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Fredrick Williamson, Virginia Bowl Turner

Once in a while you have the good fortune to meet someone who is truly outstanding in what they do. I had known about Fred Williamson for many years. I did not include pictures in this post as Fred’s site is filled with them and better you visit it directly.

He had been commissioned by my brother-in-law about 10 years ago to make something from a maple burl he had cut from a tree on his property near Charlottesville. Fred had fashioned a hollow vessel that was quite attractive. I was told that he lived not too far away in a hollow on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 20 minutes away from Crozet, Virginia.

About three years ago I applied to show my work in the Crozet Arts and Crafts Festival in Crozet. Fred Williamson, who had been exhibiting in that show for many years was there and briefly came by my booth. Since I tend to work these shows by myself, I only took a moment away from my booth to look at his work. They were open formed, thin, natural edged bowls made of large bolts of wood.

The next year I did the show in Crozet I had some help so I looked at his work more carefully. By this time I had started to do natural edged bowls myself and was really ready to see what I needed to learn. I had been troubled with end grain tear out and no matter how much I sanded, the oil finish always revealed a darker unsightly area where the fiber damage was.

Two women came by my booth at that show and one of them seemed to be really interested in one of my new natural edge bowls. Her friend tugged at her sleeve and motioned that she needed to check out another vendor. So they headed towards Fred’s booth. By this time, Fred’s work really had my attention. That evening I attended a reception for the artists sponsored by the show. I approached Fred and asked him if I might visit his shop to address the problem I was having. Fred said that he does not teach but he would be willing to help me with the issue.

One January day in 2010 we met at his shop. What I learned exceeded all my expectations. Fred had honed his techniques through many years of constant practice. Yet what I learned transcended technique. Fred was able to see ideal curves in his mind’s eye. He used his technical skill to allow those curves to flow into the wooden vessel.

Every time my clumsy technique would destroy an ideal curve he had created, he would recreate the curve. If I damaged it badly he would create another slightly different but no less ideal curve. He simply could see the ideal curve and made the wood conform to it.

Now this might not sound so impressive to you but any great turner or any kind of artist will say over and over that design is the most crucial part of any artistic endeavor. Technique is important to be able to express the ideal form, yet it does not create the ideal form. Attractive patterns and colors enhance the ideal form but if they are applied to a poor form then the result is poor.

This ideal form is something that cannot be taught by watching someone else work. Technique may be great and material truly outstanding but the inadequate form will make the piece of little value and it will not endure.

Ideal form is a transcendental or absolute value. It comes from nature itself and can be cognized by human awareness. Some come by this naturally by birth. You have often heard it said that he or she “was a natural artist just born with the gift.” For others, it can be acquired by techniques which put you in contact with the laws of nature on a regular basis until you see them as Fred sees them. Without birth or technique, accessing this knowledge will be rather fruitless.

Fred was very patient in addressing my poor techniques, and now all I have to do is to practice over and over until I get them down. This process can take years. Yet, what I learned from Fred was a lesson far more valuable. I learned to look for the ideal curve even as I eyed the rough bolt of wood. I learned to lay out the blank for rough sawing, keeping the ideal curve contained within well in mind. I learned to rough out the blank so that my ideal curve could emerge fully.

So, if you are a serious bowl collector you should give Fred Williamson’s site (www.fredwilliamson.com) a thorough visit. If you are not a serious bowl collector, perhaps you should consider becoming one. I can assure you that looking at those ideal curves skillfully created out of beautiful woods will bring you pleasure and make you feel uplifted every time your eye falls on one of his creations.

thin natural edge bowl top

I just had to include a couple of pictures of the finished product of that lesson.

thin natural edge bowl top

If you are a bowl turner like myself you will find a wealth of technical information that Fred has so generously shared in his Methods of Work section. Either as a collector or as a craftsman, you owe it to yourself to visit his site and become acquainted with the art and craft of Fred Williamson, Virginia Bowl Turner.


Making Wooden Spoons

Last year I got a letter from a wooden spoon collector named Norman D. Stevens of Storrs, Connecticut. It seems that he became interested in collecting spoons by American woodcarvers. One of his internet searches pulled up my name and he sent a letter inviting me to contribute to his growing collection which I did.

The more I thought about this, the more I appreciated what Norman is doing. He is documenting the state of wooden spoon making throughout the world in the early 21st century. Norman has complied a directory of perhaps as many spoon makers he has identified, and  is maintaining hard copy files with background information and correspondence with many of those artisans.

More importantly, he is creating a catalog describing each contributor to his collection and his or her spoon. A number of his spoons are on display through May 23, 2010 in an exhibit at the American Association of Woodturners in Saint Paul, MN.

Norman Stevens Spoon Collection Display

There will also be a special display of many of his spoons, with presentations by Norman, at the AAW Symposium in Hartford, CT from June 19-20, 2010. That exhibit is open to the public without charge. Further information can be found at: http://www.woodturner.org/sym/sym2010/. AAW will be issuing and selling a catalog for the exhibit at the Symposium that will contain color images of about 100 of the spoons. There is also an exhibit scheduled for the Gallery-on-the-Plaza of the Homer Babbidge Library of the University of Connecticut. If you are interested in his project his e-mail is: normanstevens@mac.com.

What a nice thing to do! Spoon makers are not exactly in the spotlight of American woodworking so to pay tribute to the many fine craftsmen who devote their energies to spoon making is like a breath of fresh air to me.

Spoons Got Me Started in Woodworking

It turns out that wooden spoons were my first venture into woodworking as an adult. I had cut down a maple in my back yard to make some light for a vegetable and rose garden. The wood was so pretty and white that I couldn’t bear to split it all for firewood so I saved a log or two.

By the time I got around to a project with the maple it had spalted nicely. My first impression was that the wood was ruined but the more I worked with it the more I came to appreciate the spalting. As I learned more, I realized that I had cut a curly maple log that had spalted and then I wished that I had saved the whole tree.

