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Securing a Lid in Turned Hollow Forms

When you wish to add a lid to a turned hollow vessel there are many ways.  A lid needs to be secure if it is to hold contents like ashes in a funeral urn. The rim is often thin and not suitable to chasing threads in it.  So turners glue another piece of wood to the rim before it is turned so that there is enough depth in which to turn threads.  This means adding a block of wood, chasing threads in the vessel and chasing threads in the lid.  If you are not careful changes in humidity can cause the threads to lock so it cannot be opened easily.

I have a bias towards doing things with economy.  Above is a funeral urn I turned many years ago at the request of a relative.  The wood has colored nicely with the passage of time.

Below is a photo of the rim of the hollow vessel.  Notice that because the wood was turned green as it dried it shrank and it is no longer a perfect circle but is more of an oval. It is wider top and bottom and narrower side to side.

If you turn a lid to fit in the rim it will be circular and won’t fit inside the rim of the vessel.  However if you turn the lid to the greatest diameter of the rim using calipers to make the measurement then the upper and lower part of the lid will fit in the rim but not the sides of the lid.  Take a sander or gouge and trim the sides of the lid until the lid will fit all the way in the rim.  It should fit loosely and not snugly.The lid below is slightly longer top to bottom than side to side.

When you twist the oval shaped lid inside the oval shaped rim it will bind when you twist it 5 to 20 degrees, or so, and will be quite secure.  To loosen the lid you just untwist is and it will come out easily.  Since there is enough play in the fit when the oval lid is inserted into the oval rim changes in humidity are never great enough to hinder removal of the lid.  Yet with an easy twist the lid is very secure. To my simple mind this is ever so much easier than having to glue another piece of wood to the vessel and then chase threads in the rim and the lid.  What do you think?


Tool Report: Trent Bosch Stabilizer

I started hollow turning years ago mostly using tools developed by David Ellsworth, a pioneer in turning wood turning into an art form.  His tools are quite simple and can be made by anyone.  They are basically steel drill rod shafts with a cutter in the end.  One is straight for opening a hole all the way to the bottom.  The second is the same set up with the cutter mounted at a 45 degree angle so that you can cut out a curved  side without hitting the rim of your vessel.  David suggested that you have long handles and that they be left rough so that they can be gripped more firmly.

Over the years I have come to understand that instruction.  A cutter mounted at a 45 degree angle and sitting proud of the center of the shaft develops a great deal of torque which takes considerable strength to resist.  Also the cutting may be uneven resulting from the tool bouncing in and out of the cut. In short, a long session of hollow turning beats you up.  The deeper the vessel the greater the strain.

I have a superb turner in my Woodchuck Turners of Northern Vermont club named Tom Dunne.  His designs and craftsmanship just take your breath away. I asked his opinion about hollowing tools and he told me that the ones he uses are no longer made but said that others had found the Trent Bosch Stabilizer good.  After doing some research on Bosch’s web site I decided to give it a try.

The stabilizer is a very heavy piece of articulating steel and a heavy tool rest.  A tool is inserted in the end of the articulating arm and the tool just glides over the rest which supports it when the spinning wood forces the tool down on the rest.  When it is not actively cutting the tool just glides one or 2 millimeters above the rest so you have a very good sense of feel of your tool.  In the picture above you see the straight cutter attached at the end of the articulating arm and the forward end on the tool on the rest.  It also comes with a handle which I do not use unless making a very deep vessel.  There are two set screws that need to be adjusted every time you switch tools and the handle has two more.  As you have to switch tools not infrequently I found it simpler not to attach the handle.  One less step to have to deal with.  So switching tools is more time consuming than using tools which are not attached.  However, that is minor.  

Notice how heavy the tool is. I opted to get the 3/4 inch set of tools as I wanted to do larger turnings.  Tools are also available in smaller and larger diameters. Notice also how sturdy the articulating arm is.  Further the cutting tool is firmly attached so it cannot twist.  Now the device takes all the torque from cutting and not your hands.  This is huge if you do lots of hollow forms.

Note also that the tool rest has many holes and that steel pins are in two of the holes.  Any hole configuration can be used with the tool.  This is also a huge advantage.  When hollowing with an unsupported tool it is very easy for you to get the tool against the opposite side of the  rim of your vessel and lateral pressure of the tool against the rim will crack the rim.  Just ask  me how I know.  With these pins you can bring your tool to rest against them and then use leverage to push the cutter into the wood.  This results in uniform cutting and greatly reduces the tendency to chatter.  You cut faster with less effort.  This also is huge.

