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Tuning the Skew: Practice the Essential Skills
By Temple Blackwood
Castine, ME

In mid-November (2017) I enjoyed a special visit south to spend a weekend turning with eleven members of the Chesapeake Woodturners at their woodturning room in Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, Maryland. The second day included demonstrations for the club meeting. Our reunion was sweet, the camaraderie and hospitality exceptional. We offered the Friday class as a special spindle turning, multiples, efficiencies class, and it drew a surprisingly strong enrollment of turners who I know and admire as experienced and accomplished artists and designers. Apparently, they felt the impulse to work on their basic skills, and that is what we did, working "as wood likes to be cut" (Peter Child, A Craftsman Woodturner). The overriding messages of the class were to create projects that inspire meaningful practice with the conventional tools and to enhance each turner's comfort level and confidence as a demonstrator and teacher.

Each of the men and women in the class shared that special emotional connection to beautiful wood being shaped and formed by the power of the spinning lathe, well-applied sharp tools, and a vision of sensual beauty. While I have been long-time friends and an admirer of nearly all of them, I soon gained a connection to the new folks. By the time the class ended we shared a significant turning experience while learning a great deal from each other, a fundamental and compelling reason to teach and to demonstrate.

From a practical perspective, we started with a simple initial turning drill I find successfully gives new as well as experienced turners extensive practice in the primary tools and maneuvers that are core skills for the production spindle turner. These skills are analogous to musicians learning to tune their instruments, play the scales, re-orient their minds and muscles from the day-to-day distractions, and focus their attention on the task at hand. In many art forms, establishing this base of musicians playing the music scales and dancers and athletes performing work-out stretches, accomplishes this goal. From my experience, a simple votive candlestick does that for the student of woodturning.

Candlestick Turning Process

When turning multiples, I find it helpful to have a visual copy of the end-goal object present to help me tune my attention, orient my tools and cuts, and keep my focus sharpened. With this project (essentially a project for practicing basic spindle cuts and building skills) the turner can enjoy using the core tools and cutting process (playing the scales) while ending up with a useful and attractive product to present as a gift or take-away item, sometimes an important "kitchen pass."

The first step, and an important one to teach a new student is to select an attractively figured piece of wood, in this case spalted birch.

Prepare the blank by squaring it for turning; freehand at the bandsaw is adequate.

Drill the 1-1⁄2" hole with a forstner bit for the votive candle BEFORE turning. This centers the hole when the project is completed. Be sure to secure the blank with clamps or a vise for safety at the drill press.

Drill just past the height of the forstner bit 1-1⁄2" body, usually a match for the body of the votive candle.

Center the drive center on what will become the bottom of the candlestick.

Mount the piece with the hole in the live center of the tailstock.

At this point in the lesson with first-time students, we talk about the terminology and the importance of learning the parts of the lathe, the names of the tools, the importance of sharpening, and the basic descriptions of wood. We also focus on introducing the four essential spindle turning tools and their use as well as the three "rules."

  1. Rubbing/Riding the bevel
  2. Large-to-small
  3. Tailstock-to-headstock

From my own experience turning and teaching, I prefer (and provide to students) the Sorby "continental grind" chisels with a classic grind.

Using a roughing gouge with the bevel rubbing (Rule #1) and the lathe turning between 800 – 1200 RPM, round the blank to the largest possible cylinder from headstock to tailstock.

While it is desirable to have a tool rest long enough to span the full length, it is easy enough to relocate a shorter one. Remember Rule #2 "turn from larger diameter toward smaller" and Rule #3 "turn details at a given diameter on the right (tailstock) before turning that diameter on the left." This becomes even more critical on longer turnings but is good practice on these shorter ones.

Using the long point of the skew chisel (beginners work better with 1" or larger skews), define the finished bottom by levering the point into the blank, dishing the cut slightly. Later this cut finished properly will cause the candlestick to sit securely on its outer edge.

Moving to the right (top), again lever the skew chisel point to clean up and define the end-grain. This is an opportunity to angle the top in, out, flat, or rounded in relationship to the votive candle – a design/artistic decision.

With the bottom and top defined using the skew's long point, use the skew with the bevel rubbing (always) to practice the smoothing cut.

This opportunity to practice with the skew's most effective end-grain cuts and long-grain smoothing cut is difficult for some but well worth the effort to master. Without question, the skew is the best tool in the box. Learning, practicing, and mastering the skew's pealing/smoothing cut is the first of two major spindle skills that will inspire confidence and pleasure for the turner eliciting admiration from an audience. With the bevel rubbing and cutting on the lower 1/3rd of the edge, keep the pressure firmly on the bevel riding the smoothed wood. This will cut smoothly and burnish the wood for an exceptionally pleasing finish. Working on this is also an opportunity to slightly taper the blank to make the top of the candlestick smaller and lighter than the bottom, a pleasing design element.

Next, using a pencil, mark the detail elements of beads, shoulders, vees, and coves as shown.

