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Improving Wood Bowl Feet

What you see in these pictures took me years to accomplish. As I am a self taught turner I started out knowing nothing of the subject. It was through years of trial and error, reading and growing in my understanding that I arrived at where I find myself today. Design is absolutely critical and I will have more to say about this in another essay but a significant part of design is how you finish the foot of a bowl or any other turning.

When you begin to turn a block of wood you have to find a way to attach it to the lathe. The first lathe I had came with a faceplate and little else. A faceplate is a flat circular piece of metal which screws on to the headstock of the lathe. The headstock, in turn, is attached by a belt to a motor and this is what causes the lathe to turn. The face plate I had was six inches in diameter. It had holes drilled in it to screw the work piece to the faceplate. It is a pretty simple and straight forward arrangement.

Now, many of the blocks of wood are fairly heavy, and when they start to spin, a lot of force is generated. To keep the wood from flying off the faceplate you need several stout screws holding the wood to the faceplate. With the wood secured you begin to turn. The first thing you notice is that the faceplate keeps you from getting in to turn a small foot on a bowl. The foot has to be about the same diameter as the faceplate or slightly larger. Of course you could glue your bowl blank to a piece of waste stock and screw the faceplate into the waste stock but that had not occurred to me at that point. I was determined to work this out myself without running to the books any more than I had to.

It takes a big bowl to have a six inch foot look aesthetically pleasing. So you begin to search for smaller faceplates and you find they make them in four inch and three inch sizes. I became the proud owner of three faceplates. I then made another discovery. That tick, tick, tick sound that my gouge made when I hollowed the inside of the faceplate mounted bowl was my sharp tool hitting the tips of the mounting screws. Further, when I took the bowl off the lathe and unmounted the face plate, I had three neat holes from the foot up into the bowl. Even if I was lucky enough not to go so deep as to hit the screws, I still had three holes that needed to be plugged. To make sure I had enough wood in the bottom to accommodate the screws, I ended up with thick clunky bottoms.

Now it may be a revelation to you, but the first thing a perspective bowl buyer does is pick up the bowl, turn it over and inspect the bottom. Wooden plugs just don’t make it. It proves your amateur status as a bowl maker. By the time I reached this stage I discovered scroll chucks. These are woodworking adaptations of metal working lathe chucks. The small one I bought required three hands to operate. Two were needed to operate the rod levers that tightened and opened the jaws of the chuck and the third hand to hold the bowl blank into the jaws. Being small, my chuck would not grip the wood very tightly and the work piece would frequently loosen and the work would be off center. I solved this be purchasing a much larger chuck which only required two hands to operate. One hand turned a key, while the other hand was free to hold the work in the jaws as they tighten.

Now that I had mastered holding the blank to the lathe without using screws, I still had the problem of finishing the outside bottom of the bowl. You can’t get to the outside bottom when you are hollowing out the bowl because that part is being held by the chuck (or faceplate). A set of flat metal discs that screw onto the scroll chuck was just the ticket. Buttons then screw into the concentric rows of screw holes in the metal discs to hold the rim of the bowl to the chuck so that the bottom of the bowl is exposed to turning. They work pretty well but are not absolutely precise. If you try making cuts on the bottom third of the outside of the bowl, they don’t match the cuts made when the bowl was mounted the other way. It is just eccentric enough to be visible no matter how much you sand. Thus you must complete all of the bowl except the bottom of the foot when the bowl is mounted the other way.

In the pictures above, you can see me mounting the buttons to the flat discs and then you see me working on the bottom and the buttons are a red blur. By the way, these buttons protrude a fair amount and are of a very hard plastic. When you forget and try to stop the work from spinning with your hand to inspect it, they hit hard and they hurt. So you have to keep your hands clear. Just ask me how I figured this out. Today I am looking at a large bruise on both sides of my right hand. I tussled with the buttons and I lost.

With all of these tools and techniques in place I finally was able to turn the base of my bowls thin without having to leave extra wood for screws and could make a foot of small and pleasing dimensions. It only had to be large enough to fit into the jaws of my scroll chuck. Lastly, I could put a finished look on the bottom of the foot by reverse chucking it in the flat jaw plates with the buttons so that the most critical inspector of bowl bottoms would have nothing to complain about.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about all this. It is just about how we learn. We start not knowing very much and then begin to run into limitations. One by one we solve the problems. Finally we come back to the central issue: aesthetically pleasing design. We might know design from the beginning, though more probably we don’t. Even if we do, we need to develop the technology in order to complete the design to our satisfaction. As we work we find out ideas of aesthetics change and we devise even better techniques to improve design. On and on it goes until we reach perfection. At that point there is nothing more to perfect. We have reached the truth we seek and now we are no longer seekers but have become finders. It is important to seek but it is even more important to find. Otherwise we never become fulfilled.

Fulfillment comes much faster with knowledge. When you don’t know how to do something, consult with someone who does. This can be a mentor, a reference book or an article in a specialty publication, the internet, or a group such as a club of members who share the same interests and have probably wrestled with the same issues as yourself. You may be able to reinvent the wheel but it is a lot easier to stand on the shoulders of others. Some day others may stand on your shoulders as you point out the way.

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