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What kind of tools do you go for?

I have my own philosophy about tools. With some crude ones I have done some good work. It is not so much the tool that you have but the use to which you put the tool. Japanese master builders put together the most complicated joints requiring no nails, either of wood or metal. They accomplish this with a couple of hand saws, some chisels, a mallet and use their knee and the weight of their bodies as a vise. Those tools they do use are of the highest quality but they have learned how to get the most out of them.

I started my turning using a second hand inexpensive Sears and Roebuck lathe sold to me by a former patient. By the time I moved up to a the lathe I have now, I had learned to get the most out of the lathe I had been using. So, I suggest to someone just starting out that they get the tool they can afford and learn to use it fully before investing in more expensive equipment. If you get that tool used, then you will not be investing very much. Look in free papers that list things for sale or look in the classifieds in your newspaper.

Once you have the tool, it is good to get a book on the proper use and care of that tool so that you become knowledgeable. There are excellent books written on every commonly used wood working tool in the shop, replete with photographs and easy to follow text. It was not like that when I started working wood.

As an inexperienced turner I wanted to show my children my new found skill. I had a very uneven piece of wood on the lathe so I made a note to turn the wood at the lowest speed. I adjusted the belts accordingly and then with my children standing on either side of me, I turned on the lathe.

As the lathe cranked up to its maximum speed the large chunk of wood came spinning wildly into the air and crashed into a metal bucked on the floor putting a large dent in it that served as a reminder to my folly for many years―I realized that I had adjusted the belts for the maximum and not the minimum speed. I had insufficient knowledge about my machine, and my error could have injured my children or myself had any of us been hit with the flying wood. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so learn all you can about your wood working machine before you ever turn it on. Don’t operate in haste and repent in leisure.

As you use your starter machine you become aware of what it will do well. In time you notice that it won’t do some of the things you want and you begin to make mental notes of the features you will require when you upgrade to your next machine. Then when you do make a purchase of the newer machine, you really appreciate the additional features it offers.

It is not a bad idea to approach life in a similar manner. Get as much knowledge as you can before you start out on any venture. Learn to do the very best you can within the framework of that venture as you make mental note on the new features you would like your next venture to embrace. This is called growth, and that is the nature of life.


Hands and Making Tools to Fit Them

hand calipers

Ever notice how many different kinds of hands there are? I have come to the conclusion that there is a hand type for every purpose. One of my favorite quotes is that an artist is not a special kind of person but every person is a special kind of artist.

My own hands are not suited for many purposes. With wide stubby fingers, I cannot type on a notebook computer or use a cell phone with ease as I hit three keys for every one intended. My wide hand will not fit inside a quart jar to clean it easily. My handwriting was never a thing of beauty earlier in my life and now I cannot even read it myself.

Yet the strength in my hands serve me quite well in working with wood. Using a chain saw, holding a carving knife or using a wood turning gouge all day gives me no problem.

Since each hand is different, it is nice to be able to make your own tool handles to fit your hands best. Once you know the basics of wood turning, making your own handles is quite simple. Blanks from most any hard wood will do quite well. I start by turning the diameter for the ferrule to fit over where the tool steel joins the wood. Once I have determined the inside diameter of my ferrule, usually just 3/4 inch long piece cut from a scrap of pipe and deburred on the grinder, I transfer this to the wood on the lathe using calipers.

Once I have the wood the that accepts the ferrule the proper size, I take the wood off the lathe and tap the ferrule over the turned end. I then remount the wood on the lathe and finish turning the handle, sand it and apply finish while it is still spinning on the lathe. Decorations can be added such as grooves to suit your individual taste.

In this day of mass produced tools, there is something very satisfying to pick up a tool handle of your own design. You can make it out of a very pretty wood. This will give you a sense of being uplifted every time you put it in your hand or your eye falls on it. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Craftsmen of the past took great pride in the appearance of their own, hand-made tools, as they felt that their tools were a reflection of their own craftsmanship.

There is also a practical aspect to this. At my wood turning club meeting last week, one of the senior turners admitted that he had over one hundred turning tools. While I am not in that league, I must have thirty or forty and every time I see a new turning demonstration I find that there are several more tools that I need. Now, if all the tool handles are identical as supplied by one manufacturer, just try to pick out the special tool you need from that stack.

woodturner's hand

On the other hand, if some have ash handles, some cherry, some beech, some walnut, some maple and each is a different design and length with different numbers of grooves in the handle, it is much easier for the eye to fall on the one you need. When you add to this the fact that you made it just the right diameter and shape that fits your hand best, then you develop a real fondness for the tool.

If you strive to create beauty, then you should have beautiful things around you. What you see you become is an old proverb. When you are surrounded by beautiful things then it is easier to create beauty in the project you have selected.

Now it is not much of a jump to go from making your own handles to making the shape of the metal tools you use. Every professional turner on the teaching circuit has the tool catalogues cary his specialty “signature” tools. There is a different tool or grind on the tool for every purpose. As you use your tools you will find that there is a special need you have for which you can not find the proper tool. So the solution is to make it yourself. Scrap steel, masonry nails, old files, etc. can be ground on a bench grinder to make that special shape for that special job.

When you make a special project using a cutting edge you designed yourself mounted in a handle of your own design, you feel the meaning of the word creativity. Wasn’t that the reason you went into the wood shop? You wanted to express your own creativity, whether great or small. What you put your attention grows in the awareness and creativity in one line of thinking begets creativity in other lines of thinking. The next thing you know you are regularly thinking outside of the box.

