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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.


Turning a Chess Set

Back last summer one of my TM students, who is also a collector, asked me if I would turn a chess set for him. I was very flattered by his offer and said I would look into it. About nine months later I finished the job.

Now I don’t know much at all about chess. I started to learn the moves when an Eastern European yard man gave me some instruction when I was about ten. It never went beyond that. So, how do you design and execute pieces for a game about which you know very little?

One of my champions has been my son. At age four he told his Montessori teacher that his Dad could make anything. Since then I have been accepting new challenges without bothering about the fact that I really did not know how to do the job at the time.

Another great influence on my life was a Mr. Tom Hodge. Possessing only a high school education, after a career at NASA, this man went on to build his own machine tool shop which was so sophisticated that he ended doing work that NASA could not do for itself. When I knew him as a patient in Newport News, VA, his modern machine tool shop was 50,000 square feet.

He told me that people would come in and ask him if he could do a certain job for them. He would invariably say yes even though he knew nothing about the job to be done. He said he would think about it, sleep on it, get information from all the sources he could find, talk with the experts he surrounded himself with in his shop and begin to try this and that. Eventually he would come up with the finished product. Often it was something which had never been done before. He showed me an example of this one day. It was a railroad car filled with measuring devices. It was towed behind a train at 90 miles an hour and would give you a reading of the track conditions every ten feet.

I greatly admired this “can do” attitude and have tried to implement it whenever the chance arose. So, the first thing to do, it occurred to me, was to get more information. My attention was led to a very valuable resource. Mike Darlow is a professional woodturner and woodturning educator. He has authored many scholarly works of woodturning and woodturning design. It was just my luck that he had recently published a book called Woodturning Chessmen. Sounds like he wrote it just for me.

In his usual scholarly way, Mr. Darlow went into the history of chess, tracing its origin back to ancient India where it had been designed at a teaching exercise about the art of warfare. He showed the evolution of the chess pieces from India, through the Middle East and then up through Eastern and Western Europe culminating with the “standard” Staunton design that is so popular today. Staunton was an English chess enthusiast and champion who desinged the pieces that bear his name in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Mr. Darlow not only presented chess men designs over the past 1500 years, he also devoted many pages to the principles of design according to his point of view and many pages to the actual construction of the pieces. It was a real treasure trove and everything was at my fingertips in one volume. After reading this very interesting book I loaned it to my friend and student who had commissioned the work, and asked for his feedback which he duly gave me. I was interested to see if any design particularly appealed to him.

It was very kind of him to suggest that he wanted me to come up with my own design. He suggested certain ideas which he liked better than others but hinted that he really wanted me to be original. Being a collector, originality was high on his list of desirable qualities.

So, what does being original mean? What is truly original? You know that old saying that there is nothing new under the sun. I personally believe that there is a field of unmanifest reality in which resides all forms and ideas in seed form. I think that when we are creative we are just remembering those seed ideas. Some have more access to that level of reality than others. Yet, if that is unfamiliar to us, then we don’t have to look far. Those same seed ideas are repeated over and over in nature. Since they are the blueprints of nature, we see them in all that we see. Therefore it is a bit presumptuous for us to take credit for what nature has already created.

After giving this a lot of consideration I think that what we mean by creative and original is how we put together the parts of what has already been created. Even that may be debatable but at least it gives us credit for some level of creativity or at the very least the ability to “see” those combinations in our mind’s eye.

On the other hand, my client’s order for originality put the burden on me. It would be relatively easy just to copy one of the many patterns in Darlow’s book. So what it boiled down to was how do I see the game of chess as reflected in the turned pieces. My reasoning was that as a game of war strategy, the pieces should reflect that reality. The pieces should be “writ large” and the flavor should be masculine. This left out the many intricately turned rococo pieces of the late 17th and 18th centuries illustrated in Darlow’s text. Even the Staunton standard pieces failed to capture that flavor, in my opinion.

One of the things I have learned is that the creative process is not to be rushed. Mr. Hodge would take a lot of time to think and sleep on his ideas before completing a job that had not been done before. So I began to turn these thoughts over in my mind. The first decision was the choice of wood for the pieces.

Most would agree that in war there is one side that tends to represent good values and one side that opposes them. The Mahabharat is the classic epic in Indian Vedic literature in which a ruling family had turned against part of itself in pursuit of less than honorable goals. This epic is very dominant in Indian culture and probably lay in the awareness of the creators of chess. Therefore, one set of men needs to represent the good and the other side opposition to good. In other words there needs to be a clear color contrast to represent that idea as well as to be able to tell the pieces apart on the board of play.

Now some woods are more turner friendly than other. Some tend to splinter and tear out under the tool’s edge and others remain firm. So, I thought to myself, what wood would best suit the side aligned with goodness? It needed to be light colored and at the same time have a rich appearance. My choice was holly. It has almost no grain appearance. Being an evergreen it grows slowly year round and does not produce the soft early wood and dense late wood seen in a species like oak or pine. When carefully finished it looks almost like ivory or stone. It has a very regal appearance and it is almost snow white.