The picture above shows the different shaped cutters, scrapers, the handle and the tools that come with them.  Just to the right of the yellow handle is the curved cutter.  It is at about a 45 degree angle from the line of the straight shaft.  This is used to remove wood from the sides that the straight cutter cannot reach.  There is another curved cutter with an even greater angle for undercutting the rim of more severely curved vessels.  I have not purchased that yet but may in the future.  Next to the curved cutter is a curved scraper.  People always want to look inside your hollow form and if they see ragged and uneven contours they are disappointed.  The scraper makes the inside presentable. It also helps you to get the final thinness of the wall with less fear of going in with too deep a cut as the broader cutting surface is less likely to dig in.

Next to the curved scraper is a straight scraper.  Finishing the bottom of a hollow turning is a challenge to get even.  The straight scraper makes that job ever so more easy, and I am glad that I went ahead and purchased it.  Next are the set of set screw wrenches supplied.  The one with the horizontal red handle is very handy.  This is the one that is used the most and its more ergonomic shape saves hand fatigue.  Also in the picture is a cherry hollow turning just taken off the lathe.  I have turned about 10 vessels with the tool and am amazed at how much easier it is on the body and how much better my final results are.

The tools are not cheap.  The set shown here cost a bit over $800 with shipping.  A set of Ellsworth tools would be under $100 but would not include scrapers.  Having to loosen and tighten two set screws took a bit of getting used to when I change tools but the ease and stability gained make this a small price to pay.  Things have to be rigid to be stable. With use, the tool rest has to be adjusted from time to time when the cutting tool begins to bind on the tool rest. This is accomplished using the largest of the set screw wrenches and making the desired adjustment in the height of the tool rest.  That wrench is the largest of the three in the picture.  All in all I am very satisfied with my new hollowing tools. I have not compared it with other systems on the market but am unlikely to do so as this one has fulfilled my current needs.


Juniperus virginianis: Common Red Cedar

Many turners new to wood turning go to lumber shops or on-line supply firms and purchase dimensioned wood for their turning projects. Most lumber companies just sell what I call saw timber, wood that has been sawn into long thin planks for carpentry. Those that do carry blanks suitable for turning tend to be expensive. Their imported exotic woods may not be responsibly harvested.

I would urge turners to look in their own neighborhood. For those who live in the eastern half of the U.S, there is a tree which is often overlooked by turners. It is common red cedar. Its proper botanical name is Juniperus virginianis. This is the strongly aromatic wood used to make cedar chests. The aromatic compounds in the wood repel moths. Farmers use this tree for fenceposts as the resins in the wood cause it to strongly resist decay when the ends of the posts are buried in the wet ground.

For fence posts the trees used are generally three to five inches in diameter. These are readily available as cedar tends to be a pioneer species and springs up readily in abandoned pastures. While capable of making a huge tree when open grown, it does not fare well with competition from climax forest species like oak, beech and hickory. So the only ones you find in deep forest are stunted or dead ones.

Where I live in Vermont people are very kind. I had some of my turned wood items displayed in a health food store in St. Albans. A man came in the shop and inquired about the maker of the items. Then he called me and said he had recently cleared some of his land and had no use for the cedar he cut and was I interested. To this question it is my habit to always say yes. Before I could drive 45 minutes to St. Albans to see the wood he brought a load of it to my house and left it. Later I visited his home and got more wood. He did not want anything for the wood. He just didn’t want it to go to waste. I find this happening frequently. People appreciate what nature has created and while they have no use for it, they want to put it in the hands of someone who does. I feel like this is an indication of rising consciousness in the world and it really encourages me about the future.

The trees he had ranged fro 2 inches too slightly over 12 inches in diameter. Due to the cedar’s growth habit of frequent knots and irregular trunk growth with deep furrows with bark inclusions it does not led itself well to turning bowls from a log section split in half along the pith. The strengths of this wood are what a turner might call the defects. There are abundant knots. The other strength is the deeply red colored heart wood with an irregular outline in cross section. In addition, the knots are as deeply red colored as the heart wood.