I had a wonderful patient in Newport News, VA, when I practiced medicine. He was very bright, but coming along in the Depression, he could not afford to go to college. He became a watch maker instead. World War II came along and all the watch makers were grabbed by the defense department to make Norden bombsights for airplanes. So he ended up eventually working for NASA until he built his own successful machine shop and retired to manage his own business.

People would come in to see him with a complex request for some machine or apparatus. He would listen patiently as the prospective customer outlined what he wanted made. Usually it was something that had not been done before. At the end the customer would ask if it would be possible for something like that to be made by the machine shop. My friend would say: “Sure, we can do that for you.” However, he confided in me that at the time he had no more idea how to do that job than a jack rabbit. He said he would think about it. He would sleep on it. He would continue to turn it over in his mind. Before long he wold come up with a way to make the job work. He said he never turned down a job because he did not know how to do it.

I learned a valuable lesson from that man. Not only was he a great friend but he was a great teacher as well. I had another great teacher. He is my son. At the age of three or so, he told his Montessori teacher that his father could make anything. In fact, I could hardly make anything. Soon the school was asking me to make everything for them from missing map puzzle pieces to storage cabinets. I just said yes to every project and stayed on the steep end of my learning curve for many years.

So, life is like that. Even though you don’t know how, you can do anything you really want to do. Just say yes and then let nature show you how. Mother nature is hovering in the wings ready to show you anything you desire. She just needs to know what you want, and you must be alert to her help because it may not be what you were expecting. Of course it really helps to have someone have complete faith in you. How can you let a person like that down?


Natural Edged Pear Bowl

natural edged pear wood bowl

I am somewhat of a neophyte at making natural edged bowls. I recently was given a whole Bradford pear tree and feeling flush with raw material, I was persuaded to take some risks I do not ordinarily take. As you hollow the bowl, part of the time your gouge is floating in the air. It takes a lot of tool control to keep from knocking off the fragile bark on the undulating rim.

This tree was cut in September when it was still full of sap. I found that Bradford pear sap is like glue and I would have to frequently change band saw blades to get the wood cut up in proper dimensions for turning. Well, that glue set up and made the bark unusually adherent so that it made for more allowances of imperfect technique than any other natural edged bowl I ever tried to turn.

The bowl was turned green to final dimensions, and sanding green wood does not work. Furthermore, trying to sand a fragile spinning undulating rim was just too scary for me. This meant that there was much more hand sanding in the finishing process after the bowl had completely dried. Wherever you have figured wood it dries with a very uneven surface. Here I used my cabinet scraper to good end to remove wood faster than hand sanding. I was surprised that the bowl dried without checking and with very little warping. It was most noticeable in the base which would not sit firmly on a flat surface without some attention from my carving chisel.

For finishing I applied and sanded out a couple of coats of de-waxed shellac and then finished with a coat of tung oil. I read recently that de-waxed shellac is compatible with any other kind of finish applied over it. This sealing of the grain prevented the tung oil from penetrating so deeply that it would take months to dry completely. I was satisfied with the finish which had not even been waxed yet.

See this bowl in my bowls gallery here.


Commission Jobs in Woodworking

wooden chilli paddles

chilli paddles close-up

Over the years I have come to think that it is more fun to have someone else tell me what they want rather than to try to guess what the customer may want. So, I welcome commissions. Usually it is a time of growth for me. The project is very likely to entail a design or technique which I have not used before.

A woman came up to my booth at fair one week ago and asked me if I could make a couple of large stirring spatulas. It seems her husband and his friend are involved in chili cooking contests and the chili is cooked in very large stock pots. The usual stirring instruments are not adequate. She was not sure what the dimensions should be but sent me a picture of one in use at a chili contest that appeared in a newspaper. It appeared rather crude to my eye and the word “CHILI” had been cut deeply into the plank with a router. I was concerned with food sticking in the crevices.

So I decided that 24 inches would be a good length. The customer preferred cherry wood and wanted it to be similar to the small spatulas I had for sale at the fair. They are the most popular item that I make.

Having an enlarged area on the end of the handle would help it from sliding down into the deep stock pot, I reasoned. It also broke up the monotonous straight lines of the long handle. She asked me if I could carve the men’s names and the word CHILI on the paddle part of the tool. I allowed as how that would be a lot of work and we might find a cheaper route and she agreed. I also suggested it would be easier to clean. Burning it in with my burning tool that I sign my work with was my suggestion.

After I selected a plank of cherry, it brought back some pleasant memories. There was a wild cherry tree that grew on my father’s farm in Virginia, just out side of Richmond. A storm took it out and I asked my father if he would get our neighbors with a saw mill to cut it up for me. It was one of the last things he did for me as he left us shortly afterwards.

When I wend down to pick up the sawn lumber the neighbor, whose name is Bubba Adams, a large and very kind man, reached down into the pocket of his jeans and produced a long steel nail and a ceramic electric fence resistor. He asked me if I happened to know anything about this.

The blood rushed to my face as I remembered that my father and I had put this up for an electric fence when we first moved to the farm and had horses. Bubba said the saw found it and it took out a few teeth on the big blade. In spite of this he would not take anything for his services. So I loaded it in my station wagon and hauled it home to my shop/garage and let it air dry. Then I moved that wood to Iowa, then to New Mexico and then back to Kentucky and finally to Maryland where I current live and work. The cherry for the chili paddles came from that tree some 28 years later.