For a contrasting darker wood my choice was cherry. Cherry is one of my favorite woods to turn. It handles well, is hard and uniform in texture. It has a lovely rich color which slowly darkens with exposure to sunlight. The more it is handled, the prettier it gets. Thus the light holly and darker cherry would give good color contrast. Some makers resort to making the pieces of a light wood and painting one set black. My feeling is that black draws the wrong kind of energy to it and I prefer to avoid black whenever possible.

With the choice of wood settled, now I had to decide on the size of the pieces and their size relationship with each other. My client had some specific ideas about this and I went with his instructions. The king was to be about 3 3/4 inches tall.

With the dimensions established, it was time to prepare the wood blanks. I am always starting with rough wood. So the wood was band sawn and put through the planer. I would then smooth one edge on the jointer. Now it was ready for the table saw to cut the proper width, height and length. The results are shown in the photo below.

I wanted to add weights to the bottom of each piece to keep them from tipping. To do this I marked the center at both ends and then drilled an indentation in the base with a Forstner bit to accept the lead insert. I had some sheet lead and used a set of gasket punches to cut out discs and drilled the indentations so that the lead discs would just fit. They could then be secured with a drop of cyanoacrylate glue.

Now I had to start coming up with specific designs. As I looked through Mr. Darlow’s many illustrations, I became aware that there was no single set in which all the pieces appealed to me. I realized that each piece would have to fit in my “wholeness idea” of being severe and somewhat war-like.

So I started at the top with the king. After several experimental trials I settled on the design.


Then followed the queen. It had to be apparent that she represented a feminine form but I still wanted her to fit in with the overall design which was solid and substantial.


Going down the scale of rank I next turned to the bishop. In the Staunton set he is shown wearing a mitered hat. However, clerics also wear other hats and I saw some represented in Darlow’s book and adapted one to my taste.

The knight has been represented as a carved horse’s head. Aside from the association with cavalry this piece does not really evoke a war game to me. Again I saw a small head with a armor helmet with a small vision slit in Darlow’s book. I made the head bigger and used it for my knight.

The rook was the final piece and was fairly straight forward.

Details of the crowns on the king and queen as well as the openings in the turret of the rook had to be hand carved with a carving knife. One of the tricks I learned from the Marlowe book is to use the indexing stops on the lathe. Before I turned the parts off I used the indexing stops. Keeping my pencil flush with the tool rest I would make a mark on the piece at each appropriate interval. This way all the intervals were evenly matched and then it was no problem for the carving knife to follow the pencil mark to finish the detail on the piece.

All that remained was to design the pawns. Most of the sets I have seen really do not do much justice to the concept of a pawn. A pawn in a war game is a common soldier. So I settled on small man-like figures with primitive helmets. Now the design was set. I was ready to start turning in earnest.

The first step was to turn the blanks round with a roughing gouge. The picture below represents this step.

Next I used a pattern piece to mark the critical dimensions on the round blank. In furniture making they use something called a story stick. It is a thin flat piece of wood with the pattern of the piece cut in two dimensions and then meaningful data written on the stick. It is used to lay out marks for sawing out the piece. I have learned from my own turning experience that if you have an original you can lay out the critical marks right on your work piece without having to fuss with a lot of measurements. Measuring is not something that comes easily to my free spirit. So here I am holding a previously turned bishop in cherry against a holly blank and transferring the marks directly to the work piece. This system works very well for me and saves a lot of time. If you ever go back and want to recreate the set or a piece, having a pattern piece saved for that purpose will greatly simplify the process.

Next I cut the critical marks into the wood with the skew chisel. The skew is a good tool to learn to master. It is ideal for doing many tasks in spindle turning. Like many others I had problems with it. We had a turning demonstration at our local woodturning club (Baltimore Area Turners) and the presenter was Bill Grumbine, a well known turner and wood turning teacher. He was showing us how to reproduce spindles. He explained to me that the real secret is to have your skew very sharp. By that I mean shaving sharp.

After dressing the tool with my Wolverine sharpening jig (with the skew attachment in place on the bench grinder pictured in the background of the pictures) I take the skew and dress the edge with a diamond hone using first the 600 grit side and then the 1200 grit side. Next, I strop the edge with 7 micron diamond paste on a porous strip of wood followed by 3.5 micron paste. I get my diamond paste from Wood Carvers Supply, Inc. in Englewood, Florida. This produces a really keen edge. The tool can be touched up with just the diamond hone and the diamond strop to refresh the edge for many times before the edge needs to be reground.

Here I am beginning to cut the design into the blank.