There are as many ways to make a wooden spoon as there are wooden spoon makers. I thought I would just share some of my thoughts about the craft. A test I once took indicated that I was a pragmatic idealist. That sounds like a bit of an oxymoron but it really does describe two opposite aspects of my character.

Spoons For Looking And Spoons For Cooking

I do appreciate the intricate work of spoons with all of the delicate cut out work, but the spoons I wanted to make were to be used in cooking. Every fine cook knows that nothing beats a good wooden spoon. So my spoons had to be practical and built to last.

My first ones were a bit clunky but seemed to please the intended users. On the other hand, I wanted my spoons to reflect the beauty of nature stored in the wood and that this be set off by some refinement of the design.

One thing I looked for in the design was a sturdy handle. The flimsy ones from the box stores are too easy to break. I wanted ones that would hold up to the hardest tasks. I got an e-mail from one of my customers this year. She said the spoon I made for her was the only one that was up to stirring her fruit cake batter and it was her favorite spoon. That appealed to the pragmatism in my nature.

Taking Advantage of Wood Grain

As I learned more about woodworking I realized that making the handle parallel to the direction of the grain made for a handle which was stronger and not quite as much mass was needed to keep the handle sturdy.

With more experience I learned that the grain does not always run straight in every piece of wood and that it was alright to have the handle curve this way or that following the grain of that particular log. In the colonial days the wood for spoons was rived with a froe (a metal blade which was pounded into the end grain). This caused the wood to split right along the path of the grain and all handles produced in this manner had handles which followed the grain.

Some still rive the wood for spoons and this is a fine way to make them. Yet I need to do production work as I sell many spoons at craft shows. They are one of the most consistent sellers. I have probably made more than a thousand spoons and so now I cut my blanks from wood which has been sawn into planks with the band saw. The band saw is such a useful tool as it allows you to make planks out of any log or branch that comes your way.

Below is a picture of a few of my spoon blanks.

spoon blanks

Another thing I learned is that cooks like spoons that are not completely symmetrical and they like odd shapes. It may help them locate their favorite from their collection and the odd shape or curved handle may be just what is needed for a particular job.

So now I vary my design to suit the wood grain and my whim and just draw the design freehand on the plank. This way it is easy to follow the grain in the handle. I then go back to the band saw and cut the outline drawn on the plank.

Gouging the Spoon’s Bowl

The next challenge is to hollow out the bowl of the spoon. Again, the ways to accomplish this task are numerous. I settled on using a spoon gouge with a curvature that suits the maker. Too shallow and the edges of the gouge will dig into the sides of the spoon bowl… Too steep and you will get deep grooves in the wood and not a smooth flowing curve of the spoon bowl.

The width of the gouge is also a matter of personal choice but I use one wide enough to remove plenty of waste wood with a single pass. I have had a number of bent gouges but they seem to have a propensity to wander off when I do demonstrations and the only one left is one that never leaves my shop. It is a firmer gouge, meaning that it is thicker and will stand up to repeated heavy use. It is the one in use in the picture below.

wooden mallet

Now unless you are a whole lot stronger than I, you will not be able to push this gouge through the wood for very long using just the muscles of your hands and arms. This is especially true of hard woods such as fruit woods like cherry and apple.

To remove large amounts of wood quickly I use a wood carver’s mallet. The one shown above I made of a dogwood head (very hard) and a hickory handle. Beech also works well.

Notice that the handle of the gouge has a metal ferrule on the end which keeps the wood of the gouge handle from splintering from repeated blows. With these tools I am able to remove large amounts of waste wood quickly. I keep the spoon blank secured to the work bench with a simple clamp.

I start at one end of the bowl and remove some wood. However, if I go too deeply the wood will tend to split and ruin the blank. So I go as far as I dare and then remove stock from the opposite side. I always work in the direction of the grain. By going back and forth from one end to the other I can remove large amounts of waste in a short period of time.

scooping the spoon bowl

hollowing spoon

By angling the cutting edge of the gouge one way or the other you can begin to shape the walls of the spoon bowl. The straight cuts work best for roughing out and for the bottom of the spoon. Below I am cocking the gouge to one side to make the near wall of the spoon bowl.

Here you need to exercise care not to take such big cuts as will cause splitting because you are now working on a thin rim of the spoon with less margin for error. You will find that some species of wood will split far more easily than others.

chisel technique

You can only get so much control of the cutting edge of the gouge when you are pounding on it with a heavy carver’s mallet. So for finer cuts I just use muscle power without the mallet striking the gouge as seen in the picture below. Notice I use a glove on the hand that guides the cutting edge.

Considerable force is needed to make even these lighter cuts and if the hand slips it may hit sharp corners of the band sawn edge of the blank and cause cuts. Using a glove in the hand that does not grip the gouge handle cuts down on the need for band aids and loud exclamations.

hollowing by hand

For the finest cuts I remove the blank from the clamp on the bench, sit comfortably and use the gouge free-hand as you see me doing below. This gives maximum control and allows clean up of any rough areas left from previous steps.

out of the vise

finishing spoon bowl

In my earlier spoon making days I used to carve the outside of the bowl of the spoon and the handle all by hand. I used a combination of gouges, draw knives and small pattern maker spoke shaves to remove the waste. However this is a slow process.

Now I use a large belt sander with an aggressive planer belt from Klingspor. With a bit of practice you can smooth the contours and remove all the bandsaw blade saw marks. You can even round out the handle.

Sanding and Oiling the Spoons

What remains is to hand sand the spoon. I do not go above 220 grit as these spoons are for cooking and finer finishes are not important. I oil my spoons with sesame oil. I used to use mineral oil but since this is a petroleum based product and not renewable, I feel more comfortable using a vegetable oil.

I choose sesame oil as it has the longest shelf life of all the non-drying oils and does not become rancid easily. This is due to unique antioxidants found in sesame oil and not in other vegetable oils.

I don’t recommend olive oil as it spoils very quickly and you get a tacky residue building up on the utensil. A food safe drying oil such as tung oil can also be used.

Care of the finished product is very easy. Just wash in soapy water and let it air dry. Over the course of time the surface may become whitened due to fragmentation of the fibers with repeated use and washings. Just apply another coat of sesame oil and the finish is restored.