Once I had the design for the paddles cut on the band saw and sanded it to a more refined shape I had to decide on how to burn in the letters. I have never had very good penmanship and I am sure I would have never passed mechanical drawing had I ever had the courage to take such a course.

The challenge with the paddles was to make the lettering big enough for the macho men to see without having to don spectacles. I thought of making an outline and then just burning in the space between the outlines. The problem with that is that wood burning tips do not burn evenly. You are prone to get little hills and valleys of different shades of color or blackness.

Then I decided that just burning in the outline would work and the letters could be written large as I wanted. So I went to the computer and selected a font I though looked nice and enlarged it and printed it out. It just fit on the paddle blade. I knew that the ink from my laser printer would transfer with heat and I thought I was all set. Then I realized that if I ironed the letters from the copy they would be in mirror script, a fact that I did not think the macho makers of chili would appreciate.

Not trusting my hand I got my wife to put a carbon paper under the sheet with the letters to trace the outline on to the paddle. It worked fine after we located some old fashioned carbon paper. From there it was a simple task to burn in the outline of the letters as you see from the pictures above.

The woman was very pleased with the paddles which were for a birthday present just a few days later. Don’t know how the men reacted but hopefully they will share in her enthusiasm. If not, at least they can appreciate the thought behind her organizing these unique gifts.


Taking Risks in Woodworking

Once you have turned your hundred ugly bowls you have paid your dues and developed some skill. You know what works and what doesn’t. You can judge what is a safe design and what is not. So off you go making objects of similar form and design.

I had my wares at a Craft Fair the other day and a man stopped to chat with me. He said that all my work looked the same. While I was very aware of the minor differences in my pieces, he was really correct. My designs and executions were predictable. I used classic forms and produced smooth surfaces. I did not take many chances.

Some of this may come from my desire to produce something functional from every good piece of wood I come across. Somehow I feel that wood is a trust and that it is my responsibility to make a useful object that will prolong the life of the wood from the once living tree. It took the tree so long to make the wood.

Recently I was visiting a friend in Lancaster, PA. As we walked to an art show in Long’s Park, we passed an open field used for athletics. I noticed a tree with drooping branches. Most deciduous tree branches don’t droop. It was a very large tree so I walked over to examine it more closely. It was a pear tree. It must have been more than three feet diameter and it was loaded with pears. I was reminded of the saying that it is the tree with the most fruit whose branches bow the lowest. I said I would really love to have some pear wood to work. Ever since reading about pear wood in James Krenov’s books I had been intrigued by the wood. My friend and I continued our walk to the park and I forgot about the incident.

The next week my wife came in after a walk in the neighborhood with a leaf and asked me to identify it. I told her it was a Bradford pear. She said she got it from a limb which had broken from a neighbor’s tree and it appeared to her eye to be large enough to make something from it. I walked over to take a look and agreed with her. I left a note in the mailbox. The next day the neighbor called and said the professionals had already removed the limb as it was blocking the driveway but would I like to have the whole tree that remained.

Bradford pears are well known for their rapid symmetrical growth and white flowers in the spring. They have been favored by landscapers for the past 20 years. Unfortunately, their growth habit makes them subject to shedding large limbs after about 18 years of growth. Some cities are removing them from city streets because of this habit. My neighbor told me that he had six Bradford pears planted in his yard when he moved in 22 years ago. This was the last one remaining and it was beginning to go.

This seems to happen to me so many times. I have a desire for a species of wood and then forget about it. The next thing I know I am blessed with an abundance of it. So now I had a whole tree to play with and did not have to be so darn conservative.

Nature’s attempt to buttress weak forks of a tree makes for spectacular grain patterns when cut at right angles to the pattern. In this case, cutting the log in half by connecting the cut to the middle of the growth centers of the two limbs of the fork will reveal the crotch or flame grain as it is sometimes called. Below is a cherry platter made from such a cut.

On seeing this my wife suggested that I make a set of six of them. To this I replied that it would probably take a set of six cherry trees as this wood is only in the fork of the tree and many of the slices check badly on drying. I never did really understand the feminine desire for sets of matching pieces.

Pear wood plate

This new found pear wood, however, was not large enough to do with what I did with the cherry. Yet I had a desire to do something different but still capture the wild grain. I looked at one forked log and decided to take some risks. I decided to bore right down into the crotch starting where the limbs parted from the main trunk.

This meant that I had to risk the bottom of the vessel splitting or checking in the drying process as the base would contain the center of growth of the tree. This is wood that is notorious for checking as it dries. Usually you try to eliminate it entirely.

By turning it green before it had a chance to dry, I reasoned, it might reduce the internal stresses enough so that the remaining heart wood in the base of the vessel would not have the force to split the piece.

So, I mounted the log between centers with the main trunk of the log parallel to the bed of the lathe and turned it roughly round and then began to shape the outside.

By turning a tenon or plug on the base end I was able to remove it from between centers and mount it in a scroll chuck on one end with the other end free so that I could make the hollowing cuts.

Making hollow vessels is something I have not been doing very long and find it a bit challenging. This time the process seemed to go fairly smoothly. To judge the thickness of the wall I used a bright light behind the turning and when I could see light transmitted through the wall of the turning as it spun I knew that I was about there. I was a bit surprised that light will penetrate a turning wall that is 1/8th of an inch thick as this is still quite strong in a circular form.