In the picture below I am using a tool I had to design myself. My skew chisels were too wide to fit down in the narrow coves and grooves of the pieces. Some time ago I got some engine valve stems from my local garage. There were smaller ones from passenger cars and larger ones from truck engines. The steel is very hard. I cut off the head and this left me with the straight shank which I fitted in a tool handle and then waited until I had a use for it. When it was needed I used the grinder to make the shape of the cutting edge and then did the final sharpening with the system I described above. Now I had a very small skew to work into tight places.

Another trick I learned from Bonnie Klein I am using below. I wanted some accent lines in the otherwise monotonous robe of the bishop. I first cut these lightly with the skew and then use a wire to burn in the line to make it more visible. You can use most any kind of wire. This one happened to be inside a twisty tie and is quite thin. I have taken wire out of electrical cable or from other sources. You just hold the wire in the grove as the wood spins until you get the darkness you desire. You can buy sets of wire made just for this purpose but it is easy to make your own and the price is right.

Here you see the finished bishop being parted off with the skew.

After doing the hand carving and final sanding I had to make some decisions on the finish I would use. I did not want to sacrifice the whiteness of the holly with oils and shellac which impart color so I just buffed it with white diamond abrasive and finished with carnauba wax with the Beal Buffing System I have described in earlier blog posts.

With the cherry pieces I followed my usual routine of a coat of Bull’s Eye shellac. After this was sanded down carefully and rubbed with 0000 steel wool, I applied a coat of tung oil. I have found that placing newly finished articles on the floor next to the forced air heating vent speeds up the drying of tung oil and Danish oil products. When good and dry I buff using the three part Beal Buffing System.

I used my engraver to put my name and date on the bottom of the pieces. This picture also shows how the lead wafers fit into the recess at the bottom of the piece. This system allows the lead weight to be at the lowest point in the piece to give maximum stability.

Here is the finished product assembled.

Doing something you have never done before is a challenge, but it is what leads to growth. It is the nature of life to grow towards more and more. If we stop growing the rest of nature does not and we find ourselves left behind. I guess that is why my friend Cliff Hodge was so successful. He never turned down an opportunity for growth.


Part and Wholeness in the Wood Shop

In the recent blog entry I posted on saws it might be fun to amplify the central idea which was discussed. That was how do you make sense when there are so many different facts to consider. The world is awash in data. We double the amount of knowledge every few years or so and to some it seems like every few weeks. Now with the internet giving us access to knowledge from all over the earth, the task of making sense of it all is a bit daunting.

I was extremely fortunate to have been introduced to Vedic wisdom by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who founded the TM movement. In earlier blog posts I credited my starting the TM technique for my explosive increase in interest and capability in woodworking some 34 years ago. What I learned from Vedic wisdom, which is the oldest tradition of knowledge in the world today, is that if there are parts there has to be wholeness. Without the concept of wholeness the idea of parts would be meaningless. Parts only have meaning if understood in terms of being parts of a greater wholeness.

You have often heard that saying: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” In some way wholeness is quite different than a collection of parts. It is a transcendental value. It can be described with terms like infinite and unbounded. Wholeness is infinite, more than the most, and that is a transcendental value. It goes beyond the boundaries of lists and collections. If it is a transcendental or non-material value, what is its practical value?

To answer this, let’s come back to the concrete example we discussed in the blog entry about saws. Think about a single saw. It has a motor, a mechanical drive to connect the saw to the blade. There is a way to adjust the depth of cut of the blade. There is some sort of table to hold the wood being cut. There needs to be some sort of stand to hold the saw and it may be mobile by adding a base with wheels. The motor is made on innumerable parts. There is an armature, windings of copper wire if it is an electric motor. There are switches to turn it off and on. If it is gas powered, then there is a piston, connecting rod, gas tank, oil reservoir and housing. Don’t forget that saw blades come in a dizzying array of widths, thicknesses, number of teeth per inch, arrangement of teeth, types of steel used in the teeth, the set or rake of the teeth, etc. The list could go on but you get the point.

Now consider how many different manufacturers of saws there are. Some are no longer made but still work today. Every manufacturer may make many different models of saws. There are different sizes and different price ranges.

Saws are designed for different purposes. Some cut thick wood, some thin wood, some cut straight cuts, others cut curved cuts. Some cut at right angles and others cut on a bevel.

What we have here is a point, in this case the saw, expanding to an infinity of parts. In the concept of a saw we see that it gives rise to innumerable parts with dizzying speed. How can we ever make sense of all the parts? We just get overwhelmed.

Yet we don’t need to know about all saws and we probably don’t need to know all about any particular saw. What we need is a wholeness point to begin. In my last blog post I tried to explain how my collection of saws allow me to take advantage of a valuable resource. namely, found wood. This is wood discarded by others as it has no value to them. Yet what I see is beautiful bowls and utensils hidden beneath the shabby exterior.