For heavily used spoons a light sanding before reapplication of the oil is all that is needed. A well cared for spoon can last for generations. Below is a picture of spoons ready for oiling.

finished spoons

Other Methods of Wooden Spoonmaking

I would just like to say a few words about other methods of making spoons. If you only want to make one or a few, then you may enjoy carving them completely by hand. This allows for great individual expression.

There are even special tools for hollowing out the bowl such as curved bladed carving knives or special spoke shave like tools with a curved blade. Just bear in mind that the curve of the spoke shave tool will limit the radius of the bowl of the spoon.

More recently I have used special carbide cutting burrs with a flexible shaft tool. There are burrs which are suited to hollowing the bowl of the spoon. There is a bit of a learning curve to this. It requires a firm hand and practice to know how aggressively to make the cuts or you will find that the bit wanders and wipes out the rim of the spoon you are trying to make.

It is easier with one of these tools to make a deeper bowl in a spoon than you can with spoon bent gouges. After using the burrs I clean up the tool marks with the hand held spoon bent gouge using light finishing cuts. So for certain shapes I have actually come to prefer this method of hollowing.

Some spoon makers turn a blank on the lathe. This gives a very symmetrical round handle and outside of the bowl of the spoon. Then they may use a saw to remove waste from the spoon bowl and use some hollowing process to carve the inside of the spoon bowl.

Some even mount this on the lathe and turn it out. Be advised that what you have is a spinning propeller and take care to keep fingers away from the spinning handle which you cannot completely see.

So, I have not tried to provide a comprehensive treatise on spoon carving but rather to share with you what works for me with an eye towards making useful and practical cooking spoons in sufficient quantity to meet the needs of my crafting.

I find that it is a good means of using up odds and ends of wood from the shop. After more demanding tasks I find it very relaxing to work up a few spoons and allow for my creativity to express itself in this simple way.

Wooden spoons make wonderful gifts. People especially love when the wood is from a tree or a limb that they gave you. With a bandsaw, any limb wood can produce good spoon blanks. It provides them with a connection to the nature that they had known and come to love. The tree may be gone but the memory of it survives in the spoon and that can be passed down from generation to generation.


Short on Time? Learn How To Make Friends With Time

Will you have enough time to accomplish all your career goals? Will you have time for interest for things outside of career? These were questions that I pondered in my earlier years.

Could I share with you how I found my answers to these questions?

My ideas of career were shaped by the Victorian mentality which were still pervasive in my youth. You worked hard, stayed at the same job and when you retired you got a gold watch and that was it.

The first inkling I had that this was not so was as an employer. I was always having to hire personnel to work in my office. I found that forever was about five years and a long time was about three years. Some only lasted weeks or months.

Transcending Time and Becoming More Productive

In 1975 I had an eye-opening experience. I learned the TM technique. I was dubious about the time commitment it required. I was a very busy practicing medical specialist and I was already too busy. Where would I ever find twenty minutes twice a day to sit quietly and meditate? Yet I was so curious about the benefits that I decided to try it, if only for a few days.

Six months later, as I began to use my intelligence more creatively, I made some changes in my work schedule and immediately started doing 20% more work each day in less time that it had taken formerly. That means that every day I made 20% more income in less time.

Enough Time for Hobbies

That increase in creativity took another direction as well. I had always liked to carve on wood with a pocket knife but had never done anything significant other that win a model airplane contest. I found my interest and my skills beginning to explode in the area of woodworking. Several years later I found myself making 18th century museum reproductions without any apprenticeship or study other than what was available in books.

I can’t tell you how much satisfaction my interest outside of my career brought me. After using my deductive and analytic powers all day, it was pure bliss to let the creative aspect of my nature loose in the wood shop in the evenings.

Looking back at all this from my current perspective I realize that what hems us in is boundaries. I am busy with my career, I have no time for outside interests. This is a boundary. I have to stay in the same career until I retire or die. This is a boundary. Well, if we create boundaries, we can uncreate them. I have learned that at our center we are unbounded. We represent all possibilities. That is how some can accomplish so much.

Letting Go of Boundaries

As I began to let go of boundaries, I found a wonderful field of health care that I had overlooked. It used natural means to recreate balance in the body and mind and was not only effective but free of harmful side effects. So I embarked on a second career in my chosen field of health care.

The more I learned about this the more I wanted to share it with others. I always had a fondness for learning and the academic life so at age 47 I left the private practice of medicine and became a university professor, researcher and director of an alternative medicine clinic for the faculty and staff. Several years later I became a teacher of the TM technique and started on another teaching career.

Eventually I left the university to teach in the field and then was asked to start an alternative medical school. As I approached retirement age I decided to return to my native city and just teach the TM technique and do my woodworking. After a year of this I decided to turn my passionate hobby of woodworking into a small business. Now whenever I am not busy with one thing I love doing I am doing the other.

Your True Nature is Free of Boundaries

My point with all of this is that there is great value to getting to know the unbounded nature of the inner self. Without the technique for quieting the mind, I was completely unaware of my inner nature. Had you told me at age 26, the year I finished my academic training, that I would have so many careers and do so many different things, I would have laughed at you.

So, if you feel that you don’t have enough time for what you want to do, if you feel trapped in a career path that is no longer in your best interest, then I suggest you get a technique for becoming unbounded. TM is that technique which worked for me. The important thing is that you find one that works for you. Otherwise you will be absolutely correct. You will not escape from your self-created boundaries and time will run out.


Woodturning Finishing and Buffing Secrets

An acquaintance of mine, Jim Oliver, at my Baltimore Area Turners wood turning club mentioned one evening at our show-and-tell that he liked the kind of finish he got with the Beal Buffing system. He passed around a bowl with a very lovely finish like I had not been able to achieve in my wood working products.

I have been seeing ads for this buffing system in woodworking catalogs but never paid too much attention. I tend to be simplistic and a slow learner. An old rag, some paste wax and elbow grease seemed much simpler to use and easier to store than three buffs, a motor and several grades of abrasives plus wax.

