I have been asked to write a blog series about turning bowls. A reader sent me an email asking several questions about bowls. He knew I had turned some bowls. I tried directing him towards some of my posts dealing with bowl turning. I came to the realization though that bowl turning has become such a long journey for me, that the information is spread all over the place. One would have to read for days to try and pick up on something useful from all my rambling. So my reader eventually asked why I don't just do a blog series about bowl turning.
Next, I tried directing my reader towards videos and such I know about elsewhere on the web made by people way more experienced than me. I still consider myself a beginner at bowl turning, and turning in general. I am learning though.
My reader pushed on.
Now, let me admit something here. I do not know how much help I will be to anyone with this series. I think the reader's request is blatant flattery. Apparently it was successful flattery nonetheless though, because here I am.
I want to say up front that my way of doing things here is by no means the only way. Something I learned through my journey to turning a bowl is that there are no rules set in stone. There are things here and there that one should do to prevent injury. However, for every "rule" I have learned in turning, there are exceptions, which sort of make the rule not so much a definite rule at all. So my philosophy in turning has become, if something works for you and is safe, do it until you find something that works better.
So here we go.
For the sake of this blog, I pulled out some material that was big enough to turn some bowls with. I stuck with shallow bowls because I strongly suggest anyone starting out to start with shallow bowls. Learn the techniques and find your groove before doing anything deeper. Deeper hollow turnings create their own set of problems. You need to learn techniques before you learn to deal with larger and deeper things. Trust me, I have had a few deeper bowls fly off the lathe and hit my head. Now I have a very hard head, but I don't want anyone else getting hurt.
I have here two pieces of sapelle, a piece of box elder, and two pieces of rosewood. On each of these pieces I have glued on a waste block. I use waste blocks on thinner bowl blanks. The reason for this is you need a way to attach the blank to the lathe. You can use a chuck or a faceplate. I use a chuck. To use the chuck though, you need a tenon or recessed hole for the chuck to grab the blank. For deeper turnings, I'll sometime simply make that onto the blank itself and sacrifice that bit of depth from the overall turning. For thinner material though, I don't want to give up that depth. So if you add a waste block it is just that, something you can waste by turning off later, leaving only your material you started with.
You can also glue up material for thicker bowls. Also, you can use larger pieces of material for a larger bowl to start with. The firewood pile provides a lot of turning practice material. I am sticking with thinner, square blocks for the purpose of demonstrating my ways though.
There are various ways of attaching a waste block. Some people use two sided tape. I have done that in the past. After a particular scary incident though, I am scared of the tape method. I stick with what I know will hold the waste block on. I use Titebond III glue and always let it cure at least twenty four hours before turning.
There is also a variety of ways to clamp bowl blanks or waste blocks onto bowl blanks. I have a bowl press that I sometimes use if I am only gluing up one blank. You can work with what you have though. I once glued up a layered bowl blank by jacking up my truck and placing the glued up layers under the tire, letting the truck down, and leaving it to dry overnight.
If I'm gluing up multiple blanks at once, I prefer to just use a bunch of clamps. You can use bar clamps, C-clamps, or anything you might have. Any wood worker can never have enough clamps. I watch for them at yard sales and flea markets. I have less than a hundred dollars in all the clamps you see in this photo. So keep your eyes open for deals on clamps if you plan on gluing up multiple blanks at a time. They are invaluable.
If you don't have clamps, like I said, use what you have. If you have a car you can clamp at least four blanks at a time up, as long as you don't need to go anywhere.
If you drive a motorcycle, only two.
Now for safety. This is the most important piece of safety equipment you can buy for turning bowls. I admit it, I sometimes turn things such as pens without even wearing safety glasses. Even I wear a full face shield though when turning bowls. I have a hard head that has caught several flying mistakes, but my eyes aren't so tough. Wear a face shield.