This lucky combination allows for great contrasts on the surface as the sap wood is very white. So what I like to do is end grain turnings. If I have a thick piece I will cross cut a section of the log about two to three inches thick, put it between centers on the lathe and use a bedan chisel to turn a tenon and then a skew to turn the tenon into a dovetail and mount in my dovetail jaw chuck. Now I can turn a shallow dish or small platter. When you look down on this finished piece you see the irregular deep red heart wood surrounded by very white sap wood and the outer diameter may have some interesting indentations with bark inclusions. Whether you make the pith the exact center or have it slightly off center to make better use of the wood you have does not matter. When the wood is turned fresh (green) and it is finished turned to a uniform somewhat thin dimension it dries without checking. Even if thin cracks develop they are not very objectionable as there are so many colors and contrasts in the wood that they are not noticed or objectionable. Below is a picture of a small dish made this way and next to it is a small cup made with just the red heart wood. It’s lighter color is due to it not having the finish (I use tung oil) on it yet. The second picture shows the fun you can have with varying the design slightly. The results may be strikingly different.

For those logs with diameter of four to six inches I like to mount them between centers with the direction of the grain parallel to the lathe bed to get them round. With the bark off I can see the knots more clearly and can consider how to use them to best advantage in the design shape I choose. It is lots of fun because you don’t know what it will look like until you do this step. It also means that you need to have a library of shapes in you head ready to apply appropriately to what appears in the log. Design is a key element in wood turning and it is good to study design. Richard Raffin has an excellent book on the subject. I also suggest going to art museums and looking at ancient pottery shapes. I use a book on southwest Native American pottery regularly for inspiration. When you are at the lathe there won’t be time to look around for design shapes. They need to be filled in your head.

Again, in my experience, end grain turning of green (wet) cedar does not result in much checking as long as the wall diameter of the vessel you turn is relatively uniform. Put the drive center and the tail stock center right in the pith or slightly off center to make better use of the wood, depending on how the log grew. In some logs the pith is a long way from the center of mass of the cross section of the log. It doesn’t seem to matter much.

Here are some shapes which emerged from my lathe. As you turn off the sap wood you begin to reveal the deep red heart wood. Since the heart wood is not laid down in even concentric circles of growth rings, as you remove sap wood the heart wood appears here and there, not evenly. This makes for some interesting design possibilities. See what you can find in this versatile wood that is generally shunned by wood turners.


Design Elements in Bowl Turning

Once you have learned to turn a bowl from a chunk of wood you want to begin to explore what constitutes a good design from that blank. We chuckle about new wood turners creating a design
similar to a dog feeding dish. A dog feeding dish is well designed for its purpose and that is not to tip over and spill the contents as a dog puts his nose and mouth in the dish and pushes food against the rim so he can grasp it. Therefore it is considerably wider at the base than the rim.

Yet we would like to rise a step above designing dog food bowls. I had an artist who had looked critically at my earlier turning attempts give me some very good advice. He said there are three design elements in any vessel. They are the rim, the body and the base. In well designed vessels they should all bear a harmonious relationship to each other. What that relationship is you have to determine yourself. Just using mathematical formulas won’t work well in many cases.

In general, as a starting point, the base should be perhaps a third of the diameter of the rim. Smaller than that makes the bowl look delicate but it tips over easily. Wider than makes a very stable vessel but it looks the opposite of delicate, that is, heavy and dull. Superimposed on that ratio of rim to base are many other factors which means that a rigid formula will not give the desired result all the time. Perhaps you want a piece to convey strength and stability. A wider baes is in order. If you want to convey lightness then a smaller base is called for. If you want the vessel to appear to float, then a small foot at the base will give the illusion of lift like the vessel is floating since the foot is hidden under the curve of the lower part of the bowl.

For those who wold like to go more deeply in to bowl design I highly recommend a book by Richard Raffin, a well known turner and teacher from Australia. The book is Turned-Bowl Design.
It has gone through more than one edition and is available at book sellers and often in catalogues marketing wood turning tools.

In a previous post I discussed one way of shaping the body of the vessel. This was the calabash, or gourd-like design, employed so successfully by artisans in Hawaii using just coral to shape native woods. It is pleasing because it is a shape we see in Nature frequently. Undoubtedly it is a shape dictated by natural laws and these are universal principles that are used over and over in creation.
We like what we know and when we see what we know the recognition produces an emotion of pleasure in us.

In this post I would like to discuss another pleasing shape. That is the ogee curve. This is just a term used in the past to describe the S curve. A highway that curves to the left and then to the right is a common example of this curve familiar to all of us. We are also intimately connected to it when we learn to write the letter S. In bowl turning we tend to stretch the S out by the ends to make the curves more gentle.