However I must admit that birthdays are beginning to catch up with me. My output in the shop is on the rise but my shoulders are beginning to feel the years of hand rubbing and it is not as easy as it once was. I find that as you get older you need to work smarter rather than work harder. So I decided to take a flyer.

I Splurged and Got the Beal Buffing System

My brother-in-law and his family gave me a gift certificate to my favorite local Woodcraft Store and I blew that whole thing on a Beal Buffing System. I got three buffing wheels, a two inch and a four inch set of bowl buffs, some tripoli and white diamond abrasives and a stick of carnauba wax.

I purchased a threaded aluminum piece for the bowl buffs to screw into and then be attached to the drive shaft of an electric motor. If you are like me, you probably have several old motors sitting around your shop and if not, don’t discard ones that come your way. They have lots of uses and the old motors were really built to last.

I found that I used the bowl buffs the most because of the ease of set up and changing buffs. Just unscrew one buff and screw in the next. They are color coded to match the abrasive or wax used on that buff.

woodturning buffers

You need a separate buff for each grade of abrasive and one for the wax. You never use the same buff for different abrasives or wax. In the picture below you see the tripoli bar and the bottom, the white diamond bar in the middle and the hard carnauba wax at the top.

abrasives and wax - shown as the three bars in the middle of the photo

I had some concerns that the dark looking stick of tripoli would discolor the wood. I was used to using this on metal and it made the wheel very black. I guess the black came from metal oxides because I had no problem with discoloration even on this light colored pear hollow turning I show here.

pear wood hollow form bowl with no discoloration from the buffing

My Old System of Finishing

To back up a bit, I have experimented with a number of wood finishing techniques and have finally settled on what works for me. I use tung oil. It is a drying oil, as opposed to oils that don’t dry, like corn oil or mineral oil. It is the product of a seed and is completely food safe.

That means that I don’t have to worry about toxicity to me as the finisher or to the user of the finished product. I get a completely natural form of tung oil from the Klingspor people. I may dilute it just a bit with mineral spirits for better penetration. However, when I use it on porous woods the finish is rather dull.

The other problem with the penetrating oils like tung oil or linseed oil products like Watco Danish Oil is that end grain sucks up the oil like a sponge. You can see it happen. You coat the wood generously and in a few minutes the end grain looks dry like it had not been oiled.

In turned work, you always have face grain and end grain both to deal with. If I waited a few days and then waxed the vessel it would look great at first. Yet, after a few days the area of the end grain would look dull and dingy. I might repeat waxing several times over several months until this stopped.

I realized when I did this, that the oil on the face grain had polymerized but the large quantity of the oil deep in the end grain was much slower to polymerize and it would ooze out and mar the waxed finish. Heat would accentuate this process.

I made a bowl for someone who had given me the wood. She put it in her lap while we talked. When she looked down at the bowl after some time she noted that there were beads of oil where the warmth of her legs had caused it to expand and flow out to the surface.

There Has Got To Be A Better Way

I read somewhere that if you use a de-waxed shellac that it is compatible with any kind of finish over the top of it. I had always followed the old rule of never mixing different finishing products. Now shellac has been used as a sanding sealer for ages and ages. So I got some Zinsser Bull’s Eye shellac which is guaranteed to be wax free. It was in an aerosol can and very easy to use.

After going through the sanding steps and ending with 400 grit paper I would spray the surface with the shellac and allow it to dry. Then I would sand the surface smooth again with 320 grit paper and end with 400 grit paper. At this point the grain had been pretty well sealed and the surface shellac removed. Then I would rub on the tung oil. This finish looked pretty good to my eye and it would dry in just a few days and the tung oil would not bleed through to the waxed surface. Sealing with shellac prevented the end grain from sucking up the oil finish.

Using the Beal Buffing System

After letting the oil dry for several days I then used my Beal Buffing System. You coat the buff or wheel with tripoli. Each bowl buff is color coded so you won’t use the wrong abrasive. Even buffing with tripoli begins to bring out some of the luster.

Next you change buffs and use the white diamond abrasive. It is much harder and finer than the tripoli. It removes any of the tripoli that may have adhered and shines the wood a bit more. Finally you change buffs to the one for use with carnauba wax. The bar of wax that is provided is hard as a rock and if it were to slip and fall it might shatter. When you shove it against the rotating buff only a very small amount of wax comes off as compared to the relatively soft tripoli. Yet it does not take much of the wax.

The great value of carnauba wax is that it is so hard that it won’t melt with the warmth of your fingerprint. You may have had the experience of handing someone a well waxed and shiny bowl only to get it back after being lovingly handled looking dull and dingy. This is the warmth of the hand melting the softer waxes. Carnauba won’t melt at that temperature and so remains shiny after many hands have touched the waxed surface. That is the good part. The bad part is that it is very hard to buff by hand.

In my youth there was a car polish called Simonize. It contained carnauba wax. I made the mistake of applying it generously to our 1950 black Ford. Even my young muscles could not rub it out. However it was a very durable wax job, and I can remember how the water would bead up on the surface for months when it was used. Most people took their cars to the garage to have a mechanic use a power buffer to buff out the wax.

Judge the Difference For Yourself

So, if you want to enjoy the high gloss and protective qualities of a carnauba wax job you have got to resort to power buffing. Now I make a lot of clasps for knitted shawls and scarves as shown below. When I tried my new system of using sanding sealer and buffing using the Beal Buffing System I was amazed at the difference in the appearance. The surface just seemed more alive. It was almost jewel-like.

you can see how much richer the wood looks in this picture.

Notice how much less lively the surfaces of the pins are in the picture below. These pins had not had sanding sealer but had been oiled and waxed carefully. There is just no comparison in the finish even though the woods are just as attractive in the grain and color patterns. They just look dull to my eye were before they had looked pretty good to me.

Unbuffed clasps lack the luster and saturated colors of the buffed wood.

I have read that surveys have been done and it was found that women are more attracted to shiny objects. If two similar objects were presented and one was much more shiny, then women seemed to prefer the shiny one.