The other biggest piece of safety equipment you can have is your brain. If something doesn't feel right, STOP. Figure out what is going on. Turning is about as safe as any other form of wood working. You have a tool in your hand that can hurt you. You have a chunk of wood spinning in front of you very fast. Usually, if something even feels unsafe, it is. You may be using the wrong technique. You may be using the wrong tool. You may be drinking too much alcohol. Whatever it is, figure out the problem and correct it.
There are plenty of wood turners who are usually happy to help. There are tons of videos on the internet. There are a ton of books on turning in the library. If in doubt, please consult one, or some, of these sources and work safely.
On the subject of safety, most of the accidents I've heard about on a lathe come from the same few sources usually.
1. Not wearing face shield. That spinning chunk of wood can be thrown at you, or a part can break off and fly at you. We are talking about wood here folks. It splits, crack, has knots. Things happen. Wear that face shield.
2. Having the tool rest too far away from the work. You rest should be as close to your work as you can get it without the spinning wood hitting the rest. Set the rest and spin the wood by hand before hitting the on switch. If it hits, adjust your rest. There are cases where you may have to work with the rest a ways from your work. Those cases should come later though after you've learned enough to know how to do it safely. For now, keep that rest CLOSE to your work. The more tool you have hanging over the business end of the rest, the more apt you are to get hurt.
3. Long hair or hanging clothes (or jewelry). Look at your clothing. Think of anything, hair, sleeves, earrings, ANYTHING, that can hang down and wrap into the lathe. I wear no jewelry besides my wedding ring (and it is a simple band). My shirt is a long sleeve button up shirt that fits close to my body. I do suggest something that has long sleeves and buttons all the way up to your neck. Those wood chips in our shirt are itchy. Make sure nothing can hang down though. Women (or long haired men) need to tie their hair up in a bun or something, not just in a pony tail.
4. No cloth rag should EVER be at your lathe. The ugliest thing I've seen on the lathe was a guy who had his finger snatched clean off by a rag that wrapped around a work piece. Cloth is strong enough to wrap around your finger and break or detach it. On the other hand, paper towels will tear if they wrap around the work piece. They will scare you, but will tear and leave you with all ten fingers still intact.
5. Finally, and this is how I've gotten hurt a few times (luckily nothing serious). Know your tools. If you've got a small lathe with a low speed of several hundred RPMs, you cannot turn huge, off balance pieces like you see on YouTube. Yes, I am guilty of this. I ruined a cheap lathe and luckily escaped without a hospital visit, but huge off balance pieces require very slow speeds to get them balanced before turning fast. I hope to have a lathe that can do this one day, but not now. This is but one example, but know your tools and do not do anything with them that you do not feel is safe to do with them.
Now let's talk about tools.
So you want to turn bowls? Get some curved tool rests. This is not the only way, but the cheapest way I have found so far, to get your tool rest close to your work. The bowls I am turning with this blog series can safely be turned with only a straight rest. However, as soon as you start getting into deeper bowls, some will leave you with no way possible to use a straight rest and still keep your tool close enough to where you're cutting.
I done something I knew better than to do. I tried turning a ten inch deep bowl with nothing but a straight rest once. The bowl's size allowed me no way to get down into it with a straight rest besides hanging my tool almost eight inches over my rest. Since the constant chatter didn't tell me to stop and rethink this, all of a sudden I had a catch, the bowl took the gouge immediately from my hands, slung it around a few times inside the bowl, hitting the rest and the lathe bed, and threw it at high speed about twenty five feet across the shop.
Curved rests, angled rests and a variety of custom and commercially available rest, will allow you to get close enough to your work. If you cannot get it done safely, there are millions of other turning ideas you can do instead. Just don't do it.
The rests you see in the photo can be bought here. They also have them a variety of other sized posts. The one inch is just what fits my lathe.
Here is the basic tools I use normally for turning bowls. I say normally because there are exceptions. Most times I only use one gouge for turning a whole bowl though.
Looking at the photo from left to right.
The first four tools are gouges. The first three are part of this three piece set from Penn State.