Some of the rim of my hollow vessel was flat where the limbs had been sawn off and some was natural edged wood. How could I make this look like something? After some study when the piece was removed from the lathe I decided to carve some flowing curves to replace the straight sawn lines of parts of the rim. The other parts I left natural so you could see that it was made from a crotch piece of wood.

Being turned thin walled while still green, the wood did not check or the bottom split. I was rewarded in my risk taking with the lovely flame grain pattern on each side of the vessel nearest to the crotch. Some members of my turning club have said that pear wood is boring and seek to enhance it with colored dyes. To my eye the grain pattern is fascinating and needed nothing but some tung oil and wax to give it a light sheen.

pear wood urn


Sanding is Essential

Sanding on the lathe

Well begun may be half done but it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings. For those of you who are younger, many public performances live, on TV and on radio were ended when Kate Smith, who was a bit stout, sang God Bless America. Youth has always been impatient for grown up activities to come to an end and I can just see a father bending over and saying to his son the line about the fat lady singing.

There is a great urge for the new woodworker to skimp on the final steps so that he or she can use and admire their handiwork. It is a natural reaction but one that I don’t recommend. The difference between a well finished piece and a sloppily finished one is profound. Wood is such a beautiful medium. When its surface has been poorly sanded, you cannot see the beauty of the grain pattern and its subtle colors. This is due to the refraction of light by many fibers sticking proud of the wood surface. It is similar to the halo effect when you have a subject backlit by having it between you and the sun. The features become indistinct because each leaf or hair strand or whatever you are trying to photograph bends the light in many different directions and contrast is lost in a fuzzy glow.

With sanding, what you do is scratch the wood. Coarse sandpaper makes big scratches but removes uneven tool marks more quickly. As you progress to finer and finer grits of sandpaper the scratches get finer and finer until you can no longer see them. You remove more and more of the wood fibers that have been abraded so that they are proud of the wood surface. The difference is like looking at a reflection in a still pond or looking at it when there are ripples or even waves on the pond. Now you can see the subtle color and pattern variation that makes wood so attractive. When you then apply a finish to the wood you fill in more of the voids between the wood fibers and get even more of a view of the underlying beauty of the wood. Now its surface is like that still pond and the light is reflected to give a true picture of the grain and color.

Life is a bit like that. The more we refine our skills, the more accurately they reflect nature’s ideal which lies deep within us and which is so familiar and pleasing when fully expressed.

Many find sanding not particularly enjoyable and some of this may be due to not taking proper precautions. My rule of thumb is to wear my dust mask every time I enter my shop. Fine particulate dust, and it is always around even in the cleanest of shops, can go deep into the lungs. It is an irritant and may be a carcinogen. I know many long time woodworkers who have a chronic productive cough and respiratory problems. Allergies to wood dust can also be a problem and the first exposure may be the most important. Thus, as a physician who took care of many patients with chronic lung disease, safety first makes sense to me. I find that if I just have the habit of donning my dust mask first thing and keeping it on the whole time I am in the shop, I never seem to have any problem from exposure to the copious clouds of dust generated by my sanding and use of other power machinery. It’s like putting your seat-belt on when you get in the car. After a while you don’t even think about it.

I had a friend who ran an auto repair shop when I lived in Newport News, Virginia. It was an old fashioned, service oriented operation where you could leave your car and use the old clunker owned by the shop until your car was ready to be picked up, a service I found very valuable. In the shop was a sign on the wall which said: “If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, how will you ever find time to do it over again.

So, in wood finishing, get it right the first time. One thing that is important is to keep striving to use better and better tool technique. The more skilled you are with your sharp tools, the less sanding you will have to do to the surface. This means that your project will go faster. While sanding repairs a rough surface, it takes time and patience. Mastery of tool technique just comes with practice and knowledge. Fortunately today there are so many sources of information for the woodworker that poor technique is really a matter of choice, rather than necessity. In times past you would have to apprentice yourself to a master woodworker and spend years to learn the techniques. Now you can purchase a book, video or DVD or even go on line to the internet to get all the knowledge you can ever need and then some.

Sanding with my homemade dust collection system

As you progress in your woodworking activities you may want to consider a dust collection system for your shop. Being on a limited budget and tools being very expensive I was a long time getting one. I watched ads in the Penny-saver every week and one day found a used dust collection system for sale. It turned out that it was another doctor who wanted to sell it and he lived just a mile or so from my house. When I went to see it he admitted that he had never used it. Consisting of a 50 gal. drum with the filter inside and a separate impeller in a housing with a two horse power electric motor attached, The 220 volt cord for the motor had an end which did not fit the plugs in my shop. I wasn’t sure that I knew how to get this thing working and indicated some reservation. He was also selling a contractor’s trim saw that caught my attention. I needed one, since my radial arm saw had died on me. When I expressed some interest in the saw, for which he was not asking much money, he said that if I bought the saw he would throw in the dust collection system for free. That clinched the deal.

Now, I do cabinet work, but am not much on carpentry. They are two different skills. However, I had a friend who did general contracting who had been getting me to help him learn to turn wood. I asked his advice and he actually ended up building me a platform for the dust system mounted on casters so the system could be rolled up to different machines in the shop. He would not take anything for his efforts, the real friend that he is.

