Drew’s Bowls

Drew's bowls

Last year my friend, Drew Bridges, had to have a large oak tree removed from his front yard in the historic district of Wake Forest.  Counting the annular rings on the stump revealed that this tree predated the founding of the town.  Drew told me that he’d like to have a bowl made from this tree as his family has owned this house for nearly 40 years and his daughter grew up there.  I told him that I’d be glad to turn some bowls from this wood and we selected a piece of the trunk that was on the living half of the tree, was good and straight, and not too large in diameter about 30 feet up in the tree.  He had his tree surgeons lay out two four foot long sections close to his driveway.  It was all Drew and I could do to load the smaller of the two into my pickup: fortunately his teenage neighbor and several friends came out of their house before we tried to load the larger and we were able to enlist their help.  I brought the bolts home and split them down the middle with a sledge and wedges.  I wasn’t able to turn them right away, but a couple of months later, I roughed out 4 bowls, which I waxed and put in paper bags with the green shavings to dry for several months.

As I turned these green bowls I noticed that the wood was cutting very cleanly.  Oak is very hard, and often a hard wood, while it may be more difficult to turn, may cut more cleanly and require less sanding than a softer wood.  The appearance of the marks left by the bowl gouges reminded me of the ridges created by the fingers of potters who leave this evidence of their intimate connection to their materials in their work as a testament to the fact that they work with their hands and as a design statement – the spiraling texture adding interest to the surface of the work.  By carefully sharpening my tools and taking light finishing cuts I was able to avoid the torn end grain which often mars turned wooden pieces that are not adequately sanded.  I did not sand the last 4 bowls that I turned from Drew’s wood at all: the tool marks are evident.

Unsanded bowl for Drew

After about 4 months in the bags I re-turned the first bowls to final thickness and sanded them as usual.

Sanded bowl for Drew

These bowls are meant to be used.  They have a food safe finish.  Oak is very tough and durable.  There is almost no sapwood included in these pieces as it had begun to spalt by the time I got to them.  I counted 90 annular rings in the heartwood alone on one of them and, as I mentioned, the part of the trunk they were turned from was a good 30 feet from the ground!


A Little Bench


This is a small windsor style bench made from Walnut.  The legs and stretchers were turned from pieces riven (split) directly from the freshly cut log.  The joinery here is the same that I use in my stools: through wedged mortise and tenon joints attach the stretchers to the legs, and tapered through wedged mortises and tenons join the legs to the seat.  The seat is made from a piece of air dried wood that was milled quite a few years ago.  James Krenov was an influential cabinet maker and teacher: he taught at College of the Redwoods in California and wrote “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.”  He believed that air dried wood had many qualities that made it superior to wood cooked in a kiln.  He also believed that wood that has been cleanly cut by sharp tools reflects light in a completely different (and superior) way than wood that has been sanded, no matter how finely.


The tops of the tenons are clearly visible in these views of the seat.  After assembly, the top of this stool was finished with a smoothing plane


and cabinet scraper: no sandpaper.


The moulding around the edge of the top further complicates the way light is reflected by the seat by adding a curved surface (ovolo) offset by two small flat surfaces (fillets) all around the edge, making it catch the eye.


First the edge was trued with a fore plane.


Then the  molding was cut using a Record Multi-Plane with a quarter round cutter.  The ends were done first: a small block was clamped to the side to prevent the corner from breaking out.


Then the long edges were done.


Almost finished.


Here it is in the workshop with a fresh coat of finish.





My “New” Old Lathe

New-old lathe

I bought this lathe from Al LeCoff in 1981 and turned on it for 20 years.  When I had to move my shop, I didn’t have a place for it right away, so I stored it in a barn for several years.  This Christmas I received a VFD (variable frequency drive) which allowed me to have both forward and reverse and variable speed controls on this machine which is now powered by a 2 hp 3 phase motor.  I spent the last couple of weeks rebuilding the wooden parts, and Saturday was the first day that I was able to turn on it.  The wooden bed on this lathe was 14 feet long when I bought it from Al: I’ve now shortened it to 7 feet.  The head and tail stock castings are so large that this leaves me about 4 feet between centers.


Here’s a photo of the tail stock showing the manufacturer’s logo cast into the tool: L. Power & Co. Phila. Pa.


This is the head stock.  This machine has babbitt bearings and a bronze thrust bearing on the outboard end.  The wooden pulleys were most likely driven by a line shaft at one time.  One of the jobs remaining is to mount the jack shaft to the frame: it’s just held by clamps now.  One might wonder why I’m inside writing about this in stead of in my shop turning on it.  The answer is that it’s barely going to break freezing today and my shop is not heated.

My Workshop in Spring

OBX and Shop in Spring 010I’ve been building a new  workshop.  It’s been a challenge balancing working on the building and working in the building.  My son, James, has been coming out to help me: we try to divide our time together between working on his projects and working on the shop.  We’ve had a lot of fun together, and have accomplished a lot.  In this picture you can see that we’ve finished the siding on the end of the building after a significant interruption.  We still have to trim around the windows.  This week the dogwoods and doublefile viburnum are blooming so it probably looks the best it’s ever looked.  This is the view from my house, so what you are looking at is my walk to work.

