Highland Woodworking
Turning the Corner: Art from Wood
By Temple Blackwood

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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 attributes make woodturning particularly attractive to woodworkers who enjoy working with wood and with the tools of woodworking. One of the most attractive traits is that creating a project on the lathe, start-to-finish, is relatively quick, many in only an hour or two. Another attractive trait for someone like me – "color-stupid" (meaning I do not have an innate talent for picking colors or imagining how a particular color might look) – is that wood, especially the hardwoods, has its own colors, frequently enhanced by the figure within the grain.

While I will not pretend to be anywhere near the talent of Georgia O'Keeffe, her inspiration and artistic energy stimulate my search for an especially elegant piece of wood from which I might turn an expressive and pleasing piece of art for an especially important upcoming gift.

The heart shape, outlined in natural edge bark, enhanced by the deep and complex graining of the crotch limb of a birch from the woods, finished with naturally clear friction polish and wax addresses that search. The search for just the right piece of wood is ever-present for a project like this.

From another perspective, the process of discovering an interesting piece of wood and being open to respond to its unique features that compel the artist to expose a particular form from within it requires a search for the time to address that creative vision. Either way, the adventure offers rewards on many levels – creative, skillful, pleasing expression of the interplay between shape, form, and function.

This specific project starts with selecting the wood blank, roughly rounding it on the bandsaw (leaving the "down trunk" bottom flat for the next cut safely).

Followed by splitting the crotch through the middle to create two halves of similar figure.

And rounding the flat "down trunk" to complete the full circle of the blank.

The now rounded blank with its clearly centered rib of complex grain is ready to mount on the lathe.

The primary difference between turning a standard bowl and turning a natural (live) edge rounded form is the starting orientation. Both forms begin with bisecting a log along the grain to create two half-round blanks that will be turned with the grain 90 degrees to the lathe centers. A standard bowl blank is mounted by positioning the largest circle (the sawed face that will become the bowls top opening) facing the headstock and supporting the bark-covered, outer edge of that log with a live-center in the tailstock (this will be the bottom of the bowl).

The natural-edge form reverses that position and presents the bark encrusted side to the headstock; the large sawn side to the tailstock. Because the bark-covered outer edge of the log is uneven and the bark unsecure, mounting it on the headstock requires some careful thought to ensure the safety of the turner and, of course, of the blank of wood. There are several different jigs and methods to accomplish this.

Once the best-guess "center" of the top is decided, positioning the bottom (tailstock live center) requires careful attention to aligning the top edges of the bark to add some measure of symmetry once the piece is turned.

With the blank firmly captured between the headstock and tailstock, turning the outside shape can be quickly accomplished using a bowl gouge and the common "pulling cut" with the bevel rubbing.

After completing the outside of the form, cutting in the tenon (plug, spigot) for the four-jaw chuck completes the first step of turning.

Because the wood for a project like this is green, it will shrink and twist in line with the grain. In this crotch piece, with its complex interwoven grain pattern, it will shrink in unpredictable ways. The bark, however, will not typically shrink with the wood although it will compress some. In an effort to keep the bark attached, carefully apply thin CA glue to the bark and be sure it is dry before turning on the lathe to sand.

Once the glue is dry, sand carefully to avoid knocking off the bark, especially to avoid the irregular spinning edges knocking into the turner's hands. A fairly strong, incandescent light accentuates the shadows and can help the turner see the outside edges.

Applying a friction polish (a mixture of 1/3 each of shellac, boiled linseed oil, and turpentine in an air-tight container works well if shaken at each application) can be tricky and is best done with a quality paper towel and the lathe stopped. Once the polish is briskly rubbed in by hand, the lathe can be restarted, and the polish dried readily, again being careful to avoid the extended wings of the natural edge.

With the first step complete, the piece is ready for step two, hollowing.

Inserting the tenon into a four-jaw chuck to mount the blank, the outline of the piece reveals in this case the heart shape planned.

With the tool rest as close as possible...

Begin hollowing with the bowl gouge by cutting at the middle, working from the outside towards the center.

Before hollowing too deeply, extend the hollow out to a pleasing wall thickness.

Do this until the desired "artistic look" is achieved. At this point, before sanding, applying another coat of thin CA glue to the inside of the bark can help attach the bark in anticipation of the drying and shrinking of the blank.

Wall thickness and bark management while hollowing might vary with differently sized or shaped blanks.

It is critical to leave enough support in the bottom to allow a cleanly cut surface as the outer walls become thin and fragile.

Once the piece is fully hollowed to depth, remembering to leave enough bottom thickness to later remove the tenon and undercut the foot, sanding, too must be done carefully to avoid damaging the turner or the bark.

The final step, turning off the tenon and finishing the bottom, requires a "jam chuck" which simply means to press the piece between the two centers firmly. There are a number of ways to do this, but the easiest is to turn (and keep) a plug for the chuck and mount it.

Adding a soft cushion, in this case a folded paper towel, avoids having the inside of the carefully sanded and possibly friction polished piece being marked if the piece slips as the tenon is turned away.

Using the original centered hole in the bottom to again align the piece, tighten the tailstock firmly and turn away the tenon – or create a pleasing foot. Work only on the bottom. Avoid trying to turn any other part of the fragile and no-longer-round sides.

Once complete, remove the piece from the lathe, sand and finish the bottom to remove the signs of the live center point, sign the new work of art (consider adding the found location and type of wood), and rub in a coat of finish.

The infinite number of interesting shapes and forms from trees ("so much wood; so little time") invites exploration into the balances of form and function right from the firewood pile.

Exploring these shapes invites skill building while challenging the creative ideas without a noticeable investment of money in materials and without committing to a significant investment in time.

Each of these pieces took less than an hour to prepare, turn, and finish. Each makes a unique gift as an art piece, candy or nut dish, or centerpiece, and the process of filling an hour or rainy afternoon absorbed in this creative exercise is most rewarding to the artist/craftsperson.

Article link: Turning Goblets From a Tree by Temple Blackwood.

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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