made using a simple lathe and hand tools.

Woodturning, whether plain or complex, is a process that combines craft and art. A good turner will give careful attention to the aesthetics of everything he or she makes, and this shows in the quality of the finished product. The best hand turned work is far superior to most of the mass-produced stuff that you see in the shops. More attractive timber can be used, and the individual attention each piece receives allows it to be given a more elegant shape, crisper detailing and a finer finish. Craft work of this quality is beautiful enough to display in its own right.

So what exactly is plain woodturning? Everyone is familiar with the potter's wheel, on which a lump of clay spins while it is moulded to shape.  In woodturning, a chunk of wood spins in a lathe while it is cut to shape by hand using sharp-edged gouges, chisels and scrapers.  Turned pieces are handmade in the same way that ceramic pots are. Turning is an ancient craft, and in past times the lathe was powered by the turner's leg muscles, using a springy branch and cord to wind the piece back after each push. These pole lathes have made something of a comeback recently and you may see them in action at country fairs. To produce good quality work on these primitive machines is difficult, but a few people can do it.  

Modern lathes spin the wood at from about 200 to 3000 rpm, depending on its size. The tools are supported on a 'rest', but guided by hand as they cut the wood.  They need sharpening every few minutes, or as often as every few seconds with some abrasive timbers.  The tool might have to cut through a mile of wood every four or five minutes, so it is easy to see how the edge will need frequent attention.  

Turning is a skilled craft needing long practice to do well.  It is satisfying, with the piece rapidly taking shape while streams of shavings fly across the room.  

The turning process starts with preparing the wood.  A log of suitable hardwood is brought to the workshop. At this stage the wood is 'green', or full of sap.   Before the log dries and splits, it has to be divided into pieces suitable for the finished product.  For example it might be sawn into strips that can be cut to length later for making cord pulls.  Or the log can be sawn  into blocks for making the bowls that I sell here.   One of the most important steps is deciding what the wood is capable of and what can best be made from it, and therefore how it must be cut. 

Bowls are not usually made from cross-section slices cut from the log in the round, because the tension in the tree's growth rings that is created during drying could not release, and they would split.  To prevent this, the bowl blocks are cut to avoid the centre of the log, and the grain of the wood usually runs from side to side across the bowl.

The sawn strips are left to season naturally before use, but this is no good for the large bowl blocks as they would split as they dry, even cut as they are.   Blocks for bowls are rough-turned while the wood is still fresh, and this is another decision point.  I have to decide the shape of the finished piece at this stage, although fine tuning is possible later. I start to form the shape of the bowl and partly hollow it, making great piles of shavings in the process. Sap sprays from the spinning wood.  I love the moment when I switch off the lathe and see the colours and grain in the bowl for the first time. When the blank is hollow the wood can move, usually without splitting, releasing the tensions while the moisture evaporates. 

The part-turned bowls are put aside for months or years to dry before finishing.  Most survive but, in spite of all precautions, some do split and go to waste.  Natural features such as knots in the wood make it more likely to split during drying, and some species are more troublesome than others, so often I use sealer to slow the rate of drying.  

When the piece is seasoned, it goes back on the lathe for final turning.  This is when I refine the shape.  Sharp tools give the best possible surface on the wood, but it is almost always necessary to sand, using a power sander on the spinning wood.

When the sanding is complete, the finishing begins.  This can take longer than the turning itself. The finish accentuates the grain and brings the piece to life. Usually I use good quality Danish oil or Liberon 'finishing oil', which are plant-based and food safe when dry.  I apply the oil liberally, then the surplus is wiped off, and after a day or so to dry and harden in the wood this is repeated.  Depending on the wood, three or more coats may be needed.  When it is thoroughly dry, I buff the piece using very fine abrasives, then polish with wax.  Finally, after a process that may have been spread over years, the item is ready for sale.

You will find all sorts of information about woodturning on my turners' pages. Here is some information about the kinds of timber used for turning, the history of lathes and turning and about treen. Here is how I make bowls.

The information above relates to 'plain' turning. Here is information about ornamental, or complex turning.

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