The five eighths gouge I thought I would love. Unfortunately, it takes such a big bite that the little three quarter horse motor on my lathe bogs down. This gouge usually collects dust mostly.
The half inch gouge is still a little larger than I like for my lathe. I use it more than anything else for roughing out the outside of bowls.
The three eighths gouge I use for cleaning up the outside of bowls and hollowing a bowl if it is soft enough material for me to take this big of a bite. Now of course I can adjust and take smaller bites with any of these gouges. For me though, smaller bites seems to allow me better control if I'm able to use a smaller gouge to do so.
Then the fourth tool is my quarter inch gouge. This is my smallest gouge, my favorite gouge, and my most used. Using it as deep as it will dig it works just as a gouge should, yet is small enough for me to get into those tight places and do details. Often I will turn a bowl from start to finish using only my quarter inch gouge.
The next two tools are scrapers. I seldom use these. Every now and then I'll come across a material that, due to knots or crazy grain, I just can't seem to get it smoothed good with a gouge. I'll lightly kiss across it with a scraper to clean it up. That's the only time I use my scrapers on bowls. I do use them a lot in spindle turning. These are part of a four piece set that you can find here. The larger two scrapers in the set I never use. They collect dust. They are just too big for my taste.
The next tool is called an oland tool. Here is a good article about oland tools, and where I first read about them. I made mine, and most people have everything they need besides a few locally available materials to make their own. An oland tool, where it shines, is those times working in deep hollow forms with the tool way over the tool rest. I can hollow a ten inch deep bowl using this tool with only a straight tool rest.
The last tool I call a depth gauge. It is only a long drill bit epoxied into a handle I turned. If you follow this blog series, you'll see how I use it in the next installment.
I am not getting deep into sharpening because many people have differing opinions on sharpening methods, bevel angles, and such. I will only show about my bowl gouges because that was the hardest part for me when I started learning to turn bowls.
In the photo, on the left is one of my spindle gouges. The gouge on the right is one of my bowl gouges. If you look, the spindle gouge has a much longer bevel than the bowl gouge.
I find that each person has to find their own angle for a bowl gouge. The steeper the angle, the less sharp it seems by look, but there is a fine line you have to walk here. If I am explaining this correctly, a sharper tools, as what I think of as sharp, would be the spindle gouge in the photo above. If you see what I'm talking about, then I will try to explain my opinion on the much disputed bowl gouge bevel angle. The more "sharp" the gouge is, the more likely it is to catch and dig in while hollowing. The less sharp it is, it does better till you get back to a point of less sharp that it just doesn't work anymore. So you have to find that line that you are comfortable with that doesn't catch and dig in, but is still sharp enough to hollow any bowl you try to do.
Now, if that makes sense, there are other trade offs. The sharper the tool is, the easier it cuts, but besides catching, it also dulls quicker. However, the more you go in the other direction, the less clean your cut will be, and the more sanding you'll have to do to get your bowl looking nice. I try to balance my comfort level with no catches with how much time am I willing to put into sanding. You can take the crappiest looking bowl and sand it smooth as a baby's bottom, but if you have a bad cut, it may take hours or days to do it.
As I've said, different people like different angled grinds on their tools. There are some who may tell you my grind on my bowl gouge is wrong. I'm fine with that. They are right and I am wrong. This grind works for me though and I'm sticking with it unless I find something that works better, and I may one day.
The grind on my bowl gouges are roughly thirty five to forty degrees.
What does that mean though? For some reason, this was hard for me to get when I started learning.
This is what I mean. If I hold this angle gauge up to my gouge, depending on which way I read it, it says thirty eight degrees, or fifty two degrees.
I hope that makes sense. I had the hardest time figuring out sharpening angles once upon a time.
That's it for this entry.
I had planned on putting up one long post about turning bowls.
Halfway through this though, I realized, HOLY CRAP! I am going to have to break this down into sections. If I don't, someone is going to slip into a coma trying to read all my rambling.
So in the next installment, maybe we can actually turn a bowl.