Since most of my market is to women I am going to have to test this hypothesis by seeing if the shiny clasps sell better. Stay posted.

Even if you don’t sell your work, I think every craftsman want’s his or her product to look the very best. I know I do and I am sold out on the better finishes I have been getting after using the steps I described above.


Turned Wooden Bowl Design

bowl design

Techniques can be easily taught but design is another story. Yet it is probably the most important story in the arts and crafts. In wood turning, refined technique, choice of wood, and grain pattern, as well as finish are icing on the cake but the heart of the issue is design. Without it, the project will never be first class.

It is said that you have to turn several hundred ugly bowls before you begin to turn pretty ones. I have certainly turned my share of ugly, unbalanced and clunky bowls. I am pretty embarrassed when I look at these earlier works. Yet this is how we grow. We start from where we are. We then begin to improve on the design. As our techniques improve we can try more sophisticated designs not possible with more limited ability.

I tend to be a practical person and a bit old fashioned. I feel this is a prerogative of a wood turner in his seventies. My bias is that design should have something to do with function.

As I began to work with larger and larger bowls a design feature began to occur to me. The purpose of a vessel is to contain something. If it is a large vessel, it will contain a lot of something, be it holiday salad, fruit or whatever. That means that the vessel, in this case I am thinking of a large bowl, will be fairly heavy.

Smooth flaring curves of a large bowl’s outer wall can be a bit slippery, especially if oily or wet. So I had the idea to substitute raised beads on the outside of the bowl in place of indented grooves or lines. This serves a couple of purposes. First it gives the fingers something more than a curving slippery surface on to which to hold. Thus it is practical. The heavily laden bowl is less likely to slip through the fingers with raised beads to grip. This makes the bowl more functional and, to my mind, better designed.

The second function it fulfills is to break up the long, somewhat visually monotonous curving side of the bowl, giving it more appeal. The long curve is divided into two smaller curves. Now, most would agree that dividing a space into two unequal parts is more visually appealing than making it right in the middle. So by putting the beads nearer to the rim of the bowl makes the division into unequal parts more functional as it is closer to the gripping fingers while the thumbs are anchored on the rim of the bowl. What should the exact ratio be? That is a personal decision. You need to see what works for you. Personal taste varies so there can be no set rule. The golden ratio is a place to start.

How many beads to make and how high again is a personal decision. You can decide for yourself if the bowl pictured above is appealing to you or not. There is no one right or wrong way.

Is this something new? My answer to that is that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything has been thought of and expressed before. All ideas and forms exist in nature and we merely recall what we have seen or experienced. No need to take credit for what nature has already done. So, best to be careful to claim authorship of a creation. Go to a museum and learn to your chagrin that artist thousands of years before you had done the same thing. Look at nature and you may see that idea expressed in hundreds of forms.

In fact, it is good training in design to go to museums and see what the ancient were doing with design. It is good to be alert to the magnificent design ideas nature has provided us everywhere we choose to look, from the smallest of the small to the biggest of the big. Design is all around us. When we are alert to it, we see it everywhere.

By studying these examples of nature and man we can see what works for us and what does not. Then we can begin to incorporate these features into our work. At that point, design begins to take on the aspect of a great adventure. As Mae West said: "It ain’t what I do, Honey, it’s how I do it." We all copy, it is just how we copy those ideas into our art that makes the difference.

So, my advice is to be bold. Try new things. Find out for yourself what works and what doesn’t. The possibilities are infinite. There is no joy in smallness, joy is in the infinite, the Vedic wisdom reminds us.


Coring Bowls

coring a bowl on the lathe

I met a wonderful man in Etna, New Hampshire. He lives just up the road from my daughter and she sent me a newspaper clipping about him. A rugged individualist, he graduated from high school and decided he wanted to turn bowls for a living. He as been doing just that ever since His specialty is turning beautiful burled wood bowls and the newspaper article showed him with a burl so large that it had to be pulled off the pick up truck with a tractor. After reading the article I wanted to visit his shop. He very generously ended up spending the whole afternoon with me and even gave me a lovely log of crotch butternut to take home.

I had been reading about coring bowls for a long time. It seemed a bit complicated and there were several types of tools to choose from. I turn a lot of bowls and this produces a lot of shavings from removing the waste wood from the inside. I know this because I have to bag and carry out these shavings from the shop. My neighbors and friends are just about saturated with free mulch and I put as much on my garden as the earthworms will eat.

So when I visited my New Hampshire turner, whose name is Dustin Coates, I asked his opinion about coring tools and techniques. His reply was to core a bowl on the spot for me to see. It was amazingly simple and looked rather easy. Using this technique one can get two or even three bowls from a single bowl blank. It results in a saving of valuable wood. Often I would lament that I had turned the prettiest part of the wood away in removing the wood that had occupied the cavity of the bowl. If you sell bowls, as I do, then it produces extra income from the same amount of wood. Actually I found it took less energy and less time to core a bowl than to dig all the wood out with a gouge. Last but not least, it dramatically reduces the amount of wood shavings left over after the bowl is completed.

My friend, Dustin, suggested that I get the McNaughton system and which of the many sized and curved cutting tools were most useful to him. He even suggested that a pair of vise grip pliers would substitute well for the more expensive handles and you can see me using his suggestion in the top photo. What I really like about the system I purchased is that you can match the curve of the coring tool to the outside dimension of the largest bowl blank. This gives you more flexibility in determining the most aesthetically pleasing shape of the largest bowl you get from the chunk of wood. Some coring systems I have seen limit you to the same shape which is half of a sphere. This is fine if all you want to do is make a set of nesting bowls but but if you want to create designs with more subtlety and variety you need a system like McNaughton.

It is interesting to me how we are always searching for more. That is just the nature of life. I wanted more bowls, less waste, less work and less shavings and now I have all four. Yet I did not have to sacrifice design considerations to achieve this. How nice it is that at just the right time there is someone more knowledgeable than you who is willing to share what they have learned. It saves you valuable time and energy by preventing you from going down less productive paths.

cored bowl

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Eye of the Beholder

When I was living in Lexington, Kentucky I got a call one day from a friend who said that there was some wood available in the little town of Midway, just a few miles away. Midway is an old and charming little town in the heart of the bluegrass region. I called, and a dentist who owned the land said that I could have some wood.