Rough-Turning a Beech Bowl

Most of my bowls are rough-turned to a thickness of 1 to 1 1/2 inches from a blank split from a bolt of wood as freshly cut as possible, then dried for several months before being re-turned to a final shape and dimension, sanded, and finished.  I start with a bolt; a section cut from the trunk or a limb of a tree.

This is a bolt of  beech.  It's sitting on the ground in the same orientation as it was growing in the tree.
This is a bolt of beech. It’s sitting on the ground in the same orientation as it was growing in the tree.

The bolt will yield two bowls.  The first task is to split the bolt right through the heart center or pith.

This shows the end of the bolt.  You can clearly see the heart center and the annual rings.  There is a primary crack radiating out from the heart center.
This shows the end of the bolt. You can clearly see the heart center and the annual rings. There is a primary crack radiating out from the heart center.
First, using a sharp wedge and a hammer, I score across the end of the bolt following the primary crack.
First, using a sharp wedge and a hammer, I score across the end of the bolt following the primary crack.
Now drive the wedge and split the bolt.
Now I drive the wedge and split the bolt.
Two bowl blanks.
Two bowl blanks.

You’ll note that the blanks pictured are not equal in size.  The bolt is split down the heart center or pith, which may or, as in this case, may not be the same as the geometric center.  The pith is the dark line running down the face of each blank.  Next the blank is sawn into a rough circle on the band saw.

Turn a Green Bowl 018Then the round blank is mounted on a faceplate and fixed to the lathe.

Find the center of the blank.
Find the center of the blank.
Screw the faceplate tightly to the blank.
Screw the faceplate tightly to the blank.
The faceplate screws directly onto the headstock spindle of the lathe.
The faceplate screws directly onto the headstock spindle of the lathe.
Bring up the tailstock for stability and safety.
Bring up the tailstock for stability and now we begin turning the outside of the bowl.
Turn a Green Bowl 036
It’s easy to see that this blank is way out of balance so we begin turning at 200 rpm or less.

Now the turning begins.  This piece is unbalanced so I start with the lathe barely turning.  I gradually turn it up till the machine starts to shake, then back off until it stops.  In the photos below it appears that the work is turning quite fast because the shavings are flying, but even with the lathe turning slowly a 14 inch disc is moving pretty fast at the circumference.  The second photo shows that the gouge spends considerable time in the air.  It’s out of the frame in these pictures, but at this stage I keep the butt of the tool handle in my leg or my side for better control.

Turn a Green Bowl 039Turn a Green Bowl 038Turn a Green Bowl 040

Once it’s close to the shape I want on the outside of the blank I make a tenon for my chuck to hold.  In this case I made a groove, a circular dado, I suppose, so that the chuck jaws can grip the tenon on the inside or be expanded to grip the outside of the dado.Turn a Green Bowl 041Now the bowl blank is removed from the faceplate and mounted in reverse on the chuck.Turn a Green Bowl 043

This piece is still a long way from being balanced, so the lathe is kept at a slow speed and, again, the tailstock is brought up for stability and safety.  Facing off the blank will bring it substantially into balance.

Turn a Green Bowl 045

Turn a Green Bowl 044In this case, after facing off the top of the bowl blank I decided to re-true the outside so everything would be perfectly balanced.  The chuck is supposed to be self-centering, but the tenon may not compress evenly or some other factor may introduce some wobble.  This blank will be re-turned once it has dried, so it needn’t be perfect, but if it vibrates very much the inside turning will go much faster once the outside has been re-trued.

Beech sap 004
Re-truing the outside of the blank before continuing to hollow out the center.

This wood is freshly cut: very green.  You can see that once I’ve increased the speed of the lathe a bit the sap is flying from the bowl and dripping from the tool rest.  I get a nice little shower as I true up the outside.

Turn a Green Bowl 053Now we can really make some beautiful curly shavings: balanced blank, green beech, tailstock pulled back out of the way, turn the lathe speed up to 5 or 600 rpm.  Let’er rip!

Here I'm using a tape measure to check the depth.
Here I’m using a tape measure to check the depth.

I want an even thickness in the walls and bottom so it will dry without cracking.

Rough-turned to 1.5 inches thick.
Rough-turned to 1.5 inches thick.
Off the lathe.
Off the lathe.
Painted with glue and ready for the bag.
Painted with glue and ready for the bag.

There are many ways to dry these bowls.  In this case I painted the entire bowl with glue that had been thinned with an equal amount of water.  I’ll put it in the heavy grocery bag that I’ve labeled with the date and type of wood and leave it for about 3 months before re-turning it.

A Rush Seat

A couple of weeks ago we had our worst winter weather of the year.  It was the perfect time to stay indoors and weave my first rush seat.

Weaving a Rush Seat

As with all things there’s a learning curve, and in the finished seat it’s pretty easy to see that I’m just a beginner when it comes to seat weaving.

My first rush seat

The material used here is bullrush stems imported from Portugal.  Next summer I’ll try to find a stand of narrow-leaved cattails whose leaves I can harvest myself: these are the new world equivalent for seat making.