In this example of a thin cherry bowl there is a slow, even unfoldment of the curve from the base to the rim.
In this Russian olive bowl the curve is rather tight at the base and then expands more slowly as it approaches the rim.
In this example, from a natural edge bowl from a very old red oak tree, the middle portion of the curve is greatly extended to give the vessel more depth. Notice how the perfect symmetry of the ogee curve contrasts with the irregular shape of the natural edge rim from which the bark has been removed.
In this ash bowl the top and the bottom of the ogee curve are so tight that it might be missed. The top of the curve is almost concealed by the overhanging rim and the bottom of the curve is lost as it briefly tucks into the tiny foot.
In this this cherry bowl the s curve flows very slowly from the base to the rim producing a shape that invites you to pick it up and hold it. Hopefully these few examples will inspire you to start experimenting with the ogee curve and start producing beautiful vessels.

In Praise of the Lathe

It was three o’clock in the afternoon this Christmas eve.  I was down in my basement finishing shop when I heard my wife let in my neighbor boy who cuts my grass.  He is fifteen and has been cutting the grass each week for the past two years.

I met him when his step-father cut down a tree in his yard.  It was a dead elm tree.  I heard the chain saw and crossed the street to investigate.  The wood looked interesting to me and asked if I could have some.  He brought over a whole trailer load as the rest was going to the dump.  I found out about the boy and made a mental note that when he was a bit older to see if he would like to cut my grass.

So when he turned 14 he began to cut my grass ever week.  I offered to teach him some about turning and he turned a rolling pin for his mother and later turned some tops.  Like most adolescents it was hard to keep his attention very long.

Last summer he told me that another dead elm was coming down in the yard and would I like some. When I said yes he promptly appeared with a wheelbarrow load and left it for me.  When I asked him if he would like to rough turn a bowl from the wood and put it away to dry, he readily agreed.
So I guided him through the steps of using a gouge to rough turn the bowl after we had prepared the blank on the band saw.  We put his name on it and placed it in a paper bag to slowly dry without checking.

This fall when I was taking rough turned bowls out of the paper bags to inspect them prior to finish turning I came upon his bowl blank.  It looked fine and was not checked in any way.  I mentioned to him on several occasions that he needed to come and finish turning his spalted elm bowl.  He always said yes but never came

Now here he was at 3 PM on Christmas eve asking my wife if I was here. I knew exactly what was on his mind and said lets go out to the shop and finish that bowl.  He worked carefully and diligently and by 5 PM we had the outside and inside finish turned and finished the foot and sanded it on the lathe. I then motioned for him to come with me to my basement finishing shop and we did final sanding of the foot and applied a coat of tung oil.  

With the oil still wet he went beaming home with his hand made Christmas gift for, I presume, his mother.  He was beaming with pride as you can see in this picture taken the minute  after he finished his project and before he took it home.

Used by permission

It is a fine looking bowl and you can see the pride and excitement beaming from his young face.  This is why I love working with the lathe.  Coming at 3 PM on Christmas eve he was able to take a gift to completion and share his excitement.  I know of no other woodworking tool which can give such prompt gratification. This is particularly important to young people as they have not developed the long attention spans and the capacity for delayed gratification as their adult peers.  It is also important to the adult peers.  Putting a chunk of wood on the lathe and in an hour or two time, or even less, having a finished product to display or give is satisfying to any woodworker.


The Calabash Bowl

There are several classic bowl designs which are pleasing to view. Spectacular grain and color can carry a bowl for a while. However, when the bowl has darkened with age and the color is faded all one is left with is the design. So its s better to study the designs which have stood the test of time and use them to strengthen your spectacular grain and color. That way someone will be enjoying the bowl long after you are gone.

One such design comes from Hawaii. When Europeans first started to visit the islands in the 1790s they were impressed with the bowl design they found there. The lovely symmetrical shape with a gentle convex curve to the outside and the beautiful finishes were comparable to the finest traditions of European craftsmen.

Yet these craftsmen had none of the sophisticated tools available to the old world craftsmen. The Hawaiians achieved their results rubbing the local wood with coral to carve out the whole bowl. This must have taken much patience and energy to hollow a bowl by just scratching it with sharp coral. Yet the shapes they produced were so perfectly symmetrical that the appeared to have been turned.