So my approach to saws starts from the wholeness point of converting found wood into wood I can use in my shop. The saw used first is the chain saw. This can cut big chunks of wood into more manageable size pieces which can be lifted without heavy equipment. It can also be used to cut rough dimensional lumber with the proper attachment or by freehand.

The next saw is the large bandsaw. This allows me to dimension the rough wood into more carefully dimensioned pieces and also allows me to cut curves. If I need to cut smaller radii then I use my smaller bandsaw. My table saw comes into play when I need precisely dimensioned wood for furniture or pieces for spindle turning when I make many copies of the same thing. If I have a very long plank that needs to be cut into shorter pieces, I use my cut off saw with its long table. If I need some very small parts then I may use my scroll saw which can cut thin wood into amazingly intricate and complex shapes.

So, all my saws play a role in leading me to the one goal of making use of found wood. Of course some of the same saws work fine on commercial dimensioned lumber. It is just that I rarely have occasion to buy any of that. Everything fits together nicely and nothing is redundant or unneeded. The parts make the wholeness of my woodworking goal.

Now, when I look for a saw, it has to fit into the wholeness of my shop goal. I don’t get confused about saws that don’t fulfill my specific purpose. I don’t need to check out every model and every manufacturer. I don’t have to have one of everything. I don’t have to have an infinitely large shop. It is big enough as it is, thank you.

So how do you figure out what is the wholeness part? The secret I found was to allow my attention to go inward. For that I have a technique which is the Transcendental Meditation program. I have leaned that at my source I am infinite and unbounded. I am made of wholeness. Everything I could ever want is there. As I regularly contact that field of wholeness I begin, over time, to bring that wholeness with me when I come back out into activity.

This gives me two fullnesses. It brings infinity out into the boundaries of specific parts. Now I can operate among all the parts without getting lost in the specific parts because I always have my eye on the wholeness or the infinite. This is the best of both worlds. I can operate in the parts but not get lost in them.

This ability to see wholeness while immersed in the parts can be developed by anyone. Even I learned how to do that. I just wish I had known how to do that when I was a medical student studying anatomy. Talk about being lost in the parts, that was the quintessential experience.

So, trying to operate without wholeness is to be equipped with only half of what you need. Perhaps this is why for so many, life is a struggle.


Different Saws for Different Purposes

Much has been written about saws in the wood shop. Usually the articles go into detail about one particular kind of saw and all that it can do. I don’t see as much written which compares the relative merits of different kinds of saws.

My experience in woodworking over the years has taught me that you need more than one kind of saw. My first electrically powered saw was a radial arm saw. The manual suggested that it could be used for many different purposes. I soon found out, however, that what it was really good for was crosscutting lumber that was smooth on two sides. From there on it was down hill. I also learned that it was very difficult to keep tuned so that it cut precisely.

So from there I went to a table saw. My shop was just in the garage so I selected a saw with a small footprint. It was a Swiss made Inca saw and still serves me well after thirty years. However, I learned that metric saw blades can be hard to find in the United States, and that the real purpose of the table saw is to rip previously milled lumber. Since the table is small I found it difficult to rip large things like sheets of plywood or to cross cut long boards. The bigger the table the greater the support.

Everywhere around me I saw wood that was abandoned. Trees cut on construction sites usually made it to land fill dumps or were burned on the site. Power companies are always cutting trees and leaving the wood where it falls. Neighbors are always losing a tree and have to pay to have it hauled off. Winter wind and ice storms are constantly bringing down trees. I got my first taste of this in my own back yard. I wanted to raise a garden and needed to take some trees out to have sunlight. Some of the wood was so pretty that I could not bear to cut it up for firewood so I saved some and this is how I got my start with working with found wood.

So if one is alert, the opportunities for acquiring found wood are almost limitless. Metropolitan areas are particularly good foraging areas. Lumber people will not fool with just one tree. It is not worth their time. Yet one tree can fuel many woodworking projects. Just offer the person a finished product from part of the wood and you will be given the whole tree and make a good friend in the process is what my experience has been.

chain saw

That brings us to the next saw. To handle found wood you need a chainsaw. I had a patient when I was in medical practice who told me if they had had those things when he was growing up, he might have stayed on the farm. It is a great labor saver. I soon found that I could cut enough found wood in a day to pay for my saw. If you have not noticed, wood is expensive to buy. I started out with a light weight saw from Sears but soon had worn it out. Now I use a Sthil and am on my fourth one. I like the fact that they are solidly built and generally reliable. I found that having a longer bar on the saw made it easier for me to cut larger longs but shorter bars will work as well. They are the choice of professional lumber men and tree services. I even purchased a small Alaska Mini Mill that clamps to the bar. With this I could mill flat lumber of various thickness right on the spot. This had the great advantage that you could cut up and haul out wood one board at a time. This is great if you don’t have heavy equipment or are some distance from a road.