I mounted the drum and the motor and impeller above it. The wiring was simple and only required a new plug that fit my wall sockets. Now I had to connect the impeller to the drum. The fittings took a seven inch duct. This is a non-standard size as most dust collection hoses are four inches in diameter. One day I was walking through Home Depot and spied a galvanized stove pipe connector which had three joints which could be turned to different angles to simplify fitting one pipe to another even though one was offset from the other. It was all of $7 and much cheaper than any solution I had been able to come up with.

With a little duck tape I was in business except for one thing. The filter bag to catch the fine dust was missing. I called a commercial company, which said it would be happy to make me one for $275. Talking to my contractor friend again, he suggested taping a pair of panty hose to the impeller dust outlet. This is the reason you see the hose adorning my dust collector. It may not be perfect but it works well enough for now.

Just one other safety note. A twenty dollar pair of mickey mouse hearing protectors is a lot cheaper than hearing aids. In Newport New where I practiced medicine the major employer was the shipyard. Steel edges are prepared for welding by use of a chipping hammer. You can imagine the noise of such a hammer on a two story piece of plate steel. Eighty percent of the retirees from that shipyard had permanent hearing impairment. Shop machines are noisy. I want to be able to hear my grandchildren clearly so I always wear ear muffs when exposed to loud noises. We are setting the stage for another generation of the hearing impaired with the use of leaf blowers and lawn mowers without hearing protectors. Do it now and you won’t have to repent in leisure, to paraphrase Socrates.

The point of this is that it is not how much money you throw at something. As a researcher for many years I became convinced that there was an inverse relationship between the research funding and the quality of the ideas it produced. What we are really after is creativity. There is an infinite amount of that in all of us. When we have a technique to harness that creativity, then we can do just about anything.


Dustin Coates: A New England Treasure

Dustin Coates

Dustin Coates and Edwards Smith in Dustin's shop

A finished bowl by Dustin Coates

As the mind becomes less rigidly bound, it goes beyond the shop and your own projects and wonders what it is like in other wood turner’s shops. Working in isolation is satisfying but always in the back of your mind are a few nagging questions. Has some one else done this before and done it better or easier? Could I save some time by not re-inventing the wheel myself? How do others express their creativity? With these thoughts in mind I wish to share my experiences with another woodworker.

I first met Dustin Coates over Christmas holiday in December, 2007. My daughter, who lives in Etna, New Hampshire sent me an article from the local paper in Hanover which did a feature article on him. Knowing of my interest in wood turning and my planned holiday visit she thought I might be interested.

The front of Dustin Coates' studio

Was I ever! The picture showed a pick up truck at Dustin’s shop, which is just two miles up the road from where my daughter lived. On this truck was a piece of burl which was so big that they had to hitch a tractor to it to pull it off the bed of the truck. This was more than enough to whet my interest.

I wasn’t sure what I would encounter driving up to his shop unannounced. As I pulled in, my eye fell on the most marvelous assortment of logs, burls, pieces of equipment and other objects, peeking out of the rapidly melting snow.

A large burl in front of Dustin's shop

There was no one in his little studio but my eye immediately fell on row after row of beautiful burl wood bowls. Clearly I was dealing with someone with a refined eye and sensitivity to wood which I shared.

Back outside I encountered Dustin, a huge ox of a man with a gentle, wispy, full-faced beard and dancing blue eyes set in a very kind face. When he smiled, which was often, his whole face lit up with pleasure. I explained that I had read the article in the paper about him and that my daughter lived just down the road. I mentioned that I was a wood turner as well and would be interested in seeing his shop. Here I was, a perfect stranger, interfering with a working man.

Dustin Coates in his shop

If he minded, Dustin did not let on as he took me around his shop. The piles of wood in the yard were in seeming disarray but as he showed me around, it was clear that he knew where every piece came from, a story about the wood, and an intended purpose for all of it. He spoke in loving terms about a 150 year old gigantic walnut limb or a burl he bought from one of his many lumberman contacts. To the casual observer, the wood lot was chaos but in Dustin’s mind it was as orderly as it could be.

If the lot was impressive, I was not prepared for what I saw inside his workshop. In room after room there were rough turned bowl blanks stacked from floor to ceiling. In some areas we were walking on them. These were newly turned green blanks which had been buried under wood shavings to slow the rate at which they dried, in order to prevent cracking.

Rough turned bowls in Dustin Coates' shop /></p>
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One of Dustin Coates' lathes

Bowl blanks awaiting work in Dustin Coates' shop

Bowl blanks and wood shavings from Dustin Coates

There was just enough room to get to the various lathes. Some of the lathes were quite old but they were still very functional and much sturdier than many modern machines.

multiple rough turned bowls cored from a single blank

I noticed nests of rough turned bowls where many bowls had been cored from a single blank. This was a technique I had not yet mastered. To make a fifteen inch bowl I would reduce the insides to sawdust.

I mentioned to him that I was interested in learning how to core bowl blanks and could see that he had certainly mastered the techniques. When you work with burl, you are working with expensive material and need to maximize the use of the precious resource.

Dustin Coates at the lathe

I asked about the tools he used for this purpose. His response was: “Here, I will show you how to do it.” With this he picked up a round chunk of wood, mounted it on his antique lathe, installed the coring device and before my very eyes in less than five minutes produced a perfectly cored bowl blank with the center of the blank preserved to core yet another bowl blank.

