Highland Woodworking
Turning the Corner: Resources for Reluctant Woodturners
By Temple Blackwood

Turning the Corner focuses on using woodturning on the lathe as a way of enhancing cabinetry, furniture designs, and architectural installations. Each article also suggests an important woodworking book to read, reread or listen to, and a link to an appropriate article in The Highland Woodturner. Along the way, these articles seek to inspire woodworkers (cabinetmakers, carpenters, and housewrights) to extend their skills into basic, novice, and advanced woodturning while discovering for themselves this particularly sensual and spiritually rewarding dimension of working with wood.

Several weeks ago, on a rainy Saturday morning when I was looking forward to a day of puttering, cleaning-up, sharpening, and relaxing, two fellows pulled up to my shop in their car, got out, and greeted me warmly by name. In the course of introductions (they turned out to be father and son) they explained that they were spending a week with their respective wives traveling the down-east coast of Maine and were eager to visit my shop and learn about woodturning. Both men were experienced woodworkers, and the son recalled turning for a short time in his middle school shop class, but neither felt any comfort with their woodturning skills.

Searching my memory (an increasingly unreliable resource), I kept wondering if this was one of the several recently scheduled beginner woodturning lessons from my website that I might have failed to put on my calendar. Assuming it might be, we launched into a tour, short history of my shop and woodturning career, and ultimately into the basic starter spindle lesson that I typically offer.

The short version of this story is that we had a great lesson. Both men enjoyed learning about the lathes, tools, and techniques, and both men completed the initial mini project that seems to work so well. Happily, as they finished up at the three-hour mark, their wives showed up to admire their work. As they paid for their lesson and for several items their wives picked from my gallery, I finally understood that they had not pre-scheduled this visit but were delighted to have had an impromptu first lesson in woodturning spindles. They resolved to schedule a return visit to explore bowl turning, and both wives announced that they would be coming as well.

Their unexpected visit prompted my thoughts about the many things I have heard over the years about why men and women who have a passion for working in wood shy away from woodturning. Those explanations seem to fall into six categories:

  1. Safety – for some reason, managing the lathe, tools, and wood involved in turning seem different from the safe practices with the (o, my goodness) table saw or radial arm saw.
  2. Tools do not work for me and often scare me with catches.
  3. My turnings look like mush, and I do not feel like I am learning to improve.
  4. Turnings are just for kitchen and usable home things but too often look "home-made" from seventh grade.
  5. Turning takes too long and makes me feel stupid.
  6. That darn lathe takes up too much room in my shop for no purpose!

Fortunately, these issues are easy to address for most people (really) with a one-day lesson that includes taking notes and doing homework! From my perspective of having worked in isolation teaching myself through trial-and-error beginning in the late 1960's and later working over the years with many students of all ages and both genders, there are a few key ingredients to a smoother learning path.

  1. Safety – face-shield (works best when down and properly adjusted), properly installed wood, sharp tools, and addressing the wood with the tool and body at the proper position.
  2. Tools properly sharpened, rubbing the bevel to control the cut, and addressing the spinning wood at the proper angles, which is a practice (homework) issue with some guidance, especially in sharpening, but like learning to ride a two-wheel bike, once you get it you are in a new dimension of skill and achievement.
  3. Designing practice projects that copy an existing shape can help a new turner develop a better sense of what makes a pleasing profile while offering productive opportunities to practice the essential tool-control skills.
  4. With the return of woodturning as an art-form in the 1970's, new techniques, new materials, new tools, and an impressive library of beautiful (some useful, others more art-form) sculptural forms have led to a renaissance in the art world that now includes several museums totally dedicated to wood-turned art.
  5. The activity of woodturning is enormously sensual and rewarding as the turner gains skill. Many satisfying projects are typically quickly completed, as compared to cabinet or furniture building, and even early skill-building projects can lead to an impressive success.
  6. Lathes make terrible places to try to stack other projects or store tools; the solution is to make use of the lathe or give it to someone else who will.

The most important step is to find a convenient place to schedule a woodturning lesson from an experienced teacher, as my two new students intended to do several weeks ago. The American Association of Woodturners was established in the mid-1980's with an education of others mission, and it continues to provide an excellent opportunity for connecting to other woodturners who are eager to share their knowledge and techniques as well as the best and most reliable on-line resources for members. The many regional AAW clubs steadily reach out to school students and new turners to welcome them to their meetings where there is an energetic free exchange of ideas, tools, techniques, and projects. I and many other AAW members offer regular lessons in our shops (as well as inexpensive "shop time") which are properly configured with multiple lathes, tools, safety equipment, and wood. The same is true of the Highland Woodworking classroom where many talented teacher/turners/demonstrators regularly offer beginning and advanced woodturning lessons in a properly established environment.

These resources are invaluable because they allow a beginner/novice to experience the thrill of learning the basic skills while experimenting with high-quality lathes, tools, and associated sharpening systems before trying to make expensive purchases. Working with one or many other woodturners allows us all to share the passion for this rewarding activity in a way that deepens friendships, builds skills, and enhances the multitude of sharing – ideas, tools, techniques, and (endlessly) beautiful wood.

This month's book recommendation to read or inspiring re-read: The Art of Fine Tools by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.

Article link: Highland Woodworking's index of many turning how-to's, projects, and articles by experienced woodturners.

Click here to browse through Highland Woodworking's Woodturning department

Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at temple@highlandswoodturning.com. Take a look at Temple's Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/

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