A word of caution is in order here. I have learned some hard lessons and will share my experiences. Several years ago I cut a chunk out of my knee using a chain saw. I just got the bar too close to my knee and it bit me. I was in the woods and by myself. Fortunately it was not so serious a wound and it healed but it took a couple of weeks. The point here is that I should have been wearing chaps. These are sold where they sell chain saws. They are made of some sort of very tough synthetic fabric and would have stopped the saw teeth that cut my knee. So, now I am careful to don my chaps when using the saw. You will see the professionals using them, too.

Now with a chain saw all kinds of found wood became fair game. There are many, very attractive, non-commercial species awaiting the unbounded wood worker. Species such as osage orange, mulberry, apple, pear, spalted woods of all kinds, just to name a few. With the chain saw, the log can be bucked into manageable bolts and worked while green or allowed to air dry for several years. The picture above shows a small part of my collection of found wood. You can even leave some outdoors for a season to make your own spalted wood. We can talk about techniques to avoid checking of the end grain in another episode but I want to keep the thread of saws first at hand.

Now, let’s suppose you have a large block of air dried wood and you want to turn a bowl. It is much too thick to saw with a radial arm saw or table saw. You can cut it with the chain saw but if you are trying to make it round, it gets tricky and dangerous with the chain saw as there is no way to keep the piece from moving as the chain engages the wood. You really don’t want any metal holding devices abound a moving saw chain. So, what to do?

Here is where one of the most important saws in the shop comes in. This is the bandsaw. The beauty of this saw is that it does not require milled lumber to cut safely and efficiently. You can crosscut a large log and then rip it and produce fairly flat pieces of wood that you can mount on the lathe or run through the jointer and planer preparing them for cutting on the table saw. You can go from the log to the milled lumber all in your shop. The savings on wood are tremendous and you will soon pay for your equipment. There is also something pleasing to my independent nature to be so self-sufficient.



My advice is to get the largest band saw you can afford. Watch for used equipment and explore the Asian imports. I have owned a large Powermatic saw with a 24 inch throat (distance from the saw blade over to the upright arm that supports the upper wheel on which the blade travels). I have owned a 14 inch Delta. They both have given me good service. Now I have a Grizzly 21 inch saw. I was surprised that I could replace my old Powermatic for the Grizzly for about the same price even though I bought the Powermatic back in 1979. While the throat measurement in the Grizzly is 3 inches smaller that the Powermatic, the Grizzly will cut wood that is 14 inches thick (as measured from the tabletop up to the arm) compared to the 12 inch cut of the Powermatic. I find this a big help as I am always wanting to cut thicker and thicker stock. For pieces thicker than 14 inches I use the chain saw. These large saws are heavy and weigh upwards of 500 or more pounds. However, one can purchase a metal base with wheels that allow for some mobility within your shop.

A band saw this large is great for resawing wood but for cutting out curves on smaller stock I use my 14 inch Delta saw. It does not have the power of the big saw but I can keep narrower blades on the smaller saw which will turn a smaller radius and this keeps me from having to stop and change blades so frequently. Time is very precious and this dual set up with band saws has been very valuable to me.

So, if you ask me which is the most important saw in my shop, I would have to say the band saw. It is what allows me to go from found wood to blanks I can mount on the lathe to turn into a beautiful bowl. I use it more frequently than the other saws. Yet each of the other saws serves an important function and I really need them all. I guess that I would consider a band saw and a table saw as first purchases and then add the other saws as I was able.

wood scraps



Above are some examples of found wood in my shop.

Saws are very dangerous. Keep them tuned, sharp and in good working order and wear proper face and eye protection. It may sound silly to tell woodworkers to avoid power saws when they are tired, in a hurry, emotionally upset or under the influence of alcohol or drugs but this is how accidents happen. Cut off a finger in haste and repent in leisure.

Yet, used with care, these saws can make wood working a joy. They allow you to take advantage of unused wood, a precious natural resource that would otherwise be wasted, and turn it into a objects that will bring pleasure for decades, if not centuries.

Do you have any experience with saws? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Refining our methods… growing in efficiency

Here I am doing one of my least favorite jobs. What you see is one of my scroll chucks, and a very good one at that. This is the large chunk of metal that facilitates holding wood on the lathe. To accommodate different sizes and shapes of wood to be fastened on the lathe it requires that many different types of jaws be fixed to the chuck. Some will hold a large spigot of wood and some a small one. Others are the flat metal discs that grip the wood with the plastic buttons seen in the previous essay. Still others are made to fit into a dovetail recess that has been turned on the bowl or platter blank bottom. These different interchangeable jaws greatly extend the usefulness of the chuck and this in turn increases productivity. This is very exciting when you are starting out because it opens up so many new possibilities. So in this picture I am in the process of changing jaws on the chuck.