It turns out that the land hosted a late 18th century inn called the Porter House. Most have heard of a porterhouse steak and that is where it originated. The inn now serves as a dentist’s office and residence. The tree was a mammoth silver maple. The neighbors had complained that if it fell it might damage nearby structures. So it had been cut down. I have no idea how old the tree was but I would estimate that it was over 100 years old.

When I drove into the alley that separated the Porter House from the neighbors I saw an array of bolts of wood with grass grown up around them. Some had fungus actively growing on them. It did not look very appealing to the casual observer. The rounds of wood were so large that I had to saw them in half to be able to lift them into my van and even that was an arduous task. The fresh cut wood surfaces smelled musty and were mottled in their appearance. When I had loaded all the wood I could carry I headed back to the shop to cut some bowl blanks and rough turned them.

What I was dealing with was spalt wood. This is caused by fungus attacking the dead wood. When alive, the tree’s immunity protects it from bacterial and fungal decay. When it dies, these microorganisms go to work to reduce the wood to carbon dioxide and water. Without these necessary aspects of nature, all the wood and leaf litter would stay with us and I don’t even want to think about the fire hazard that would make. The fungus can cause the wood to be black in areas due to formation of fungus spores. In other areas it blanches the natural color of the wood. The final result is very interesting color and pattern variation in the same piece of wood. The black lines may follow the wood fibers and reveal a wavy pattern.

In the past, timber men would regard this as a defect. Spalt wood is softer and less stable than the normal wood. So it would have been relegated to the fire wood pile or just left for the fungus to finish the job. It is not even considered good fire wood because some of the energy stored in the wood has already been consumed by the fungus.

Spalt wood is definitely harder to work than the same wood which is free of decay. It requires a softer hand with the tools and produces some design limitations. Sometimes it just won’t do what you want it do do and the piece must be discarded. However, I think it is well worth the effort for the visual display it produces. People seem to be naturally drawn to the color and pattern variation.

I got several large bowls rough turned from the damp wood and put them in paper bags with the top sealed so that they could dry more slowly to avoid cracking, or checking—as woodworkers call this tendency of wood to split itself apart when it dries unevenly. The rest of the large pieces I covered with a tarp and left to fend for themselves.

Eventually I moved along with my wood to Maryland where I live now. At a show I sold one of those large spalt bowls and the purchaser became my first collector. He and his wife purchased two more bowls from the same wood and then commissioned some large candle holders to hold three inch pillar candles. In the pictures above you see the rough forms before they were turned as well as the finished products. I treasure the remaining pieces of this wood and have turned some of it into wooden jewelry.

So what would be considered trash in another era has found a place of respect with those who appreciate the infinite variety and creativity of nature, even when it is tearing down and not building up. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If we have a limited vision of utility, we may overlook some of nature’s hidden treasures. When we are open to all possibilities then we find riches in what others would discard.

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Every tool has its purpose: scrapers are for scraping, and gouges are for cutting. Some wood turners who are not so knowledgeable feel that scraping wood is not as high a calling as cutting–because it requires fine control to make a smooth surface with a gauge alone. When we scrape, we lightly touch the scraper tool to the spinning wood surface, and remove a fine shaving from the surface. Only a small amount of wood is removed with this procedure. Cutting, on the other hand, means presenting the cutting edge of a gouge on an angle so the tool slices deep into the wood, removing a small groove of wood as the lathe turns. With this procedure, much wood can be removed in a hurry.

scraping on the lathe

Because of its nature, scraping is good for refining shapes, and smoothing out ridges left with gouges. The scraper is a flat piece of metal with a sharp, 90 degree angle edge which smooths the wood. The gouge, on the other hand, has a curved profile and leaves small ridges. The better you get with the gouge the less scraping you need to do, but even then the scraper may be indispensable for certain jobs. Because it removes such small fluffs of wood, it is great for making the ridges left by the gouge blend into one another.

What I have learned from trial and error is that the scraper works better on the base and outside of a bowl than it does on the side walls of the bowl. Used on the side walls (which are thinner and less stable when the lathe turns) there tends to be chatter of the tool, no matter now heavily it is constructed. This tool chatter with the scraper gives uneven cuts in the wall of the bowl that leaves a surface which is less desirable than when the gouge alone is used on the bowl wall. Hours and hours of sanding has driven this lesson home to me many times. Now I use the scraper on the base of the bowl inside and outside, and if I am careful, on the outside wall of the bowl–but at all costs I avoid using the scraper on the inside wall of the bowl.

Now, there may be a lot of individual variation here. Some wood turners may be so good with the gouge that there is little need for the scraper. Others may have learned to use the scraper where angels fear to tread. The point here is that you find out what works for you and others. Each tool does one function best, and the others may only do so so, or not at all. There are many hundreds of designs of lathe turning tools. They all came into being because they served a special function a little better.

But, it is best not to go overboard here. I already have so many turning tools that it is becoming hard to find the special tool I want in the ever growing stack of gouges, scrapers, and other specialized tools on my shavings-cluttered bench. One fellow at my turning club said he had over a hundred such tools. I can’t even imagine finding a special tool in all that clutter. Better to know how to get the most out of a few tools, than to have to reach for so many specialized ones. It saves time and resources.

scraping a wooden bowl on the lathe

The scrapers teach you patience and how to administer a light touch. Bear down on it and you get a nasty catch, or dig-in. Just take lighter and lighter cuts so what comes off the scraper is light fluff. Compared to cutting with gouges, it seems like the progress is very slow. Yet the time taken with very light strokes of the scraper is more than saved when it comes to sanding.

Everything is easy once you know how, but getting to that “know how” stage can be difficult. This is where practice comes in. Fortunately, wood tends to be a very forgiving medium. If you scrape too deeply, then you can gently, and gradually, just take more wood off, until you have a respectable surface.