The wood they used was kou which was native to the islands. Others were fashioned out of gourd or coconut. For design they looked to nature and copied the shapes of gourds which have come to be called calabashes. They are grown all over the world and serve a multitude of purposes. You may be familiar with the calabash pipe like the one Sherlock Holmes was reputed to smoke. They formed containers for many cultures. As a young boy I remember drinking cool well water with a dipper gourd at my family’s farmer relatives in south central Kentucky.

Nature is such a rich source from which the craftsman may obtain design. Shapes in nature are formed by natural laws and when we see the representation of natural law in a physical structure we remember it and that memory is pleasing to us. Shapes of mountains, clouds, vortexes, flowers and trees all conjure up pleasant memories in us. So, in design, you can never go far wrong when you copy a design from nature. As one person told me long ago:” A good reproduction is much better than a bad original.”

Below are examples of use of the calabash design from my shop over the past couple of decades.

calabash wooden bowl

calabash bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

turned calabash wooden bowl

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Wood Turning that Uplifts the Spirit

At a show earlier this 2018 season a woman told me of an ash tree in her yard that had to come down. It made her very sad as she had sat under this tree many time for support when things were tough. Now, she said, it laid in piles on the ground. She did not want it all to go for firewood and was I interested.

Of course I said yes and made a date to visit her and get some wood. It was kind of a gray day when I left to drive about 20 miles to her rural home. By the time I got there It was snowing. By the time I got my saw ready to cut it was snowing hard.

cutting wood in the snow

The tree was covered with about a foot of snow. I made cuts as best I could and with the help of the woman’s husband got chunks of ash loaded in my van.

a little help

I remembered that when I was sent to Japan on business with the TM program that a stranger gave me a beautiful paper box and inside was a little bird carved of wood. I was told that it was a Kami. This is the Japanese word for spirit. They believe that there is a spirit that lives in everything. When a tree is cut and used for construction the spirit has no place to live. So the bird was carved as a home for the dispossessed spirit.

So I decided to make a Kami from this ash tree and give it to my benefactor. I turned the nest of the same tree and left the bark on. Inside sits the new home for the spirit of the tree.

small bowl

She deeply appreciated the gift and sent me this picture from her dining room table. Some of her work is seen on the right.

on the table

It is not that this is anything particularly artistic but it honors the meaning of that tree in her life and provides a space to keep the memory of her favorite tree alive in her awareness.

Over the years I have had occasion to make something of use or beauty out of wood from lots of favorite trees. When a tree has been part of our lives for many years we form a deep attachment to that living thing. When it comes down we have a feeling of loss. Giving it another life in the form of a bowl or a carving is comforting. It reminds us that material things come and go but the spirit in those things actually goes on and on.

This is a spiritual side of woodworking that has brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years.There is more to wood than just meets the eye.

I just got an e-mail from the woman. She painted the Kami. Picture is below.

painted kami


Spalted Wood

spalted silver maple

Wood is such a fascinating medium. Even in the decay process nature brings forth spectacular designs and colors. Spalted wood has been used for many centuries by woodworkers to enhance the visual appeal of objects. The recent publication of a book called Spalted Wood: The History, Science and Art of a Unique Material by Sara C. Robinson et. al. places in one volume all that is currently known about this form of wood. Sara has devoted her academic career to advancing the science of spalting and has collected an enormous amount of information on the subject. It is a very scholarly treatise on the subject and an excellent collection of photographs of spalted wood objects produced over the centuries.

My own interest in the subject has to do with the use of spalted wood in objects turned on the lathe. My first experience with it came from cutting down a tree in my yard in Virginia. It was a maple and I decided the wood was too attractive to burn it. I set it upright on the concrete floor of my garage. Two years later I cut into the log and found it discolored by black lines. My first reaction was that the pretty white wood was spoiled by this fungus attack.Yet as I examined it more closely I found the black lines more interesting as this was a piece of tiger maple and the lines followed the plane of the wood fibers and outlined
the squiggly pattern.

Over the years I have seen lots of spalted wood species. Most of my experience has been with wood with black zone lines. These lines are composed of melanin pigment, the same pigment that makes our skin dark. They mark boundaries to keep other fungal colonies out of that territory which had already been claimed. They are like fences, if you will. Of all the varieties of wood to produce these zone lines I have found silver maple the most dramatic.

spalted ambrosia silver maple

Spalted Ambrosia Silver Maple

This is an example of ambrosia silver maple. The wood is infested with the ambrosia beetle who brings the fungus with him. So around the holes he bores developed the discolored wood, mostly in terms of brown colors.

spalted silver maple

Spalted Siver Maple

This is a more typical spalted silver maple pattern with the dense black zone lines and the white rot contrasting with the darker undigested wood.