It looked so easy that I got him to give me details on what tools to order. His advice was very practical and he saved me from purchasing inferior tools and from getting more tools than I needed for the job I needed to do.

Now I have cored over one hundred blanks myself. I made trips to his shop that summer to pick up pointers on the finer aspects of coring. These he gave as freely as he did his time.

For a slow learner like myself, listening to Dustin is a bit like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose. He has so much imagination and so many ideas packed in that head of his that they come rushing out at a prodigious rate. I just wish I could remember a third of the tips and ideas he shared with me.

Dustin Coates gives me piece of wood

Days spent with Dustin are always too short, and he never seems to be in a hurry to see me go. It is when I leave that his generous nature begins to come into full force. The first time I left, he innocently asked me if I had any use for a piece of crotch butternut wood.

Now, butternut is not a native species where I live in Maryland so I gladly accepted. When we went to the log, it was huge. It was so big, in fact, that it took both Dustin and another burly wood cutter to pick it up and place it in my Honda, where it completely filled the trunk.

The front of Dustin Coates' studio

Each time I visit it is always the same ritual. This summer it was another large butternut log, end pieces of beautiful burl woods and some buckthorn. Last time it was honey locust logs, more burl scrap pieces and some lilac wood.

Who, but Dustin Coates would have lilac wood? I’m talking about the woody stem of the flowering lilac bush. The insides of this wood were a beautiful reddish purple color. When I made pins out of them and applied friction with sanding, the aroma was very heavenly.

The front of Dustin Coates' studio

So, if you ever find yourself in Hanover, New Hampshire, take a trip down Trescott Road to visit Dustin in his shop and studio. Or drop him a line at 5 Trescott Road, Etna, New Hampshire 03750. Dustin is too busy turning to bother with computers, but he may answer the phone at (603) 643-3499 when he is not in the shop. If you are anything like me, you will find it an unforgettable experience and you may come away with one of his beautiful, burl bowls to treasure for a life time. He is truly a New England Treasure.

Photos by my son, Todd Smith. Prints are available for sale on his website.



sharpening a gouge

Sharpness, whether of mind or of tool is a very important quality. While I always was interested in knives, whittling, and model building as a youth, my efforts never seemed to head in any particular direction or produce any significant product. At age 37 I happened to learn the Transcendental Meditation technique and things began to change. I became more efficient with my time in my medical practice and was able to do twenty percent more work in much less time. What this did was free up time for me to pursue other fields of interest.

The result was an explosion in my interest and abilities in the field of woodworking. I ended up being to make museum quality reproductions of 18th century antiques after several years of spare time work in my garage/shop. I was able to do this without apprenticeship or long hours of study. I simply picked it up out of books.

What I learned later is that this mental technique enables you to use your whole brain. Our educational system teaches us how to use parts of the brain very well but other unused areas begin to become less functional. The brain is analogous to an old fashioned PBX switchboard with cords that plug into a board to complete a call circuit. If you are not connected to the board, your call cannot go through. Like that all of our one hundred billion neurons are connected to hundreds or even thousands of other cells in the brain. These make a neural pathway. Each time we use that pathway, the stronger it becomes. When we don’t use it at all, the neurons disconnect from each other just like pulling the cord out of the PBX board. So, not using part of your brain over time causes loss of what that part of the brain can do for you. Use it or lose it, is the saying.

So whether it be the practice of a profession or a hobby, you need to use your whole mind. As I began to use more of mine, I was delighted to discover hidden potential in the area of woodworking and it has brought me immense pleasure. Now my woodworking had a direction and a functional and useful product.

Most woodworkers work with wood because they prefer it over metal. Yet working wood involves the use of metal tools and that requires some knowledge of metal. Metallurgy has made tremendous strides in the past several decades. Now it is possible to make gouges for bowl turning which will last three to six times longer before needing sharpening compared to the old high carbon steel tools. HIgh speed steel and powdered metal technology produce very hard steels and this is why they last longer. Yet, due to the hardness, the old methods of sharpening using water stones and other soft sharpening stones will no longer work. The steel is too hard and wears away the stone too quickly. So power grinders and diamond hones are now required.

There is still a place for the old high carbon steel tools, however. The softer the steel, the finer you can draw out the cutting edge before it breaks. Hard steels are brittle and soft ones are more ductile. You may remember the high carbon steel kitchen knife that your grandmother had. It would take such a keen edge but she sharpened it after every use and maybe a time or two during the cutting. So if you need an extremely sharp tool, high carbon steel still fills a need.

Every one wants to plunge right in and do something. A teen ager wants to drive before he knows the rules of the road. A medical intern wants to do the procedure before he knows the indication. Woodworkers are ready for their first cut as soon as the get the tool home. Later they say the tool no longer works and they will have to get another one. I had an old fishing buddy when I was in medical practice. He was a surgeon and money was not a great object to him. He had a lovely boat on which I spent many pleasant hours off of the Virginia and Carolina capes. On board one day I was inspecting his knives and remarked that they were dull. He said he knew it, and had to get some new ones and throw those old ones out. “Why not sharpen these?”, I suggested. He replied that you can never get a sharp edge on them like when they came from the factory. I told him I thought I could sharpen them. He said to not waste my time because I could never get them really sharp.