It is the nature of man to always look for more and more. People are restless moving here and there looking for something better. This is what motivates growth. I am no exception. When the novelty wore off of having so many exchangeable jaws on my chuck, which enabled me to do so many more things, the reality set in. To change the jaws takes unscrewing a minimum of eight metal screws that hold the jaws to the chuck body. So, unscrew eight screws, remove the jaws and use the eight screws to reattach a different set of jaws. This task is time consuming and not very uplifting and not creative in the least.

I would much rather use my creative energy and skills in turning the wood itself. It has occurred to me that it would be much more efficient to have many scroll chuck bodies with the different jaws already attached. Then I would just have to exchange different chucks on the lathe for different jobs. This takes a lot less time than removing the chuck, unscrewing the jaws and then refastened the new jaws. I would have reduced my labor steps to two rather than four and I estimate that I would save between ten and fifteen minutes each change. In an average day in the shop I estimate that I would change jaws at least three times and sometimes more. Now there is a lot you can get done in thirty to forty-five minutes of uninterrupted work time.

So we start out in life not knowing much but with a desire to know more and more. As we learn more we learn how to employ technology to increase our output and creativity. Each new technology offers advantages and drawbacks. At first we are so excited to have the new capability that we are not critical of the time it takes to employ that technology. After all it is already saving us lots of time and energy. Yet after we work with it a while we begin to wonder if there is some better way to extract more efficiency from the technology. We begin to fine tune the use of the technology to make us more efficient. In this case fine tuning would be having as many chuck bodies as I had separate interchangeable jaws.

This solution comes with a price tag. The chuck bodies are fairly expensive ( at least $200 apiece). I have at least eight different sets of jaws and there may be more that I would like to have. Soon I would have more invested in jaws than I did in the lathe itself. So I think further. There are just a few jaws that I use most of the time and if I just had two more chuck bodies, it would still save me most of the wasted time. Now I figure what my time is worth per hour and see how long it would take to pay for the extra chucks and see if it made sense from an economic standpoint. Somewhere in here I would find a formula for maximum time and creativity saved with the least expenditure of cash.

So, we are never done growing. It is the nature of life to grow towards more and more. Thus we remain dynamic and do not become static. We keep thinking on ways to improve what we do. We try to minimize the dull routine work and maximize the creative part of the job. This brings us more and more pleasure because we are becoming more and more creative day by day.

Another point comes to mind. Time is the most precious thing we have. Past is past and is forever gone. We can never bring it back. The future is always the day after this one. So the present moment is all that we really have. That is why it is so important to use the present in the most efficient and uplifting way possible. Then we see that we are progressing on our road to have more and more, whether it be creativity, wealth, security, love or whatever.

How have you become more efficient in your work or play?

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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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David Ellsworth – A Woodworking Seminar Made in Heaven

This past week I had the good fortune to take a wood turning seminar at the home and shop of David Ellsworth. The seminar was a generous gift of my daughter Sarah who has supported my wood turning efforts in so many ways.

David needs no introduction from me. He is the man who literally created the genre of turned objects as art. His work graces many museums and private collections. He also contributed to the advancement of wood turning technology with his development of a uniquely ground profile for his wood turning gouges and his sharpening jig to create that profile as well as many other technological improvements.

I will have to admit that the seminar was beyond my expectations. David is at the top of his field and yet he is completely approachable and lacks the arrogance that comes with success to so many. He is a masterful teacher using approaches which register with all three learning styles; auditory, visual and tactile. He never hovers but is there to give gentle and helpful correction when needed, as often it was in my case. He would always begin by uplifting the student for what he had done right. Who would not want to please a teacher like that?

The seminar was balanced between hands on experience in his well equipped shop and relaxed meals together with the five students (actually there were only three on my weekend due to severe weather).

heavy equipment in the wood shop

Some of the heavier equipment in the shop

student by the lathe

One of my fellow students beside the lathe I used. In the background is the photo lab.

Meals were a joy and David would give us insight on the recent history of wood turning and then bring out object after object from his personal collection that he had purchased or for which he had traded with other leading experts in the field. He would not only show the objects but supply lively details about the artist and his career. He is a wealth of information.

David Ellsworth by a bandsaw

David standing by his retro bandsaw

Time in the shop was divided between small amounts of practical and theoretical didactic material and actual practice with projects at the lathe. Each student had his own lathe and an almost unlimited supply of green wood with which to work. I had to learn new methods of roughing, shaping and finishing wood all with the same gouge which is what is so wonderful about the grind of his special gouges. It was ever so much easier than the crude methods I had used in the past and it went so much faster. It was also much easier on my body. Occasionally David would come by and remind me that it was not necessary to beat myself up so much and would correct my problem by repositioning my tool rest a bit closer to the work.

