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the process
The process of bowl turning begins with a treasure hunt for beautiful wood. I've tried many different tree species, but have narrowed down my main interest to Arbutus and Maple over two feet in diameter (the diameter, of course, being the distance ACROSS the center of the tree's base). I may cut down a healthy tree if the owner is concerned about it being a safety hazard; however, I prefer to use dead or dying trees as that prevents the wood from being wasted. Trees that are wind-damaged, are removed by BC Hydro, are posing a safety risk, or are needing to be removed from a construction site are ones that I prefer using.

I look mostly for large-diameter trunks without branches as they provide the most options for bowls and other objects. However, some of the most beautiful wood lies at the junction of two major branches. This is called "crotch wood" and often provides exquisite merging of grains.

It's very satisfying to open up a log and witness the beauty that lies within that rough exterior, especially when it includes spalting or figure such as birdseye or quilting.

The butt of this 4-1/2 foot diameter maple shows a variety of characteristics. The white outer area is all birdseye whose only defect is a few bark inclusions. The whole interior of the log is spalting, with the darkest areas being the softest. The medium-brown areas combine birdseye with a hard spalt. This combination makes the log a challenge to cut, as the woodturner needs to picture what bowl sizes and shapes might result from each cut. The harder and softer woods need to be separated to prevent problems during sanding. A homogeneous piece of Arbutus won't present these same problems, but neither will it offer the same excitement!

Trees are like people, they contain imperfections. Some imperfections are immediately obvious, but some are hidden and will later surprise or disappoint you. A hole can be the highlight of an artistic bowl, but drying cracks can ruin any bowl unless they are "chased out" with the chisel. Either way, imperfections can change the final shape of the bowl, which is why I always say, "I do what the wood lets me do."

People often have trouble picturing where the bowl comes from in the tree. In simple terms, most bowls stand on edge with their rim facing the pith (the growth center of the tree) and their base towards the tree's outer edge.

With a natural-edge bowl, this position is reversed, so the base is near the pith and the rim can include the outer bark.

People also tend to think I can cut a block of wood, take it into the workshop and within a short time come out with a finished bowl, but the creation of each piece is a lengthy process done in stages, as illustrated below.

The process of cutting logs for making bowls starts with using a chainsaw to cut thick rounds off a fallen tree. The length of the round is an inch or two larger than the finished diameter of the bowl. Care must be taken not to let the heavy rounds fall over, as with large-diameter trees the rounds are nearly impossible for one person to right again.

The rounds are then rip-sawn vertically, with the distance between the parallel rip lines being the depth of the bowls. As cuts are made, decisions are made as well, with the turner constantly monitoring for the best bowl wood and avoiding cracks and soft areas.

These are some of the blocks cut from one big, burly maple tree. This is the kind of wood that makes a turner happy!

After cutting the tree trunk into blocks and transporting them home, a compass is used to draw a circle on one face of each block to indicate where the rim of the bowl will be.

The block is then bandsawn or chainsawed into a circular shape and excess wood is removed to make it ready for rough-turning. Note the face-shield, an essential piece of safety equipment. As for the bandsaw, watch your fingers and always use a sharp blade. If you have to use pressure to feed the cut, it's time to change the blade.

Before mounting the block on the lathe, the exact centre is drilled to accept the screwchuck if the bowl is well balanced. A faceplate can also be used, especially if the round is poorly balanced.

The bowl is rough-turned on the lathe with the bottom of the bowl supported by the tailstock. Imperfections, sapwood and drying cracks will all help decide the rough shape of the bowl. Note the calipers on the wall, a helpful tool in keeping the bowl's thickness uniform while final turning.

While shaping the rough bowl, either a small recess or an outward stub is chiselled onto the centre of the bowl's bottom for mounting onto the chuck.

Continuing with rough-turning, the bowl is then turned around and held with its bottom in the chuck. The rim edge is flattened and the inside is cored out, either by using a centre-saver which allows another bowl to be made from the inside of this one, or by hollowing the bowl out, leaving one to two inches of wall thickness (depending on the type of wood).

Now the rough bowl is ready for drying, a process which usually takes between two to six months. Some species such as Arbutus should be put in plastic bags to slow down the drying process.

Final turning is just a matter of remounting the bowl on the chuck and truing up the outside of the bowl to its desired final shape. Decide on a final wall thickness and, using calipers, final turn the inside of the bowl with a sharp chisel.

The bowl is sanded while spinning on the lathe, starting with 60-grit (coarse) sandpaper and ending with 400-grit (fine). This is a very dusty process and it is important for the turner to protect his or her health by wearing a respirator. The oil finish is also applied while the bowl is on the lathe, as the heat generated by holding the oiled rag against the spinning bowl helps to draw the oil deeper into the wood.

After the final turning is completed, the indented chuck recess is removed by gripping the rim of the bowl with a Jumbo Jaw in a Stronghold chuck and then chiseling and sanding the bottom smooth. Once the bottom is oiled, the bowl is ready to be signed, priced and marketed.

Wood that is gathered in January isn't usually finished being processed until August or September. That's when my reward period comes - being able to review with satisfaction the beauty of Nature in all the bowls I've made!

(For those interested in a more detailed description of how to process logs for turning, see Preparing the Wood.)

Copyright © 2008-2012 Ken Broadland