Now, I had been sharpening knives since I was old enough to carry one and it sounded like a great challenge to me. I brought my grandmother’s old Arkansas stone on the next trip out to sea, and set to work. The edges on these knives were completely rounded over so that when you looked down with the edge pointing towards your eye, the edge was shiny-bright and rounded, the hallmark of a dull edge. It took a while but I was able to produce an edge which would shave hair, the mark of a very sharp knife. My friend was completely amazed as he really believed that you could not restore the factory edge.

So if a tool is made of steel, you can find a way to sharpen it. To do it properly you must know what kind of edge you want . This just takes time and trial and error. The important thing is to start. You will make some mistakes at first but in time you will master the skill. Working with a dull tool takes more force and this can result in injury. It also takes more time and gives inferior surfaces. There are many books on sharpening and many jigs and tools to make the process easier and more foolproof. There are lots of little things you will learn along the way. At the grinder, when small sparks begin to pass over the top of the tool instead of just passing under the tool, then you have reached a sharp edge. I learned that from a book. It makes perfect sense, but I would never have figured this out on my own.

I never had very good luck using a skew chisel. It is one of the hardest turning tools to master. My chisel would dig too deep and leave divots where large chunks of wood had been torn out even though this tool is supposed to produce the smoothest edge possible.

Almost a year ago I joined a local wood turners club in my area. It was a good move on my part because now I was surrounded by people with lots of skills and a desire to openly share knowledge and techniques. One of the functions of our club is to bring nationally known turning experts for a demonstration. The first one I attended focused on using the skew chisel for spindle turning–that is, turning with the grain of the wood running parallel to the bed of the lathe. Chair rungs and tool handles are examples of spindle turnings, as opposed to wooden bowls, which are called face plate turnings. Face plate turnings get their name because they are mounted on the lathe by a faceplate, which fastens to the headstock of the lathe.

The first thing the demonstrator did was to emphasize the importance of having a very sharp skew chisel. He proceeded to show us his diamond hone. Even though the tool had been sharpened on the power grinder, it was not ready for use. He made several passes on the 1200 grit side of the diamond hone and then showed us a piece of soft wood with some dirty marks on it. Actually it was wood to which a fine diamond paste had been applied which was of much finer grit than his hone. He stropped the chisel on the diamond impregnated wood several times. The dirty appearance of the wood was due to steel that had been removed from the skew.

He then showed that the skew would shave the hair on the back of his hand as neatly as a razor. Next he proceeded to turn a flawless spindle reproducing the model he brought with him. It seemed so effortless. I still had my doubts and went up to him after the demonstration and explained my problem. He said it was probably due to my skew not being sharp enough from the grinding wheel. I returned home and acquired the diamond hone and diamond sharpening compounds and went to work on my skew. While I am still not as good as the demonstrator, I am getting much better results than before.

So to be good at this, or any other thing for that matter, sharpen well. Get a technique to sharpen your mind because that influences every thing you do. We all have many skills but if they are covered up by stress, we will never know we had them. In wood turning, get the techniques to make your tools very sharp. The beauty of techniques is that, when used as directed, they work for any one.


Broadway Maple

Edwards Smith examines a rough turned bowl blank.

Over the years in my travels around the country I have accumulated a lot of wood. My wife says that I am a wood magnet and wood just naturally is attracted to me. Here I am holding a bowl blank made from what I call Broadway maple. All my wood has a story and since I come from the tradition of southern story tellers, here is the story of Broadway maple.

Actually I live on Broadway Road in Lutherville, Maryland. It is farmland which has given way to development in more recent years but still retains the open feeling of the country. Every day I would pass by this tree in a neighbor’s yard on Broadway Road and noted that it was dying. Several large limbs including one in the crown had begun to decay. We have had some very dry summers here in Maryland and the stress finally got to this tree.

I had the thought to stop by and ask the home owner if I could have a piece of the wood when they cut the tree down. I even thought of offering to cut it down myself. Since it was situated on the corner of the lot with utility poles on two of the four sides, and being 69 years of age, I thought the better of the idea. I stopped by several times but I never could catch anyone at home.

Then in early February I saw the professional tree cutters taking it down. I have missed my chance I thought to myself and drove on. However, when I passed by the next day I saw that the tree service had removed the small limbs but the trunk was still lying there. Maybe I still have a chance, I thought, and resolved to stop by that evening and beg for a piece of the tree. As I headed out the door that evening my wife suggested that I take a pencil and paper and write them a note in case they were not home. Although this was the sixth time I had gone out to make contact with the tree owner, I doubt this practical idea would have ever occurred to me. It did occur to my wife. Sure enough, no one was home. So I wrote a note saying that I was a neighbor just up the road and asked if I could have some of the wood.

The next morning, early, I got a phone call from the owner who said I could have as much as I wanted as it was just going to be hauled up to Pennsylvania and cut for firewood. He said that I had better hurry as the tree expert was coming with a big truck to haul it away that very day. In another thirty minutes he called me back. It turns out that the tree expert was very happy not to have to haul the wood to Pennsylvania and would be happy to deliver it to my yard a mile further up on Broadway Road. He would bring me the whole tree. It was a very old silver maple, about three and a half feet in diameter at the stump.

My next obstacle was my landlord. I rent a small home from him which is right next door to his home. He is a retired lawn care business owner and keeps the premises looking like a park. I had some reservations about dumping this huge tree on his lawn. However, he has gotten too old to cut fire wood for his wood burning stove, but loves the heat from it in the winter months. So I explained to him that all the wood I could not use I would cut and split for his use. Besides it was winter and the grass wasn’t growing anyway. I squeaked by on that logic and several days later a huge truck pulled in and, with deft motions of the lifting arm, deposited a very large amount of wood on the lawn.