All of the subjects covered were of great interest to me. Besides the basics of how to form the Ellsworth signature grind on the gouge and the basics of green wood turned edge and natural edge vessels and hollow vessels, there were many other subjects covered. There was a session on chain saw sharpening which was most valuable. I recently had problems with sharpening my saws. Now I have used a chain saw for many decades. Yet my mistake was corrected in an instant. I had forgotten that the chain cuts on the corner of the tooth and I had been focusing on the sharpness of the blade of the tooth. Funny how we can forget what we once knew.

There was a valuable lesson on making and using jam chucks. There was a lesson on how to position your blank to get the grain orientation that will be most pleasing to you, and a lesson on how to use wood movement as it dries to best artistic advantage. Of phenomenal use to me was how to use a face plate and make the design go inside the diameter of the screw holes to be able to utilize the whole depth of the blank while enjoying the increased stability of the wood held fast by multiple screws. David shared his extensive knowledge of photographing the work and showed us his solution to the challenges. There was a helpful demonstration of vacuum chucking. He even showed us how he makes many of his tools Always, David presented low tech and cost saving techniques which were of great value to me.

As I look back I realize that we had covered a phenomenal amount of information yet
it all went in so easily and in such a relaxed manner that there was no straining and the
acquisition seemed effortless. If you did not catch it all, David has created a beautiful new text book called, appropriately enough, Ellsworth on Woodturning; How a Master Creates Bowls, Pots and Vessels. It is beautifully written in an easy to read style and filled with wonderful illustrations. It was a great take home item for me as well as the sharpening jig and boring tools that I actually watched David make right before my very eyes.

So, if you would like to make a quantum leap in your turning skills and understanding, I really recommend a seminar with David Ellsworth. Short of that, his book is immensely helpful. I am just thankful that a master like David so generously shares what he has learned over a life time of turning. He is a great turner, artist, teacher and human being.


A Woodworker’s Boon

Keith Cruickshank

I would like to tell you about a remarkable man. His name is Keith Cruickshank. He runs a video blog: www.woodtreks.com. This is no ordinary woodworking blog. Out of his interest in woodworking and the goodness of his heart, Keith seeks out woodworkers of exceptional talent and reputation. He travels to their work site and takes high quality videos of them demonstrating some aspect of their expertise.

So what Keith is providing is private tutorials from real experts. Now I have learned that there are three learning styles. One is auditory. These people learn from reading or hearing someone speak. The second is visual. These need to see what is being presented. Then there are the hands on learners who need to hear it, see it, work with it and talk about it.

When we teach, if we do not provide adequate learning experiences for all three learning types, some will be left behind. I have people come to me and ask me to show them skills in my shop because, unlike me, they find it impossible to learn from a book. Just let them see it done or try it themselves and they have it.

With his very well done videos, Keith comes as close to providing for all three learning styles as is possible using a single medium. There is a running commentary on what is being done as it is being done. The expert talks the student through the demonstration at the same time he is performing the work. Due to the high quality video camera work it is almost like being in the room with the expert.

The subjects of the videos, which are very to the point and not overly long, cover a very wide range of topics from lumber selection to proper sharpening techniques to how to make perfectly fitting dovetail joints. You may not have a need for every subject covered but if you watch, I guarantee that you will learn something. In fact you might find that you are inspired to do something that you have not done before.

There are a lot of woodworking DVDs on the market and some are very good but they mostly are by one expert and all cost money. Keith’s site is completely free. I don’t know how he manages to do this as his trips may last days and cover considerable distances. Yet he keeps coming up with new and, to me at least, very interesting subjects.

Since the videos are short you can cover a lesson in one easy sitting. All the previous subjects are indexed so you can pick and choose the areas of your interest. No sitting for an hour or more to find the one piece of information you need. For your convenience you can elect to receive e-mail reminders whenever a new video is produced.

I spoke with Keith recently to try to find out what motivates him to provide this wonderful service free of charge. He told me that he had a background in computing and a love of digital photography. These qualities coupled with a life long interest in woodworking have put him on a mission of helping to link experts, many of whom are not widely known, with those who thirst for this knowledge. The quality of the subject matter and the execution are really exceptional in my opinion.

There are several thoughts that come to mind. First I feel that we should take advantage of the knowledge being presented in this unusual site. It will make us better woodworkers. Second, I think we should encourage other woodworkers to visit the site. Third, I think we should express our gratitude for the service being given by giving Keith some feedback on how much you enjoy what he has created. Having recently celebrated my 70th birthday, I can vouch for the fact that this kind of information was just not available when I was starting in woodworking. There was an occasional book or journal and that was it. You never knew the quality of the book until you bought it. Until Fine Woodworking started to be published in the 1970s, the quality of the journals was not so high.

So, I want to voice my gratitude to Keith for the service he is providing to woodworkers and hope that he is inspired to continue this labor of love. Woodworking is much easier and more fulfilling due to his educational efforts. Don’t miss his blog!