Spalted Sugar Maple

Spalted Sugar Maple

This is an example of spalted sugar maple. I my experience the spalting is more diffuse in this species. You can see a few black zone lines but the color changes are more diffuse.

spalted sugar maple

Spalted Sugar Maple

Another example of spalted sugar maple showing the diffuse changes in the wood. Spalting occurs in many other species of wood. Attractive examples are ash, birch, box elder, beech to name a few.

box elder

Box Elder

In her bood Sara Robinson points out that many different colors can arise from spalting wood. The chlorociboria species of fungus produces green colors which were favored by European intarsia artists to portray grass or forests. Other fungi may produce red, orange, purple and blue colors. Extracts of these fungi can even be used for creating dyes. However, she pointed out something that I had already suspected. The red color that comes from box elder is not due to fungal activity but is produced by the tree in response to injury.

The dramatic red color of this box elder piece is not due to fungal activity but is produced by the tree in response to injury. If someone would get around to study it they might find that the pigment has some anti-fungal or anti-bacterial properties or yet some other interesting quality.

spalted Norfolk Island pine

Spalted Norfolk Island Pine

This is a Norfolk Island pine hollow vessel with the characteristic blue diffuse staining of pine by fungal attack. As I had already turned the lower piece of this with the colorful symmetrical knots I almost discarded the remainder but on a whim turned this vessel and found it interesting.

Robinson goes on to tell about how other woodworkers induce spalting. David Ellsworth takes logs and lines them up about an inch apart and then covers them with leaves and leaves them on the ground for a year or so. The practice of coating the wood with chips from spalted wood turnings, coating with beer or other substances Robinson believes is a waste of time. She points out that the fungi eat the easiest food first so these coatings just delay the fungus getting into the sound wood. The fungal spores are everywhere and cut wood comes already inoculated. She does go on to talk about commercial efforts to induce spalting but this goes beyond the turners interest but the information is available in the book.

My own technique for inducing spalting is based on my first experience. Take a log section, set it upright on a concrete slab floor and now I cover it with a plastic bag. You want the wood to stay damp but not soaking wet. Moisture wicks up through the concrete and up the wood fibers at just about the right speed. I leave it there for one to two years and have been rewarded with very attractive spalting.

Turning spalted wood produces some challenges. The wood has been partially digested by the fungal enzymes and it is not as dense. You may have noticed that a spalted piece of wood is light in weight. When sound wood is next to spalted wood it can lead to tear out. Cuts need to be light and sanding may be the only way to get a smooth surface. That surface will be more porous and won’t take as high a shine when finished but the interesting colors in the wood make up for that “defect.”

The easiest way is to let nature do the word for you. Check out wood that has been down for a year or two. Look at dead standing trees. You may find hidden treasures.

spalted hop hornbeam

Spalted Hop Hornbeam

This was a dead hop hornbeam trunk. In Vermont they call it hardak. I just bored down the center of the log to get this vessel with interesting visual appeal. Hornbeam, also called ironwood, is very hard so there was a lot of tear out but the color contrasts between the white rot and the normal wood was so striking that the tear out is not noticed.

So, most spalted wood has already been created for you by nature. You can assist the process if you wish but don’t fail to discover the joys of working with spalted woods.


Making Wooden Bowls from Unwanted Wood

In every community in which I have lived, and there have been quite a few, there always seems to be unwanted wood. This can be a real boon for the wood turner. The wood species may be very plentiful such as cherry in Kentucky. Horse farmers felt that the huge cherry trees in the pastures harbored tent caterpillars which made the colts sick. So they cut down huge cherry trees and left them in the fields. In Albuquerque, which is high desert, wind would take out trees that had been planted and the cut wood was just left at curbside to be hauled to the dump. In Maryland the power company would clear right of ways and just leave all kinds of hard woods for the taking. Storms everywhere take down large trees in city lots and disposing of the wood is a headache for the owner.

Here in Vermont, where I currently reside, the same rule applies. Dutch elm disease was first reported in the US in 1928. It is caused by an invasive beetle that may have started in Asia and spread to Europe from where it made it to the US in infected lumber. Every where I look here in Chittenden County there are dead elm trees. Some are small but others are more than 12 inches in diameter. When they are finally taken down they have been standing dead for several seasons. No one seems to want them. Elm has interlocking grain that makes it hard to split. Early settlers did not like elm because of its peculiar odor. So there the trees stand.