It is like that in relationships too. Fortunately, like wood, people tend to be forgiving when we err, and we often get to make things right, without destroying the relationship. Yet, in our dealings with others, a gentle and light touch seems to produce the most satisfactory result. Heavy handedness takes much more effort to repair.


Signing Your Woodwork

As one progresses with woodworking skills the home soon gets filled with the products of your handiwork.  The next step is to give gifts to relatives and friends.  If output continues you may turn to selling your work as I do.

People love stories.  It is one of the most important ways we learn. Wood tells a story to those who know how to read the script.  Its pattern will tell you the species of wood and from which part of the tree that piece was taken and how it was sawn.  A good finish will allow you to easily count the annual rings and thus tell  you if the tree was competing for life in a dense forest or was open grown judging by the width of the rings.

So that tells the tree’s story.  How about the story of the maker?  History is nothing more than a composite story.  So the story of the lovely wooden finished piece is incomplete without the story of the maker of the piece.  The maker’s name on the piece allows the historian to know something more.  A date after the name makes it even better because it pinpoints the time in the history of the maker’s life.

Early on I got in the habit of signing my work.  Some of my earlier work was embarrassingly crude.  As I progressed, I improved.  Now you can trace this progress by comparing the dates of the signed pieces.

At first I resorted to carving my name and date into the wood with hand tools.  This proved too laborious as the output increased.  Next I resorted to using permanent magic markers.  They do not do what they promise.  In a few years the ink had faded and could scarcely be read.  You are better off signing things in pencil than ink as the ink fades over time and pencil does not.  The trouble is that pencil is subject to wear on exposed surfaces.

I had a wonderful friend as a medical patient and he ran a machine tool shop.  I asked him to make me a branding iron to put my logo and name on the furniture I was then making.  He did a beautiful job and it is very special to me.

edwards smith fecit branding iron

The logo was an escutcheon from an 18th century Georgian table that I no longer have and my friend is no longer with us.  Yet I have the very pleasant memory of both in my branding iron.  I just heat it up on the top of the stove and press it into the wood.  Be sure to line up the outer edges of the iron on the wood with some pencil marks.  I found it was easy to miss mark the brand when it was hot and you could not see the lettering as it was on the bottom. Many woodworking supply houses will make you your own custom branding iron either with or without a heating element.

The term FECIT appears after my name.  In the middle ages artisans would add this to their name.  It is Latin and is the third person singular form of the verb facto, factare meaning to make.  It gives us the root of our English words manufacture, factory, factor, etc.

When I made an oval stool with cabriole legs I realized the limitation of the branding iron.  It only works on flat surfaces.  If there is just the slightest unevenness the brand is not complete.  For a wood turner, for instance,  it is just about useless.  So the next thing I tried was a wood burning kit with a fine tip.  It did work but I found that the fine tip would catch in the grain of the wood and make for poor penmanship.

branding iron

After doing some more reading I got a ball point for the burner.

ball point branding iron

This was much better as it would glide over the grain irregularities as it burned the signature.

better branding

This was fine when I was writing large but when I wanted to sign very small objects it was not very satisfactory.   I make some wooden clasps for knitted shawls and scarfs that you can see on my web site. Using highly figured wood, the two sides of these clasps are often quite different. One person might like one side better than the other.  I found that when I burned in my name and date on one side it meant that the signed side was no longer an option for outer wear.

How could I sign my clasps and other small objects unobtrusively?  I began to scout around for finer tools. I came across high speed air driven dental tools that looked great but started at $1000 and required an air compressor.  This was out of my budget and beyond my tight space requirements.  The other day I found an engraver in the Craft Supplies catalog.


They are a fine outfit that has everything for the wood turner. It probably had been there in previous catalogs but this time it just jumped out before me.  The nice thing is that it was only $24, and that was more like my budget.  Further it would not only engrave wood, but metal and other substances.  It is small enough to be held like a pencil and the carbide point will write as fine a script as your hand can manage.

engraver tip

There is a motor attached to the point which produces vibrations that allow
the tip to etch.  The intensity of the vibrations can be controlled to allow you to control the depth of the engraving you do.

This turned out to be just the thing for my shawl clasps.  I could put my initials and the date on them in such an unobtrusive way that the clasp could even be worn with the engraved side out.

wood engraving

Now the wearer is not limited by which side is showing.  If one wants the engraving to be bolder then there are wax based pigments and coloring agents that are like crayons.  You rub them over the engraving and then rub off the surface excess. The pigment in the recesses cannot be removed and serves to highlight the engraving.  I learned this trick when I watched the accomplished turner Cindy Drozda demonstrate making one of her famous finial boxes.

So these are some of the things I have learned about signing my work.  It is better to give or sell signed pieces. It adds another level of meaning to the one who receives it.  It also provides an historical record of the path you have taken.  This is not meant to be an exhaustive treatise on the subject but just a trial an error record of my attempts.  Hopefully, this may be of help to you.  It seems there is no one method for signing every kind of work but there is one that will work for each specific medium.  So let your creations tell the whole story.


Saving Wood by Coring Bowls

I tend to be frugal by nature. Having turned hundreds of bowls I became aware of the huge amount of wood that was converted into wood shavings. It was a big chore just to clean them off the floor after the end of a day’s turning, and disposing of them also becomes an issue.

I had seen ads for devices to core out the center of a bowl to get another bowl blank from the same stock. However, the thing looked rather complicated and there were so many different kinds of tools and systems from which to choose, that I abandoned the idea.

When I had the good fortune to visit my woodturning friend, Dustin Coates, just outside of Hanover, in Etna, New Hampshire, I noticed that he cored the burl bowls that were his specialty. Burls are expensive and little burl bowls are as charming as the larger ones. When I mentioned that I was thinking about learning to core but did not have any idea of how to go about it, he promptly put a piece of wood on the lathe and in a couple of minutes had shaped the outside and cored out the center. He made it really look easy.