On the left (working there because this is the largest diameter detail), mark three thin lines that will become vee grooves (decorative and often helpful marks). On the right, mark a space (1/2" or 1" turner's design preference) for the beads, coves, and shoulders.

The next tool, Sorby's 3/8" Beading and Parting Tool, represents the best of the wide variety of available parting tools and turned out to be a new tool for many in class that day. After using the several copies of the tool I provided, at least three of the turners reported that they planned to add this tool to their collection because of its versatility.

To form the V-Groove (popular among the Shakers and production turners as a design element that locates a specific place to drill a hole or match another element), the turner uses a Beading and Parting Tool on its side to first mark the center with a vertical cutting edge.

Next, by tipping the tool slightly to the side, slide the cutting point into that center cutting first on one side.

Now do the other side.

This process shapes a clean, crisp, "V", marking the wood.

The next element to practice depends again on the 3/8" Beading and Parting Tool. On the right end of the blank (tailstock), mark the pencil mark on the far right side for a shouldering cut (this will make room for the bead, and the turner needs to be sure to cut below the bottom of the drilled hole). Begin with the Beading and Parting Tool on its side to cut the grain and preserve the wood to the right which will become the bead.

Addressing the pencil-marked section with the tool's bevel rubbing, push and lift the tool to cut in a shoulder about 1/8".

Continue these shearing plunge cuts across the pencil-marked section, and repeat it for the next section. You're creating an apparent internal column. The sides of these will later become the shoulders of the element.

One darker mark to the left of the third bead is a 1⁄2" V-Groove. Again this will allow room for the tool to create a bead. Begin by marking next to the planned bead as if that will be the center of the V; then slice in only from the left to right increasing the depth as the tool enters further from the left.

The next element involves "rolling the bead" with the Beading and Parting Tool. This is the second of the two most useful skills for a turner to practice and acquire as second-nature. Rolling the bead consists of first creating the necessary spaces for the tool (shoulders, V-cuts, coves) and then literally "rolling" the bead using the points of the tool and rotating and lifting in combination the full 90 degrees from flat across.

Now round the bead.

Finish to a goal on each side.

Now fully twist to 90 degrees.

The challenge is to get each one to mirror the other ones. This takes practice but is well worth the effort to master.

Coves offer the next challenge and are an effective way to address precision with the small gouge (also called a detail gouge). Once again, I find the classic continental grind 3/8" gouge from Sorby works well. Remembering Rule #2 "cut from large diameter to small" in this case means that using a small or medium gouge, turn the tool nearly upside down to start the cut to provide a support for the bevel while pushing and lifting the tool to slide into one side of the cove, a little like scooping ice cream.

Once at the bottom, pull the tool out, twist the other way, and start again from the other side.

With the bulk of the wood out of the way, start with the bevel rubbing and make the walls steeper by shifting the angle of attack and pushing in and then through (up) the bottom of the valley.

This valuable skill again develops readily with practice and repetition, another reason to use this design as a regular activity in the turner's shop.

Essentially, the major turning for this project is complete. Assuming the bevel has been rubbing for the final cut on each element, the turner should be able to start sanding with 220 or 320 grit paper; the dust is desirable.

Move the tool rest out of the way to allow sanding with folded paper from underneath – a matter of safety and precaution.

With the new candlestick now sanded and ready, polish it to a shine.

Use the magic quick-dry friction polish (1/3 shellac, 1/3 boiled linseed oil, 1/3 turpentine – shaken often in an air-tight container –lid closed) applied under power with a paper cloth.

Use the heat of friction to dry it to a pleasant finished shine.

The next step is to reverse the completed piece end-to-end between centers.

Finish dishing the bottom with a skew chisel's long point.

This will allow it to stand firmly supported by the outside ring of its base.

Reversing the turning on the lathe for many people seems to be a major concept/surprise and helps students better understand the opportunities for thinking about how to approach different projects.

The final step is to sign, date, and finish the bottom before selecting an appropriate votive candle to compete the project.

Class Reflections

The skills and process of this project encompass the full range of standard spindle turning and offer the turner an opportunity to practice, practice, practice while producing a simple, attractive gift-item that can be used by nearly anyone. The votive candles, scented and unscented, are available in a variety of shops, drugstores, and hobby stores at inexpensive prices. The project challenges a turner to select an attractive piece of wood, apply design and turning skills – often redesigned by chance or error (also called a "field correction"), and make the practice time, even on a piece of old firewood, valuable.

Developing the discipline of skillful application of the sharpened edge, bevel, and spinning wood transports the turner to a new level of physical kinesthetic delight of wood, machine, tools, and body. The philosophy or Zen of this is wonderful to think about, but it just begins to rise to the reality of the activity and the feelings. Our class at Maryland Hall was rewarding for all as each participant, including the instructor, gained new knowledge and understanding about turning.

The fascination of watching someone turn nearly matches the passion that many of us feel for being the turner.

Sharing that passion for working with wood and particularly for shaping useful and beautiful things almost magically from a rough piece of log or firewood adds to the experience and enriches those who as observers might at some point become the students and ultimately the craft-artists.

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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