It took about seven weeks to get it all cut. I could see that from the staining of the dying limbs that the wood was going to have beautiful colors in it, ranging from pinks to tans, dark brown and even some purple. As I cut into it, I was rewarded with the subtle beauty of the decay-stained wood. Maple is usually a uniform whitish-tan color, and nothing to get excited about. In this tree, as the limbs had been dying for several years, the staining products of decay had gradually percolated down through the sound wood giving the marvelous variations in color and pattern. Actually it is like chromatography where different molecules migrate at different rates of speed and thus colors become concentrated in noticeable bands. It is the same technology that chemists use to separate out molecules in a complex mixture. Here, nature did it for me for free.

Using my big 660 Sthil saw, I hacked away until I had thirty five bowl blanks. Sometimes I have trouble starting this saw because it has so much compression, and I am not as young as I used to be. Once I took the saw to the dealer and said it would not start. When I went to pick it up I inquired as to what the problem had been. The repairman was summoned and told me that there was nothing wrong with the saw. He looked down at my slender frame and said as politely as he could: “What you got there is a Paul Bunyan saw, man.” It is the second to the largest they make but I really needed the power for cutting the large chunks of wood I use.
So, now I cheat a little and spray some ether in the carburetor for slightly easier starts, and hope that my shoulder will outlast the saw.

To get a bowl blank I first cut sections of the tree using the same cut you would use to cut the tree down, that is a crosscut bolt of wood. Then that bolt is turned up on its end and cuts are made on either side to remove the heart section. This is a very important step as the tight rings near the center of the tree always split when the wood dries. This leaves the two halves, missing the heart section. Then I cut the slab off the outer part of the bolt so it will lie flat. Using a large compass I scribe the largest circle I can get from that piece and then either use the chain saw or the shop band saw to cut off the corners until the blank is roughly a round shape.

This round disc of wood is mounted with screws to a faceplate on the lathe, while still wet, and turned to get the outside shape. It is then remounted in a special chuck with jaws that grip the plug, or tenon as it is called in woodworking, to turn the inside shape. As the wet wood spins on the lathe, the water flies out due to the centrifugal force, and may give off quite a spray. Yet turning green wood is so much easier than turning dry wood that this is not much of a bother. Wet wood only has sixty percent of the hardness of dry wood. So the wood turning gouge just slips through that wet wood and produces shavings up to a foot long and the whole process goes quickly.

The next step is to put the bowl blank, that has been rough turned and left thicker than normal, in a place to dry. After trying all kinds of methods, I have come to favor just putting it in a paper bag and closing it up and leaving it for months or longer. I find the chemicals used to speed drying are offensive, change the character of the wood and are not all that effective in preventing checking, or cracking, of the bowl wall due to uneven drying. The paper bag acts like a little air chamber to make the drop in humidity less drastic than the outside air.

When it is dry as you see in the picture above, it is ready to be remounted to the lathe and turned true, and to final dimensions. As the wood dries it warps and is no longer completely round. The extra waste wood you left on when it was turned green is enough to allow the bowl to be turned true again before final shaping and finishing.

Many months later, I delivered a finished bowl and some implements and a rolling pin to the wife of the tree owner as I had promised. Her eyes almost popped out of her head. She exclaimed in a very loud voice: “I had no idea that beautiful bowl was in that old tree”

So, my point is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To her the dying tree was an eyesore and to her husband it was a liability as it might fall and damage the neighbors plantings. To me it was a treasure, as I thought it would be. To my landlord it was a warm winter, although he did get a little nervous about me getting up the sawdust that covered over the grass after I was done sawing.

The other thing I have learned is that much wood is available in the city just for the asking. Timber people seldom are interested in just one tree and they are fearful that it may have nails or wire buried in it from living in close contact with humans. It can damage their expensive saws and planers. Many times, people will feel that you are doing them a great favor by taking the wood away. Otherwise, much beautiful wood just ends up in landfills or fireplaces.

So keep a weather eye on the neighborhood. Suburbia is dotted with fine trees, all of which will have to come down sooner or later or fall heir to some natural disaster. If you share the finished product with the donor of the tree, then they will be most appreciative and will probably keep you in mind when they hear of another tree that needs to come down.


For the Love of Wood

Welcome to a blog for those who love wood.

I fell in love with wood and woodworking when I was very young. I used to love to “twiddle”.

Today, my wife calls me the “wood magnet” and my whole family seems to agree. I simply, unabashedly love wood of all kinds, sizes and sources and I seem to gather it everywhere I go.

I especially love to find a use for wood that would have otherwise been abandoned or been burned.

Local woods, often in a neighbor’s back yard, are the ones I like to favor. No shipping, no rain-forest destruction, just enjoyment of the final gift a tree can give.

In fact, I love every stage of a tree’s development. I love to plant trees, and have planted many fruit and nut trees in the many places I have lived. I love to watch them grow. And it’s a joy when they flower and give fruit. I love the shade of trees, and I love to wander in the woods.

When a tree falls or needs to be taken down, I love to cut it and discover the beautiful pattern of its grain beneath the bark. And of course, I love to shape a bowl or a useful kitchen implement from the wood.

I hope you will enjoy this blog with me, as I share my appreciation for everything about wood.