He suggested that I use the McNaughton coring system. It requires that you purchase a set of the knives. Further, they come in small, medium and large sizes, with four knives to a set.

coring tools
Large set on left, medium set on right

He pointed out that the range of curves in the knives allows much more flexibility in the design of the cored bowl blank. Some systems consist of just one knife with a fixed curvature and so all the bowls come out like a nesting set with rather monotonous design possibilities.

He suggested that the most useful sizes for him were the large and medium set of knives. With this you need to purchase the special tool rest that goes in the banjo. I get my coring tools from either Craft Supplies in Colorado or Packard Woodworks in North Carolina.

coring tool


This rest has a steel device that goes over the top of the back end of the knife and keeps it from flipping up and hitting the operator in case of a catch. He also suggested that you did not have to buy the expensive handle but could use a pair of straight jawed vise grip pliers just as well. He actually used the tool without any handle at all. I purchased the vise grips and used them a few times but then found it just as easy to use the tool without a handle. Dustin has always been so generous with his knowledge.

What I have learned is that to keep the system working well, you need to keep the carbide cutters on the point of the knives very sharp. For this I use a set of diamond hones starting with a coarser (600) grit and ending up with progressively finer grits until I find the edge satisfactory.

It takes a lot of force to cut a curved arc through a large piece of wood. It is most important to have the tenon plug in the base of the bowl very securely clamped in the chuck. Any looseness is going to give you vibration and poor results and may cause the blank to fly out of the chuck. Yet with a well turned tenon and securely clamped, it provides no major difficulty. As I enter the wood with the knife I move the knife from side to side just about 1/32 of an inch so that the blade won’t bind. At times it will be necessary to back the knife out to keep the shavings from binding the knife. This is particularly true of green wood.

It takes lots of power to do this operation. I have a 1.5 horsepower motor on my lathe and I find that I can core a bowl more easily if I run the lathe at a faster speed. Run it too fast and it is dangerous. So I start out with a medium speed and, if I am stalling frequently, I slowly increase the speed so that the cutting goes smoothly. If I had a more powerful motor this might not be necessary. Larger bowl blanks will require more force than smaller ones.

It is important to feed the knife into the wood slowly and deliberately. Push it in too fast and you will get a catch. You just feel your way along as you advance the blade. A good place to get a catch is when you first enter the face of the blank. Often the face is not exactly true and so you think you will clear the face when you measure it with the tip of the knife only to find that 180 degrees away the face is much closer to the knife point and a catch results. This is particularly true when turning natural edged bowls where the face of the blank undulates to a very great degree. So put your knife where you think is will clear and, with the lathe off, rotate the blank to be sure that it clears all the way around the face of the blank. Then turn the power on and advance the knife very slowly at first. Once the knife is in the wood for the full 360 degrees, it begins to cut more smoothly. A bad catch can pull the blank out of alignment requiring repositioning. Worse yet it could cause the blank to fly off of the lathe. That can be a dangerous situation.

So, how do you tell how to position the knife in the holder to get the right shape of the cored blank? And how do you keep from going too deep and going through the bottom of the larger piece? Some of this is just trial and error. The angle you take with the knife will determine where it will be at the end. If you go in with the knife pointing towards the axis of rotation of the blank, the cored piece will be shallow and much wood will need to be removed from the larger blank that stays on the lathe. If you go in with the knife parallel to, or even slightly away from, the axis of rotation of the blank, the cut will be deeper and you could risk going through the bottom of the larger blank and hitting the metal chuck that holds it on. With practice you will soon learn the correct angle of entry and how thick to leave the large bowl blank wall. With practice you can leave it thinner and thinner. There can be no hard and fast rules as the design of the larger blank is variable and density of the wood varies with the species. It is not as much of a problem as it may seem. In coring a couple of hundred blanks, I have only gone through the bottom of three blanks.

All right, you have advanced the knife into the wood. How do you know when you are done? One way is to keep advancing the knife to the hilt. Sometimes this causes the cored blank to fly off the lathe at hight speed. A better way is to look down the straight part of the handle. A line drawn from the straight part of the handle will intersect with the tip of the knife. When you see that line pointing towards the center of the blank you know that you are almost done. If you stop the lathe and withdraw the knife and tap the inner cored blank with a hammer or mallet, it often will pop right out.
You can tell if it is ready for this because pressure on the side of the inner blank will result in some movement indicating that the stem that holds it to the larger blank is thin and a good mallet tap will cause it to break right off.

Bingo! Now you have one large bowl still mounted to the lathe and a solid cored bowl blank in the other hand. What I have found is that it is much less labor intensive to core out the center of a bowl than to remove the waste wood with a gouge. Furthermore, you have at least one extra bowl blank and if the blank is large enough, two or even three extra blanks. Whether the wood is green or fully dry, the procedure is still the same.

cored bowls
15 inch cored bowl from the center of the 18 inch blank on the right. Yardstick for reference.

Let me pass on some experience that I have learned by trial and error. When you remove the cored blank you have a solid piece of wood without anything that will fit into your chuck. This means you have to mount it between a spur drive center and the tail center to turn a tenon on the base. You may get it properly lined up but you may not. Getting it trued up by turning it true may waste valuable wood. What I have found works best for me is to mount the large blank that you start with and while it is being held in the chuck by the tenon, use a gouge or parting tool to turn a recess with a tenon in the middle of it on the face of the bowl blank. Then core out the blank. The removed core will then accept the jaws of the same chuck which was holding the larger blank. Then when you have finished turning the larger blank you can just put the smaller cored blank in the same chuck and turn a tenon or a dovetail recess to mount the blank in a chuck. Then you can either core a third blank or use a gouge to remove the center waste wood. This way, your extra blank will be aligned properly and will result in less effort and less wasted wood.

You should always be able to get one extra bowl by coring and with skill you can get two or three from the first large blank. It depends on the design and your acquired skill. The advantages of this are obvious. Most anyone would like to get two or three for one. When you add on the advantage of less labor and less waste, it become obvious. Yes, there are extra tools to buy but the extra bowls will soon pay for the cost of them. Finally, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have made maximum use of Nature’s precious resources. Life is too precious to waste any part of it.