Making a Stepping Stool from Sentimental Wood

cherry stool

This summer I was clearing out the house where I grew up in order to put it on the market. After 56 years of continuous inhabitation by the Smith family you can guess that it was filled with memorabilia of my past. I found two small stools that I had made in shop in the seventh grade. They weren’t great but I thought they would do as gifts for my small grandchildren. So at my 70th birthday celebration in Vermont this summer I delivered them to my two sets of grandchildren. After a week long celebration the families headed out and we cleaned up. In a bathroom I discovered that one of the stools had been left behind.

My wife appropriated it when we got back home as there were some high cabinets that she could not reach. So I thought I should make her one to replace it when it eventually got back to the proper grandchild. It was a week before Christmas and I had been so busy with Fall shows and filling orders for knit shops for my knitted shawl and sweater clasps that I had not even started on the project

As I was looking at my lumber stack in the shop I found a board that was filled with memories. Shortly before he died in 1980 my father had the boys from the local saw mill come and cut up a cherry tree that had fallen in the wind. When I went to pick up the wood, Bubba Adams, the sawyer, reached into his pocket and produced a steel spike and a ceramic fence post arrestor. He said: “Would you happen to know anything about this.” With much embarrassment I admitted that my father and I had put that on the tree 35 years earlier when we had horses. The horses were long gone and the tree had grown around the spike and we had forgotten all about it.

“Well, the saw found it.”Bubba grumbled..

I thanked him profusely and loaded the wood. He would not take any money for his efforts. So I made a Chippendale mirror for him and his adopted brother out of the wood and I know that they hang proudly in their respective houses.

One of the two inch thick slabs had a dark stain and axe marks where the metal had been chopped out of the wood. I thought at the time that I should make something special out of this wood that would incorporate all the memories it held. So 28 years later, after having moved that wood from Virginia to Iowa, to New Mexico, to Kentucky and finally to Maryland I decided that this would be the next best time.

I wanted to design something better than what I had done in junior high school. The slab was a good 15 inches wide. My planer is only 12 inches. So I decided to do a somewhat rustic design and incorporate some of the natural edge of one side of the board and make a roughly triangular three legged stool with a 15 x 19 inch top. One advantage of a three legged stool is that even if the floor is uneven, and most are, it will sit flat without rocking.

cherry stepping stool

I hand-planed the surface and was rewarded with rich color and interesting grain pattern. There is something deeply satisfying about preparing wood with a hand plane. I cut the shape of the top with my band saw with the table set to cut at an angle. The cut was cleaned up using a spokeshave. Looking at the top, I realized that the refined nature of the wood required a more refined set of legs. Not fancy, mind you, but something more than crude. After looking at pattern books of Windsor chair legs, I took some ideas, simplified them and went to the lathe and produced the legs you see. They were made from one and three quarter inch square stock and fitted into one and a half inch holes bored at an angle into the seat.

To get the same angle for each splayed leg I used a jig two inches thick with an angle cut on two sides and a 1 1/2 inch hole bored inside. It was made for me by my wood turning buddy, Tony Kowalewski, a home contractor. I simply clamped the jig to the top with two C clamps and then used a Forstner bit in a hand drill. The jig ensured that the hole got started at the proper angle and did not skate as I drilled on the slanted, hard, cherry surface.

I carefully crafted wedges to go in the slot sawn in the top of the leg to make it tight in the top. I even carefully drew the orientation of the wedges in my shop working drawing. Wedges need to go at right angles to the grain to avoid splitting the wood with the pressure of the wedge.

So I carefully aligned the wedges. applied wood glue and drove them home. After this point of no return I realized that I had done just the opposite of what I had intended and each wedge was running parallel to the grain. Time will tell if the joints fail due to this error but with a two inch thick wood top, it may take a long time for them to fail. The old saying of “measure twice and cut once” came to mind. In this case it was, “check the set-up carefully before you apply glue and drive home the wedge.” You have to pay attention to every detail at every step of the way. My problem is being in a hurry to see the project finished.

I was able to sneak the stool into my finishing shop in the basement of my home without being spotted by my wife. After the glue had dried I sawed off the portion of the legs and wedges that were sticking out of the top of the seat and finished the job with a brand new orbital sander just taken out of the box for this job. Boy, does power sanding make a difference! In just a few minutes the job was done.

I like to use oil finishes. One problem I have found is that the oil finish soaks into the wood and may take months to dry. Wet oil will make its way to the dry finish and blotch the wax. Some bowls I have had to re-wax and buff as many of six times until the finish was stable.

cherry step stool - top

I read recently that if you use a de-waxed shellac such as Bull’s Eye brand, which comes in an aerosol can, to provide a light coat, and sand it well before you apply the oil, you can seal most of the pores and your surface oil will dry very quickly. I have been using this to great advantage with my bowls and decided to use this on the stool. I did not have the luxury of time, as it was almost Christmas eve. With this technique, and buffing with the Beal buffing system, which I have really come to love, I was rewarded with the finish you see in the picture.

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