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Turning for Furniture Makers

by Curtis Turner
Round Rock, TX

Note: Click on any picture to see a larger version.

I have always found it interesting how woodworkers are generally divided into two camps. Flat woodworkers and round woodworkers with only a small percentage of makers working in both crafts.

Hobby woodworkers are drawn into the craft for many reasons. The romantic idea of making one's own furniture, desire to leave a legacy, family heritage and my favorite, "to save money" are just a few.

Similarly, I can understand how a person becomes drawn to the idealistic image of turning utilitarian bowls. However, pen turning probably has done more to inspire more new turners in the last 10 years than any other factor.

I am sure that if you asked non-woodworkers to name a famous woodworker, most would say Norm Abrams or Roy Underhill. Clearly, the latter two gentlemen have inspired decades of new woodworkers. But, ask a non-woodworker to name a turner, you are likely to get a blank stare. I find it interesting that there is no celebrity turner that the mass market can identify. Yet, turning is a one of the growth segments of the woodworking industry.

I happen to be one of the few woodworkers at the intersection of both groups. I find aspects of both crafts very appealing. The woodworker in me enjoys hand tools and watching a project emerge from a stack of lumber. I also experience the level of satisfaction when I turn an object from a log I harvested months before.

No reason for the divide

I certainly believe flat woodworkers could expand their craft by incorporating woodturning. I see turning as another element of larger a category referred to as "woodworkers". Turning is a skill that can contribute unique elements to flat projects such as:

  1. Custom turned knobs for cabinets and boxes
  2. Finials for bed posts, and crest finial for cabinets
  3. Spindles for tables such as "candle" or piecrust tables
  4. Spindles for ball and claw legs, chairs or stools

These are the obvious cross over aspects of turning. However, there are some that are less obvious. A furniture maker that bids on a commission for a natural edge hall table might offer to include a coordinating bowl or platter from the same tree. This could serve as a unique element that may sway the business her way. Or a craftsman could offer this service as an optional (for a fee) item. This could serve to distinguish the maker from others.

Of course, presenting your client with a turned walnut fountain pen to match the executive desk you delivered would be an unexpected bonus for your client. These ideas need not necessarily be for the professional woodworker. I would imagine a granddaughter would be thrilled to receive a Maloof inspired rocking chair along with a coordinating natural edge bowl.

How to get started

A turned mallet would be a good first project for a new turner.

A mallet could be an item that the furniture maker could enjoy using for years. How about your grandfather's old chisels? The only thing that maybe stopping you from putting them back to use is the broken or missing handles. A small lathe and a little time could produce beautiful handles.

The best first step is to take an intro to turning class. Other options would be to find a local mentor or join a local turning club.

But how to get past the tool decision matrix?

A small lathe is all that most people need. A few turning tools and a chuck will have you up and turning in no time. Do not over analyze every marketing data point. Don't get me wrong the specs are important but over analysis could lead you to studying tools and not techniques. It really is simple to get started.

In my opinion, the needs of a new turner can be distilled down to:

1. A quality small lathe . This may appear to be more expensive than a cheapie hardware store lathe. Please consider that most super cheap lathes have minimum speeds of well over 500 rpm. This means turning a rough blank at 900 rpm on the discount lathe may have a higher risk of an accident. Also, some knock off lathes have uncommon spindle size/threads. This means that it becomes more difficult to locate accessories for the lathe. Not to mention overall reliability. None of these cheaper alternatives result in a lower total cost of ownership.

What about all the tools and add-ons?

2. My recommendation to students is to buy quality turning tools. I didn't say the most expensive. I would stay away from the lower quality tools. I think it is harder to successfully sharpen low quality tools. The metal breaks down unevenly and dulls quickly. This gives you a false sense of how to sharpen and what sharp actually is.

I suggest you buy one of each of the following:

  1. Spindle roughing
  2. Spindle gouge
  3. Bowl gouge
  4. Parting tool
  5. Skew
  6. Not a tool but required: A face shield

I hesitate to recommend a specific size. Everyone has an opinion. However, the real answer is centered on what you want to make. For example, if you only want to make parts for chairs then you may not want a bowl gouge.(see stool photo) If you want to turn very small items then smaller sized tools would be appropriate.

3. I would add a good quality chuck from Easy Wood Tools, Oneway or Teknatool. Also an 8" grinder for sharpening along with sharpening jig.

Expanding Creativity

Learning to turn would certainly add to your skill set. It opens options that don't exist in the flat world. Furniture makers may find that turning stretches your creative muscles and spurs you on to your next great project.

What about turners learning to make furniture? Well, that's a topic for another article!

Curtis was the 2012 President of Central Texas Woodturners , a member of the American Association of Woodturners , and a member of Fine Woodworkers of Austin . Curtis teaches and demonstrates nationally for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. He also owns a studio where he teaches and works. Curtis lives and works in Central Texas with his wife and four young children. Take a look at his website at .

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