My first experience with elm was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Siberian (or “Chinese”) elms were widely planted in the city as they grew rapidly and provided shade. Someone gave me some logs. The wood was not very attractive to my eye and it was very hard to split. It did not take a good finish.

So, when my mother-in-law in Shelburne, Vermont asked me to take down some dead elms from her yard, I did not think I wanted any of the wood. When the time came, however, I could not resist salvaging a log or two. It was attractively spalted, was very hard and turned well and accepted a nice finish, much better than the finish I could achieve on Siberian elm.

When I noticed some dead elms across the street from where I live, I asked if I could have some wood when they took it down. I showed them a bowl from the previous elm bowl I had made and they were interested. One Saturday this summer I hear a chain saw and followed the sound. The neighbor was taking down his dead elm. He not only let me have all the wood I wanted but brought it over to my shop. The rest went to the dump.

Below are examples of the finished products.

diffuse gray spalted wooden bowl
I find the color and grain pattern in this bowl to be interesting and attractive. The diffuse gray spalting adds additional interest.

diffuse gray spalted wooden bowl side view
This is a side view of the above bowl.

spalted bowl mother-in-law
Here is the small bowl from my mother-in-law’s tree. The spallting, both linear and diffuse in the upper left side adds visual interest to the piece.

natural edge bowl dead elm
Here is a natural edge bowl from a spalted dead elm from down in the lower end of Addison Counthy. It was just going to sit there until it disintegrated as no one had interest in the wood. The spalting followed the annual rings and gives a visually appealing pattern.

So, if you just want to stick to what the wood merchants sell, you will be missing some very interesting and attractive wood which is free for the asking. Unwanted wood is a headache to the property owner but a boon to the turner. If you give a bowl in return you make a fast friend.


In Praise of the Bandsaw

I would like offer my experience with the most important saw in my shop.
Next to my lathe and bench grinder the band saw is the tool I use the most. My experience is that wood is everywhere for the asking. Neighbors are happy for you to take wood from downed trees off their hands. This can vary from large limbs to major trunks.

With a chain saw, also an important saw, I cut the fresh wood to lengths. Then I use my bandsaw to rip the pieces in half through the center growth ring. With the band saw I can cut a circle which will fit on the bed of my lathe. I find my 14 inch Delta is good for smaller projects but I rely heavily on a 21 inch Grizzly band saw which will cut bowl blanks 14 inches thick. My advice is to get the largest band saw you can afford. With the two saws I find I don’t have to waste so much time changing blades. I use a 1/2 inch blade on the large band saw and a 1/4 inch blade of the smaller saw. The thinner the blade the tighter radius it will cut.

As most experienced turners know, there are many non-commercial wood species which possess beautiful grain patterns and colors. With a band saw you can experiment with these different woods and may find many treasures lurking in wood that has been rejected by commercial loggers. Further, wood with wild grain patterns tend to be rejected by loggers and these may be of the greatest interest to turners. With a band saw you can rip a crotch piece of wood to discover what is inside.

As I don’t limit my woodworking just to bowls, I find the band saw invaluable for ripping out small planks for making spoons and other treen ware. In addition you can rip out turning squares of various dimensions for turning rolling pins, boxes and cups. What may start out as a candidate for a bowl blank could have a defect
but the same piece may be suitable for the non-defective part to be ripped into planks and turning squares.

Just a word of caution. The band saw may make re-sawing so easy that you cut more wood than you have room to store and dry that which is not turned green. Treen ware is not critical due to the small size of the spoon or spatula and it tends to dry without difficulty though I prefer to shape it when dry. However, when you turn lidded boxes out of wood it must be absolutely dry. If not, you may find that a perfect fitting lid just off the lathe will not fit after the parts dry and warp. So if you rip the turning squares you need to have a place for them to dry for a year or two depending on the thickness of the square.

So, get a band saw. If you cannot afford one make friends with someone who does. It is certainly a saw that can be shared. It used to be that lumber yards had a bandsaw where you could get wood re-sawn. I was visiting my son in Ojai, California this February and the local lumber yard did not even own one. I finally was able to track down a local contractor and he was happy to let me re-saw some olive wood for the price of a new bandsaw blade.

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